“Miss, is this an assessment?” – Time for a culture shift


I was asked this question this week when some students were doing some extended writing. I was also asked ‘Miss, is this a test?’ as I trialled using multiple choice with my classes. I was a bit mean. I replied ‘what is a test?’. This generally confused them and they got on.

I know what they were asking. They really meant ‘Miss, does that matter?’. This, along with some discussions & tweets in the week have started me thinking that it is time for a significant culture shift in our schools. In particular, the way in which students, teachers and leaders see assessment.

A culture which we are responsible for creating. Whether it be due to league tables, Ofsted, data entry, parental pressure we have created a culture where certain pieces of work that our students complete are seen as more important than others;they are higher stakes, bigger consequence pieces of work. The piece that will be levelled, the work that links to their report grade, the answer that defines ‘where’ they are.

If we were to evaluate how well we’ve done in creating this culture, I think we’ve done really well. It’s just a shame that it has the wrong emphasis (maybe it was what was needed at the time?) and this needs to change.

So now that schools have or are considering dropping levels we have a real chance to shift this emphasis.  We need to think carefully about what we want assessment to be used for, how we will do it and what the consequences are, intended or unintended.

An example where we have created a process that we need to reconsider is asking students about their work. Originally teachers were told ‘all students need to know what level they’re working at’. So we either drilled them or stuck a sticker on their books that they could quickly refer to, to give that level. Then people realised that wasn’t enough and added ‘they also need to be able to say what they need to do to improve’. So teachers then started using processes to try to ensure their students had the ‘correct’ answer to whoever was asking.

Another example where our culture has skewed things is via termly/half termly ‘assessments’. We have placed high value on single pieces of work where students are given the levelled criteria, looked at their own level and then done what they needed to do to achieve their target level. The focus was on achieving the level rather than what they needed to do differently from last time to make a difference. The effect was that students valued these pieces more and mostly put more effort into them as they knew that this work ‘meant something’.

So, now we can choose not to have levels, we can change this focus from a single outcome or a ‘correct response’ and start to create new processes that will provide a more whole picture of learning.

The biggest hurdle is we have years of embedded mindset (a current buzz word)  to change; the students being some of the toughest mindsets to change. And whilst schools can mainly do what they want in between, we are still stuck with key stage testing and GCSEs/A Levels that will need clever managing to ensure the mindset isn’t derailed.

So what do we need to do to change this mindset?

Consider the language and emphasis we use when referring to pieces of work.

Spread the ‘value’ across all work not particular assessment pieces. Everything matters.

Create assessment systems that are fully & smoothly interlinked with what we want our students to learn

Change what we ask students if we want to find out how they’re progressing

Not give any ‘value’ judgements to students or parents – No ‘5a’/master/beginner/emerging/85%/a* etc (this will be another blog)


Why? Why? Why?


On an education forum I frequent, teachers regularly complain about their school marking policy that demands them to mark student books, say every 2 lessons and how impossible it is to manage the workload.
The remaining thread is people sharing ideas on how to manage the load. There is no discernment as to whether these strategies meet the rationale behind the policy. They are just ways to ‘show’ the policy is being followed.

This worries me.

Are schools focussing too much on the ‘what & how’, instead of on the ‘why’?

Teachers around the country are desperately trying to ‘do’ what they’ve been told that in some cases the desired impact of the actions are lost. The value in that process has gone and they might as well not bother. We need to keep asking ourselves ‘why?’. And if the answer is ‘because I’ve been told to’ or ‘it’s for Ofsted’ then we are in trouble. (Some argue that if the answer is ‘because it’s for an exam’ we’re also in trouble, I don’t agree; as long as it’s not the ONLY answer. We’re doing what is needed for the students.)

An example

In the case above it was about giving students time to reflect & improve their work (Schools have given this a variety of terms e.g Close the gap, DIRT). The purpose of this is to give students time to think more deeply about what they’ve written/created, take on board and feedback, and then improve it showing they have understood the feedback. In a short period of time, if done well, it can allow a student to make a ‘jump’ in knowledge/skills from where they were before it was marked to post marking. However this has been lost in policies that state “Students must be given 15 minutes to improve their work every 3rd lesson” or suchlike. So all some teachers think (whilst being highly pressurised from leadership) is, “I must do this every 3 lessons regardless of whether it is appropriate, needed or practical.”

