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Data for Learning: Nearer, Smaller, Variable and More Detailed

During June I’ll be speaking at a few conferences including a mini-input via a back door route at the Wellington Festival of Education.  A couple of the talks focus on what I’m calling Liminal Leadership and the others are about assessment.


Data has become increasingly central to judging the effectiveness of schools but its place within developing class room practice has been undervalued and under used.  At its most informative, data is integrated into a cyclical teaching process of assessing, reflecting, planning and delivery.  Many teachers may have become allergic to the term data; just think of data as “bits of useful information” as you read on.

Life After Levels is Primarily a Curriculum Issue not Simply a Data Issue. 

Too Many Schools are Rushing to Create New Labels (which don’t mean anything).  

Plan the Learning First Not the Lessons

At the heart of a great assessment system is teaching and learning.  Assessment is the connect between “I have taught this” and “let me find out if you have learnt it”. 

This requires teachers, hopefully collaboratively, to plan learning progressions, sequences or flows; what needs to be learnt in what order?  This is part of the core knowledge teachers need to function in the class room.  Lessons built on a clear learning progression can quickly be adapted, with more or less time spent on a particular aspect of learning, depending on the information assessments produce about whether pupils have grasped it or not.  This is a simple example of a learning flow:

  1. If you want to compose an extended piece of descriptive music for a given brief then you need to learn about melodies, countermelodies, accompaniment and stylistic idiomatic features first.
  2. Being able to write a melody becomes an opportunity for a “milestone assessment” on the way to composing.
  3. There are different elements which make up a melody including using appropriate instruments, tempo, pitch, rhythm, dynamics, timbre and key that must be taught and mastered.

Move Assessment Nearer

The sequence of assessment tends to flow from assessing learning close to the point of teaching; often more ephemeral in nature as it is tends to be verbal, about specific facts, skills or concepts and unrecorded.  Teacher questioning is an obvious example.  At the other extreme are large scale written assessments – examinations, controlled assessments, coursework – producing aggregated marks or grades which are formally recorded and submitted for further analysis by school leaders.

Assessment Opportunities

Accountability has now created a perverse assessment hierarchy with more ephemeral forms of assessment and data collection seen as the poor relation of formally recorded ones.  The same issue impacts on feedback and marking.  This has increased over the decades driven by Ofsted and school leaders.  It is deeply ingrained within the system but needs to be tipped on its head.

One of the key directions of travel for assessment systems is greater use and importance attached to in lesson assessment without teachers getting caught up or worried about capturing it for posterity.  The most valuable assessment for learners is arguably the ones that happen closest to the point of first teaching.  If leaders hold their nerve the marks and grades should look after their selves; it’s a “look after the pennies and the pounds look after themselves” type of approach.

Smaller, Variable and More Detailed Assessment Data

Aggregated data – levels, grades and marks – so beloved in the accountability system and by school leaders is less helpful in the class room.  What you require in the class room is the specifics of what children do and don’t know/ can and can’t do.  It is feasible for two pupils, both attaining 50%, know the same things or the exact opposite things on an assessment.

Teachers need to find out what pupils do know and plan the next steps in learning accordingly.  Think about giving the end of topic test at the beginning; if pupils can answer lots of the questions you’re wasting teaching time.  Raise expectations and teach them things they don’t know.  A launch pad (name nicked from Hartsholme Academy) piece of writing at the start of teaching a particular genre is a great way of to baseline pupils’ knowledge and skills ready to plan next steps.  It’s the detail that’s important to the teacher and pupil; all of this is lost when you aggregate the data.

As described by Professor Tim Leunig (from Visible Learning by Profesor John Hattie)

As described by Professor Tim Leunig (from Visible Learning by Profesor John Hattie)

During teaching and at the end of a topic, a variety of assessment should be used to expose what pupils don’t know but should; after all you have taught them it.  Don’t leave gaps in learning for the poor teachers in Years 2, 6, 11 and 13 to worry about; reteach it there and then.  A failure to find the time means future learning is built on sand wasting a whole lot more time and effort.

Just a note, the grain size – smallest useful piece of assessment data to support teaching and learning – varies between subjects.  In Mathematics the grain size is much smaller than in English; the latter tend to make more holistic assessments whereas the former is more question by question as different things are assessed.

This approach creates much, much more detailed data for teachers to manage but it is data that is useful to the learning process.  It also helps teachers identify what they are and aren’t teaching well; changes can be made to schemes of learning, subject knowledge and pedagogy to help improve the quality of teaching in every class room.

New Assessment Schema inc. Grading

Overall I’m both delighted and impressed with the work staff have done on assessment across the three academies this year; two primary and one secondary.  This is despite some workload issues, confusion resistance and the usual ups and downs of any major change.  As ever we probably needed to do a bit more thinking, a bit more training and a bit more communicating; it is always thus.  There’s a moment at which you just have to go for it and be willing to learn and change as things embed.  Moving from policy on paper to implementation in the class room, with its myriad of complex human interactions, takes time and nerve.  Throw in some grit, patience and a willingness to listen and we’ll get there in the end.

The assessment talksprovide me with a good opportunity to make a progress check of where we are up to in a World of life after levels.  We call our new system DAFITAL (Data And Feedback Informed Teaching And Learning); the talks will focus on the underlying thinking as well as the changes we’ve made.  Having spent over twelve months thinking about how we would assess in a post-levels World, nearly twelve months implementing we’re planning for a further twelve months implementing and then another year embedding.  This extended time period is needed for staff development and training, evaluating the impact of the new system, for better and worse, and developing a consistency and depth of approach.




3 thoughts on “Data for Learning: Nearer, Smaller, Variable and More Detailed

  1. For end of term assessments we have done a lot of work whole school on helping children how to learn. We are introducing PAW -preview assessment week where pupils will get opportunities to have brief look over exam papers in week prior to doing them during a 10minute registration period. The idea is the exam will hold no surprises and pupils will know exactly what to learn. If well prepared and still do badly teachers will see gaps etc and need to rethink teaching…Lots of opposition from staff. Would love to hear your thoughts? Do you see value in this?

    Posted by Claire Donnelly | October 14, 2018, 9:31 am
    • Hi Claire, apologies for the delay in responding. A couple of thoughts; the quality and demands of the assessment will be critical and its alignment with important domain knowledge as it directs pupils towards learning certain aspects of what they have been taught. Has this been made clear to staff and have they received any professional development/time to discuss as a department prior to the initiative being launched? Secondly, did the school design an evaluation process into the original programme design? If yes what did it suggest/show in terms of impact on pupils’ learning? If not you may need to think about how you can (if possible) retrospectively evaluate what you are doing. I think with important changes like this it’s always best to trial in one year group having thought through the implementation and evaluation process and then discuss the outcomes with staff. Hope this helps.

      Posted by LeadingLearner | October 16, 2018, 8:17 am

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