RE Assessment simplified (at last!)

For a good many years, assessment in RE has been against a series of ‘I Can’ Statements, linked to notional levels, similar to those in the pre-2014 National Curriculum. Now, as a National Society (Church of England) school inspector, and assessor for the RE Quality Mark, I encounter school after school that is struggling to make sense of assessment in RE. This is often because they are confused about the use of the I Can statements and don’t understand how the ‘levels’ in RE can stand up in a world where NC levels have gone.

My colleague, Emily Norman, and I have now created a simple change to the existing system, which merely simplifies what we already have – it keeps the familiar but makes it manageable. The materials for this, including assessment Excel sheets for Years R to 9, have been placed online and are freely downloadable from:

This simple view is based on the following key principles: –

1. It is important to acknowledge that Attainment Target 1 (learning about religion) and Attainment Target 2 (learning from religion) are essential components to RE planning but they are part of a child’s overall development in the skills and understanding of RE. Therefore, they should be a part of any assessment system but not necessarily separated. The separation is a function of planning and formative feedback rather than summative assessment.

2. The way that the I can statements are laid out is against the RE Council’s Six Areas of Enquiry. This makes every sense because it aligns the development of skills in RE with the content. Our table, therefore, includes the REC’s key question which underpin each area. This makes it easier for teachers to see how pupils demonstrate their understanding. It also blends the current thinking about the content domain and the cognitive domain and so aligns with NC approaches.

3. It is no longer appropriate to think about Levels in RE or in any other subject. Therefore, our table is laid out in age-appropriate expectations, with an additional line for Year R, and an indication of when pupils are working towards (WT) or working at greater depth (GD).

4. To depersonalise assessment, since it is the teacher who is making the judgement, the first person references in the old I Can Statements have been re-written in the third person.

It is a key principle of assessment that pupils do not progress linearly and there was tendency to use the I Can statements as a ‘best fit’ system which expected linear progression. Therefore the most sensible approach here is to acknowledge that pupils progress at differential rates and reflect this in whatever assessment recording system we use. Then it would be simple for teachers to highlight the relevant statements. Where this is used robustly, of course, they would be able to identify evidence that the statement applies. Thus assessment can be much more forensic than the rather hit-and-miss system that sometimes characterises a school’s approach.

Ours is not a revolution, more a sensible revision, but we hope that it will help schools to bring the RE assessment into line with other subjects, rather than still expecting some kind of artificial levels. Also, we see AT1 and AT2 as planning tools, their impact on pupils’ thinking is reflected in the statements.

The knowledge question

The recent post by teachingbattleground, centred on the arguments around a knowledge-based curriculum reminded me that, while nobody – surely – is arguing that we should not teach children knowledge, it might be timely to explore what we mean by teacher knowledge.

There has always been a narrative around the skills (knowledge? art? craft?) of teaching and, since I frequently get invited to provide CPD in this sphere, I find it helpful to link thinking to the Teachers’ Standards. As a teacher trainer, I often refer trainees to the old QCDA fourfold explanation of teacher knowledge because it sits quite well with aspects of the 2012 standards.

Teachers’ Standard 3 has three key elements: secure subject knowledge, critical understanding of developments in the subject and the personally correct use of English. The two other aspects relate to knowledge of phonics and early maths teaching. Add to this the expectation, in Standard 2, that teachers should know how children learn and we can now see that the QCDA fourfold explanation is a helpful model. This states explains teacher knowledge as:

  • Subject knowledge per se;
  • Pedagogical theory and practice;
  • Understanding how children learn; and
  • The teacher’s own attitudes to learning.

So, this means that teachers and trainee teachers, must pay particular attention to:

  • Their own subject knowledge and its application so that they teach accurately and in sufficient depth.
  • The way that children learn in order to present material that can be quickly assimilated.
  • The effectiveness of the pedagogies they employ so that material can be effectively deconstructed and presented conceptually.
  • Their own openness to key ideas about teaching and learning so that they do not limit their teaching by what is familiar to them.

