Part of my summer reading has been a review of Dylan Wiliam’s ‘Embedding Assessment for Learning’ (AfL). Despite AfL’s popularity over the past 20 years, Wiliams and Black criticise how errant data managers misadministrate it. Reading this book would help such managers with implementation. By providing both pragmatic and conceptual support for teachers and managers, Wiliams cements his credibility with this book. Most interestingly for me, AfL combines well with Berger’s Ethic of Excellence and Stern’s work on Concept Transfer.

I remember a music teacher telling me that AfL is the only thing that every educationalist agrees upon. Those focused on data and management enjoy how it legitimises a procedural approach to education. It encourages a focus on the exam. It tracks accountability as people consider what the vagaries of a mark scheme might mean. Those focused on the more fuzzy and human aspects of education enjoy its empowerment. It encourages students to recognise the somewhat arbitrary nature of exams. Most importantly it can focus students on aesthetics and perspective, not just on external performance measures. By that I mean that AfL through rubrics can attempt to discern qualities of something beyond its holistic achievements.

How does AfL satisfy different ambitions for academic improvement?

Different ways of academic improvement reflect academic values. Improving as quickly as possible is a dangerous idea perpetuated by OFSTED in the early 2000s. Such quantification of learning was a natural response to the bottom-up voice discourse of the 1960s. Yet the neoliberalist ideologies in some schools today goes too far. Of course students need to learn in a timely manner – life is finite and exam dates are set. But this is a flawed prioritisation. It is the approach of the teacher who has not learned themselves.

The exam success of teachers and students will not vary very widely even in flawed curriculums. You do not need to know very much extra context in order to achieve highly in exams.

What are some principles about AfL from the book?

1) Teachers improvement should focus on making them distinctive. Evidence-based practice does not mean that teachers should do the same things in the same order each time. A ‘outstanding’ lesson trotted for inspections is a flawed and factory model of teaching:

Both Derek and Philip are now extraordinarily skilled practitioners—among the best we have ever seen—but to make Philip work on questioning, or Derek on peer assessment and selfassessment, would be unlikely to benefit their students as much as supporting each teacher to become excellent in his own way (Wiliams, 2011).  Teachers are different, with different strengths. At a particular point in their career each teacher is good enough to be competent. CPD should be aimed at distinctiveness. I spoke recently with school who presented an unintentionally punitive support system of teacher support. A snap judgement would be made by a teacher on another’s skill. This judgement would discern a generic area that needed to be improved, such as questioning. That teacher would then observe another teacher for a few hours. A box has been ticked but the hidden curriculum is clear – conform to the style of others.

2) Teacher improvement is difficult because teaching-style is ingrained in both personality and practice:

These polished routines are the result of hundreds, thousands, and sometimes even hundreds of thousands of repetitions. They are what get teachers through the day—without them, their jobs would be impossible. But as Berliner (1994) mentions, the “automaticity for the repetitive operations that are needed to accomplish their goals” also means that once established, these routines are hard to change (Wiliams, 2011).

Teacher improvement is hard because routines of management are established and conditioned many times. Brining attention to them conceptually also does not necessary work – they are interpreted through cemented schema. Better is to direct specifically?

3) AfL’s highest aim is to promote concept transfer and deep, lasting learning. Learning (and forgetting) rapidly is not enough:

We see this failure of our brains to transfer from one context to another played out in middle and high schools every day. The science teacher asks the math teacher, “Why can’t these students do equations and graphs?” and the math teacher lamely replies, “Well, they can do equations and graphs in the math classroom.” This research has led some to conclude that teaching abstract ideas in the hope that students are able to transfer learning from one context to another is impossible (Lave, 1988, p. 19). However, as Anderson, Reder, and Simon (1996) point out, Contrary to Lave’s opinion, a large body of empirical research on transfer in psychology . . . demonstrates that there can be either large amounts of transfer, a modest amount of transfer, no transfer at all, or even negative transfer. How much there is and whether transfer is positive depends in reliable ways on the experimental situation and the relation of the material originally learned to the transfer material. (p. 7) In particular, we know that transfer from one context to another is much more effective when students encounter the same idea in more than one context (Bjork & Richardson-Klavehn, 1989), and this is why the idea of keeping the context of the learning separate from the learning intention is so important.

We need to consider why students understand, or not, the broad concepts given to them. When they are simply told concepts and are not forced to construct them into possible frameworks or interpretation, then they fail to transfer these concepts.

4) Some of the most important aspects of work and thought cannot be simply matched by relevant words. The positivists are dangerous if they believe they can be.

Perhaps the greatest danger with rubrics is that they are used where quality really cannot be effectively described in words. As Roger Shattuck once said, “Words do not reflect the world, not because there is no world, but because words are not mirrors” (quoted in Burgess, 1992, p. 119). Sometimes the best we can do is help our students develop what Guy Claxton calls a “nose for quality” (Claxton, 1995).

This is where non-Humanities teachers need to study some of the subject. The positivist subjects are focused on the belief that it is possible to understand the world in its entirety with words and labels. The external world isn’t manipulated or affected by perception. The opposite view, that interpretivism is king, is also weak. We need to create systems that allow for appropriate bottom-up interaction.

