We do it all the time. As teachers, we make split-second judgements in every lesson… about our pitch, our pace, the level of engagement and, most crucially, whether or not our pupils are ‘getting’ it! We know how to read a room: when to increase challenge, change tack, ditch resources or shout “Stations!” - the cue, in my class, for a lightning game that is best described as a live-action hybrid of ‘Battleship’ and ‘Granny’s Footsteps’.
We have learnt how to be accurate, instinctive assessors - it is one of our many skills - so why does the mere mention of the word ‘assessment’ fill us with about as much enthusiasm as taking the bins out… or unclogging a drain?
I asked my friend, a fellow teacher, to describe how she might feel on scanning over a staff meeting agenda and seeing ‘assessment’ amid the bullet points. “Well, that will need plenty of imagination,” she answers sarcastically. “It’s a regular occurrence and one that fills me with an instant sense of overwhelm… Yet more unnecessary form-filling, on top of everything else!” I wasn’t surprised by her sentiment, rather her strength of feeling.
Most teachers know what it is to be overloaded - burdened with so many tasks that there is barely time to finish them, let alone question their purpose - but this was an uncommon reaction from someone I had often, affectionately, described as a goodie-two-shoes. You know the type: trip forms completed on time, no mistakes in the dinner register, multiple after-school clubs, paperwork always up-to-date…
It struck me that her response seemed to sum up the disillusionment that has silently and virulently radiated through our industry in recent years. Her expression, “unnecessary form-filling” captures the helplessness so many educators experience as they try, simultaneously, to summon the energy to inspire the young minds entrusted to their care, while ignoring the gradual decline of respect for the profession they once aspired to join.
No aspect of this vocation better highlights the disconnect between where teachers would wish to be focussing energy and where they are required to expend it than assessment. As soon as tracking information is requested in a written form - however frequent or formative - it morphs from the multi-dimensional, fluid rubric of knowledge about every pupil’s learning style, aptitude, preferences, prior knowledge, resilience and creativity into its plain, dry summative interpretation: class lists with outcomes listed alongside, comparative data, collated evidence, and so on.
Nobody would dispute that sharing pupil attainment data is essential to running a successful school - we need to know the gaps, spot the trends, deploy support staff and plan effective interventions. But perhaps there is a way to do this that addresses the imbalance of disproportionate admin for teachers in order to generate “a single snapshot, only relevant for a day or two,” as my friend describes it.
Here, I’d like to take a moment to eulogise about my own lost hours, sacrificed needlessly in the line of duty… some falling valiantly at the photocopier, as I collated multiple examples of ‘independent’ work; some succumbing to boredom while wading through the fog of user guides for various online quizzes / test papers / reading schemes, trying to decipher what the scores meant, before transposing them into levels. Those hours deserved better; they deserved dinners out and fine wine, not stale staff-room biscuits and toner cartridges.
In the last couple of years, I have been privileged to work in a new capacity, supporting schools of all shapes and sizes to overcome the challenges they face around assessment, as well as championing the need for teachers to reclaim trust in their own skills and knowledge. This role enables me to engage with teachers that have lost plenty of their own hours to futile form-filling.
On each initial visit - usually during a staff meeting - I am a stranger. I don’t know the individuals in the room yet, but I know that they probably share characteristics synonymous with wonderful teachers: hard working, creative, adaptive, inspiring, vivacious, meticulous. Sadly, we can probably add to that list: over-stretched, under-funded, selfless, compromising, stressed, overwhelmed and perhaps disillusioned. At this point, I might test the water, casually dropping the ‘A-bomb'. All too often the palpable anxiety in the room increases, as if I’ve announced a spot test.
Thankfully, it doesn’t take long to redress the tension. Within minutes of demonstrating how truly formative assessments made little-and-often can be observed, recorded and shared live, a cloud is lifted. Stripping back the size of the task for the teaching staff, also strips away the fear. In one session, I recall that the puzzled silence was finally broken by an astounded teacher asking, “That’s it? That’s all we have to do?” Well, yes!
The hang over of years of producing onerous mid-term data drops will linger on; for some schools, it is still a reality. But there is an alternative: adopting a truly formative approach that values teachers’ judgements as much as their time.
Digital technology, shaped by a clear understanding of the needs of teachers, already exists, and is the first step beyond all that unnecessary form-filling. Now that we can click, tap and upload as quickly as we might mark a book and, at the touch of a button, interrogate this information to generate predictions, visuals and whole-school insights, the need for the paper-chase has become obsolete. Perhaps we’re on the cusp of correcting the work-life balance? Perhaps, finally, the experience of recording judgements will be as easy as those we make in our heads: instant, secure and relevant.
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