If you are waiting for summative assessment to determine where students’ issues lie, then you’ve missed the boat. Why? Because summative assessment tests from the domain, and isolating issues is extremely problematic. Adam Boxer articulates the discord succinctly here, evincing implications for the insistent reporting of student summative progress in terms of ‘where to next’, but it is Daisy Christodoulou that is ultimately instructive in this area. As a simple example, take an essay written about a novel. Taking out the subjectivity of the criteria used to assess a piece of writing, a poor score could be the result of numerous possibilities: lack of content knowledge, lack of skill in articulating ideas, or from performance in test conditions. Each of these components also has its subcomponents respectively:  

Lack of content knowledge – what content specifically (does it include context, and if so, to what extent?), revision techniques…

Lack of skill in articulating ideas – structuring a response, logic, expression of points, linking to the question…

Performance in test conditions – understanding what each question demands, organising time, controlling anxiety… 

Dylan Wiliams’ seminal work on formative assessment provided a reprieve from the deficiency of summative assessment feedback, tooling teachers with what amounts to be an interventionist approach, addressing errors before they spiral out of control and become irretrievable in summative forms. But Dylan himself laments the focus on assessment in such a phrase, preferring to call the strategy ‘responsive teaching’. The compunction stems from the use of the word assessment, with the distinction between assessment for learning regularly conflated with assessment of learning, where the direction of the teaching is not changed. Responsive teaching seems idyllic: the teacher continuously scans the students, infers as much as is possible their current knowledge and adapts teaching where required. However, it is not the terminology that enervates this strategy. I believe there exists an implicit and intrinsic negative connotation to this approach: the need for such responsive action suggests the delivery of the content is initially not strategic enough to ensure knowledge is built upon incrementally, and that mastery is not achieved before the next stage is delivered… 

I contend that this is a significant contributor as to why students arrive at GCSE level with insufficient knowledge to demonstrate competency. * 

Intuitively, the solution lies in designing progressive curriculum that does ensure incremental mastery of knowledge. Perhaps never before, with the understanding afforded to us with research into the effects of cognitive load, has it been so apparent that in order for students to achieve optimal learning we must work harder to design a very precise curriculum that painstakingly details knowledge that should be built upon from the ground up that eventually constitutes the domain. In this way, assessment and curriculum are inextricably linked. One drives the other. Assessment is curriculum is assessment.  I provide a link to how this can be achieved at the end of the post.

So why hasn’t this already happened? 

  1. Demands of progress  
  2. A lack of continuity 
  3. A lack of understanding about cognition 
  4. Uncertainty as to what the domain actually is 
  5. Design issues  

Demands of progress  

Christine Counsell is compelling in her post on the imperative of teaching the ‘hinterland’ as well as the ‘core’. It is hardly surprising however, that teachers have omitted the necessary ecosystem in which a curriculum thrives, having it obfuscated by the exhortative demand for progress, and given little guidance in how to counter it. To say that an alternative approach is exigent would be an understatement, because the decision to design curriculum backwards from GCSE rather than forwards from scratch has simply not worked. The proof lies in the fact that despite rigorous attention to monitoring student progress, lots of students still fail to consistently achieve success with what subject leaders would call fundamental skills in their subjects. This is not limited to specific subjects, or students, but applies to all; it is ubiquitous across the globe, and probably the most ironic of all school issues, in that it is the most inclusive.  

No teacher in the world is content with the numbers of students who simply fall through the cracks, but unless we design curriculum that prevents cracks from ever opening, teachers across the globe will be inexorably and exhaustingly destined to superficially rescue weaker students. This seems like an enormous waste of what is essentially a finite resource.  

A lack of continuity 

Ian Cushing’s delineation of the incongruity of grammar policy between primary and secondary can be seen as emblematic of the wider paralysis. As a new year begins, and new faces present themselves, teachers spend lots of time working out the strengths and weaknesses of the cohort and assimilating them into the teacher’s preferred method/curriculum/expectations. Students with gaps are simply passed on year upon year, often with little or inadequate communication or a serious plan as to how to close the gap. Regardless of well-intentioned monitoring systems, when a student presents into your class with obvious gaps, it is incredibly difficult to address the gaps by going back to root causes of issues, with a mountain of new content to be taught. The Matthew effect takes full control, and issues become exponential in no time at all. Without a pre-existing scheme of work that can address gaps, and time to complete it, only the highest of skilled teachers will be able to solve the inequity.   

This is a highly stressful scenario, and with the pressures of performance management so palpable, it is little wonder that retention of teachers is so low at the moment. The imperative of prioritising knowledge to be gained is the panacea to this pervasive ailment. Solomon’s fable (no, not the biblical one) superbly highlights the inadequacies of our current epistemology that stretches and stretches and stretches until we snap.    

A lack of understanding about cognition 

Fortunately, this is being improved each day, and schemes of learning can be shaped around the increasing understanding of how knowledge is best delivered and retained, and how learning spaces can be optimised. Tom Needham’s blog on application of theory is a brilliant example of the advancements in applying cognitive science to affect teaching. Oliver Caviglioli is also leading in this area.

What constitutes the domain? 

This is perhaps the primary reason why a lack of standardisation exists in English. There are conflicting views as to what should constitute the domain of knowledge that would equip a student to become a successful communicator and interpreter of our world. David Didau outlines a strong position here, and adds grammar and literary knowledge (context) to the list. Should we focus on building general knowledge and developing vocabulary as informally intimated by Patrick here?  The 2013 National Curriculum for English adds its views here. Is it simply knowledge, the articulation of that, and the neglected, but essential, performance of the articulation?  

Whatever a school believes the domain of their subject to be, enunciating what it is must become the very first port of call before any teaching is done: what are we teaching and why! Tom Sherington explores this here, but it must be taken to greater depth. Secondary key stage 3 curriculum design can easily be consumed by a focus on the types of texts that should be taught (what actually represents all that’s best and known?), as opposed to concentrating on specific knowledge that leads to specific skills. Indubitably, reading and writing are the primary concerns, and while it is difficult to define what success means in both of these aspects, I think there would a consensus on much of it: students being able to punctuate their writing would be one. The rise of comparative marking would suggest that although using criteria is highly subjective and thus restrictive, English teachers do have a sense of what successful writing and analysis looks like.  

We may not be able to agree on everything, but there would be some components that could be standardised so that students would never again fall through the respective crack.  The sections that become standardised would need to be expertly designed so as to guarantee incremental advancement. Bear in mind that this does not immediately result in a loss of autonomy, a grave fear of most in the profession. The standardisation could be bespoke to each school depending on what is believed to be the domain, and what levels of increment assessment should take.  

Either way, this must become the priority of any CPD undertaken.  

Design issues with incremental curriculum  

The ‘curse of knowledge’ can very much be a factor in curriculum design. Establishing the baseline knowledge is crucial, and carefully sequencing activities and assessment that build piece by piece without extraneous cognitive load is imperative.

How I go about this will be the basis of the next post. 

*Bear in mind I am not talking about being able to pass. Cohort referenced governance renders the notion a nonsense in terms of equating passing with demonstrable knowledge. 

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching resources and general educational discussions.  


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