English in Education, Spring 2017: Assessment and Learning

Are all thy conquests, glories, spoils, Shrunk to this little measure?

Julius Caesar, Act III, scene I

Annie Harris, Guest Editor

Associate Dean, School of Education & Professional Development, University of Huddersfield

What is assessment andAnnie_Huddersfield_1 how can we, as educators, ensure assessment of learning, and perhaps more particularly assessment for learning?   During the last thirty years, in many English-speaking countries, change has been endemic in the teaching and assessment of English. Some developments have been based on research related to key issues such as linguistic deprivation (Bernstein 1971), teaching language (Kingman 1988) or early reading (Rose 2006). Others, such as the recent curtailment (in the UK and elsewhere) of coursework, seem motivated more by political partisanship. The effects of such changes in assessment and public examining practice are documented in several papers in this issue, most explicitly in Bethan Marshall’s The Politics of Testing.

Debates around assessment in English have included the nature of assessment and what it measures, as well as debates around validity and reliability, ‘subjective’ or impression marking, and notions of a more ‘objective’ professional judgment. Accountability has also been prominent, especially for stakeholders, since public examining, particularly in the later stages of schooling, represents ‘high stakes’ assessment. Yet where does that leave learning? How can we best judge whether learning has taken place and if credit is due? Do we need base-line assessment to determine whether learning has occurred or value has been added? How is familiarity with testing regimes likely to affect the way in which we teach and what learners learn? This special edition takes on some of these debates and examines them in a contemporary context.

The distinction between assessment of learning (summative) and assessment for learning (formative) has been well rehearsed, but the more recent assessment as learning focuses where we might locate more recent, 21st century development.   This implies the need for pupils to be active in both learning and assessment. Some of these ideas will not be new to English teachers, for whom the pragmatics of a creative and critical classroom have often demanded the involvement of the student in the process of pedagogy. Each of the articles in this special edition challenges ideas of assessment and learning, presenting alternative perspectives on how one might accommodate both,  from primary schooling through to post-sixteen senior secondary studies.

Nerida Spina’s article, Governing by numbers, offers a detailed analysis of the impact of the Australian national testing programme, NAPLAN, undertaken at grades 3, 5, 7 and 9, which assesses literacy in terms of spelling, grammar, punctuation, reading and writing. Spina’s institutional ethnographic study indicates how this emphasis on examining with its concomitant pressure on schools has undermined both the curriculum and opportunities for classroom creativity.

Bethan Marshall’s account of The Politics of Testing picks up this argument, initially by looking back fondly to a time in the UK when teachers and educators could comment on the examining system ‘and the exam boards listened’. Her article then goes on to address in turn the phonics screening test, key stage 2 literacy and GCSE English, and the effect of ‘politics, even party politics’ on assessment processes.

Tony Hall and Eilis Flanagan’s article on Digital Ensemble presents an innovative approach to English assessment through the integration of drama pedagogy and mobile computing with senior students. Those of us outside the Republic of Ireland are left to speculate, given its value and significance, what scope, if any, there might be for us to do something equally creative in assessment and learning.

Jonathan Glazzard gives us an account of synthetic phonics and the impact of the phonics screening test in relation to models and theories of reading development in UK primary schools. Glazzard’s account questions the compartmentalisation of reading skills, and he argues for a developmental framework which recognises the phases and stages in sequential reading skills development.

Victoria Elliott’s paper What does a good one look like? takes us behind closed doors to observe two examiner training meetings. The training deemed to take place through these meetings is evaluated through the interaction and notions of compliance with the mark scheme, standardisation, representativeness, and cognition. Examining, the article reveals, is a process fraught with challenges and contradictions as well as with significance.

John Hodgson’s article with Bill Greenwell, The work of the course: validity and reliability in assessing English Literature, describes an ‘alternative’ UK English literature syllabus from the 20th century where informed response to literature was encouraged. Students genuinely did their coursework throughout the course, and teachers, who were familiar with their students’ work, were cradled within the developmental context of a consensual and supportive moderation process.