If the re-think of the national curriculum and its assessment did anything, it moved the focus away from what the outgoing HMCI once called, ‘a stultifying methodology’ towards a more simple view of ‘what works’ and, as Sir Michael pointed out, ‘what’s good is what works’.  We are still waiting for many headteachers to catch up with this and move away from the straitjacket of WALT, WILF, or whatever set methodology they expect. Improve teachers’ fourfold subject knowledge and we should not need the straitjacket.






The Big Five Revisited

Many years ago, I introduced the concept of ‘The Loop’ to help teachers to think about lesson planning (you can find it in earlier blog posts). At that time I was turning round a school in special measures and we needed these kinds of tools to simplify thinking. Another tool was ‘The Big Five’ guide to lesson planning, also reported in an earlier blog post.  Over the years, the Big Five grew to six and then seven but then I began to think it looked a bit outdated.

However, I recently met a headteacher who made me wonder if there was mileage in revisiting the Big Five in the light of current thinking. So, Louise, this is for you:-

The Big Five (v2.0)

   1.    A clear and specific focus on the learning

If you focus on the doing all you can check is that the work has been done. If you are unsure of the precise learning points then you won’t know the precise teaching points – and you won’t be able to assess the learning.

  1. Key vocabulary: identify it, teach it, display it

Every lesson has its key vocabulary; words and terms that support the learning. Identify the most significant – three to five words, no more – pre-teach them and keep them on display. The most powerful KV is that which is conceptual.

  1. Plan the learning journey

What do you expect the least confident child to walk away knowing or being able to do? What do you expect the most confident child to walk away with? How can you support their learning? Will you use success criteria? If so, then use the ‘remember to..’ approach so that it provides a pathway.  Will you provide opportunities for pupils to work together; collaborative working powerfully supports learning.

  1. Identify key assessment points

What are the key moments for assessment in the lesson? Check pupils’ starting points at the outset. Teach the concepts and plan your questions to check learning. What questions will you ask the most confident children?

  1. Make the plenary count

The plenary has four key functions:

  • It engages pupils with what they have learnt. So, if you were clear about the learning, you can show pupils their improved knowledge or skills. They need to appreciate what they are walking away with. Use the learning focus and the KV to populate the plenary.
  • It is a key assessment point. Don’t trust pupils’ self-reporting (Doug Lemov); ask deep questions to check if they really get it. Use something like exit cards so that pupils can identify their own gaps.
  • It’s the only chance you get to secure the key teaching points. Make them clearly to help pupils later recall skills.
  • It opens the door to the next lesson. ‘Now you know this (or can do this) in the next lesson you’re going to have a go at this. Then, when you arrive in the next lesson, you can look back through the open door and ask, ‘what were we learning last time? What were those words we learnt and what did they mean? You can watch the pupils re-engage. Then you can close the door and move on.


Some more thoughts about pedagogy

It was way back in 2012 when the Chief Inspector, speaking at the RSA, referred to the ‘stultifying’ effect of formulaic lesson planning. I agreed then and I agree now. And we’ve moved on a bit from 2012; since then we’ve had the Mike Cladingbowl missive on why Ofsted will no longer be grading teachers or lessons, we had the Ofsted  document about what they don’t expect schools to do and we’ve had it all bolted together in the Common Inspection Framework giving a clear lead to inspectors NOT to expect any particular pedagogy or assessment system, or frequency of lesson observations.

This is very reassuring, so why is it the schools and school leaders still get nervous about requiring a particular approach?  I don’t want to get political here – that’s the OTHER Education Monkey on blogger – so, having spent much time in advising teachers on how to plan lessons, I thought it worth a few minutes on questioning the whole thing.  In the first instance I’ll stick to the learning objective.  This is nothing new, I’ve said all this before, but I’m repeating it because if continues to be a source of stress to teachers and leaders.

