Improving the Practice of Teaching with Formative Assessment

Improving the practice of teaching with Formative AssessmentThere was recently a great two-part blog by Marc Tucker at EdWeek that showcased an open letter to Dylan Wiliam on teacher quality, and Dylan’s response. The blog was Dialogue with Dylan Wiliam on Teacher Quality, and if you haven’t read it, you should.

In the blog, Marc discusses his visits with several schools, his experiences with the teachers and their grasp of subject matter expertise and the subsequent difference it made on the learning experience he saw. His observations were not surprising:

…a private, independent school in west Los Angeles that serves the sons and daughters of LA’s very upper crust, comparable to Groton, Philips Andover, Exeter, Rugby, Harrow and so on.  Small classes, all run seminar-style by teachers who would have been at home on the faculties of our best liberal arts colleges, from Haverford to Amherst.  The level of the class discussions was on a very high plane.  The focus was on ideas, but it assumed a lot of detailed knowledge of the subject under discussion.  The teachers’ command of substance and ideas was so thorough they were confident enough to let the students go where the discussion led, and able enough to bring it back to the main points wherever it had gone.  I left each class wishing I could stay, not as an observer, but at as a student.

After his observations Marc concludes that teacher quality is entirely a function of the improvement of the practice of teaching and the “time during which one has been engaged in the disciplined improvement of practice.”

If you follow Dylan Wiliam and his thinking regarding teacher professional development, you know that most of what he says is rooted in proven research, including the fact that “the best teachers (top quintile of value added) did not improve their productivity over the first five years of their careers, while the least effective (bottom quintile) improved radically.”

I think Dylan’s response is accurate in that Marc’s experiences are based on a small fraction of schools, from near opposite ends of the spectrum, so that while his observations are accurate they are microcosms of the larger picture of teaching in the United States. That while the two schools he visited do have teachers that are masters at their craft, they are the clear exception and not the norm. What does this say about the state of teaching and education in the US? Well… until we act more like Singapore and Finland and put the smartest people in the country into teaching positions, we need to work with who we have, and if done correctly it can work.

Dylan’s final point, of teaching teachers how to better make use of formative assessment in the classroom… I think this creates a real (research proven) step for teachers to create students that are engaged. As Dylan states:

One way we have found to do this is through the use of what I call “hinge-point questions,” which are questions designed to check on a classes’ understanding of a key point before moving on. The idea is that these hinge-point questions encapsulate what we know about student misconceptions, which of course many teachers share, and by presenting “answer-choice rationales” (the reason someone might have chosen a particular incorrect response) we engage in a form of “just-in-time” teacher subject knowledge development.

If used correctly and consistently in the classroom, formative assessment techniques and strategies can help teachers determine where a student is in their learning, what gaps they have in their learning, and inform the teacher what they need to know, teach, and expand upon to move learning targets forward. In some respects, this is improving the practice of teaching, and if done consistently will result in the experience to create richer learning environments for students – both gaps that Marc saw in his observations.


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