“I don’t have time”

Another comment was ‘I don’t have time to do this, I have so much to teach them’. Whilst teachers are generally anxious about content delivery this completely misses the value of the process. It doesn’t occur to the teacher that this may lead to deeper learning than ‘more content’. In these cases, there is no discernment about the right conditions for the student to complete this process. It is policy driven, not learning driven. And it is unnecessary pressure from leadership that leads to this. If there are genuine issues, leaders should be open to discussion and willing to look at individual subjects and what is best for them. No blanket policies.

Lesson observations

This is also apparent in lesson observations. We often focus on the ‘what and how’. Feedback is focussed on what happened during the period of time instead of drilling down on why the teacher did or didn’t do X. Think how powerful it would be for lesson feedback ( I want to ditch this term, see my blog on it here ) to focus around the rationale of why the teacher did X and Y and to unpick this than about the ‘what and the how’ of the lesson. This kind of feedback gets the teacher and the observer thinking about why they do things and opens up possibilities of using evidence & research to improve.

Of course, all of this assumes that those that make the policies and expectations have a balanced, well evidenced rationale behind what they expect teachers to do. Some leaders don’t seem to grasp this. They have in their heads or been told by a consultant or inspector a way of doing things. They don’t seem to have the ability to critique it before throwing it as staff in a policy and then using it as a stick to beat with.

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If any strategy is to be successful, leaders have a responsibility to share the rationale & aims of a policy with staff as much as how they want it to be carried out. Leaders need to be prepared to be challenged on it. Be prepared to change or ditch it if evidence shows it isn’t working. Putting pressure on staff to do things a particular way will not only limit teacher autonomy but in some cases the desired effect will be reversed making it pointless and resented by teachers & students.

So, does your school focus on the ‘Why?’ enough?

Check out your policies
Is the ‘why’ clear? Or is it lost in the waffle?
Was it created alongside staff or just given to them?
Does it cater for all subjects? If not would individual subject policies be more appropriate?
Is it based on evidence that shows this system works?
If not, how long will you trial it before reviewing if it is achieving the desired effect?
Are you brave enough to ditch it, if it clearly isn’t working?

Check your observations

Does your lesson observation proforma just focus on the ‘what and how?’

What questions should an observer be asking the teacher?

What ‘whys?’ are needed to be asked to understand what was happening?

How can those ‘whys?’ be used to help the teacher to develop?

Life without levels – How to report?


In the whole ‘life without levels’ developments I’ve yet to see much included on how schools intend to report to parents. Many systems still include ambiguous language that I’m not sure will be much better for parents to understand or require so much explanation that the appendix explaining the report becomes longer than the report itself.

I propose that reporting to parents should only include information that is informative, useful & formative for parents. Here is a proposal based on what I think parents may prefer ( if you’re a parent please tell me otherwise) and which makes reports authentic & hopefully less time consuming. I work in secondary and think that this could work in the majority of secondary contexts. Primary colleagues may have to adapt.

Self reporting

Who is the person in the whole of the learning process that needs to understand the most about what the student has learnt and what they need to work on? I think it is the student themselves & therefore propose they write their own reports.

These reports contain no levels, no numbers and no edu-jargon. They won’t be telling you they’re a ‘master’ at X or ’emerging’ at Y. They will be real life examples and honest reflections from the students themselves.


If you went whole school on this system you could ensure that steps along the learning are used in format that can be easily accessed when it comes to report writing. For example, a student log of successes throughout the term or whenever a student completes a key piece of work they have to reflect on it with key questions etc

How to do it

I’m a big fan of Google forms. You can easily set up a set of questions for them to answer. They type in their responses and it automatically enters into a spreadsheet. Don’t forget a question on their name/surname. They can always draft and edit in another document first. They could even peer check etc The idea is that once it goes into the form it is pretty much perfect. This will require patience and training on the teacher’s part but it does get better!

