Thumbs up thumbs down

Assessment for Learning – Don’t let the tools become the focus!

by FGTO on January 9, 2012

Many years ago, I was leading an ICT teacher-training session on PowerPoint. One group of teachers had decided that they wanted to make an animated map for use in geography. They wanted arrows and labels to appear at the click of the mouse.

They had scanned the map they wanted, but it had labels which they didn’t want.
They were struggling to remove them and had imported the scanned image into Paint, were (unsuccessfully) trying to erase said labels, in order to then save it and put it into PowerPoint.
They were becoming exasperated and couldn’t understand how using ICT in this context was helpful.
I agreed that indeed, it wasn’t, and suggested that they could photocopy the map, remove the labels using liquid paper, then scan it for the PowerPoint.
Their response was…..but we thought we had to use technology?

They had fallen foul of the trap of technology – it must be used because it’s better.
Well, no, not always, and it’s often better used in tandem with good old-fashioned methods.

The same can be said for the mass of tools and strategies available for Assessment for Learning.

Good teachers carried out good Assessment for Learning way before electronic voting systems, mini whiteboards, lollypop sticks, and thumbs up, down and behind your ears were ever thought of (I’m sure Dylan Wiliam would agree).
However, these tools and strategies, and many more like them, offer the teacher more ways of assessing elements of learning.

However, what seems to be happening in some schools is that the focus on whether teachers are putting in their planning which tools they will be using every ten minutes during the lesson (not an exaggeration – one teacher told me that this was what senior management were asking for!), and how many times they use e.g. Kagan strategies (or thumbs or mini whiteboards or traffic light cards or lolly sticks) during a lesson observation, is obliterating why they’re used in the first place.

These tools enable learners to give indications as to whether they think they understand, and they give learners opportunities to articulate their thinking, but the tools in themselves don’t tell the teacher everything.

If the teacher doesn’t probe further or doesn’t listen carefully enough, then all the strategies in the world won’t help learning.
This is a point clearly identified in the new (2012) Ofsted evaluation schedule.
Teachers regularly listen astutely to, carefully observe and skilfully question groups of pupils and individuals during lessons in order to re-shape tasks and explanations to improve learning.”)

It’s a bit like the warnings and indicators on your car dashboard.
Just because there’s no warning light, it doesn’t mean it’s all OK, and warning lights might tell you something’s wrong, but not necessarily what or why. More investigation is needed.
Checking the oil doesn’t tell you why it’s disappearing…only that it is.
Thumbs up only tells you that they think they get it (or don’t)….not that they do (or don’t).

Like trying to guess what’s in your Christmas parcel, the whole focus of AfL is “shaking the box” to see what’s inside, using your senses:

  • Listening;
  • Watching;
  • Sensing emotion;
  • Doing or saying something and observing the reaction;
  • Asking learners to do something and observing what they do;
  • Asking good questions and really listening to the answers;
  • Letting the learners answer your questions and not putting words into their mouths.
    (I once witnessed a little boy trying to answer his teacher’s question about the pattern he had discovered in a row of numbers. He started to explain his observation, which was complicated, but seemed to work as a pattern. Instead of asking further questions to explore his thinking, the teacher said “Good, so you’ve noticed that the numbers go up in twos.”
    The look of confusion on the child’s face was forever memorable.
    Actually, he hadn’t noticed that at all.
    He was left thinking that he had just “got it wrong”.)

Be aware of getting so tied up in the tools and strategies for AfL that you forget why they’re being used.

Ask yourself….what will that AfL technique tell me about their understanding?

What will I do as a result?


Just think – if at your next staff meeting the Headteacher asked for thumbs up/down to indicate your understanding and confidence with AfL.

What would that tell them?


Please add a comment to share your thoughts on AfL.




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