Assessment for discovery learning

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I use formative assessment, also known as ‘assessment for learning’, on a daily basis. I read the faces of my students for signs of confusion. I ask them verbal questions and I pose problems for them to complete on mini-whiteboards. We have regular questions-of-the week that are distributed over time so that they assess content from weeks or months previously and students self-assess their answers which I then collect and analyse. I don’t deploy every tactic in the formative assessment toolbox but I think the ones that I use make me better at my job.

Formative assessment sits in an interesting place in the educational landscape. I think that Dylan Wiliam, the world’s foremost expert on formative assessment, would claim that it is neutral on questions such as inquiry learning versus direct instruction, and that adding formative assessment will improve both sets of practices. So I always find it slightly odd and jarring to see it invoked to support a particular style of teaching.

Which is what a new paper by Margaret Heritage in The Australian Educational Researcher appears to do.

The paper hinges around an exchange between ‘Ms. R’ and ‘Jason’ that Heritage captured in her research work. Jason has selected a poem to read where the lettering has been manipulated e.g the word bumpy is written as ‘buMPY’ and the word slow is written as ‘s l o w‘. Ms. R asks what poetic device is being used and confirms that it is not something they have covered in class. There follows a process where Ms. R attempts to draw this understanding out of Jason through a form of Socratic questioning.

Heritage approves of this approach because it involves ‘active construction’ of knowledge where there is ‘little direct transfer of information from the teacher to the student’ and she connects this directly to assessment for learning via Vygotsky in a way that I don’t fully understand.

There is nothing wrong with drawing things out of students, but I would suggest that this is best done when it is something the student has already been explicitly taught and therefore as a form of retrieval practice. The idea that education should always be about drawing-out from within, rather than being instructed by an authority, is a cornerstone of progressivist educational ideology. In my view, this is a flawed idea, unsupported by the available evidence and one that has led to less effective teaching methods. This paper highlights how seemingly neutral concepts such as assessment for learning can be marshaled to the cause.


8 thoughts on “Assessment for discovery learning

  1. I note that Jason’s views on the matter are deemed unimportant in this paper — contrary to the dogma that we should do what the students want.

    An interview with Jason by a neutral party may have discovered that while effective in the short term such techniques are not greatly liked. Reducing engagement in the long term. Learning the hard way, which is what this is, is draining — and that kid has five lessons a day to get through.

    One reason I use large direct instruction techniques is because my students (and their parents) show a consistent desire for it. It also doesn’t tire them as much and doesn’t leave them going to other classes already past their patience threshold.

  2. Have a look in this reply here:
    Assessment in education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 2017 Vol. 24, no. 3, 394–403 “Assessment and learning: some reflections”

    Dylan Wiliam makes a point here that “The need for assessment for learning is independent of the view of what happens when learning takes place (and indeed, of what it is that is to be learned).”

    There is also a further point about the difference between assessment for learning and formative assessment (I’ve become increasingly convinced that they are different things — DW’s inaugural lecture at the IoE says as much).

    Hope you find the reference useful.

    1. It depends though doesn’t it? For some people it isn’t about the actual knowledge to be learned, it’s about the student’s construction of their own ideas. So on one level many might say that the process is more important than the ends, rendering AfL meaningless. Others might accept that there is a “thing-to-be-learned” but would argue that it is the child’s interpretation of the “thing” that is important and if they have a different interpretation than the teacher’s that would be fine. This would certainly have implications for AfL as it would not become a process of moving students towards a “correct” answer.

      1. Others might accept that there is a “thing-to-be-learned” but would argue that it is the child’s interpretation of the “thing” that is important and if they have a different interpretation than the teacher’s that would be fine.

        Do any teachers actually believe this though? I’m talking actual classroom teachers of some experience, not academics.

        If my students have a different interpretation of what it means to factorise — and often they do — that is not “fine”. Having an understanding that mass and weight are the same — which is very common — is battled bitterly by Physics teachers the world over.

        I doubt even the most progressive of STEM teachers actually accept much deviation in meaning. And good STEM teachers, progressive or not, accept differences in technical method, and always have done.

        In the Humanities and Arts students can obviously differ in their opinions. But that’s hardly a progressive concept (many of the staunchly progressive are very much not open to differing opinions).

  3. Referencing Socrates as the origin of the drawing out from within technique of teaching is absolutely crucial. Most philosophers who study Plato’s dialogues point out that this is an erroneous teaching method. Socrates, or rather Plato, is not drawing out knowledge the pupil has but insidiously planting the information. It has the unpleasant effect of the pupil thinking that they have worked something out when they have not. The opportunities for using this method of teaching are pretty clear: it can be used to insert propaganda in people’s minds while making them think they have achieved an understanding of a point themselves – crucial to them accepting an ides. Plato was against democracy (even the limited form found in ancient Greece) and espoused rule by educated elites who had all the knowledge and therefore knew best how to run the state. How this insidious teaching method has come to be seen as left wing and progressive is inexplicable.

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