Over the past several years, I have had the opportunity to talk with educators from schools across the country about the philosophy of AFL. In doing so I have noticed several common reactions from educators to the idea of incorporating AFL-based strategies into their classrooms. One of those common reactions is the one that SOME (not all) teachers of higher-level students and more rigorous courses OFTEN (not always) have. That reaction goes something like this:
I see how AFL could work and don't necessarily disagree with it as a philosophy; however, I don't think it really applies to me or my classroom since I am teaching the most advanced students in college-level courses. AFL strategies might make earning high grades in my classes too easy. In a class like mine I need to make sure that a lot is required of my students, and I'm afraid that AFL will take too much responsibility away from them. I'm teaching the way college professors teach, which is something these students need to experience prior to college. Besides, the methods I use worked for me when I was a student, and most of my students get pretty good grades in my class - so why make changes.
If you are a teacher of higher-level courses and advanced students whose view toward AFL is at least somewhat consistent to the one I describe above, I would invite you to take another look at AFL and to reconsider your reasons for not adopting more AFL-based strategies in your classroom. (That is, IF you are someone who has been reluctant to adopt AFL-based strategies) In the following paragraphs I will examine each of the points of view described above and attempt to show why AFL does apply to higher-level courses.
1. I see how AFL could work and don't necessarily disagree with it as a philosophy; however, I don't think it really applies to me or my classroom since I am teaching the most advanced students in college-level courses.
AFL is definitely a philosophy as opposed to a specific set of practices. It is a teaching philosophy based on the reality of how people learn. People need feedback and opportunities to learn from mistakes. This applies to all students - from our weakest and most unmotivated to our strongest and most talented. Applying an AFL philosophy to a classroom simply means assessing more frequently (not necessarily testing), providing regular feedback,and grading in a manner that allows students to learn from mistakes and, therefore, master content better. (see The Heart of AFL) With that being the case, how would AFL's usefulness change based on the level of rigor associated with the course? Do smarter kids not need feedback? Do highly motivated students not learn better when they receive regular feedback? Do college-bound students not need opportunities to learn from mistakes? Of course not. AFL-based strategies will help ALL students learn and should, therefore, be used in classrooms of ALL levels.
2. AFL strategies might make earning high grades in my classes too easy.
I have actually heard this exact statement made, and honestly, it baffles me. While I believe it to be imperative that teachers require students to work hard, I also believe that our primary job is to make difficult content relatively easy to learn. Both situations can coexist - hard work and content made easy to understand. That's our purpose - to take content and skills that students cannot learn on their own and make them learn-able. We are called to communicate in a manner that enables young people to do more than they ever thought possible and more than they could ever do on their own. We make the hard, easy. Along the way, students will be asked to work very hard, but our goal is to not make the content hard to learn - it's already hard to learn. Our goal is to make it easy to understand.
The rigor of a course should come from the inherent rigor of the content and NOT from the way we teach the course. I repeat, the rigor of a course should come from the inherent rigor of the content and NOT from the way we teach the course.
Therefore, if the grade we assign a student TRULY reflects learning and mastery, then making a good grade really shouldn't be all that difficult. Some students may CHOOSE to not earn a good grade, but that should be their choice not a result of our teaching. And while some students may occasionally be in a class that's over their head, that is the exception not the rule. Therefore, if applying AFL strategies to a classroom leads to a increase in learning which in turn leads to an increase in the level of grades earned, why is that a problem? (For more, see an earlier post entitled Does AFL lead to grade inflation?)
3. In a class like mine I need to make sure that a lot is required of my students, and I'm afraid that AFL will take too much responsibility away from them.
Thinking along these lines represents a fundamental misunderstanding of AFL. In discussions related to AFL it is common to talk about how AFL-based strategies will result in students learning more. To me, this should excite teachers since our job is to find strategies to help students learn. However, for some educators, this idea gets turned into, "Since students are not doing what it takes to learn, I now need to do these new and additional things for them." There is a fundamental flaw with thinking that way: It presumes that the way you have been teaching is perfect, and that any problems that exist are student-centered.
