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AFL as an Afterthought = Extra Headaches

I recently observed a wonderful Geometry class at my school taught by Helen Price.  There were quite a few techniques/strategies she used - from good use of direct questioning to giving students control of their learning to creating a positive culture - that would be worth sharing with others.  However, what really stood out to me was how well she incorporated AFL into the fabric of her planning.  It worked well.  As I watched her class I was reminded of the fact that AFL can't be an afterthought - unless the teacher just likes to add to his or her headaches...

Over the years I have had the privilege of working with many educators across the country helping them incorporate Assessment FOR Learning principles into their classrooms.  It's not uncommon for teachers to agree in theory with the idea that assessments should be used for feedback to guide learning.  It's not uncommon for teachers to agree in theory with the idea that students should continue to retake, redo, and rework assessments until they learn the material.  It is also not uncommon, though, for teachers to have difficulty making this theory work in reality.  It would be nice if learning could be the constant and time the variable, but the real-life constraints of time make implementation difficult.

Turning a philosophy into a classroom reality is not the easiest of tasks for all people.  Many - if not most - of us are very comfortable with what we know.  We tend to not think about life in terms of applying philosophies.  Rather, we look at problems and then plug in the solutions we've used before or seen used before.  While this method has some benefits - it's efficient, it's comfortable, it works if it works - it doesn't lead to the type of professional growth that occurs from getting outside our comfort zones.  We get better at doing what we already do, but what if we could be even better?

It's important, when we recognize theories that should work, for us to keep experimenting until we figure out how to make the theoretical a reality.  Specifically with the philosophy of AFL, I have noticed that when teachers have trouble incorporating it into their classroom it's because they have simply added AFL on top of what they already do instead of weaving it into the fabric of their instruction.

A perfect example of this is with the practice of retakes and redos.  Let's say a teacher teaches a unit of content the same as he or she always does and wraps things up with a traditional unit test.  If the teacher realizes at this point that students have not mastered the content at a satisfactory level, the teacher might feel pressure to turn the unit test into a formative or AFL experience by allowing students to take a retest.  While this is not an inherently bad idea, it often presents some problems for the teacher.  

Time isn't the variable at this point in most of our school systems.  In fact, time is a very limited constant.  So to allow a redo or a retake means more time on a unit of study already completed.  It means repeating things that some in the class have already learned. There just doesn't seem to be time to add this on top of what is already being done.  When handled this way, AFL becomes an additional burden on a teacher.  This should never be the case.

If a coach's players don't run a play right in practice, the coach has the players do it again.  In fact, the coach builds time into the practice session to allow players to run plays again and again and again.  It's assumed that the players won't do things right the first time.  If the coach "taught" the play for the 95% of practice and then tried to run it during the last 5% of the time, the coach might not have time run it again if the players didn't get it right.  This would lead to frustration.  The coach might say something like, "I did the best job I could teaching the plays, but the players didn't pay attention.  I don't have time to have them run the play again.  I need to move on to the next play."

This would be terrible coaching, and, quite frankly, when it occurs in the classroom it's terrible teaching.  Just as a coach builds in time for running plays over and over, a teacher must build in time to assess over and over.  

Back to Mrs. Price's Geometry class: I enjoyed watching Helen Price weave redos/retakes into the fabric of her class in a way that led to student engagement and student ownership of learning.  When I came into her class that day, the students were determining - based on feedback they had received from her - whether or not they were ready for a retake.  Those who felt they were - I love, by the way, how ownership of the learning process was given to the students - moved into another room with an instructional assistant to retake their quiz.  Those who weren't - a little less than half the class - stayed with Mrs. Price for an engaging and interactive review session.  The students who stayed behind had stayed for a purpose and this showed as they worked.  They were focused on what they knew they needed to know better to be ready to take the quiz again.

There are many things I could point out about Mrs. Price's lesson that day.  She incorporated technology well.  She did an excellent job pulling in all students.  She provided feedback that allowed students to make decisions.  She allowed students to learn by teaching each other under her guidance.  But what I was most excited about was seeing an example of how weaving AFL into the instructional plan from the beginning allows what could have been a headache in another classroom to be instead a great opportunity for moving down the path to mastery.

Don't try to add AFL to what you already do.  Instead, redesign and re-plan your practice sessions (lesson plans) so they incorporate redos and retakes of assessments from the very beginning.  

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