The beginning of a form

The beginning of a form

What they would write

The questions I would ask students include (in no particular order):

  • What have you enjoyed learning about this term?
  • What has challenged you this term?
  • What have you worked on this term which you have seen yourself improve on? How did you achieve this?
  • What is your attitude to learning? (we have a scale) Why do you think this? Do you think your teacher agrees? Why?
  • Has your attitude to learning changed from last term? Why?
  • What do you need to do to improve?
  • Look at your target from last term? How have you worked on this? Do you feel you’ve improved? Why?

You may also want content/subject specific questions.

They should write it in the first person, writing for their audience & following correct SPAG rules. The whole thing itself can be used as a part of them developing literacy. You could even challenge some by asking them to include particular vocabulary. You may allow higher level literacy students to write more freely. You know your students and what is best.

Encourage students to use the language that is used in the particular element i.e the descriptors for the attitude to learning, or success criteria etc

A simple exemplar

A simple exemplar

What next?

You will have a spreadsheet of responses. Depending on your preferred method you can print or read on screen. Do a spell check. Do a content check. Take in what students are saying. Are there common themes you hadn’t considered? What might the coming term include for the class/that student to support them? Do you need to book a conversation with them? Do they need to re-write it? ( they’ll only do this once!)

Once all checked and your happy then you either give it all to your data manager who may be happy to deal with it or if you use SIMS you can easily import the data straight into a mark sheet. If a whole school process then it would be easy to set up to make it as smooth as possible.


Self reflection – The processes itself is a great way to get students to look at the reality of their situation. Some students are quick to deny any involvement in their own behaviour or work and this forces them to look at themselves. It is rare for students to not have self realisation, some may and then decide to try and lie but it is rare they cannot see the reality.

The student owns the comments. No surprises – I regularly have students say ‘Miss, what have you written in my report?’. Well they shouldn’t be asking because I write the truth but does this tell us that teachers can be variable in what they write? If they’ve written it they own it. It’s THEIR report.

It reduces ‘teacher/edu speak’ so parents can understand – No acronyms or ambiguous language allowed. Let’s allow students to say it like it is in a professional but useful language. If we use the right language with them then they can also use it themselves.

It’s ‘quick’ – The biggest time consumer is the proof reading. Is that shorter than pondering & writing 100’s of reports?

The teacher proof read is an important process in itself – You get to find out how they’re feeling and how they see things. How often do we get to find this out from all our students? Particularly those of us that teach 100’s of students.

Possible drawbacks/problems

Students not knowing what to write – Constructing a record of learning along the term will help to reduce this. Sentence starters can also reduce this.

Students choosing not to write the truth/most important issues – I find it fascinating that they would choose to do this and I reflect on their attitude and why they’re avoiding the issues. This reflection should help them to move on not chastise. They may need a 1-2-1 discussion. In my experience once they’ve done this once they become much better at it the second time!

Getting access to the technology – If it was school wide then all staff would need all students to complete it in 2-3 week period. Access to technology could hinder. Solutions include setting it for homework ( maybe after a couple of rounds), or allowing them to use their own phones ( if not already allowed).

Students with certain needs not being able to do it easily – This is where support staff can be trained to use the questions to discuss them with the student. With support of the teacher a colleague can work carefully to elicit the student’s thoughts. They could record their discussion or type their responses as they speak. Or if they have supportive parents ask them to support as part of homework. It could even be part of their PEP review.

They don’t sit nicely in a spreadsheet with RAG colour coding – No but most of that stuff should be student/teacher/management level only. Parents need the headlines not the inner workings.

I’d be interested to hear who already runs a similar system and/or for people to highlight other potential benefits/problems.

RIP Lesson observations. RIP feedback.


I’ve been thinking about and discussing lesson observations this week. So I thought I’d share my thinking.

