Active Learning Through Formative Assessment by Shirley Clarke (published by Hodder Education, 2008) explores key aspects of formative assessment, from the basics of what it can consist of and the likely impact of effective practice through a range of aspects, to taking action for further development.

It builds on self-reflection, practical techniques, and expected impact on pupils, and references real-school examples, and gives further practical advice on next steps.

It has a number of useful features:

• Practical techniques are clearly explained and subject-specific examples are included.
• Examples of use with pupils of different ages are given, along with the impact on pupils and some examples of pupil work.
• Chapters end with reflection sections, which are obviously useful for reflecting on personal practice, but would also provide a framework for discussions with colleagues, and a way to identify strengths across a team. They could be used to audit current practice, and to plan professional development over time.

upil Talk

Chapter 4 discusses models for encouraging and managing effective pupil talk in the classroom.

The principles and techniques are clearly explained, and impact considered in terms of cognitive and social development. Examples are given of teachers applying these within school from nursery to secondary settings, giving a sense of progression in terms of adapting the techniques and the likely impact. This is particularly useful for teachers working with pupils in KS3 that do not appear to engage well with dialogic talk.

Questioning is explored in Chapter 5, looking at five strategies in more detail.

The text is not maths-specific, but here are some examples for each strategy:

Q: 144 pencils are shared between 10 teachers. What would be a sensible way to work out how many pencils each teacher gets?

1. share out 144 counters into 10 piles
2. count up in 10s towards 144
3. use a place value table to write 144 in the columns, and move it to divide it by 10
4. use long division to do 144 divided by 10
5. use long division to do 10 divided by 144

OR

Q: 144 pencils are shared between 10 teachers. How many pencils does each teacher get?

1. 10
2. 12
3. 14
4. 15
5. 130

A statement:

Q: A rhombus is a parallelogram. Agree or disagree? Because… ?

Q: Maths is the hardest subject. Agree or disagree? Because… ?

Right and wrong:

Q: These are rational: maths equation. These are irrational: maths equation. How do we know?

Q: Why are these shapes quadrilaterals, and these shapes not? (from the text)

Starting from the answer or end:

Q: There are 38 data items in this bar chart. How do I know?

Q: Maths equation. Why is the solution maths equation?

Q: The answer is square. What might the question have been? (from the text)

An opposing standpoint:

Q: Is a pie chart the best way to represent this data set?

Q: Is a timeline the best way to work out a time span?

Q: Is a sketch graph the best way to find this gradient?

Lesson Objectives

Chapters 6 to 8 explore aspects of the use of Learning Objectives to support formative assessment. The two parts that I found particularly interesting both happened to focus on maths – and I still haven’t worked out if that is a coincidence!

The first looks at creating learning objectives that are centred on clarifying for pupils the decisions they make when completing the tasks (some of which could be generic), as opposed to objectives centred on listing the steps needed (page 104).

Those new to teaching, or those less confident with their pedagogy or with the subject, might tend towards the algorithmic approach. More experienced teachers, with greater subject specific pedagogy, might tend towards the decision-making approach. This is possibly another potential area that could stimulate department discussion about the framing of lessons/schemes of work.

The second looks at where pupils are involved in generating the learning objectives, and the example given (page 110) looks at solving word problems, a particularly relevant skill.

Clearly pupils will need also need to learn how to generate success criteria, just as teachers develop the depth of their own objectives/criteria. Chapter 8 lists six techniques to build appropriate skills.

Professional Development

The book finishes with a chapter on ways to frame teacher professional development within a school, including a list of effective actions and the key elements of effective support. Whether this book is used for personal development, in collaboration with colleagues, or for whole school practice, this section is an excellent reference point. It builds on self-reflection, practical techniques, and expected impact on pupils, and references real-school examples, and gives further practical advice on next steps.

In conclusion, there are some aspects of the text that may feel a little dated – the emphasis on learning objectives for example, where the language around these has moved on – but it remains a clear, practical source of helpful advice grounded in research, designed to support staff self-assessment and improvement for teacher practice.