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Thursday, May 7, 2015

"When I hear the words 'Formative Assessment', I reach for my gun...."

As a schoolteacher, I have a couple of main functions: helping people learn and evaluating what they have learned. These are not necessarily complementary functions. The grade you get at the end of the year may not increase your learning in any way. How could it? In fact, it may decrease your motivation for future learning.

The way this is being dealt with is increasingly to distinguish between ‘assessment of learning’ and 'assessment for learning’, with the latter being given pride of place. The rage now is to have a tight focus on the teacher’s assessments of pupils’ work with the goal of improvement. Children are to be given clear criteria, to be engaged in the assessment of their own work, and to be given feedback that clearly points the way forward.

I sat recently through a two-day seminar at work with a hired gun expert to help us work on ‘assessment for learning’. It used to be that Dylan Wiliam with his ‘formative assessment’ was the hero of the school authorities in Norway, now it’s John Hattie with ‘feedback’. Pretty much along the same lines. So now we’re all to become experts in helping pupils understand the criteria for good work and in giving feedback that is useful for improving.

The teacher clearly pointing to the path forward
Sounds good, doesn’t it? We have lots of solid research that supports the idea that working with these things will increase pupils’ scores. Sorry, sorry – I mean of course pupils’ learning. How could I as a teacher not support such measures?

The Norwegian professor of education Solveig Ă˜strem talks about how teaching rests on a paradox (most recently talked about this on the radio program ‘Ministry of Truth’ [in Norwegian]). Teaching is a wish for change in someone else. That “someone else” is, however, a person, a subject of their own. A subject with certain rights and an innate value as a human being. By wishing and working for change in other people, we risk having an instrumental approach to others, treating them as objects for pedagogical work instead of as active subjects of their own.

This the bad feeling I had in my stomach for two days while I was supposed to be happy that we were thinking about how we could help the students learn more: our enthusiasm for  ‘assessment for learning’ risks letting assessment permeate everything we do, resulting in a highly instrumental approach to other human beings. We risk creating a school day that is inhumane and inhuman when our point of departure is always assessment, always improvement. Our pupils are people first, active subjects of their own, not objects for our pedagogical measures.



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