Tag Archives: Assessment

Discrimination, Assessment and the Making of the Classroom Culture


“Discrimination: The unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex: victims of racial discrimination; Recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another: discrimination between right and wrongThe ability to judge what is of high quality; good judgement or taste: those who could afford to buy showed little taste or discrimination.”

Oxford English Dictionary Online.

We need more discrimination in our schools. Discrimination is a necessary component of assessment and the building of a strong, reflective classroom culture. It is the unfortunate consequence of a lack of discrimination that leads pupils to think that their individual ‘opinion’ counts, that if they think or feel something then so be it. “It’s my opinion!” is the get out of jail free card for a moment of challenge from a teacher or fellow pupil who is playing devil’s or, indeed, God’s advocate. If political correctness were to ‘go mad’ and stop children and teachers seeing the importance of discrimination then no useful assessment could take place.

I’m NOT talking about discrimination that results in the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people this type of discrimination is abhorrent and as a result of much argument and struggle over years the vast majority of people in our society agree that it is wrong – this has become part of the ‘sense we make in common’ and laws have been put in place over my lifetime which have been a glorious and notable change to the way we all live. As time continues battles will probably continue and more unjust or prejudicial behaviour will be challenged in all sectors of society and this is to the good but this doesn’t mean discrimination itself is a bad thing because recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another and the ability to judge what is of high quality; good judgement or taste is an essential part of the conversation of the classroom, where we build a ‘sense in common’.

Assessment is, in many cases, subjective, especially in the arts. Assessment is essentially unfair, if by fairness we mean that everything ever said, made, done or thought by anyone is as worthwhile as anything said, made, done or thought by anyone else. Yet we need to embrace this very unfairness in order to understand its intrinsic importance to how we co-exist and make our culture in common.

In his memorable phrase: “We need always to remember that any system of assessment is an attempt to map a mystery with a metaphor,” David Didau uncovers an inherent problem in assessment and that is where we believe our own hype… “You, child, have a target grade of ‘B’ and your rather dishevelled piece of work is a ‘D’ go away and redraft/redo/re-perform it at the required ‘B’ standard…” The teacher as the objective gatekeeper to the highest grade is of no use to anyone apart from petty bureaucrats.

The teacher has an important role to play in the teaching of discrimination and discernment, we need to teach pupils how to judge and judge well. This means that the teacher as ‘expert’ in a domain, in which she stands on the shoulders of giants, needs to initiate children into the tradition of the subject enabling them to get to know what quality has meant in the past and that it was likely to have been a complex history of agreement and disagreement over time. In order for a child to be informed about this history they need to be taught to refrain from making their own judgements too early, until they too have been introduced to the quality of the conversation through time. As pupils become adept at discriminating and judging work based on the tradition, as taught by the teacher, then their opinions should be sought more and also challenged more by the teacher and other members of the class who can then act as critical friends to each other.

Self and peer assessment are sometimes seen as the ‘be all and end all’ of formative assessment but they’re a dangerous idea if they’re used too early and without any guidance as to ‘taste and judgement’. Dangerous? Yes, if any child is able to think that: ‘well, it’s my opinion so it’s all right’ then we are doing them a disservice. If I may bring you back to what I said earlier: good judgement or taste is an essential part of the conversation of the classroom, where we build a ‘sense in common’ and this thoughtful ‘agreement’ or ‘disagreement’ through well argued reasoning is an essential part of a positive scholastic, collegiate, classroom culture.

If we want our children to be fully conversant with the wider culture outside of the classroom we have a wonderful opportunity within the classroom to model how to take part. We need to teach judgement, discernment and discrimination and help children to become sophisticated in the understanding and use of these by opening their eyes to the difficulty and importance of assessment.

Life in a Post-Level World: Progress Descriptors for Creativity in Four Days

It should be idyllic. Teachers and children conversing together, children learning stuff because it’s interesting or necessary or both. Assessment a continuous part of the process of understanding:

“Have you got it yet?”

“Yes, I have.”



