Transformative Educational Leadership Journal | ISSUE: Spring 2018
The powerful impacts of Assessment for Learning (AfL) have a deep evidence base. Despite this research being available for decades, Dr. Lorna Earl worries that we have barely started the AfL journey, that we have become complacent and are skimming the belief systems and practices that will fulfil the promise of AfL. Could a national network make the difference?
By Lorna Earl
It may seem as though we have done Assessment for Learning (AfL) in education. It has been at the forefront of policy and professional learning initiatives for decades. We’ve had conferences and workshops and provincial assessment reviews. It must be time to move on to other things.
But where are we really in relation to AfL? I worry that we have barely started the AfL journey; that we have become complacent far too soon; and, we have not embedded the belief systems or the practices that will fulfil the promise of AfL. AfL is not just a set of practices. It is a way of thinking and a set of beliefs that infuse everything that happens in classrooms. I don’t think we are there yet.
So, what is assessment for learning? And why does it matter so much? Let me start with the last question.
Why does AfL matter?
Very simply, because we have come to know a great deal about how people think and how they learn. As Lori Shepard said in her 2000 Presidential Address to the American Educational Research Association:
Learning is an active process of mental construction and of sense-making. From cognitive theory, we have learned that existing knowledge structures and beliefs work to enable or impede new learning, that intelligent thought involves self-monitoring and awareness about when and how to use skills and that expertise develops in a field of study as a principled and coherent way of thinking and representing problems, not just an accumulation of information. (Shepard, 2000)
AfL comes out of this theoretical position as one of the key mechanisms for self-monitoring, reflection, checking, re-learning, investigating, etc., as learners work through a continuous process of examining what they think they know, considering new information, challenging their understanding against the views of others and of experts, in order to refine and recast their knowledge and determine the next steps in their learning. Assessment, in this paradigm is not outside learning. It is an integral part of the learning process to support instruction, resources, and experiences that enhance requisite learning.
And it is for everyone. AfL is fundamentally an issue of equity – providing all students with a fair opportunity to learn by creating learning environments that enhance and target their learning according to their history, their understandings, and how they are constructing and interpreting the world around them.
Now, what is AFL?
Although there have been enhancements to the definition of AfL, the Assessment Reform Group’s (2002) definition still holds true: [The] process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there (Assessment Reform Group, 2002, p. 2).
This seems so simple. In reality, embedding AfL in classroom practice has been very hard. In the Learning How to Learn (LHTL) Project in England (Black, Mccormick, James, Pedder, 2007), the researchers found that teachers implementing AfL in their classrooms often reflected what they called the ‘letter’ of formative assessment, focusing on the surface techniques, rather than the ‘spirit’, based on a deep understanding of the principles underlying the practices. Even in this project that focused on AfL, only about 20 per cent of the teachers in their LHTL study were using formative assessment in ways that were designed to help students develop as learners (Black et al., 2007).
The LHTL results were disappointing but they also offer a professional challenge. What does the spirit of AfL look like? How can educators learn to blend their professional learning with knowledge from research to move beyond current practice and create environments for learning that work for all students? Or, will AfL remain a powerful tool that we haven’t learned how to use effectively?
This challenge was part of the motivation that drove the creation of the not-for-profit Canadian Assessment for Learning Network (CAfLN).
The founders of CAfLN (Damian Cooper, Ken O’Connor and Lorna Earl) first met to talk about a cross-Canada network to connect educators who believe in Assessment for Learning. Why? Because of the powerful practices that we were seeing and hearing about in classrooms and schools in small towns, cities, on the Prairies, on our coastlines – all across Canada. We believe that AfL can fundamentally change the work of teachers and learning for students. We want to support AfL Canada’s advocates and trailblazers as they refine and extend their own learning by creating a network to forge relationships, share AfL successes, ponder the challenges, and learn together.
We continue to offer our time and our energy to bring Canadian educators together. We have met in central Canada (Winnipeg), the far west (Nanaimo), eastern Ontario (Kingston), the Prairies (Saskatoon), and the far east (Dartmouth) so far. Next year’s conference will be held in Delta, British Columbia.
- Assessment Reform Group 2002, Assessment for Learning: 10 principles research-based principles to guide classroom practice, Assessment Reform Group, London, United Kingdom.
- Black, P., Mccormick, R., James, M., & Pedder, D. (2006). Learning How to Learn and Assessment for Learning: A theoretical inquiry. Research Papers in Education, 21(2), 119-132. doi:10.1080/02671520600615612
- Shepard, L. (2000). The role of assessment in a learning culture. Educational Researcher, Vol. 29 #7 pp. 4-14. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.3102/0013189X029007004