Spaghetti, marshmallows and assessment for learning

‘Talk doesn’t cook rice’ (Chinese proverb)

The marshmallow challenge, which provides lessons in collaboration, innovation and creativity, requires teams of four to use twenty sticks of spaghetti, a yard of string and a yard of tape to build the tallest structure they can in eighteen minutes. The two rules are that the tower must be free standing and a marshmallow must be balanced on the top.

Tom Wujec, who has used this in workshops across the world, explains that the worse performers are recent graduates of business school and that only slightly better were CEOs of large organisations. Surprisingly one of the top performers are recent graduates of kindergarten school and their structures averaged three times the height of the business graduates. The reason for this is that the children just kept doing. The graduates wrote plans, assigned responsibilities, discussed success criteria and then as time ran out quickly built a tower, only to find in the last minute that it collapsed as the marshmallow was placed on the top. On the other hand the children just got started, they quickly found out what worked and what didn’t and amended their structures accordingly. Tom Wujec explains that in business this is called ‘rapid prototyping’.

I conducted this challenge with groups of 12-13 year olds and witnessed the same results whereby the students just threw themselves into the task. Interestingly for me is that it became clear that what the children were doing was continually responding to self and peer assessment by quickly learning from their mistakes. Of course there were some students who struggled to understand the causes of their mistakes and thus lost the confidence to continue. In this context it became clear what a teacher’s role here would be. It would be to help these students understand the various building methodologies that could be used, provide feedback, help the students deduce the reasons for their success and failure and plan training (lessons) based on observation of what happens. In short assessment for learning techniques would be intrinsic to the process.

Knowledge of such assessment for learning strategies have evolved from the influential research of Black and William who concluded various characteristics of successful AFL activities. These included quality of questioning, quality of feedback, the sharing of learning criteria, the use of peer and self assessment as well as activities which allow learners and teachers to seek and interpret evidence which highlights current progress, what the next steps should be and how best to get there.

These findings swept across the teaching profession when I was in an early stage of my career and as a result I enthusiastically and diligently introduced and trialled a range of methodologies. However throughout this whole process I found myself increasingly grappling with the issue that students seem to want to concentrate on the actual and enjoyable learning rather than how well they are learning. This concern seemed to confirm a later 2008 Ofsted nationwide report which concluded that teachers fall short of a whole hearted support for AFL because they worry that assessment will take over as the primary goal. My problem was that I couldn’t reconcile this with the research of Black and William which showed the powerful impact that AFL can have; most notably that such practices can increase GCSE attainment by half a grade.

The realisation I had which solved this problem was that I wasn’t understanding AFL properly. I knew what AFL was, I knew what formative and summative assessment were but it became clear that I didn’t understand how to properly implement AFL strategies. Interestingly my research into the issue highlighted that many teachers across the country didn’t either. Some thought the initiative demanded greater testing, some didn’t appreciate that it should inform future planning but what many (including myself) didn’t realise was that AFL methodologies should be intrinsic in the learning process and not used as a ‘tag-on’. AFL activities which are tagged onto lessons would be like making a new years resolution to get fit, continuing as before, but just tagging on a bit of gym. It will have an impact but not as much as it could.

To help solve these misconceptions there has emerged a second-generation definition of assessment for learning whereby learners are actively involved in their learning and carry out self/peer assessment tasks to achieve their goals whilst teachers encourage this, help them understand how to achieve their goals, provide useful feedback and plan lessons based on this. This is just like the children in the marshmallow challenge and highlights that AFL should be intrinsic in all lessons. In such lessons the students will experiment, make mistakes, learn from their mistakes and then apply this new learning. The teacher will help them understand their learning mistakes, their goals, motivate them to continue, provide feedback and plan future learning sequences.

Examples of successful methodologies which I have come across which allow for intrinsic AFL include:

1. Student mind mapping – what do I know and what do I want to know?

2. Learning partners – matched according to what students can learn from each other

3. Teachers who provide feedback as students work and not just at the end

4. Learning journals where students reflect on what they are learning and what they need to do next

5. Do you think questions – where teachers ask ‘What do you think caused the earthquake?’ rather than ‘What caused the earthquake?’

6. Activity choice – where students select the tasks that are most relevant for them

Of course there is always the danger when talking about techniques and methodologies that you return to the problem of activities that are ‘tag ons’ rather than ‘intrinsic’. Therefore it must be remembered that teachers can fall into two categories. There are those that follow certain procedures and then there are those that use knowledge of these procedures to change their understanding of the principles of learning and teaching. The latter embrace the ‘spirit’ rather than just the ‘letter’ of AFL. Change actually arises from an understanding of principles rather than an application of certain techniques and by engaging in debates about learning the successful implementation of intrinsic AFL will occur.

 How will you make AFL intrinsic in your lessons this week?

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