“Well, have you considered this… ?”

“Oh, does that mean that blah blah might not be right?”


A post level world should be one where teacher and pupil focus on education, the joy and the pain of teaching and learning things. However, what is going on in the ‘real world’? Consider this:

Today I read the following on my Facebook group page for drama teachers:

“Hi, does anyone have anything I could look at re life without levels? I have to come up with 4 progress descriptors for Creativity. My SLT wants them emailed by Monday.” I have cut a couple of things from the original post but the point being made is stark:

Life without levels can mean a senior leadership team deciding at the last minute to ask teachers to come up with rushed and ill-considered descriptors for progress in the most difficult and nebulous of areas. What in heaven’s name is the point?

Before I go any further I need to share a bit of information with you. I think creativity is an essential part of learning particularly in subjects where you have to ‘create’ stuff. Drama is one of these subjects, in drama it is a good idea to encourage creativity and I think most people would agree with this. About ten years ago I was charged with a task by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust to look into creativity across the curriculum, looking at questions such as can it be taught, can it be learned, and can it be assessed? I looked at lessons, talked to teachers, pupils, and creative people from a variety of disciplines. I read a copious amount of literature, I presented at conferences and asked delegates their thoughts, I team taught with a number of teachers, I worked with creative artists and put together an online ‘creativity’ game to see if it could make children more creative. This took over a couple of years, I interviewed over a thousand people, and I’m still reflecting on what I came up with.

I was then asked by the QCA to work on Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills assessment for the new, now old, national curriculum. The QCA wanted me to come up with descriptors and a way of measuring progress in all of the PLTS but, in particular, creativity. I read more books and material written specifically on the assessment and recognition of creativity in the curriculum across ‘all’ subjects. I learned about the pitfalls in subject specific, let alone generic assessment of creativity, teamwork, independent learning and the rest. I took a painstaking approach to try to solve the riddle: how to measure the unmeasurable. I came up with an online assessment tool that did a job. It was very interesting to look at and the data sets it came up with were very pretty and some said that they were of real use. But were they? Well, they might have been but in order to know we would have had to research them over a few years, with a control group or two and would we have found more children being more creative? We may well have done, we might not have done and the point of this blog is not to argue the whys and wherefores of whether there is a point to all this ‘skills’ assessment (I’ll leave that for another blog).

No, the point of this blog is to register my utter dismay that some SLTs are expecting teachers to come up with last minute solutions to hugely complex ideas. This can’t be because they think it will aid the education of the children in their care, it can only be because they want to tick some boxes purely for the sake of ticking boxes.

If anyone wants to take creativity in the arts and across the curriculum seriously and explore how problematic this idea is please contact me here as I have much of interest to share. In the meantime here is a video of Ken Campbell talking about creativity and education as part of a conference I organised. I worked with Ken for a few years on this, both of us ended up none the wiser and wiser for it:

Measuring Progress With The Trivium

The trivium is an excellent way to ensure progress in learning. We can see progress through the trivium in three stages: new knowledge followed by critique, ending in communication. In teaching terms this means firstly ensuring a body of knowledge is taught to students and that they understand the knowledge. Secondly the students build on that knowledge through practise, they test it out and see if it can bear scrutiny; this is in classic trivium terms the movement from grammar to dialectic. The students are then able to express their learning in an appropriate medium to the subject they are studying: ‘rhetoric’. For the teacher these three arts involve different ways of teaching and for the learner three different ways of engaging with knowledge. If only it was this simple! When I say ‘three’ I actually mean far more, the collective ‘mantra’ of grammar – dialectic – rhetoric covers a variety of different approaches, it has a richness and depth far beyond three words, it is, however, a useful ‘tool’ by which to organise complexity. From its simplicity grows complexity.

