As teachers we are all too familiar with the concept of assessment and its importance. We know that without assessment there is no teaching, only spewing random content into an abyss. We need to know what the children know before we tell them more things we think they should know.
I don’t need to tell you that it would be pointless trying to teach a child to multiply a 4 digit number using a written method when they don’t even know how to multiply two single digit numbers together. You’d need to know what they can’t do, not only so you don’t try to teach them something that is too difficult, but so that you can teach them exact right thing that they do need to know: in the above scenario, some basic times tables, for example.
But just knowing that a child needs to know their times tables isn’t enough. Which times tables? Because teaching them 144 different facts (if you’re aiming for all tables up to 12 x 12) is going to take some time. What if they actually already know their 1s, 2s, 5s and 10s? Well then you only have 64 facts left to teach them so you can focus on those. What if they also know the majority of their 3s, 4s and 11s and are really only struggling with the facts that follow the 6x6 mark. By my count that’s 17 times tables facts that they need to know (6x6, 6x7, 6x8, 6x9, 6x12, 7x7, 7x8, 7x9,7x12, 8x8, 8x9, 8x12, 9x9, 9x12, 11x11, 11x12, 12x12 e.g. if they know 6x7, they also know 7x6).
So which ones do they know of those? How would you find out? The obvious answer is to test them on those tables. What actually happens often though is that we test them on ALL the 6 times tables only to discover what we already knew: that they can do 1x6, 2x6, 3x6, 4x6, 5x6, 10x6 and 11x6. If you know this already, or once you have found it out, then only test them on 6x6, 6x7, 6x8, 6x9, 6x12. If we want to find out specific information we can design specific assessment opportunities and focus time and energy (ours and the children’s) on exactly what we want to know.
We can then add in all those other more tricky times tables and assess exactly which times tables they don’t yet know. In doing this you may begin to benefit from the testing effect (in a nutshell: repeat exposure to the same questions with feedback means that next time they may remember more correct answers) and you can find out exactly what it is you need to explicitly teach that child.
In doing the above you are on the way to being forensic, digging down to a deeper level and discovering exactly what a child doesn’t know or can’t do so that you can teach them precisely what they need to know.
Digging Even Deeper
What if you’ve done the above and you find that a child just can’t get the hang of 6x9 and 7x8, for example. Why is it that those particular tables present a problem for them? Perhaps it’s just that they are trying to memorise them and they seem to have run out of capacity. Maybe they don’t have a good enough understanding of what’s going on behind the scenes when they multiply two numbers and don’t have any methods or techniques to be able to work it out quickly. Or they might just be getting the two answers mixed up: 54 and 56 are quite close. If you’ve got to this level then you’ve been just as forensic as you can get and you’ve dug right to the bottom and can begin to think about how to address the child’s needs.
The thing is, the thing that makes teaching so hard, is that you have to do the above for every child in every subject that you teach if you are going to be truly successful as a teacher, and if the children are going to be successful as learners. If we don’t dig deep and assess forensically, we are leaving far too much to chance.
That Sounds Like Too Much Work!
But this level of analysis risks jeopardising teacher wellbeing and that is a problem. What good is a teacher who has assessed forensically to within an inch of their lives to the point that they are barely even fit to use the information they’ve gained as they are just too worn out when it comes to planning and delivering solutions?
Deliberate Assessment Opportunities
And this is where the planning of assessment opportunities comes in again. It would be too overwhelming to hope to glean this level of information across the day, across the week. It is almost impossible to hope to discover that, through teaching lessons and being with them in class, one child doesn’t know 6x9, another doesn’t know 8x7 and another doesn’t know 9x12, without specifically asking the questions. The design of mini assessments is essential in finding information out at such a granular level. And please don’t misinterpret me here; by assessment I do not necessarily mean test.
Recording this information is essential too. I don’t know about you, but I know I can’t memorise which times tables each child doesn’t yet know. Again, this is beginning to sound time consuming. Some teachers would spend hours setting up tracking grids and excel files and the like but that isn’t necessary. A simple set of scribbles in a notebook will tell you everything you need to remember. For example, next to each of those tricky times tables put the initials of each child who needs to learn it.
Then, armed with said notebook, you can set about really honing the experiences you give to the children in your class. More often than not there will be a group of children needing the same things – design a quick task that allows them to practice exactly what they need to practice, tweak the task for another group of children (in the times tables example its as simple as changing a few digits).
Not Just Maths
It’s not just maths we can get forensic with – it’s almost anything.
Don’t just get them to write and then pick out which things they can and can’t do against a long list of objectives. Decide exactly what you want to find out about, design a task that specifically requires that skill and administer that. You could find out which word classes they don’t know? Or which punctuation marks they can use. Perhaps which poetic techniques they can use.
In science we are more likely to assess within disciplines and within units, but even so we can get more forensic than just a whole unit test. Find out which of the classifications of animal they can name key features for. Ask them which of the states of matter they can draw a diagram of. Find out which of the planets can they name.
If you’re going off the National Curriculum there are fewer objectives to bind you. However, if you’re teaching art well, you will be teaching a whole heap of procedural, substantive and disciplinary knowledge. Your school may have even set its own objectives to assess against. Design tasks that allow you to find out if they know how to use a paint brush in an impressionist style. Ask children to draw a 3D shape using one-point perspective. Provide a task that requires children to draw an anatomically plausible human body.
Not too much, not too little
I suppose I could go on and on. This should never be overdone to the point that every task a child ever completes is specifically designed to discover what a child can or cannot do, however, it should be a regular feature in your classroom. The fact that the tasks are designed to assess specific things means that they don’t have to last longer than 5 or 10 minutes, and then you can get on with revisiting old concepts, teaching new content and providing children with time to practice the things they have learnt.
Neglecting to gather information at this level, or only ever gathering information that barely scratches the surface, will mean that your teaching cannot be precise enough. In order for children to make the most progress possible it is necessary to really dig down deep, to get forensic and to truly find out what exactly they can and can’t do.
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