A summary of mine and others’ experience of lesson observation is the following:

* You’re told (or sometimes not) that someone is coming to observe you. It could be anyone. Trained or not. SLTS or otherwise.
* They stay anything from 20mins to the whole lesson.
* They have a set of criteria they need to find evidence of. Until recently the evidence was just watching the lesson.
* They ticked what they saw or what they think they saw. Some came with ideas in their head already as to what does/doesn’t fulfil a criteria
*They complete the observation proforma. At the bottom there’s usually space for a grade (or four) and strengths/areas for development.
* They arrange a time to ‘feedback’
* In this time they say what they think they saw and what they thought was good and what they thought they didn’t see became an area for development. In some cases they might ask the observed ‘How do you think it went?’ They pass the observed the piece of paper.
* The piece of paper was filed and not seen again unless put in a PM/threshold folder
* And if the teacher was unlucky, had the ‘wrong’ observer, a pedant watching, an inhumane leader or untrained eye watching them it may finally result in soul/career destroying consequences. As a minimum, tears and at its worst losing their job.

So what was the point of all of this? In many cases it was done to say it had been done. For some they could enter the numbers on a spreadsheet and in rare cases it might link to some sort of CPD that might help address the area for development.
The benefit of this model was it was relatively quick (lesson, writing, feedback) and it didn’t require much thought or engagement from either side. It was mostly seen as a judging process and the judge had power to make or break.

Now things are moving on from this model and I’ve had thoughts on how things could move from ‘Lesson observation’ to a ‘Review of progress’ coaching process that is very different.

It is important at the start to say ‘why’ are we doing this? What is the purpose of this process? If it is for PM or to tick boxes we’re on a loser.

My belief is that anything that is done in this process should benefit the teacher and in turn directly benefit the students or help to develop the reviewer in a particular way, that doesn’t include for the benefit of their spreadsheet.

So I propose that a range of aspects are looked at some of which I will discuss:

  • Teacher discussion
  • Student discussion
  • Questions posed
  • Book look
  • Data
  • Live classroom experience

The first and most important throughout the whole process is…

Talking with the teacher (with all other documents with you)

Not one thing should be judged or decided or added as an area for development or written without a discussion with the teacher. The ideal that this is well before the reviewer goes into the classroom. If not, there should be a reasonable amount of time for the discussion after the lesson.

I propose we ditch the phrase ‘feedback’. It has developed connotations of judgement, that the person observing is in some way in a higher position to make a comment or that it is being ‘given’ to the teacher. In a coaching model what is recorded is what has been discussed. Strengths and areas for development are decided by the teacher in the after lesson discussion NOT on a piece of paper handed to them by an observer. Let’s say ONE thing is enough to develop, unless it is a simply resolved area.

The data must be discussed. No judgement must be made by a reviewer about the data without a discussion. Data can be very informative but also very dangerous.

Questions posed

I propose that as part of the review the reviewer comes up with key questions for the teacher and students before, during and after the lesson itself. These may change with the lesson. Every proforma should have a large space for questions and these must be asked either in the lesson or in the after lesson discussion.

It’s the answers to the questions that are important. They are the things that can help create a full picture of what is happening.

Have you ever asked a teacher you’re watching…

  • How is it going with this group?
  • How do you know?
  • What have you already tried with them?
  • Why did you do X? Did it work?
  • How might you resolve X?
  • What is working well with them?
  • What are the challenges?
  • What happened in previous lessons?
  • How does this lesson’s learning sit in the overall scheme?
  • What will you do with them next lesson? Why?

Coaching and asking the right questions is far more powerful in terms of development than giving a target in a ‘praise sandwich’ and writing down a target for a teacher they don’t agree with.

Book look

Another dangerous process that without full explanation from the owner of the book and the teacher can really misidentify what is going on. Is it really possible to see ‘learning’ from a book? Can you see ‘real’ progress?

In no circumstances should a teacher have their books reviewed and recorded ‘results’ on paper without a discussion about them.

Why are we doing this?

Giving grades has always been dangerous. They is a tendency to think that 2 is good enough and people take a sigh of relief when they get a 2. There are huge issues using numbers. We’re moving from using them with students so let’s replicate this with our own development. Using a coaching & reviewing model means that the teacher themselves are ‘in control’ of the outcomes and even someone considered to be ‘Outstanding’ has an opportunity to reflect and think about what they’re doing and the impact it is having. The review should not be in isolation and the decided areas for development should form part of the teacher’s personal development focus. If this model was fully implemented I can see that it could work with the PM process. But that’s another blog.

The past few years and weeks have reminded me…

Observations can be emotional & tiring.