The book reviews in this special edition focus not so much on assessment as on learning, yet in doing so they offer thoughtful comments on where we place value and significance. Marcello Giovanelli discusses The Discourse of Reading Groups: Integrating Cognitive and Sociocultural Perspectives (2016) by David Peplow, Joan Swann, Paola Trimarco and Sara Whiteley.   Andrew Burn looks at James Gee’s Literacy and Education (2015), a book by an author familiar with the field and one which provides lively examples as well as revisiting his ‘Big D’ notion of discourses. .

Jo Carrington’s poem Remember me reminds us of the implications of and the responsibility that comes with teaching and learning within a curriculum that at times might appear neither to permit flexibility in its assessment nor fully to acknowledge individual needs. Hopefully, the articles in this special edition will remind us that knowledge and understanding of process and of practice as well as creativity and professionalism are fundamental to ensuring that our pupils and students, whoever they are, are given a fair chance to succeed through the learning and assessment they experience.

This special issue is now available online and print subscribers will receive their copy shortly.   If you are a NATE member and cannot access the online publication, please email membership@nate.org.uk with your name and membership number to receive a unique code.

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English in Education special issue 2019: Writing

Edited by  Jenifer Smith and Mari Cruice

Reynolds, Frances, c.1729-1807; Hannah More (1745-1833)
Hannah More, 1745-1833

idea-thinking

Call for papers

Writing might be seen as the most dangerous part of the English curriculum, where individual students can express themselves in ways that are their own – and which may not conform to adults’ expectations. In the 1790s, Hannah More, an influential figure in the establishment of Sunday schools for British working class children, insisted that pupils should not be taught to write. It was not until the twentieth century that “composition” was considered appropriate in the secondary school curriculum, and then at first only for older pupils. This issue comes at a time when the notion of creative writing as a discipline is seriously contested: a high stakes testing regime in several English-speaking countries challenges the validity of subjective judgment, and the UK government recently closed down a new national course for A level (senior secondary) students as insufficiently rigorous. At the same time, undergraduate courses in creative writing flourish. How can the committed teacher and writer best respond to these new times?

We say “teacher and writer” because many believe that a successful teacher of writing should have confidence in and be conscious of their own writing practices. In the UK, NZ and the US, National Writing Projects related to English subject associations hold regular workshops and courses where teachers can explore and experience the process of writing. Such workshops open numerous questions for organisers and participants. Where does writing come from? How far does it depend on unconscious processes of language, and what is the place of explicit instruction? How do we learn from other writers? How do young writers come to understand how writing can work for them and what role does assessment play in that? What is the relationship between the critical writing about other writers’ texts required of students in English (and other subjects) and their own production? How far does the critical/creative binary support good practice? Such questions will doubtless be discussed by contributors to this special issue. In the spirit of such work, we invite submissions of poetry and prose with or without accompanying meta-cognitive reflection.

We hope, even in present circumstances, that this issue will confront and celebrate writing and the teaching of writing as it is now, discovering and rediscovering the possibilities of what writing may be; reclaiming this territory as a vital creative and enlivening human activity. We welcome submissions which engage with the ways in which writing is learned from the earliest years; with writing pedagogies; the affordances of writing; the nature of composition and of writing and thought. We welcome writing (reflective, creative, or both) from teachers at all stages of education and in all circumstances. We particularly welcome contributions from those to whom, for whatever reason, writing remains a challenging, indeed dangerous, aspect of their work.

Please prepare your submission in line with the journal’s guidelines for authors. Submissions should be made via our ScholarOne site by 7 May 2018. Please select the correct ‘Special Issue’ as the Manuscript Type.

