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Do you really do it already?

Writing for the Research Schools Network, I challenge the notion that ‘we do it already’.


As we continue delivering the Early Career Framework (ECF) programme, we continue listening to our partner schools as well as the national debate. We are using this to both refine our work with schools, and to inform our engagement with national organisations.

One theme we have identified where we think we can clarify – and indeed even challenge schools – is the perception that ​‘we already do this’, ​‘we already know this’, or ​‘we learnt this during initial teacher training’.

As a science teacher, one issue I regularly encounter is that pupils recall doing practicals. They may have completed them at primary school, or perhaps earlier in their time at secondary school. One thing I point out is the difference between being familiar with something – like ​‘we remember doing this’ – and understanding something deeply.

My impression is that a similar phenomenon occurs with the ECF, which is not surprising given the overlap in content with the Core Content Framework that underpins ITT programmes. Indeed, I would argue that a similar phenomenon occurs with most teacher development. As teachers, we are often interested in the next big thing, but as Dylan Wiliam has argued, perhaps we should instead focus on doing the last big thing properly.

One way that I have previously tried to illustrate this point is with assessment for learning. These ideas were scaled up through various government initiatives since the late 1990s such that if you taught during this time, it is unlikely you did not have some professional development about it.

Given this, I sometimes cheekily ask teachers to define it. I might give them a blank sheet of paper and some time to discuss it. There are always some great explanations, but it is also fair to say that this normally challenges teachers. Typically, the features of that teachers first highlight are the more superficial aspects, such as asking lots of questions or using a random name generator.

One thing I point out is the difference between being familiar with something – like ​‘we remember doing this’ – and understanding something deeply

No doubt given longer, we could reach better descriptions, but even experienced teachers can struggle to describe the deep structures of formative assessment, which Wiliam has described as his five principles. I have tried to summarise this by describing different levels of quality shown below. We could argue about what goes into each box – indeed, I think this would be an excellent conversation – but it hopefully illustrates that it is possible to use assessment for learning with different levels of quality.

In addition to these principles, there is also a deep craft to formative assessment. Arguably, this is what separates good from great formative assessment. Thus, it is not totally different things, but it is the sophistication and nuance that matters.

The need for repetition and deep engagement with ideas is not just my opinion, it is a key tenet of the EEF’s professional development guidance report. Further, the EEF evaluated a two-year programme focusing entirely on Embedding Formative Assessment, which led to improvements on GCSE outcomes, which are notoriously difficult to improve in research studies.

This project involved teachers meeting monthly to spend 90-minutes discussing key aspects of formative assessment. Unsurprisingly, some of these teachers too reported that they were familiar with the approach, yet the evidence is clear that this approach to improving teaching was effective.

Finally, there is some truth to the issues raised about repetition, and I think that ECTs and Mentors are right to protest that they have they have encountered some activities before. This is probably not very helpful. However, there is a big difference between just repeating activities and examining a topic in more depth. The DfE have committed to reviewing all programmes ahead of the next cohort in September, and I hope this distinction is recognised.

Level of qualityAssessment for learning example
Level 1: superficial​. Colleagues are aware of some superficial aspects of the approach, and may have some deeper knowledge, but this is not yet reflected in their practice.​“Formative assessment is about copying learning objectives into books, and teachers asking lots of questions. Lollypop sticks and random name generators can be useful.”​
“Formative assessment is about copying learning objectives into books, and teachers asking lots of questions. Lollypop sticks and random name generators can be useful.”​“Formative assessment is about regularly checking pupils’ understanding, and then using this information to inform current and future lessons. Effective questioning is a key formative assessment strategy”​
Level 3: developing. Colleagues have a clear understanding of the key dos and don’ts, which helps them to avoid common pitfalls. However, at this level, it is still possible for these ideas to be taken as a procedural matter. Further, although the approach may be increasingly effective, it is not yet as efficient as it might be. Teachers may struggle to be purposeful and use the approaches judiciously as they may not have a secure enough understanding – this may be particularly noticeable with how the approach may need tailoring to different phases, subjects, or contexts.​“Formative assessment is about clearly defining and sharing learning intentions. Then carefully eliciting evidence of learning and using this information to adapt teaching. Good things to do, include eliciting evidence of learning in a manner that can be gathered and interpreted in an efficient and effective manner; using evidence of learning to decide how much time to spend on activities and when to remove scaffolding. Things to avoid include making inferences about all pupils’ learning using a non-representative sample, such as pupils who volunteer answers; mistaking pupils’ current level of performance with learning.”​
Level 4: sophisticated​. Colleagues have a secure understanding of the mechanisms that lead to improvement and how active ingredients can protect those mechanisms. This allows teachers to purposefully tailor approaches to their context without compromising fidelity to the core ideas.  Further, ideas at this level there is an increasing understanding of the conditional nature of most teaching and that there is seldom a single right way of doing things. Teaching typically involves lots of micro decisions, ‘if x then y’. There is also a growing awareness of trade-offs and diminishing returns to any activity. At this level, there is close thinking to how changes in teaching lead to changes in pupil behaviours, which in turn influence learning.​“I have a strong understanding of Wiliam’s five formative assessment strategies. Formative assessment allows me to become more effective and efficient in three main ways:​
1. Focuses on subject matter that pupils are struggling with​
2. Optimising the level of challenge – including the level of scaffolding – and allowing teachers to move on at an appropriate pace, or to increase levels of support.​
3. Developing more independent and self-aware learners who have a clearer understanding of what success looks like, which they can use to inform their actions in class as well as any homework and revision.”​