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Assessment FOR Learning - Philosophy v. Procedures

I was in a workshop today with members of our Central Office and teachers and administrators from each school in our school system. The purpose of the workshop was to apply AFL to our division's AFL endeavors. Today we assessed each school's progress with AFL and our division's progress as a whole. We had discussions and made plans for how we need to move forward based on how things have or haven't been going so far. So we assessed our progress and will use the results of the assessment to guide our learning.

When the four individuals from our school met together, Becky George, one of our English teachers, made a point that really resonated with me. Becky stated that for teachers to really understand how to apply AFL principles in their classrooms, they must first understand that AFL is a philosophy not a procedure. Let's consider that.

Asking teachers to incorporate a specific procedure into their classroom practices would (for good reason) be an annoyance to many teachers. Some teachers would assume that the procedure was not necessary for them to do well. After all, there are many procedures from which to choose. Who's to say that this new procedure is the best one? Procedures come and go. They will view the procedure as yet another educational fad that will go away as soon as the next one comes along. These teachesr would rebel against the procedure and would refuse to embrace it. Other teachers might really like the procedure because it works well with their content. They would embrace it willingly. Others would do what they are asked to do, but would not really see the procedure as all that valuable.

A philosophy is different, though, from a procedure. Where a procedure intrudes, a philosophy guides. Where a procedure looks a certain and specific way, a philosophy shapes how all things look. While a class or teacher must adapt to a procedure, a philosophy can be adapted to a class or teacher. One can argue that one specific procedure is better than another one depending on the situation. A philosophy is bigger than the situation and can take the form of many procedures as needed.

So let's look at a specific example. A school system could decide that the best way to grade students is to count Homework as 10% of the grade, Quizzes as 40% of the grade, and Tests as 50%. This is a very specific procedure. Some teachers might love it. Others (myself included) might think it was a terrible way to grade for mastery. To apply that procedure to all classrooms in a school would be rather intrusive and micromanaging. (This, or something like it, has been implemented in many school systems, by the way.) The bottom line would be that all teachers would have to become very similar and there would be very little room for deviation or autonomy in order to implement this procedure. If a teacher was annoyed by this, I would understand. Even if the procedure was one I liked - such as having a daily quiz - I would understand if many teachers did not like being forced to do something so specific.

Now let's consider AFL. AFL is a philosophy. What does AFL look like? Well that depends on the teacher, the classroom, the grade level, the unit, the content, the day. AFL doesn't look a specific way because it's bigger than any specific way of doing things. Instead, it is a governing philosophy that shapes the procedures in the classroom. Since it can fit into any situation it's a little harder to understand why one would be bothered by it.

So is AFL just an amorphous catch-all phrase? Is everything AFL? No, not all. AFL is a distinct and clear philosophy. Here's what it is:

Teachers regularly assess students and then use the feedback from the assessments to guide their instructional decisions. Teachers make sure that students receive assessment results and then equip those students to use the data to guide their learning practices. Students are encouraged and trained to take ownership of their learning, to view assessment feedback as their own personal road map to learning.

Often teachers hear specific examples of AFL - specific procedures - and confuse them for the philosophy as a whole. That's a mistake, but an easy one to make. When a teacher in a school shares a good AFL strategy, it's good to share that strategy with the rest of the faculty. Touting that strategy can easily be confused with defining AFL as that strategy. But AFL is bigger than a strategy.

Are you concerned at all that your school or system is trying to force you to adopt a specific procedure? If they are trying to do that, then they aren't really encouraging true AFL. In our system we are encouraging teachers to instead adopt a philosophy that will guide all their procedures, that will enhance their assessment practices, that will lead to students taking ownership of their learning, and that result in higher achievement - and that will manifest itself differently in different situations.

Thanks, Becky, for a good phrase to describe that - AFL is a Philosophy not a procedure.

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Comment by Beth Swain on December 10, 2009 at 9:09am
nicely said - glad you had the time ! :)
Comment by Donald Barbour on December 10, 2009 at 9:06am

Well done. That's the best way to explain how AFL should be presented to the teachers to become more accepting of this philosophy. I do think that there are many school divisions that say, "Hey, this is what we're doing now, and that's the way it's going to be." This sort of approach never goes over well with teachers. Thanks for sharing that, and thanks to Becky George for her statement.

Donald Barbour

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