5) Learning objectives and intentions cannot be discerned as simple lists of ideas. Points of conceptual difficult should be raised and engaged with in the thinking classroom:

After learning progressions are developed, it is then possible to select particular points along the “learning journey” as learning intentions. Most often the learning intentions relate to what a teacher can cover in a particular instructional period, such as a lesson or unit of work, but it is also sometimes useful to define learning intentions as what David Perkins calls troublesome knowledge (Perkins, 1999), which is discussed in more detail in the next chapter. The important idea here is if we know there are particular things that are difficult for students, then we need to find out whether they understand them

Better than merely teaching students to pass an exam, a cowardly lack of understanding about what the subject and education can be, we should be aware of the particular concepts that are not intuitive.

6) Feedback should be focus on the Growth Mindset model, with difficult and specific and actionable tasks set to complete.

However, there is now a large body of evidence (see, for example, Dweck, 2000, for a summary) indicating that the most successful learners attribute both successes and failures to internal, unstable, specific factors: it’s down to them (internal) and they can do something about it (unstable). Perhaps more simply, smart is not something you are; it’s something you get (Howard, 1991).

Feedback should aim to be specific, internal, and unstable – abstract and difficult yet with a specific focus where possible.

7) A Growth Mindset should not become disingenuous.

The idea of a “personal best” is well established in sports, but in recent years, there has been a stream of research studies exploring the idea of a personal best in academic work (see, for example, Liem, Ginns, Martin, & Stone, 2012).

How to establish personal bests. Pride. The ability to push yourself when no-one else is looking

8) Create regular points of recording points of learning or contention to which to return.

understand the need to undertake some formal recording of what they observe in order to provide feedback. People always think they are going to remember important things that happen in the lesson, but they don’t!

Using OneNote or similar can be particularly useful. We believe that we will remember important things learned in the lesson. Will we? Can we genuinely interleave learning?

The Ethic of Excellence provides the WHY behind AfL – just knowing the exam or wanting to be educated. It is the difference between Warnock and Guardiola. Both want to win and speak of passion, but only one has personal experience of what it is to play beautiful football. In Warnock’s favour is his desire to fight.

What are some issues with the scripts used in the book?

I admire that Wiliams included scripts of actual teaching in his book. They demonstrate the clarity of questioning, and the power of selecting students AFTER the question has been set. However, there are some issues. Read the script first then consider them:

Two students working together, followed by a whole-class discussion:

Polly: For a C youdon’t actually have to analyze anything.

Sofia: You just have to show that you understand it.

Polly: Yes, basically that you understand. And for B it’s more.

Teacher: Thirty seconds.

Ana: And it says sustained evidence so it’s not just like you . . .

Teacher: Right, then. Which one is the A then?

Steph. Steph: Demonstrate an analytical and interpretive skill. Explore alternative approaches and interpretations. Consider and evaluate the way meaning is conveyed through language, structure, and form.

Teacher: Good. It is that one. How did you know that it was an A? Someone else that isn’t Steph.

Briony: Because for the A* it says “originality of analysis,” and you have been telling us that we need an original idea to get an A*.

Teacher: Excellent. Good. So the difference between an A and an A* is that for an A* you really have to try to pin down that originality of analysis. What other differences did you spot between an A and an A*?

Polly: For an A* you really have to have an opinion on it and be enthusiastic about it.

Teacher: Yes, you do. We have had this discussion before. Enthusiasm doesn’t mean you have to jump up and down and pretend you love the poem. It means you have to have an enthusiastic response. Good, anything else that you spotted? Prin.

Prin: It uses words like sustain and concise.

Teacher: Absolutely, you’ve got to get straight to the point for an A*. You’ve got to know what you are saying and get there as accurately as you can. Good, hopefully by the end of the lesson you will be another step nearer that A*

Students talk about aiming for A-grade work as if it is discernible in one way. Do this, then you achieve the A-grade. This is a method of managing aspiration.

Far better is to use the language of the mark scheme at times, at least as far as it goes for rubrics.

It also reveals a flaw of teaching in mixed and low prior-attainment classrooms. No-one wants to believe that no-on in their classroom is incapable of the highest level of work. There is actually something pathologically procedural in teachers who aren’t somewhat generous (or ‘fair’) with internal marking. However, stating that achieving the A-grade is conceptually simple is potentially disingenuous.

Every classroom should use the language of the highest grades. But conceptually this leads generic assertions, not situated advice. The advice is about being clear in writing. Yet this is not necessary true, let alone rooted in the mark scheme.

So can our students know how the improve in more situated ways?


Expert examples

Teacher examples

Categorising them… chooses the top three etc. Always aiming for what they have, implicit…

Organising the same work (paragraphs) based upon difference facets?

The difficulty of metacognition is that it is a word used by many different people in multiple ways

Start with samples of work rather than rubrics, to communicate quality. • Use anonymous work. • Compare two or more pieces of work. • Use a document camera. • Use examples where deep features are not aligned with surface features. • Use rubrics as the starting point for a dialogue between you and your students. • Recognize that sometimes, quality cannot be put into words. • Help students develop a nose for quality. • Don’t abdicate responsibility for quality. • Find out what your students think they are learning.

Notice here the nifty idea of misaligning ‘deep qualities’ (i.e. conceptual accuracy) with surface qualities (i.e. cogency, handwriting, spelling, perhaps even expression).

So something that addresses alternative interpretations is superior to a clearer expression of a single interpretation? Depends…  a better example is that a conceptually weak idea expressed with complex vocab is worse than a conceptually interesting idea. Tension in R&J…

Last takeaway point: improve the rhythms of questioning in a classroom:

This is the ultimate strength of the book. The types of questions and the rhythm of choosing them is something that can be reflected upon. If this is linked to methods of running through texts, then this book becomes very useful.