‘Inside the Black Box’. Classic Education Gold from Wiliam and Black.

Having started teaching in 1986, it’s hard to overstate the impact that Inside the Black Box by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam had on us, when it landed in 1998, summarising the case for formative assessment. It was the first time many of us realised that people undertook research into classroom practice at all – and the conclusions were hugely influential.

23 years on, inspired by listening to Dylan’s recent short video, I re-ordered and re-read the short pamphlet and it’s incredible to see how many ideas are packed into it. (My original seems to have gone astray – borrowed by a colleague but never returned! Can’t say I blame them.) I’d say that most of the key issues I see and discuss with schools in my current work relate back to the key ideas in Inside the Black Box in some way. I can’t help think that we really should have a better job making sure every single teacher knows and acts on these fundamentals every day.. to far a great extent.

The argument that Black and Wiliam are making for a focus on formative assessment is captured in three questions – each of which is explored in a concise but persuasive manner.

  • Is there evidence that improving formative assessment raises standards? (Yes!)
  • Is there evidence that there is room for improvement? (Yes!)
  • Is there evidence about how to improvement formative assessment? (Yes! )

The section that explores the final question feels to me like a timeless set of ideas that really every teacher should have in the forefront of their thinking; that every CPD programme should have at the centre. Each short discussion ends with a simple, powerful summary:

The self-esteem of pupils:

  • Feedback to any pupil should be about the particular qualities of his or her work, with advice on what he or she can do to improve, and should avoid comparisons with other pupils.

Self-assessment by pupils:

  • For formative assessment to be productive, pupils should be trained in self-assessment so that they can understand the main purposes of their learning and thereby grasp what they need to do to achieve.

The evolution of effective teaching:

  • Opportunities for pupils to express their understanding should be designed into any piece of teaching, for this will initiate the interaction whereby formative assessment aids learning.
  • The dialogue between pupils and a teacher should be thoughtful, reflective, focused to evoke and explore understanding, and conducted so that all pupils have an opportunity to think and to express their ideas.
  • Tests and homework exercises can be an invaluable guide to learning, but the exercises must be clear and relevant to learning aims. The feedback on them should give each pupil guidance on how to improve, and each must be given opportunity and help to work at the improvement

In their analysis around these points, Wiliam and Black share observations that I find I experience in lesson observations all the time – 23 years on – all over the system:

  • Where… a teacher answers her or his own question after only two or three seconds… there is no possibility that a pupil can think out what to say.
  • It is… common that only a few pupils in a class answer teachers’ questions. The rest then leave it to the few, knowing that they cannot respond as quickly and being unwilling to risk making mistakes in public.
  • So the teacher… can keep the lesson going but is actually out of touch with the understanding of most of the class – the question-answer dialogue becomes a ritual… and thoughtful involvement suffers. (my emphasis)

I won’t quote more – it’s a super short read and if you don’t have a copy, buy one! There are policy recommendations too leading to the final two lines: In our study of formative assessment there can be seen, for once, firm evidence that indicates clearly a direction for change which could improve standards of learning. Our plea is that national policy will grasp this opportunity and give a lead in this direction.

I certainly feel that there is rich territory for improving the quality of education by focusing on the fundamentals of effective classroom practice, embedding formative assessment. I hope that the Early Career Framework and the researchEd movement are playing a role in moving us in this direction, amongst other drivers. It would be great if policy makers and opposition party leaders had even the faintest grasp of these ideas before they made distracting pronouncements of one kind or another.

Thanks once again to Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black for your outstanding work. It’s incredible that Inside the Black Box hit so many nails on the head. The system needs to do better to act in response.

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  1. And yet Assessment for Learning did not deliver the improvement it promised and became an excuse for many gimmicks and increased workload through increased marking. In foreign languages it became a never ending written conversation in English between teacher and students, so that SLTs could understand the gibberish we all had to write. And the pretence that we can assess knowledge and not just performance, or that there is always an even better if for each activity…. even if it is something that has not been taught yet and the learner is not ready to learn yet.

    Learning to swim without ever jumping into the pool, just talking about it. AfL, when combined with Bloom’s Taxonomies for progression and differentiation responsible so much cargo cult teaching and so many school children believing that they are bad at languages.


      • Nothing to do with Bloom’s, but I followed a course led by Wiliam on FutureLearn where he suggested using Bloom’s for differentiation. To what extend can implementation be blamed when teachers are told that they don’t do it correctly every time they try to implement the concept and INSETs keep changing the goalposts?


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