Beyond the Exam: Innovative approaches to learning and assessment
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19-20 November 2003
Watershed Media Centre, Bristol
Ben Williamson, Futurelab
Assessment and examinations have been contentious to some, and frightening to others for many years. The era of digital technology finally seems to offer relief from the paper-based exam, but will this help or hinder the young people for whom examinations have become a biennial trauma? Futurelab's Beyond the Exam conference set out to address the issue with speakers from industry and academia, as well as pupils from the classroom.
Anne Lawrence and Nicki Adams opened the event with a short film, made while on their Year 11 work experience placement at Futurelab, about their experiences of assessment. In it, their combined alter ego, 'Little X', grew up into a teenager whose entire educational life had been punctuated by assessment worries and woes, as well as surprises and celebrations.
Professor Paul Black of King's College reinforced the girls' demand for a rethink of the current assessment model which promotes superficial, rote learning. Black suggested that instead of a system of summative assessment which over-emphasises grades and under-emphasises actual learning processes, we should be looking to formative modes of "assessment for learning". In such a formative assessment model, feedback from staff to children and between classroom peers is constructively used to build knowledge and skills during learning rather than at the end of learning.
Reporting on a two and a half year project in Oxford, Black argued that children need more "task involvement" to reflect on their own work and discuss it with peers, rather than the dominant "ego involvement" that sees children competitively comparing their marks. But, he said, this can only happen once 'marking' is replaced as the primary assessment mode by constructive, written feedback on performance. The Oxford project, he stated, had begun to demonstrate significant gains amongst pupils on whose work formative comments were made.
Sue Martin of the University of Bath followed this by arguing that children need to see the value of learning from their mistakes in order to work on them. She proposed that ipsitive assessment methods which measure students' attainment on the basis of previous abilities can be used to avoid measuring students against normative gradings. Further, Martin Ripley of the QCA suggested that as the government, working with the QCA, accelerates the pace of change in ICT and e-assessment in education, the very nature of the curriculum and assessment will change. Comparability issues between paper-based and ICT-based assessment, however, could hold up this transformation.
Starting with the Shakespearean quote "If we offend 'tis with good will", Marc Prensky delivered an energetic keynote complete with klaxon alarms and high-speed Powerpoint. Since his subject was video games and his focus the 'twitch-speed' generation brought up as 'digital natives' in the last two decades, it was appropriately provocative. Prensky suggested that today's young people are growing up with fundamentally different ways of working and knowing to previous generations, arguing that the 'twitch-speed' tag often given to games players applies not so much to their impatience, but to the high speed of their decision-making processes during play. While Prensky made little explicit reference to assessment in schooling, he argued that games players are engaged in constant reflection on their own learning as they apply and re-apply appropriate tactics and strategies for success - something lacking in many school contexts.
The notion of the 'appropriateness' in assessment returned throughout the conference. Professor Richard Kimbell of Goldsmith's College closed Day 1 one of the conference by proposing that "the question is not whether children get the right answer, but whether they get an appropriate answer." Assessment, he said, should be about measuring the subject being learned, not about measuring the ability to do a test. From his work on children's design and technology, Kimbell argued that assessing design work is about finding performance evidence of the processes rather than outcomes. Any ICT-based assessment system that might be implemented, he suggested, would need to provide students with "e-spanners", tools to promote and develop performance, and not "e-buckets or e-sponges" that act as storage devices for delivering measurements.
Day 2 of the event began with Professor Jim Ridgway from the University of Durham asking for "authentic measures" of children's learning, not surrogate ones. The changing skills necessary for children's long-term success, he argued, are not even considered during most assessment. Knowledge about knowledge, understanding systems, and handling complex information, he said, are process skills necessary in a global society witnessing the "fast obsolescence of knowledge" - skills which many children leave school lacking.
More fundamental questions about children's learning and assessment were asked by Bristol University's Professor Guy Claxton in his keynote on developing children's "learnacy". Learnacy is the cache of skills, perceptions, values, interests, dispositions and emotional tolerances that, Claxton argued, young people need for the tests of life, rather than the unimaginative education that prepares them for a life of tests. In fact, Claxton proposed the "new four Rs" of education - resilience, resourcefulness, reflectiveness and reciprocity - as the key to successful lifelong learning and, crucially, to a satisfying life.
Besides the series of keynote presentations, a number of case studies across both days demonstrated some of the practical work that is currently going into the transformation of assessment.
On Day 1, Paul Humphries demonstrated Edexcel's work in online examinations. Jane Finch and Pilar Cloud described Worcester LEA's development of a Managed Assessment Portfolio System. Ultralab's Lesley McGuire described a mobile phone and web-based formative assessment tool called eVIVA that promotes self- and peer-assessment as well as dialogue between teachers and their pupils, while Martin Owen from Futurelab outlined the EVAL tool which supports peer evaluation of group work using asynchronous web technologies.
The case study sessions on Day 2 featured James Blomfield outlining Intuitive Media's work on Gridclub - an educational website for children; Patrick Craven, Sid Verber and Phil Riding demonstrating the UCLES group's online microscope; and Denis Vincent from nferNelson exploring how new assessment technologies could change established testing practice in schools. John White from Hi8us, along with Clodagh Miskelly from the University of the West of England, also described the pilot of L8R, an interactive drama resource for sex and relationships education designed for use across schools and their communities.
With delegates involved in debating the core issues in a number of working parties, Beyond the Exam posed more questions than any single test would be able to contain, and demonstrated the intensity of feeling around assessment. While a number of ICT-based alternatives to conventional assessment were shown, these did not convince all delegates. Understandably, debates on the future of assessment will continue.
The conference did, however, provide a forum for these debates to take place as new technology becomes increasingly the focus of educational initiatives to raise attainment across the curriculum. No single technology can be said to provide a solution, just as for the young people whose futures are at stake, no single assessment method can guarantee their success as young learners preparing for a life of learning. The Futurelab conference concluded that dialogue - between peers, between teachers and their pupils, between schools and their communities, and between policy-makers and all those under their charge - is essential in ensuring that access to authentic and meaningful learning occurs without discrimination amongst the young people of the 21st century.