The Problem with AfLSeptember 1, 2013
I was interested to read some recent blogs debating the merits of Assessment for Learning (AfL), particularly here , here and here. While I’m sure I risk repeating some of the points already made, I can’t resist weighing in with a quick summary of my own views on AfL.
The basic idea of AfL, or formative assessment, is sound. We should use assessment to find out what students don’t know and then teach them it. We should provide useful feedback. But what has happened in practice, is probably the worst example of a sensible idea becoming a checklist to be mindlessly followed since the three-part lesson. Here are the problems with AfL:
1) AfL techniques are used regardless of whether there will be any opportunity to use the result. Formative assessment hinges on finding out useful information and then taking action. It is not useful for its own sake. There is no point checking understanding or learning when you don’t have time to do anything about those who don’t understand or haven’t learnt. There is no point finding out what students can’t do if you have no plan to do anything about it. There is no point providing feedback that nobody will ever act on. If you can’t alter your teaching because of what you have found out, there is no point finding it out. When planning to use AfL, you should always start with what you will do with the information you gain from it, otherwise you are simply ticking boxes with no benefit to the students.
2) AfL often relies on self-assessment and peer assessment. We are the worst judges of how good we are at something. We are also very poor at judging the performance of others at carrying out activities that we are not good at ourselves. These inherent biases in human beings are, in psychology, known as aspects of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Please take time to look into this before using either self-assessment or peer assessment. Currently, these seem to be emphasised heavily in AfL.
3) AfL initiatives often ignores teacher experience and expertise. If you have taught the same topic dozens of times to dozens of classes (and assessed the learning) then you start to get rather good at teaching it. You start to be able to tell which classes or students will grasp it in a second and which will need constant checking and extra explanation. If you are an experienced teacher and you know a class well you can often tell if students have learnt something from the expressions on their faces, how quickly they start the work or just their level of attentiveness during the explanation. You may also have a good feel, particularly with students you know well, for which students would tell you if they didn’t understand and would ask questions if they needed to. Additionally, experienced teachers will have a variety of techniques for unobtrusively monitoring students and “assessing” them without anybody noticing. However, too much AfL is about making a big show of the process of assessing. I have been criticised in observations for not using AfL in classes with less than ten students in where I looked at every student’s work and spoke to every one of them them about how they were getting on and, where required, how to improve. It is possible for teachers to use the principle of AfL, i.e. knowing how students are getting on and responding to it effectively, without any sign of this being clear to the average observer.
4) AfL has become about gimmicks. This follows on from the last point. AfL, particularly when looked for in observations, has ceased to be about the general principle of whether teachers know how classes are doing and act on it and has become about a narrow range of techniques. Some of these are good techniques (marking or questioning); some are bad (“no hands up” policies or picking students at random to answer questions). However, the techniques of AfL have become more important than the principles. The most obvious example of this is the cult of the mini-whiteboard. Now, there really is nothing wrong with getting students to hold up answers on mini-whiteboards. However, it has now reached the point where teachers are encouraged to feel that they have used AfL if, and only if, they have used mini-whiteboards. Techniques where all the students in a class answer verbal questions and share their answers are a good thing, and I don’t want to attack that, but mini-whiteboards are not always the most efficient way to do this. Some classes cannot be trusted with them; some classes can communicate the relevant information much faster and more accurately in other ways. At their worst, mini-whiteboard cultists will have students using mini-whiteboards for doing long and detailed work that would be done to a much higher quality and be easier to mark if done in books.
Update 24/9/2013: A fifth point has now been added here.
Now, given that so many fads in education are complete rubbish from start to finish, AfL is far from being the worst idea promoted in schools. The basic concept is sound, although sometimes it can be stating the obvious, and teachers should think about whether they are using formative assessment. However, the techniques promoted by AfL enthusiasts are often ineffective and used only to tick boxes. Any set of techniques, no matter how important the principles behind them, will become toxic once we have an army of idiots promoting and enforcing them. I will use formative assessment in almost every lesson I teach (and when I don’t it will only because there is no time to act on it) but I will still dread having “AfL” as a target in an observation, because it will inevitably mean spending half an hour finding a set of mini-whiteboards with a set of working pens.