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AFL: As Basic As Taking Off Your Coat

Instructional practices based on the philosophy of Assessment FOR Learning (AFL) just make sense.  End of story.  To not practice AFL is to ignore how people learn.  There really isn't room for debate as to whether or not one should practice AFL.  Such a debate would be more appropriately titled "Should Teachers Care About Whether Or Not Students Learn: Yes or No."

I was reminded recently of AFL's centrality to learning when I met with Erik Largen for his summative evaluation.  Erik is a special education teacher at Salem High School, and It is my privilege to see him work with his students on a daily basis.  Erik teaches in our school's multiple handicapped classroom, and his students are amazing!  (I will admit my personal bias - they are my favorite group of students in the school.)

Many of Mr Largen's students have great cognitive and physical needs.  Mr. Largen cares about them as though they were his own children.  He believes they can learn, and he believes he can make a difference in their lives.  Therefore, just like all great teachers do, Erik works tirelessly to enable them to learn, grow, and make progress.  

In our summative conference the other day, Erik showed me many examples of tools - all based in AFL philosophy - he uses in his classroom.  These tools were what reminded me of an important truth: AFL isn't just one way to teach; AFL is teaching.  Before we go any further, take a look at the following tool Mr. Largen uses.  It's a task analysis form to help a student learn take off his coat:

Mr. Largen has a student who needs to learn how to independently take off his winter coat and properly hang it up on a hook.  If Mr Largen just tells him to do this or even shows him how to do it, the student will not be able to learn the task.  Therefore, Erik has to break down the task into standards.  

I bet most of us have never thought about the 14 different sub-standards required to master before one can independently take off and hang up a coat.  That's what the teacher is there for, though.  It is the teacher who is the content specialist and who knows each component that must be taught if students are to reach mastery.  This is true for learning to use an Algebraic formula, to lay a bead in Welding, or to write a paper in English class every bit as much as it is true when learning to take off a coat.  

After identifying the standards that must be mastered, Mr. Largen assesses his student on those standards.  This allows him to know where he must focus his instruction.  Without first assessing his student, how does he know what to teach?  For example, this student can already independently walk to the hook, therefore, that standard requires little focus.  However, this student cannot undo the zipper without a teacher's hands guiding his.  The elements of undoing the zipper will require a lot of focus.  

Why did Mr. Largen assess this student?  To gather the feedback he needs to help the student learn.  That's AFL.

After teaching and practicing the skills, Mr. Largen reassesses the same standards.  This allows Mr. Largen to document progress, to give the student feedback and praise where appropriate, and to know how to continue to plan instruction.  The purpose of the assessment is once again to help learning.  Based on the feedback from the assessment, Mr. Largen will know exactly what additional instruction and practice is necessary.  Because the assessment is standards-based, he will know which specific standards still require the most focus.

This process of assessing based on standards, reteaching as needed, and then reassessing seems quite basic and obvious in this situation.  But it's no different than any other situation.  While a task analysis sheet may or may not have been involved, this is how you learned to ride a bike, drive a car, throw a ball, play a video game, or play an instrument.  

AFL makes sense.  To expect someone to learn any other way - unless we believe students should learn on their own - really does not make sense.  Unfortunately, when seen through the lens of AFL, many traditional educational practices no longer make sense:

  • Would it make sense for Mr. Largen to show this student how to take off his coat, assess how well he did it, give him a grade, and move on?  Of course not, at least not if Mr. Largen cared more about learning than grading.  
  • Would it make sense for Mr. Largen to grade each assessment of progress and then average them together?  Of course not - again, not if Mr. Largen cared more about learning than grading.  
  • Would it make sense for Mr. Largen to focus on each standard the same amount regardless of what the student could already do?  Of course not.  
  • Would it make sense for Mr. Largen to just teach the subject without figuring how what his student knew?  Would it make sense to wait until the "end of the unit" before finding out how well the student learned?  Would it make sense to say "It's my job to teach it, but it's your job to learn it?"  Of course not.  Of course not.  Of course not.

I met a teacher once who told me that she thought AFL sounded good philosophically but that it didn't work practically.  Really?  Which part is impractical?  

  • Is assessing students to find out what they know impractical?  
  • Is it impractical to assess students based on standards so you'll know specifically where they need to grow?
  • Is it impractical to reassess throughout the learning process to see how students are progressing?
  • Does giving meaningful and useful feedback to students not sound practical?
  • Does using feedback to guide instruction not apply to certain subjects?
  • Is it ever more important to focus on coming up with numbers to average together than it is to guide learning?

Because I firmly believe that teachers want students to learn, the best I can figure is this: If someone disagrees with the use of AFL-based strategies they must not understand what AFL is.  

We all learn from feedback, and that feedback needs to be based on assessments that measure the standards required for mastery.  Thanks, Erik, for the great reminder of how central the philosophy of AFL is to the learning process. 

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