By Dylan Wiliam
If you missed last month’s post, click here to see the first few questions I addressed. This month, I’ll answer a few more questions that readers have sent me recently.
As a school administrator for more than 20 years now, I find it is easier to support and help the weaker teachers in my school improve than to try to weed them out and recruit new ones. The main reason is because even then, you’re still taking the same gamble, because you don’t know how good they will be when they actually get in one of your classrooms.
If we embrace the “love the one you’re with” concept and implement TLCs (teacher learning communities for formative assessment) to help teachers improve, how can school leadership get evidence of the work that is happening in the TLCs to ensure teacher growth is taking place?
You’ve hit on a good point, and this can be a real problem for administrators, because what we’ve found is that if you let non-teaching school administrators join the monthly TLC meetings, you will actually destroy the TLCs. In Sweden, for example, school leaders insist on being members of the groups, and they completely change the dynamic of the meetings. You don’t get the honesty and the openness.
So I have a couple of ideas. The first is to help administrators understand that they (just as their teachers) cannot “create” learning. But they can create the circumstances in which learning (for their teachers) takes place. It is very difficult for teachers to talk about their frailties and mistakes when a “boss” is in the room, so our strong advice is that administrators do not attend these meetings.
Here’s way to find out what’s going on as an administrator. Meet periodically with TLC leaders to support them in their role as leaders and you’ll find out what goes on in those meetings. Ultimately, the real evidence should come through formative assessment learning walks; as administrators walk through classrooms, they should see greater prevalence of formative assessment practice.
My white paper about TLCs provides ideas about how leaders can monitor whether or not a TLC is working, and in my newest book, being published by Learning Sciences and due out this fall, I discuss this, along with leading indicators of success, and a lot more.
A closing thought: it might be that your teachers waste time during these meetings and you won’t know about it because you can’t attend, but it’s still a better place to start than assuming the worst from the get-go.
As an administrator, I have started using formative assessment strategies when I coach my teachers, but this has meant moving away from other less effective ones. Have you been able to work with districts that have chosen to move away from those less impactful strategies?
No, I haven’t, but one of the things I am more keenly aware of now is that leaders find it very difficult to prioritize. In fact, I was working with a group of secondary school leaders who had promised to give their teachers 75 minutes a month to focus on formative assessment TLCs—and found that they didn’t keep their promise. When I went back to them and said, “I thought you were going to make this a priority? A top priority!” they said, “It is”.” So I asked, “How many other top priorities do you have?” and they said “Lots.”
The problem was that they couldn’t actually take anything off the teachers’ plates. What we see time and time again is people just adding this to teachers’ workloads, and because it isn’t getting enough time, it isn’t happening.
I’ve summarized this by saying that for me, the essence of effective leadership is stopping people doing good things to give them time to do even better things. If you think you can improve schools just by stopping teachers doing bad things, you’re not going to get very far because teachers don’t do many bad things. Almost everything that teachers do adds value to student learning.
So the crucial thing is that we have to be selective. It becomes very difficult because people have spent a lot of time and money on certain initiatives that will not have as high an impact on student achievement, but it’s tough for them to give them up. It’s very difficult to get people to understand this.
Two-thirds of the primary schools in Singapore have now made formative assessment a top priority. They’re using the EFA PD Pack in their schools with monthly TLCs, and the high schools are also starting now. In south Australia, all 700 schools are using the PD Pack, as well. And the teachers report that they really enjoy it and like it.
However, it’s important to ensure that the priority is on what we know as classroom formative assessment—the minute-by-minute type. We’re not talking about common formative assessments or benchmark assessments and looking at data that sometimes turns teachers off.
If you ask teachers if they’re interested in knowing whether or not their students are learning what they’re teaching, just about all of them will agree that this is part of their job and one of their priorities. So they accept it better when you start the conversation like this, instead of, “Are you following the pacing guide given to you by the district?” The whole tone is very different.
Are you planning on setting up any formative assessment demonstration schools in the near future in the US?
Yes, we are always interested in knowing about schools that are implementing good formative assessment practice and that want to be considered as demonstration sites—especially during the 2015-16 school year in Florida, where it will be easy for folks from the Dylan Wiliam Center to visit them frequently.
Question 7 (From Dylan himself)
One of the questions I get asked a lot about classroom formative assessment is, “Isn’t this just good teaching?” One of the pushbacks we often get is that we shouldn’t have called it formative assessment, because it brings tests and quizzes to mind. But I believe it should be called formative assessment because it’s about the quality of evidence that teachers have for their instructional decisions.