Let’s not get hung up on what it’s called; lesson objective, learning objective, learning outcome… who really cares?  And if you think the kids do, then you’re wrong.  Sure, kids like to know what the lesson is about and teachers MUST understand the specifics of what they expect pupils to learn but, you know, these two things do no necessarily join up!  This is heresy to some school leaders, so I’ll whisper it – you really don’t have to display the learning objective at all. Some of the best lessons I’ve seen have not involved WALT, or WILF, or TIB, or any other members of this menagerie of characters that populate the world of lesson planning. Sometimes kids like to work to what the focus of the lesson has been for themselves. This way, you can be sure that they will let you know if YOU weren’t clear about it. Quite often they like the challenge in the form of a question. And, as soon as you make it a question, you shift the focus onto learning. So, rather than the tedious ‘We are Learning To…’ or “I can…” both of which are too frequently followed by an activity and not the learning (we are learning to write an autumn poem, I can name the parts of a plant…) why not try a question?  Ask yourself, how exciting is it to a ten-year-old to copy down ‘We are learning to understand the key features of a play script’ (yawn)?  So, why not ask simply, ‘how can actors remember all those words? With the supplementary question, ‘…and how do they know what to do?’  I guarantee you spark kids’ interest more keenly, you’ve saved all that copying out of a convoluted objective, and you’ve immediately given yourself the beginnings of an assessment protocol.  Dylan William, making a similar point, asks, ‘why can’t we just ask students, “why is it colder on top of a mountain when it’s nearer the sun?’

And don’t give me that nonsense about writing down the LO as the title because then you can assess if it was met or not!  If you are clear about the intended learning then surely, both you and the pupil can remember that a lesson entitled ‘How can ice and steam be the same?’ was about solids, liquids and gases.

It takes a bit of getting used to, this use of learning questions, but it’s fun. It’s a lot more fun than some of the stultifying lesson aims I’ve seen. You need to practice. Have a go, now.  I won’t tell anyone,

The lesson plan

Okay, so far we have looked at what I call the non-negotiables. Now, let’s look at the lesson plan itself. When I was running a school that was in special measures because the quality of teaching (and some other stuff) was so poor, it was important to have particular expectations of the way people planned and what they put into their plans. This was because part of the strategy had to be policing planning so that the quality could be assured. So a common format was expected and monitored. However, when people got it and planning was no longer an issue, so we on the SLT felt able to take our foot off the collective staff neck and allow people to do what suited them. And this is still my personal position.

However, some schools will want planning to take a particular form – usually this is in association with some kind of monitoring process where the audience is more those doing the monitoring than the teachers who wrote the plans. I struggle with this a bit, but it’s how some leaders work and you have to meet their expectations.

I am very much in favour of allowing teachers to plan in the way that best suits them – and this was the point of the non-negotiables: things that had to be included. How the plan is laid out is a matter, in my view, of personal preference. For teachers at an early stage in their profession, and in training, there may be some merit in a detailed plan, with timings so that there is some control over the pace, if it’s an issue. But, if it’s not an issue, why do it?

Professor Robin Alexander, in Culture and Pedagogy, refers to episodic learning, and this makes some sense. A lesson is not – or should not – be a three-part formula, but a developing story. In the same way, Doug Lemov, in Teach Like a Champion, speaks of ‘my ball, our ball, your ball’ and this has a lot of merit. In working with teachers I often use this model, together with an acknowledgement of the importance of collaborative learning, so the lesson episodes look like this:-

  • My ball. Shut up, look and listen while I teach the key concepts.
  • Our ball. Let’s work together on seeing how these concepts can be applied – it’s modelling the method, sharing the writing etc.
  • Your ball. Work with you partner on this stage when you collaborate on a piece of work that involves applying the concept, using the model, in a different situation.
  • Checkpoint – okay, stop and let’s review what we have learnt so far. Now we can look at what makes good and use this to determine a set of steps to success that we can follow.
  • Your ball – but this time it’s individual work. You can do it together, can you now use that understanding to do it on your own.

