Improving our use of assessment often means deepening our understanding of the curriculum.
If you teach, you assess; assessment is part of teaching. But what do you assess? And how? And when?
The four steps below will help you align your curriculum, your teaching and the assessment processes you use. And that begins with understanding your curriculum.
Step 1: Understand your curriculum intimately
As a teacher, you can improve your teaching by improving your assessment practice, not (as Dylan Wiliam has so concisely put it) because you’re not good enough, but because you – like any teacher – can always be better.
What is a curriculum?
Christine Counsell – one of the foremost thinkers in the UK on matters of curriculum – wrote on her blog about the curriculum as “content structured as narrative over time”. This wonderfully captivating idea has held my interest ever since I read it, and any reader or film fan will understand what she means: the content matters, but so does the order in which it is encountered. The endings of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad make very little sense to anyone who hasn’t read or watched what comes before! Similarly, some of Wordsworth’s poetry makes little sense if you don’t know the context of social reform at the time, and the growing calls for rights to individual freedoms of thought and expression. Content – structured as narrative over time – is a helpful way of thinking about the concept of curriculum.
Who’s in charge: the curriculum or the test?
One common factor in teaching and assessment decisions has, for a long time, been the high-stakes end-of-course exam. It’s hard not to be drawn to ‘teaching to the test’, because the outcomes of those tests matter to our students and to our schools. But one of the consequences of this can be a narrowing of the curriculum; those high-stakes tests can only ever sample and assess small areas from the whole curriculum, because that’s what they’re designed to do.
Narrowing of the curriculum reduces the equity of education offered in our classrooms; our students have a restricted educational experience. One way of combatting this is to have – and for teachers to understand intimately – a detailed and robust curriculum. Replacing vague descriptions of the content our students should learn with a clear and concise narrative is at the heart of a move away from the high-stakes test as the ultimate arbiter of what and when we teach, something that both Cambridge Assessment’s Tim Oates and No More Marking’s Daisy Christodoulou have asserted.
Step 2: Turn abstract curriculum concepts into the concrete learning constructs
Many curriculum documents contain statements written as abstractions. ‘Develop algebraic fluency’ is one such abstraction which is really hard to define unless you truly understand this aspect of mathematics; ‘Select vocabulary judiciously’ is another which gets language teachers the world over arguing. Here are some examples of other curriculum constructs:
- Multiply two-digit numbers together
- Understands hyperbole and uses it to create effect in original writing
- Apply the concept of equality to evaluate two democratic systems of government
So that our students can access, develop and master the content in their curriculum, we need both a more detailed and concrete understanding of the narrative of curriculum content, and of what students would know, understand and be able to do along the learning journey, and upon reaching their destination.
We need to ‘operationalise’ curriculum statements – to make them meaningful and comprehensible by placing them in their domain-specific structure and setting out a clear narrative. When we do this, we create what are known in the language of assessment as constructs – the clearly-defined and understood targets of our assessment practices, the jigsaw pieces of our curriculum selected for assessment.
And that structure should be based on the domain-specific learning progressions, or the ‘content as narrative over time’ as Christine Counsell might consider it (for example, ‘fluency in mental arithmetic’ is a construct which requires addition and subtraction as a foundation, and progresses to the more complex skills of multiplication and division long before content associated directly with algebra is introduced).
Curriculum constructs are not isolated units of knowledge, understanding or skill. As we learn, we integrate new information with our prior knowledge, reshaping our long-term memories; in doing so, we have to recognise that curriculum constructs are steps along a much longer learning progression. When we assess, we try to estimate where on that continuum our students currently are, and where they should move to next.
Step 3: select assessment questions and tasks which target the constructs you have identified
The only way to know which jigsaw pieces students have when they come to your classroom is to assess them in some way.
The only way to know if students have put more pieces into the puzzle after you’ve taught them is to assess them.
But each time you assess, you’re only able to take one quick glance at that bigger puzzle your students are assembling, so it’s worth remembering that taking “multiple inadequate glances” (in the words of Prof Rob Coe) will help you make that picture more visible.
Step 4: treat assessment as a process of teaching, not an isolated event
Keep revisiting, keep asking questions and setting tasks designed both to help students retrieve information and to provide you with the information needed to make your next steps decisions. Avoid seeing assessment as the thing that you do at the end of a teaching sequence, viewing it instead as an ongoing process to support teaching and learning.
Understanding how a curriculum is built of its component parts, and how to assess your students’ mastery of them are key features of our Assessment Lead Programme. Try a free sample of the Programme here!