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.