Top and tail this with an introduction that hooks pupils in and a plenary that consolidates learning and you have a really solid lesson structure. Since you will have been clear about the learning, identified the key vocabulary and checked out how to met the needs of each pupil you’re good to go.

How to write it all down? Some teachers like a narrative – what happens in what order. This helps to ensure that the lesson runs sequentially and allows a Teaching Assistant to understand what’s going on. Some like to note what they expect pupils to learn at key points in the lesson. Still a good approach. Others prefer a quick and simple approach. For this take a good look at Ross McGill’s Five-Minute-Lesson Plan. It’s downloadable from the TES and other sites but Ross now has a dedicated online version.

If it helps, I have a quick, Planning for Learning – the one stop lesson plan that does the same kind of thing and is predicated on the model I’ve laid out above.

Remember, Ofsted do not demand a lesson plan, although some kind of narrative helps an observer to see where they are in the lesson. The DfE has said much about reducing workload, which incudes planning. Yet we know that we should be planning something. To try to wing it doesn’t lead to sustained success, although a confident teacher might get away with it a few times. But that’s because they have a plan in their head that they’ve used before. Lesson plans are important but they are not necessarily the time-gobbling burden they can become.

Making the most of the plenary

The plenary, inspection evidence has consistently shown, is often the weakest element of any lesson. Indeed, my own observations of hundreds of lessons bears this out. The purpose of this article, then, is to clarify the function of a plenary and explore ways to make it as effective as it can be.

There is nothing magic about placing the plenary at the end of the lesson, but there is a logic. A teacher may choose to have a series of what they might call ‘mini-plenaries’, or collecting points at various stages in the lesson. However, this discussion is only about the closing phase of the lesson, whether we call it a plenary, a summary, a learning review…the name does not matter.

What matters is that we know why we are doing this. Far too frequently I see teachers say, ‘we’re running out of time so let’s have a quick check of our learning.’ This immediately puts a time squeeze on the action and the teacher becomes more concerned with getting this done before the bell rings. And this, in turn, frequently leads to sloppy practice; ‘thumbs up if you understand’ is pretty useless. It’s not about paying lip-service to plenaries, it’s about using them as the highly effective tool they can become. So, the first lesson about improving the plenary, is to allow plenty of time for it.

The reason that teachers don’t allow plenty of time is because they don’t fully understand the purpose of the plenary. So, let’s look at the four key purposes:

The plenary is the point where pupils are engaged with what they have learnt

If you have used a learning question, or questions, now is the time to see who can come up with answers. This is clearly going to involve a degree of discussion – and remember it’s the discussion that helps the memory and recall. So, we can ask, ‘what are the questions we’ve been exploring?’ (or the method we’ve been learning, or the problems we’ve been investigating…etc).   The other point of reference here is the key vocabulary. If you have introduced some conceptual words (and remember, three to five words are enough) then here is where you ask, ‘what are the words we have learnt today, and what do they mean?’ The checkpoint for you is, ‘will my pupils go home and say what they have done in my lesson, or what they have learnt?

The plenary is the point where you check who really understood the key points.

You will, of course, have been carrying out ongoing assessment as the lesson develops but this is where you have some kind of summary check because you need the information to plan pupils’ next steps. Don’t assume that, because you taught it, they learnt it. You need to know who got it, who really, really got it, who kind of got it and who didn’t have a scoobie doobie woo. If you want to use a thumbs up/ smiley face system to clock who got it then fine, but far, far more effective is the use of skilful questioning. And, if you have the luxury of a TA, then get them to jot down the ones who are going to need more help to move on. In these days of mastery curricula then we can’t ignore this. Use this key assessment information to inform your planning for the next lesson in the sequence.

The plenary is the only chance you have to reinforce the key teaching points.