In these days when everyone in the education bubble is obsessed with progress and looking for systemised methods to understand and measure it from Solo taxonomy and Blooms to various systems of levels, the trivium is thankfully far more modest. Although it seems to have a hierarchy of progress from grammar to dialectic to rhetoric it is actually a continuous process of knowing, re-knowing, and showing. Each art of the trivium interleaves with the others. Someone who is able to communicate and be creative is not more sophisticated than the person who is struggling to remember a piece of information, the trivium recognises that all knowledge and skills work with and sometimes even against each other. It is my guess that this ancient method of learning, renamed by Francis Bacon as ‘the tradition’ will be found through the great random control test of time to have captured the essence of great learning in much the same way that the great ‘tradition’ that is the wheel seems to be essential in many methods of transporting something or someone from a to b.

Progress therefore in the trivium is not measurable in the way that Rhetoric sits at the top of a hierarchy of learning methods and once a child has ‘reached’ the rhetoric stage they are more sophisticated than a child ‘stuck’ at grammar. This hierarchy breaks down because once you begin to communicate knowledge and add to knowledge you begin to realise you need to ‘know’ more and therefore you need to find out more ‘facts’. Once you know more facts you might find they contradict your previous knowledge and you need to test this new knowing out, and often you find that there are arguments and disagreements in the domain you are studying that undermine your knowing exposing your mind to new ignorance. If learning is hierarchical this means you are becoming less sophisticated, because sometimes the more you study the less you know and understand. Learning is frustrating because it is not hierarchical, although within in it there is the possibility of mastery, mastery is just an opening into ever more areas of doubt and uncertainty. Here we can accept that there is a general move from novice to master in a domain but within that journey there is also a process of learning new stuff and once mastery has been obtained this process doesn’t stop.

The trivium is a process that takes one from a point of not knowing and stays with us through all our knowings and not knowings. It is our guide from novice through to master of arts and beyond. This process is continual from foundational ‘knowledges’ and through ‘elaborations’. It makes connections and exposes disputes. It looks for context and can find these in ever larger narratives yet can also unpick and extract ideas from one story to be fitted into new mental models. The trivium is both part of prior understandings and thoughts but is also a deeply personal way to remake understanding which is where it unlocks much creativity. To master a domain one reaches a level of competency that is measurable through the various methods of recognition of mastery that the domain has in place. The trivium doesn’t replace these ‘measures’. It does, however, enable a way of seeing progress in understandings throughout the process of learning whether you are generally a novice or a master.

The trivium has breadth at its core, it involves different ways of teaching and different ways of learning depending on the context and the subject of the inquiry. If we know how well a student is absorbing the arts of the trivium in order to learn we can teach them better. In order to gauge how well a pupil is engaging with each of the arts of the trivium we need to be able to see how the art is absorbed into their language and the approach that a pupil might be using to aid her understanding. If we accept the idea that learning is often ‘invisible’ is it possible to pick up on little clues that might make it slightly more visible?

The mantra of the trivium can be used to help measure progress with the understanding that the progress being displayed is a continuous process. Each pupil’s remembering, moments of insight and breakthroughs might be transformative or might not; they might be followed for some time by forgetting and fog. Therefore what is needed is a way to look at process that is sophisticated about knowledge and understanding but also of use both to teachers and pupils in the classroom, to a visitor to the classroom, a senior manager or even an inspector. Imagine an assessment method that shows progress but recognises the learning process as far from fixed or linear.

To this end I have produced a table that shows different ways a teacher might begin to recognise a pupil’s grasp of the different arts in a given topic and/or domain. This table and further thoughts about it is being shared with the trivium network of schools and might form the beginning of further, more sophisticated, ways of developing ways of measuring progress in all three arts of the trivium, different subjects and stages. The aim of this assessment method is to help the teacher to see how well a pupil is understanding something whilst the pupil is in a fog of not seeming to have grasped it at all. This tool can therefore aid the teacher in his or her teaching and also might give the pupil some solace as they grapple with difficulty. I think for many teachers this understanding of how a pupils is ‘progressing’ is part of their intuitive armoury, this table just gives them a way to unpick their understanding in a way that is then communicable to others and to aid communication between the pupil and the teacher.

I’ll keep you informed as to how we progress, if I can think of a way to measure that!