To discuss potential submissions, please contact:

Jenifer Smith

Mari Cruice

What is ‘reading’? Why do we read? How do we read?

books-open-on-table

I’ve always been fascinated by the process of reading and interpetation.   Why do we choose certain ‘texts’, be these printed, on screen, verbal, visual or in some other mode?     How do we make sense of the words on the page, the pixels on the screen, the signifiers of the environment?   After teaching in a large rural school for a number of years, I embarked on a study of the reading and media practices of the students in my tutor group (home class) as they moved from early secondary to later secondary years and took their GCSE (age 16) examinations.   I was interested in their everyday practices rarher than merely in what they read in and for school.   The work, Grounded Literacy, took me nine years and I learned a lot from doing it: not only about the youngsters I had taught, but also, of course, about reader response theory, object relations theory and reception theory within cultural and media studies, a combination of approaches which formed the epistemological basis of my work.

 

I’m thinking about these issues again, partly because Reader Response and English Education is the theme of the 2018 special issue of English in Education, to be edited by Marcello Giovanelli and Jessica Mason.  I was also struck by a recent blog post by kirstwrites, Three books which got me thinking.   She writes:

I don’t read as much as I should (unless scrolling through Twitter counts?) so it has been a real pleasure to spend the last week staying in a house with a well stocked bookcase and a wood burning stove. After days spent on family walks kicking through autumn leaves, settling down for an evening’s reading in front of the fire has been pure bliss.

I’ve managed to polish off three books in the space of a week (what? I’m an English graduate, reading fast is my only skill) and I want to try and write some kind of review of them. On the surface, they are all totally disconnected. But by the time I’d read all three I was sensing a thread of connection between them all, and it’s this connection that I want to tease out.

She goes on to explain how she found connected meaning in three apparently unrelated books: David Temple’s Above and Below the Limestone: the pits and people of Easington District, an account of how the coal mining industry developed and declined over two centuries in County Durham; Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451; and Bruce Springsteen’s newly released autobiography Born to Run.  As I commented, I’m sure that Bradbury would have approved the way her post demonstrates the power of “ordinary” books to help us think.

New Directions in post-16 English

Teachers of English to post 16 students – whether in sixth form, further or higher education – have a double delight in November, with two successive day conferences at Middlesex University offering ways forward in the teaching of language, literature and language/literature.

why-learn-english

On Friday 11 November, the Integrating English annual conference will offer a mix of talks and interactive workshops designed to support teachers and provide new tools and techniques in the study of English.  Read more …

On Saturday 12 November, NATE will host a day conference on New Directions in Post-16 English.  Invited speakers Robert Eaglestone and Billy Clark will provide the context for short presentations and discussions led by members of the NATE Post-16 Committee. Read more …

A professional consensus against governmentality

2col_lg_apartment_buildings

In his latest monthly commentary (May 2016), Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools, states: “We need to put as sharp a focus on the other subjects (of the primary curriculum) as we do on English and mathematics.” Wilshaw goes on to remind inspectors to look closely at “the wider primary curriculum, including science and modern languages, as set out in the inspection handbook.”

Yet, as former HMI Prof Colin Richards points out, no subjects other than mathematics and English are specifically mentioned in the inspection handbook. Instead, there is a vaguely expressed requirement that, when evaluating the design and implementation of the curriculum, inspectors should ensure that this contains “breadth and balance”. As Richards argues, this requirement becomes meaningful only if there is political and professional consensus over the criteria by which the breadth or otherwise of schools’ curricula can be judged.

Recently, I was having dinner with some friends who included two recently retired primary head teachers. One of these mentioned that, in his experience, the support of a professional consensus is very important when deciding the teaching policies of a school. One might disagree with aspects of this consensus, he said, but it was important that it should be in place, to provide an agreed framework for professional effort.

It struck me that it is the absence of such a consensus that is at the root of the present crisis in education in England. As Estelle Morris writes in yesterday’s Guardian: “Teachers are working with a curriculum, assessment and pedagogy that are increasingly directed by ministers’ own priorities and prejudices”.

Thirty years ago, as Colin Richards reminds us, HMI forged a consensus around “breadth and balance” by arguing that primary and secondary schools should involve all children in nine areas of experience and learning throughout the age-range 5 to 16.  Within this consensus, schools and teachers were free to interpret the ways in which these areas of experience and learning might be implemented in particular classrooms.