You have spent the past hour teaching a carefully researched topic, skilfully structured so that the learning is properly deconstructed to support pupils’ learning. This, then, is where you reinforce those key learning points. This is especially important in a foundation subject, when pupils might not be here again for over a year. There is plenty of research that reflects the effectiveness of over-learning so use this time to strengthen pupils’ understanding of the key ideas. The old adage from 19th century America still applies – first I tell ‘em what I’m gonna tell ‘em; then I tell ‘em; then I tell ‘em what I told ‘em!  If you have one child that insists that the Bronze Age came after the Iron Age, then this might be your only chance to disabuse him.

The plenary is where you look over the hill to see what’s coming next.

Because very few lessons stand alone and almost all are sequential, this is a great opportunity for pupils to understand that, now they know this or can do that, they can go on to do this. I have been in lessons when pupils are so excited at what they have learnt that, at this point, there are audible gasps – gosh, we’ll be able to do this really hard work now. It aligns happily with Carol Dweck’s thinking about growth mindsets, but that’s for another time.

So, having populated the plenary with these four important ideas and stages, we can clearly see why a 30 second plenary, or even a 2-minute one, just doesn’t do the job.

Finally, something to avoid. This is something which I still see in some lessons, usually the ones where the teacher knew what the activity was but was less sure about the planned learning. This is the ‘show and tell’ plenary, where the teacher invites a representative from each working group to ‘show us what you’ve done’. This often provides an opportunity for an unwilling child to stand up with a badly crafted piece of work which they read badly in a voice that (often mercifully) nobody can hear. And then the teacher says ‘Excellent’!!! While there are skilled teachers who invite group contributions as part of the whole review of learning, simply inviting this pretty unplanned end to the lesson is pointless.

Send your pupils out talking about the learning. At some future point we can look at aspects of this in more detail when we think about exit cards.

Mike Gershon produces a series of incredibly helpful free downloadable resources. One of these is The Plenary Producer. Click here to go to Mike’s website to explore this and the other good things on offer

Successful success criteria

There has been a lot of confusion over success criteria since their wide adoption, probably because of influences such as Shirley Clarke. Let’s be clear about what they are not:

They are not an inverse of the learning objective. I once observed a Y2 lesson where the LO was (I kid you not) We are learning to partition two-digit numbers and the success criterion was I can partition two-digit numbers. While this is a statement of the blindingly obvious and the teacher could argue that it is a criterion of success, what would be its purpose?

Many schools use ‘steps to success’, to describe success criteria, others refer to them (and I think this is very helpful) as ‘remember-tos’ (that looks odd without an apostrophe but the English teacher in me does not allow me to add one!).

This makes the point that the purpose of the remember-to is to remind the pupils about the sequence of processes they need to follow in order to complete the task successfully. So, instead of being a statement of the blindingly obvious, they become the road-map, the recipe to follow. Shirley Clarke uses the over-simple example of making a papier mâché bowl:

  • tear up the paper
  • cover it with the paste
  • smooth it evenly round the balloon…

…etc etc. It illustrates the idea.

It is a Vygotskian principle that learning should be scaffolded and success criteria provide part of that scaffolding. Like the map we don’t need when we know the way, pupils won’t use SC when they know how to do it. But they are there if they get lost.

Practically speaking, it’s probably too hard to write SC for every lesson in every subject. This is about helping pupils to consolidate their understanding as they seek to apply new concepts. Some teachers like to set them out in advance, some like to differentiate them according the differentiated task – but this has to be making work! My preference is for pupils to work them out for themselves based on a learning dialogue. Thus, after the introduction and modelling phases of a lesson, pupils could be set to work collaboratively on applying the relevant concept(s). Then the teacher can stop the lesson, refocus pupils by asking them what they have found out that they need to do to complete the activity successfully. This can generate the steps to success that pupils can use for their individual work.

There is evidence that the most effective success criteria are those that pupils work out for themselves, because they have ownership of their learning and can identify the steps that they found helpful. However, sometimes the teacher will simply want to say ‘do it this way’.

Don’t get hung up on success criteria. They are a useful tool that supports pupils’ learning and you should use them when you can. Sometimes you can’t – and that’s okay too.

In the next blog we will think about bringing together all the elements we have considered so far in the plenary.