There is no doubt whatsoever that students and their choices play a huge role - perhaps the major role - in student learning. Absolutely no doubt at all. However, there is also no doubt whatsoever that teacher choices play a huge role - perhaps the major role - in student learning, as well. (I realize there cannot be 2 majority roles, thus the word "perhaps".) Just as doctors must continually hone their skills and gain new ones to meet the medical needs of their patients, teachers should seek continuous improvement to meet their students' needs. So if your students aren't doing all that they should, but you could change something that you're doing that would result in increased learning, why would you not do so? Why would a teacher stubbornly cling to, "I'm not going to do that, because students aren't doing their part"? Our goal is to get all students to learn, not just the ones who do all that they should.
The other fundamental flaw with that line of thinking is that is presumes incorrectly that somehow AFL-based strategies require less of students. I think what happens is that some people confuse talk of wanting to help students do better with making school too easy or not rigorous enough. When it comes to AFL, that is an erroneous conclusion. In fact, the exact opposite is true. In a classroom where the teacher is using sound AFL-based strategies, the students are being trained to take ownership of and responsibility for their own progress. By its very nature, AFL should place more responsibility on students. (For more on that topic, read It's About Students Taking Ownership of Learning and/or Which Parent Do You Most Want to Please?)
4. I'm teaching the way college professors teach, which is something these students need to experience prior to college.
I'm going to be brutally honest here even though it might offend some of the college professors who read this blog. While college professors are true experts in their field, and while many of them are skilled lecturers, and while I"m sure most are passionate about educating, my opinion is that the worst TEACHING in all of the educational world occurs in college classrooms. The typical college classroom - as I have experienced it now at 3 universities - consists of the professor lecturing and the students taking notes. Then, 2 or 3 times per semester, a test/exam is given on the notes. While many of us have learned a lot content in this format, I would contend that our level of learning is not a result of how well we have been taught as much as a result of how much we have chosen to learn on our own.
Think about it for a moment. If a teacher provides students with notes on a topic, has them read about it in a book, DOESN'T give them opportunities to practice the content and learn from their mistakes, and then tests them, what is that teacher actually assessing? I believe that the teacher is assessing how well students can learn on their own from the content provided them. If a student gets an A in that class is it a result of wonderful teaching? No - it's a result of the student's wonderful studying. This must be true because this sort of teacher strongly defends the opposite situation - when a student fails such a class few teachers would say that it was a result of terrible teaching but rather terrible study habits. You can't have one without the other.
So here's where that leads us: College-style teaching is not - in general - the best teaching. To teach in that style - even remotely like that style - is to adopt poor teaching strategies. We should find it ludicrous to even consider doing anything less than the best job possible for our students. Why would we let bad teaching at the next level cause us to be less than stellar at our current level? HOWEVER, AFL STRATEGIES COULD PREPARE STUDENTS FOR DEALING WITH POOR TEACHING. If we train our students to seek and use feedback to guide their own learning - in other words, to take control of their education - then they will be more likely to succeed in any type of future classroom situation. AFL-based strategies are the very skills that our college-bound students need us to teach them.
5. Besides, the methods I use worked for me when I was a student, and most of my students get pretty good grades in my class - so why make changes.
The fact that the way you teach is the way you liked being taught is in no way an indication that the way you are teaching is the best way to teach - unless, of course, everyone is just like you! This would be a terrible reason to not try AFL-based strategies. So would the fact that most of your students are finding success. In every high school there are some students who are easier to teach than others. They are the students who behave, have good attitudes, do what is asked of them, and want to be successful. Let's face it, those students tend to be found in our higher-level more rigorous classes. Please do not hear me wrong - I fully understand that teaching these students - any students - is not without its challenges, but the truth of the matter is that strong students can really make a teacher look good. In my lifetime I have run into teachers whose teaching strategies work in their classrooms more because of WHO they are teaching than because of HOW they are teaching. Bottom line, we must never allow ourselves to grow complacent with our professional growth. So having success teaching strong students should never be a reason to not explore new ideas and strategies.
My main point is this: AFL is a philosophy that, when used properly, improves learning. Since ALL teachers of ALL students should want to improve learning, there really is NO teacher who could not benefit from adding a little AFL to the classroom.