How different the situation is today. We no longer have the structures to achieve professional and political consensus. The consultative bodies within which teachers, inspectors and politicians discussed the curriculum – the Schools Council, Secondary Education and Assessment Committee, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority – have all been abolished. In their place we have the Department for Education, which effectively implements the diktats of the Secretary of State for Education.

In these circumstances, “breadth and balance” is little more than dimly remembered mantra from a former age. Within the new order, what matters is not experience and learning but “skills”. The primary skills are literacy and numeracy: the former subjects of English and mathematics, but with ministerially prescribed content. Within the new curriculum hierarchy, creativity is confined to the so-called creative subjects (art, music, drama but not English) that stand outside the “core academic subjects” that comprise the EBacc. Assessment by periodic national testing (the SATs) and GCSE (age 16) and A level (age 18) examinations emphasises memorisation and learning for the test. Private providers of instructional and testing materials and procedures, such as Pearson, are heavily involved in the delivery and assessment of this curriculum.

In the UK, teachers of English are increasingly preoccupied by the need to prepare students for the new tests in language and grammar “skills” which now have to be taken periodically from the early years (age 5) through to GCSE (age 16). There is a particular symbolic significance in these tests. For 50 years, the consensus among English teachers has been that the teaching of formal English grammar as a discrete aspect of English has little or no positive effect on students’ ability to write fluently, coherently and effectively. Grammar, or knowledge about language, did not disappear from the classroom: it has always been part of the national curriculum, and A-level English language, introduced in 1985, is still a growth subject. Formerly, however, English teachers had discretion, supported by a professional consensus, in the extent to which they incorporated explicit grammatical instruction within their teaching. Work by the Grammar for Writing team at Exeter University, which demonstrated ways in which applying grammatical knowledge within the drafting process can help children improve their writing, has recently become part of this consensus. Today, however, teachers and students face a quasi-theological grammatical apparatus that has to be memorised in order to answer test questions.

These curriculum and assessment changes derive not from the education profession but from what Jory Brass (following Foucault) calls “governmentality”. This word combines notions of “government” and “mentality” into a single term to identify political strategies to direct the conduct of the governed towards particular ends. Michael Rosen believes that the obscurity of the spelling, punctuation and grammar tests will result in more schools’ appearing to fail and thus requiring to be transformed into academies, thus supporting the government’s intention to privatise the forms and structures of education as far as is possible. It also seems to me that a more immediate result of these tests – which introduce a further element in the assessment of English beyond the traditional domains of speaking and listening, reading and writing – will be to withdraw cultural capital from numbers of young people who formerly achieved satisfactory results in English. This will be justified in the name of “standards”. It is worth remembering that, in 2012, the Office of Qualifications (Ofqual) put pressure on the assessment authorities (examination boards) to raise the threshold for grade C (the “passing” grade) in GCSE English. Despite an enormous protest, including legal action, by parents, local authorities and subject associations, this move was accepted as a legitimate attempt to “raise standards”.

These are not the “standards” that would be supported by a professional consensus that genuinely sought a broad and balanced education for our young people. Government requires the acquiescence of the governed. To resist these developments, we need a professional consensus against governmentality.

Assessing national standards

DowningCollege_Sep2015

A new report by QS, a firm of global education analysts, places the quality of the UK’s higher education system as second only to that of the world leader, the United States.   This finding may come as a surprise to those who have become used to international league tables that rate the quality of education in both countries as well below such states and jurisdictions as South Korea, Shanghai and Finland.  This discrepancy points to the need for any kind of evaluation to be clear about what is being tested, how, and with what purpose.  (Any valid global assessment of relative national achievement in literacy, for example, would need to demonstrate what aspects of literacy were examined, in what populations, and in what ways; how it provided valid comparisons between countries with very different languages, social systems and educational institutions; and the overall assumptions and purpose of the investigation.)