We generally try our best.

We generally want a positive experience & to be appreciated.

We are humans.

Lesson observation forms – suggestions


Having observed a lesson this week and fed back to the teacher I’ve been thinking about the lesson observation forms that people use. If you’re still doing traditional lesson observations rather than lesson study, these might be useful.

I know some people prefer to go in with a plain piece of A4 or some use a pro forms but I have some suggestions of what to include with either if you don’t already.

Questions for the teacher
I found that due to the focus of the observation I had lots of questions that I wanted to ask the teacher. It wasn’t appropriate during the lesson so I wrote down some of the questions I had that would help me understand how and why things were planned etc

In the conversation following the lesson (I’m avoiding the word feedback) I asked the questions which lead to me finding out so much more than was obvious in the lesson. It also lead to more questions and more important info being shared.

Of course a discussion with the teacher before the lesson would be ideal as well…. So a section saying Pre-lesson discussion would be useful.

Questions for the students

If you have an observation focus it would be a good idea to note some questions you’d like to ask stduents BEFORE you go in. What can you ask them that will help to find out what you want to know?
You can then add further questions asked and responses during/after the observation.
This is a great way to really focus on what the observation focus is and get you thinking about it BEFORE a you walk in the class.

In-lesson and post-lesson proforma?
Finally, I’ve been thinking that the piece of paper that you use in the lesson should not be what is given to the teacher. The process of the observation should be the record on the paper which includes pre-lesson discussion, discussions In the lesson and also a record of what was discussed after the lesson. My perceptions and understanding was significantly enhanced by the discussion afterwards. The original paperwork was not representative of what was happening. I am going to rewrite it using the newly discussed info. This is significant because the ‘areas for development’ changed because of the discussion.

This does of course beg the question ‘Can a lesson be accurately judged by going in for 30mins and not discussing anything with that teacher?’ But I think we probably know the answer to that……

Reflections from #StrictlyRE – On the edge of something big


Thanks so much to the NATRE team and everyone who ran sessions. I felt it was a conference at the front of the changes in RE. We are about to embark in a period of change and whilst it may be worrying, it has the potential to redefine how we teach & how children experience religions. We’re on the edge of something big…..

I thought I would reflect on my thoughts on the issues raised,mainly on knowledge and assessment. My thoughts are mainly a result of Deborah, Daniel and Dilwyn’s sessions and previous concerns about assessment without levels. I will, as usual, play devil’s advocate and ask questions. Please do respond to them in the comments.

Core knowledge

It was suggested that, like other NC subjects we should have a set of core knowledge that we expect every child to have at a certain point e.g at the end of each key stage. I agree with this. I think it would help to resolve an issue that secondary teachers have in that children come to us with a wide range of knowledge. If they’ve been in a faith school, their knowledge of a particular religion far outweighs that of those who may have had little/no RE.

However would this core knowledge apply to faith schools? I believe it should.

Assessing the core knowledge

  • Whilst new systems of assessment are up for grabs at the moment, is there a danger that the core knowledge will become like a check list and that proof of the knowledge will come in the form of testing over and over?
  • Will some teachers see the list of knowledge as the minimum and only address the minimum and do nothing more all year?
  • Will some schools aim to whiz through all the core knowledge in one or two days and then have no more RE?
  • Will core knowledge reduce our subject to rote learning of facts and lose the uniqueness of what else it has to offer?
  • How does this work with whole school data tracking systems which I’m sure schools won’t just ‘drop? 
Will core knowledge become a checklist?

Will core knowledge become a check -list?

A hierarchy of core knowledge

I missed Dilwyn’s second session where I think he went through this. Daniel briefly mentioned the importance of knowledge as well. We have a problem in schools the misinterpretation of Bloom’s Taxonomy has been used to perpetuate the myth that ‘knowledge’ is a low-level skill.

Would you say these surgeons were low level with their amount of knowledge?

Would you say these surgeons were low-level learners with their level of knowledge?

However we need to be careful that we don’t think that higher level knowledge is just about knowing more. It is about knowing more, in-depth. Higher level knowledge becomes very specific and focussed.

So if we go this way, will we start a whole new system, that is essentially levels of knowledge?

