Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The joys of homework...

Like every Mum, I have kept examples of my children's school work as lovely mementos of their school days. One of the pieces that always brings a smile to my face when I see it is one of my son's assignments on 'Early New Zealand Settlers', completed when he was about nine years of age. It is a very high quality piece of work, beautiful borders, great illustrations, tidy handwriting, impressively presented. At the end of the assignment is a lovely note to my son saying what a great job he did.

I am sure his teacher wrote this tongue in cheek and what she didn't say was 'well done Mum'. Because of course, it was basically my assignment! I remember being totally frustrated at the lack of dedication my son showed to his homework, so decided that instead of running around climbing trees (I think I have mentioned that he is now a qualified arbourist specialising in high climbing?) he and I could spend some quality time together and I would show him the joy of producing a great  assignment! Of course, I did all the thinking, planning, cutting and  measuring, I think he might have done a bit of pasting and wrote down what I dictated to him. No surprises, he had no ownership of the assignment and really was not that interested in it at all.  He still isn't and yes, I still have it!

Homework is a really interesting subject. A couple of years ago, we did a survey to gauge our parental attitude towards this. Some parents wanted more, some wanted less and quite a few wanted none. We had then, to walk a delicate line and try to get it right for everyone, so introduced the homework grids. These were to be completed over a two week period, had some degree of choice and extension and linked into the current work of the class. They worked well at the time, and brought a degree of consistency across the school, but I do think that as a community, we are probably ready for another look at what our beliefs and values are around homework.

It seems to be that research indicates that at the primary school level, it does not have a significant impact on achievement at all. However, regular reading does, as does a good attitude to learning that is reinforced by home. I think homework has value in that it is a good home- school link and helps you, our parents support your child's learning by keeping you in touch with what we are doing. It is also a good discussion point and listening to and encouraging your child while they read is invaluable. I know that when I get home, I like to just sit down and relax- read a book or a magazine and just chill out. I suspect our children are the same. I have blogged before about after school activities and in many ways, I think this and reading is homework enough, maybe with a few small 'as they are needed' things added in.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on homework and what you see as important and valuable in it.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Raising standards of achievement

Recently, I was lucky enough to attend a two day seminar presented by Dylan Wiliam. He is a well known author, who along with Paul Black, wrote a 2001 paper that seemed, at the time revolutionary in terms of the way teachers were thinking about assessment, more specifically, formative assessment. The basis of their case was that :

"standards are raised only by changes which are put into direct effect by teachers and pupils in classrooms. There is a body of firm evidence that formative assessment is an essential feature of classroom work and that development of it can raise standards. We know of no other way of raising standards for which such a strong prima facie case can be made on the basis of evidence of such large learning gains." (Black and Wiliam, Inside the Black Box Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment 2001)

So what is formative assessment?
It is a range of formal but more often informal procedures employed by teachers during the learning process in order to modify their teaching so that the learning activities match the needs of their students and so, improve student learning outcomes. This means that the teacher is constantly checking, if you will, that what they are teaching is pitched at the right level. What they have planned may be too easy...or too difficult and so needs to be modified in some way. It happens on an individual and group level as well and may be as simple as spending extra time with a group of students who need extra help while the rest of the class carries on, or instantly raising the level of challenge for others.

It is what all good teachers do constantly and becomes a part of what we know and consider to be good practice. There are many, many techniques of formative assessment and when you are in our classrooms, you will see it happening all of the time, through questioning, observing, simple tests, conversation, feedback...

Interestingly, this is what parents do all the time as well when you are making decisions about what best suits your child and your observations on their learning that causes you concern or delight!

Formative is not the only form of assessment we use. Summative assessment happens after the learning has taken place. It is often used for the purposes of external accountability and its ability to feed directly back in the learning and teaching cycle is limited. There is no opportunity for students to go back and modify their efforts in order to achieve a higher outcome.

We use some forms of summative assessment at Bradbury. The International Schools Assessment (ISA) test is one example. Student sit the test in October, it is sent off to be marked externally and then we get the results in around January. For most students, their learning has grown, developed and changed markedly since sitting the test and a different result would occur should the student sit the test again in January. No feedback is given to a student on how they did or how they could improve their score. It is for this reason that we feel formative assessment is the most powerful and summative test results only offer a 'snapshot' of that child's performance on that day.

However, the results are useful in order to give us an indication of learning trends and how our students are achieving against other students in international schools around the world, i.e. the tests are externally norm referenced.

We triangulate all of our assessment results, both summative and formative, informal and formal, in order to build up a good picture of our students and their learning needs. It is never just a case of one test gives us a whole view, we need a range of assessment strategies in our classrooms that are used effectively and raise levels of achievement. There are other types of assessment too, diagnostic and ipsative and both have their own purposes and use in the classroom.

You may be interested in reading the article that began the move towards a stronger emphasis on formative assessment. It was written some time ago, however, the the principles and beliefs espoused are still true today.