In the case of this new report, the stated purpose of the analysis is to measure the factors that make a nation’s higher education system more likely to succeed. It is based on four criteria, each weighted equally:

  1. System strength: the rankings performance of a nation’s institutions.
  2. Access: how likely a talented individual is to find a place at a top university in their home country, based on the number of places available at said institutions and population size.
  3. Flagship: the global performance of a nation’s top institution.
  4. Economy: the quality of a country’s economic environment for its higher education institutions, and whether economic prosperity translates into performance.

According to John O’Leary, Editor of the Times Education Guide and member of QS’s Executive Board, the advantage of this ranking approach is that it looks at the quality and accessibility of higher education as a whole.  “Assessing whole systems is not just about the top universities – if it were, Singapore would be much higher than it is and some European countries would be lower.”

It’s interesting to speculate what would come out of a survey that similarly attempted to assess the quality and accessibility of UK primary and secondary education as a whole.   Clearly the questions asked would differ from those in the new QS survey, but given the amount of data already being collected at various stages of students’ progress, it should be possible to assess the performance of UK schools as a whole in realising the potential of their students.  Dealing with some of the current issues about curriculum and assessment, however, might require a more qualitative approach than is usual in these large-scale evaluations.  Nonetheless, UK primary and secondary education has been transformed to offer more equal opportunity over the last 40 years, and international comparisons of the UK’s success in educating the people might be revealing.

Why Dartmouth mattered

GrowthEnglish

Shortly after its inception in 1963, NATE joined with the US National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the Modern Languages Association (MLA) to secure funding for a month’s long seminar at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. The plan – as John Dixon has written, perhaps surprising today – was that a group of 40 to 50 teachers in schools and universities would thrash out the fundamental questions about English teaching and, through their national associations, spearhead a new approach.

Delegates to the conference brought visions of English teaching that differed not only between but (in some cases) also within the participant territories. English teachers in the United States employed rhetorical models of expository writing that were less familiar to participants from the UK, several of whom brought to Dartmouth a tradition of close literary study originating largely from the Scrutiny-inspired Cambridge school. At the same time, delegates from the London Institute of Education, including James Britton and Harold Rosen, insisted on the importance of respecting and working with the language that children brought to the classroom as a starting point for development.

In the circumstances, it was necessary to find a principle of English teaching that would reconcile these divergent approaches to teaching and learning within the prevailing educational climate. The concept of “personal growth”, articulated by John Dixon of the UK delegation, provided a pedagogic ideal which most could support. It spoke both to the delegates’ awareness of wasted talent in the school-age population and to the zeitgeist that produced the human potential movement, R.D. Laing’s anti-psychiatry, and the Summer of Love of 1967. Fifty years on, it is still the principle of English teaching that gains the allegiance of a majority of practitioners. This is because the radical core of the concept of “personal growth” was the student’s own language.

This focus on the child’s language emphatically did not exclude or marginalise literature. Pupils’ written stories and poems, when shared and discussed, became “the literature of the classroom”. And delegates from both sides of the Atlantic were surprisingly united (Dixon writes) in their view of literary response: “The experience of art is a thing of our making, an activity in which we are our own interpretive artist.”

These formulations about students’ language and literary response were developed, amended and rewritten over the next half century in NATE publications and elsewhere.  During these years, language study was reconstituted, insights from discourse studies of genre and narrative were assimilated, and technological change was incorporated into everyday classroom practice. The development of English studies over the last half-century demonstrates (in the words of Garth Boomer, a former president of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English) that the curriculum is no longer a prepackaged course to be taken; it is a jointly enacted composition that grows and changes as it proceeds.  The view that the experience and language that the child brought the classroom was intrinsically important, and that the process of teaching English must start here – not merely to impose class-based notions of formality and correctness, but to work with students to expand their language, cognition and range of feeling: this is the legacy and the importance of Dartmouth.

This post is adapted from an article to be published in Teaching English.   There will be a research symposium on Dartmouth on 26 June 2016 following the NATE Conference in Stratford on Avon.