Alys Finch

Assessment lives at the heart of all that we do in education. Whether assessing our pupils, our trainee teachers or ourselves, we use assessment in all that we do to identify success, areas for development and impact. Increasingly, the world of Initial Teacher Education (ITE) has focused on trainees’ impact on pupils’ learning: this shift over the past decade or so has been a welcome one, but not without its difficulties.

Sitting behind an assessment of a teacher’s impact on pupils is a requisite to understand two fundamental questions: 1. What is assessment?; and 2. How do I know what I know?

The first of these questions is relatively straightforward on the surface of it: there is a world of published wordage which defines, questions and posits how to do the business of assessment. Typically, we trace back to Black and Wiliam’s now seminal work, Inside the Black Box (1998), making links with the big names of our current time (Christodoulou and Fletcher-Wood for two in the charts at the moment), and we extol the (rightful) virtues of ‘assessment for learning’ and caution the potential exclusivity and overuse of ‘assessment of learning’. This is a well-trodden path for teacher educators and often our confidence in ‘the what’ of assessment is secure. Trainees acquire a sound understanding of the core semantics and a good range of ‘tools’ for putting this knowledge into practice.

It is the second question with which we might grapple the most to answer but which presents us with the most useful ‘meat’ for digest. For me, this is the assessment question which needs to pervade the very core of all that we do as educators, whatever our role. This is the question which gets at the nub of real impact, real analysis and truly evidence-informed, reflective practice. I, like many in the sector, welcomed Ofsted’s move to look more deeply at qualitative data and evidence but, also like many in the sector, recognise the challenge that this presents for both trainees and established educators.

‘How do you know what you know?’ requires us to really understand the processes, products and pitfalls of learning and teaching. To make the best use of this question, we need to understand that everything that we do as educators is some form of assessment: the focus needs to be on what assessment is telling us, rather than what technique we’re using and whether it’s assessment for learning, of learning, or any other category we might use to classify what we’re doing. ‘How do you know what you know?’ is not really about us and what we know at all – it’s about knowing our learners (be they Year 1, Year 9 or postgraduates) and whether or not learning is as effective as it could be for them. This is the ammunition we need to fire excellent teaching and learning; this is the truth of what lies behind the spreadsheet.

If we consider that ‘how do you know what you know?’ could and should lie at the centre of all that we do as educators, we become truly learner-centred. This applies as much to trainee teachers (and other colleagues) as it does to pupils. If we anchor all that we do in this key question, we begin to develop practice which:

  • Uses assessment to dynamically reflect on teaching to inform future planning;
  • Focuses on impact on learning, rather than the quality of the ‘story’ of the teaching;
  • Is truly learner-focused, looking at the impact of inputs on qualitative and quantitative outcomes, prizing both competence and

Of course, the potential danger in all of this is that we focus on the definition and encouraging our teachers to make sure that they are ‘doing’ Standard 6: this is tangible, measurable and has some parameters we can define quite clearly. Whilst important, this is only part of the story: we are all too aware that the data is one thing, interpreting it is quite another.

Ofsted itself has seemingly rejected pure outcomes as the core marker in its new Education Inspection Framework and the brave new world of possibility for assessment, in all its guises and possible impacts, should be a welcome one for those who’ve always peeked behind the spreadsheet’s curtain.

Indeed, the old ‘every child matters’ adage has never rung more true: ‘every learner matters’ – how do you know what you know about them?

Alys Finch is the Senior Education Lead for Nova Education Trust, and a former NASBTT Trustee and Consultant. Her work has included leading on curriculum, assessment and training at middle and senior leader levels, both in schools and a range of local and national ITT contexts. Her book in the Essential Guides for Early Career Teachers series, Assessment, edited by NASBTT Executive Director Emma Hollis and published by Critical Publishing, is out now and available to order here.


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