Here’s the big idea – teachers can only improve their practice when they also improve their ability to assess.
Dylan Wiliam, along with his colleague Paul Black, could be considered the fathers of formative assessment. And yet Dylan Wiliam considers this one of his biggest mistakes, wishing he’d called it something like ‘responsive teaching’ instead.
I’m hugely taken with this idea. While ‘teaching’ could be seen as one-way transmission, ‘responsive teaching’ is clearly a more two-way process.
Shamelessly piggy-backing on Dylan’s ideas, I propose that we stop thinking about Continuing Professional Development and think more about Responsive Teacher Learning. That is, very simply, teacher learning where the teacher is constantly adapting to respond to students.
This is in clear contrast with unresponsive teacher learning where teachers are simply spoon-fed ideas which are never embedded nor adapted in response to real classrooms. It’s also in contrast with CPD where teachers are taught to perform and reproduce teaching practices in ways that please adult observers.
This latter practice encourages superficial adoption without real professional understanding, without professional judgement, and therefore more than likely without much impact.
At the heart of great professional learning, therefore sits really effective assessment. It helps us to diagnose students’ barriers to learning and pick the right tools for the job.
To use an analogy, rather than ‘outstanding electricians use pliers effectively in every visit’ we move to ‘outstanding electricians diagnose the fault and pick the right tool’. The former is a bureaucratic tick-box – “I saw great use of pliers, truly Outstanding” – while the latter is solution-focused and professional.
Effective assessment also helps professionals to check if they’re making the desired progress.
Great chefs are not just taught to add salt, they’re taught to watch, taste and listen as they go and use their knowledge of flavour to apply the condiment adaptively. Great surgeons are not taught to blindly mirror the movements of ‘Outstanding’ colleagues, they are taught to keep adapting their movements to each patient’s body using their knowledge of anatomy, their eyes, their sense of touch and the readings on instruments around them.
Great teachers are not just taught to replicate top tips about ‘asking great questions’, they’re taught to adapt the principles of questioning and continually assess how students are currently learning using their deep knowledge of curriculum, learning and assessment.
Assessment not only helps diagnose and adapt, it also helps those doing the training. If the trainer is constantly receiving feedback about how effectively the teacher’s practice is working for pupils, then she can adapt each subsequent session to respond to the feedback and adapt the instruction and support.
The higher quality the assessment, the better it can inform the process of professional learning. The more objective that it is, the more that it counters our inevitable biases and ensures that impact is real and not imagined.
This is a huge shift, but a profound one. We accept that teaching shouldn’t be transmissive but responsive. It’s time to make the same shift in teacher learning.
David Weston is the Chief Executive of the Teacher Development Trust, the national charity for effective professional development in schools and colleges. He is also Chair of the Department for Education’s CPD Expert Group which produced the new Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development. Follow the TDT on Twitter at @TeacherDevTrust