Were levels in themselves the issue or the way in which they were used? 

Should knowledge be the only thing we assess? 

Whilst sat pondering this I found some suggested models of hierarchy of knowledge. I haven’t yet had time to digest and apply these but here they are for reference. If anyone knows more about these it would be great to hear.

If I think about this in my own practice I have recently been teaching Buddhism to year 9 and have a very able group. I haven’t taught a class like this before so I’ve had to really think about what I can do to challenge them. I decided to focus at the concept of Enlightenment and how it is achieved. We really drilled down on different interpretations of how to gain Enlightenment & then critiqued these views in order to conclude which may be the ‘best’ way to become Enlightened. Students were encouraged to do their own independent research and I offered them some seriously high level, in-depth content. As it was the first time I’ve taught this there is so much I will do differently next time but I think I had an insight in how depth of knowledge on one aspect began to challenge them more than if I’d spent those lessons going through ‘more’ Buddhism with them.

In the next topic I am going to trial getting them to choose their own ‘drill down’ question that they need to research and write an academic argument on. I think I will have a wide variety of outcomes which I will risk being less than if I ‘dictate’ to them what they should do but I’m prepared to allow them to ‘jump into the deep end’.

This leads neatly into…

Academic Rigour

This group have taught me that I need to really begin to focus on what makes a high level RS student from the top down. I think that embedding critical thinking skills (reasoning & assessing credibility) will help us to achieve a high level of rigour.The TES reported that too many children are leaving school without the critical thinking skills that are needed for university. I really believe that this is an opportunity for RS to develop key skills needed in life and in turn help students to create high quality academic pieces of writing.

This idea fits in neatly with the new GCSE and A level draft objectives so developing it lower at key stage 3 seems to be a logical step for us to take.

Draft GCSE

The new draft objectives link directly to critical thinking skills.

Academic rigour – What I’m trying out

I am trialling using critical thinking skills with students to support them in achieving a good standard of academic writing.  I will be sharing some of my findings at #TLAB15  Sorry for the plug!) and will also blog on it.

Daniel Hugill also mentioned those disciplines that are mentioned in most Exceptional Performance descriptors at key stage 3.

‘disciplines and methodologies for the study of religion: history, sociology, psychology, linguistic analysis, literary criticism, and theology’

I really want to investigate what these might ‘look like’ at key stage 3. How can we, in such a small amount of time with the students, get them to use all of these in their work? It seems impossible but maybe now this is the time, to think how we can manage this effectively.

I’m also trialling the use of ‘optional research (homework)’ by putting some recommended articles on our ShowMyHomework system so if anyone fancies some ‘around the topic reading’ they have a starting point. Unfortunately I don’t know how much this is used. It would be great to have a ‘hit’ counter’.

Finally I’m training them to evaluate views and suggest conclusions without using the word ‘I’. some find it odd but I’m trying to teach them that a conclusion should be decided from logical reasoning not ‘just what they think’ or in some cases ‘what they’ve been told (by an adult?)’.

I’m considering how I can create a ‘tool kit’ (sorry for the edu cliché with huge respect to recently deceased Paul) to support students in achieving academic rigour in the study of religions. Is this possible?

Teacher Research & Reflection on Pedagogy

This wasn’t mentioned in any of the sessions I attended but I think it is also what we as a community need to engage in more. If we are putting more rigour into the study of religions then we too must engage in a study of how we are teaching it. Most of us probably do this without thinking. We try something. If it doesn’t work we ditch it or tweak it. Some of us share our successes so others can use it and tweak it. However I feel that with the statistics of how many non-specialists we have teaching our subject and people worrying about resources we are on a back foot with this one.

Do we as a community think about learning? how we teach? rather than asking people for resources for the topic we are teaching? There seems to be a current trend of sharing resources & worksheets rather than sharing HOW we’re teaching. The talented Andy Lewis has shared some research he is doing but in his Head of Year role (who cares!) however there is far less interest in this than if someone offers to share a scheme of work. Those of us that are specialists, do we need to spend more time thinking about the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ alongside the ‘what’?

This post was never supposed to be so long so I’m going to stop. Any comments very welcome.

Exciting times.