Learning for all - Knowing your starting points

Some years ago, I was observing a music teacher working with her class in the north of England. The bell rang to signal the end of the lesson and the learners filed out. I’d just finished videoing her lesson as part of her Outstanding Teaching Intervention course and from her perspective it had gone well. There was a smile on her face. She thought all learners had made good progress in developing their musical skills.

One boy lagged behind as my colleague, Andy Griffith, and I chatted to her. ‘Please, Miss, I use violin, OK?’ ‘This is Adnan,’ she explained to us. ‘He’s recently arrived from Albania with his parents.’ Keen to nurture a love of music in one of her learners, she took a violin from the cupboard and handed it over to him.

What happened next challenged the teacher to completely revise her assessment of how well her lesson had gone. Adnan started to play. He launched into a virtuoso performance of the theme from The Godfather, with all the panache and passion of Nigel Kennedy. It earned a round of applause from all of us when he finished.

The teacher was stunned. ‘I had no idea he could play like that. Had I known I’d have given him a lot more challenge in the lesson?’ She paused a moment to reflect and then her eyes opened wide. ‘I wonder if any of the others have got musical skills I don’t know about?’

This is yet another powerful argument for the importance of pre-assessment in meeting the needs of all learners. Our most recent book Teaching Backwards maintains that, if a teacher doesn’t really know his learners’ starting points, it’s going to be a whole lot more difficult for him to teach to close their gaps. Without this crucial knowledge, how can any teacher plan for progression in the subject-specific knowledge and the learners’ current skills and understanding of it?

An alarming number of lessons that we’ve observed over the years have fallen at the first hurdle because the teacher has not known learners’ starting points. Often, this isn’t because the teachers are neglectful or uncommitted. Indeed, these teachers may have put hours of thought and planning into what and how they were going to teach. The problem is that they’ve made too many assumptions – assumptions about their learners’ subject knowledge and understanding, as well as their literacy and numeracy skills. And, subsequently, many of these assumptions have turned out to be wrong. These assumptions have often been based upon the learners’ scores/data from the previous year.

Rather than over-rely on data that may well be out-of-date and not necessarily representative of all aspects of a learner’s competence, a better approach is to carry out a pre-assessment towards the end of the previous module, so that teachers have sufficient time to adapt their planning according to the feedback they gather.

The pre-assessment can take different forms. It could be a written test, a structured observation carried out by teacher/TA to see whether a learner possesses a particular skill or even the completion of a graphic organizer such as a flow diagram exploring the stages of a process. The results enable teachers to establish their learners’ true starting points on the relevant subject-specific skills and knowledge. Pre-assessment will also identify where any of the learners will have come across the content before, outside school. Indeed, without pre-assessment, we are actually in danger of punishing children for showing an interest and reading around or ahead in the subject!

Pre-assessment and planning

Primary and secondary teachers alike talk about the shortage of teaching time. ‘There’s so much to get through and ‘there’s never enough time to …’ are common and heartfelt complaints. But perhaps a more useful question that teachers could sometimes ask themselves is: does everything need to be taught? Pre-assessment can often take as little as 10 minutes of lesson time and is best done a week or so before the topic is taught. Yet the time saved in the long run can be many times more than that.

By doing so, teachers can quickly identify what needs to be taught and to whom, and what doesn’t. This enables the teacher to re-allocate their teaching time or their TAs (where available) to those individuals who need more support. It will guide them in finding what support and/or extension materials different learners might need, such as glossaries and writing frames.

On the other hand, if it turns out that the learners already have a good grasp of the necessary skills and concepts, they don’t need to waste time going over old ground. The teacher can then move quickly on to the next step. This was typified by Debbie, the head of a maths department. The results of the pre-assessment of her Year 10 class really helped her to focus her teaching time. Most of the class were already able to do 80% of the new module’s content. This saved her three hours of teaching time, enabling her to focus more time on the remaining 20% of the content and to give individual attention to those learners who needed extra support. She was delighted. She saw that pre-assessment really could help her to tailor her teaching much more accurately to the needs of all her learners. Now she is in the habit of pre-assessing before every module.

The results are that her teaching is more engaging, more differentiated and has more impact on the results that learners attain.

This article was originally printed in the June 2015 edition of UKEdMagazine

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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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