Ever since Dylan William and Paul Black opened our eyes to the power of classroom assessment in 1998, we have seen teachers and educational researchers advocate for the use of formative assessment in lessons. The research over the last 20+ years has shown that formative assessment has a huge, beneficial impact on students’ learning. And yet, in our experience, in-class formative assessment is often done to students by well-meaning teachers who know that the impact is meant to be transformative but are not quite sure how to assess students and utilise this information. Rolling out specific formative assessment strategies across a school thus needs to be carefully planned, to ensure it is used both in tandem with our knowledge-rich, sequenced curriculum and effectively by our colleagues who are putting these strategies into action.
The move to our virtual school and remote learning, during the COVID-19 lockdown periods, meant that there was more of a need to have a structured approach to formatively assess students during virtual lessons. It would be all too easy to plough ahead and simply teach the sequenced lesson in a medium-term plan. However, one of the key principles at the core of our curriculum is a mastery approach. Hence, we needed to ensure that students were learning what was being taught in our live, virtual lessons before we introduced the next piece of subject knowledge. Our adoption of technology (through the use of Microsoft Forms, Polls, chat function and virtual whiteboards) not only allowed us to formatively assess students’ understanding in the moment, but actually encouraged the use of formative assessment in lessons to a level that exceeded formative assessment use prior to COVID-19. It is no exaggeration to say that buy-in and implementation of formative assessment across the academy has been aided by the pandemic!
Fortunately, we are no longer locked-down. The transition back to the physical classroom led to an interesting problem – how do we capitalise on the teaching and learning gains made when we were running our virtual school? Some of teachers were not using formative assessment techniques prior to this. Indeed, the feedback we got from some of our early career teachers was that they had not even considered this until it formed part of our remote lesson structure. Consequently, we needed to do two things: firstly, show how some of the virtual formative assessment strategies could be replicated in the physical school and, secondly, support teachers in deliberately using and embedding these strategies in the classroom. As always with a whole school deployment of a teaching and learning strategy, a carefully planned, singular approach is needed to ensure that the strategy is understood, planned for, deliberately practiced, and ultimately embedded into the fabric of a lesson. However, we did not want to go backwards and ask teachers to not utilise already embedded techniques. Instead, we needed something unifying, a conduit that would enhance the learning experience, whilst allowing teachers to retain their autonomy within their own classrooms. To this end, we chose to embed the use of mini-whiteboards. Whilst a mini-whiteboard is not a strategy in itself, it does allow multiple teaching and learning strategies to be used within the classroom context. Given the additional restrictions that Covid-19 played in schools, the ability to garner valuable information from student responses at a distance is an added bonus.
Mini-whiteboards are relatively inexpensive, and readily available. However, it is crucial that before one embarks on this journey, the resources are in place. Whiteboards, erasers and plenty and plenty and plenty of pens. The latter will be misplaced or run out far quicker than can reasonably be anticipated. Indeed, if the mini-whiteboards are being used in every lesson, then they should run out! This is a good thing!
It is important to establish the purpose of utilising mini-whiteboards. Put simply, they are an opportunity for students to provide the teacher with information about whether they have learnt something. To this end, in the majority, students need to be taught the requisite disciplinary or procedural knowledge prior to students showing teachers what they have learnt. It would be unfair if as teachers we were to ask students to show us something on the mini-whiteboards that had not been taught. Such stabs in the dark do not result in what Kirschner, Sweller and Clark define as learning, namely a change in long term memory. The mini-whiteboards are merely tools to enable this, their use is not to an end in itself.
And so it is with this understanding that mini-whiteboards were introduced to our staff, as they re-entered the physical school. Teachers had already bought in to the power of formative assessment in the virtual world. My role was to show teachers that the mini-whiteboard could be used to implement the formative assessment strategy they had used virtually. The following table was the centrepiece of the buy-in:
|Formative Assessment Strategy||Virtual School||Physical School|
|Check for understanding||Polls, Forms||Mini-Whiteboard|
|Student practice after teacher modelling||One Note||Mini-Whiteboard|
|Generating ideas||Chat box||Mini-Whiteboard|
|Testing Prior Knowledge||Polls, Forms||Mini-Whiteboard|
|Think Write (Pair) Share||Chat box||Mini-Whiteboard|
I wanted to show the power of the mini-whiteboard and encouraged staff to use this as soon as students had them in the hand.
Of course, just purchasing the tools does not mean that they will be used effectively, or indeed used at all. What was needed was department specific training, clear examples and replicable routines. Our subject leaders were given training sessions that they could adapt for the needs of their respective departments. Clear examples were drawn from a wide group of teachers who were filmed using a variety of formative assessment strategies within their subject. Finally, student and teacher routines around the use of mini-whiteboards were shared at every opportunity – for example within the exemplar videos – alongside feedback from lesson drop-ins by Subject Leaders, mentors and senior staff. Irrespective of teaching experience, it was important to ensure all teachers were given opportunities to deliberately practice routines and discuss with their departments what worked well and what could be further developed.
Initially, I had allocated half a term for formative assessment to be integrated into our daily practice. However, on review, it became clear that it will take at least another half term, potentially another full term to embed this fully into our practice. And this is OK! The power of having formative assessment and the subsequent impact on student learning vastly outweighed any need to rush the implementation through. After all, we do have a mastery approach to learning in this school!
As mentioned earlier, buy-in to the concept was not so difficult. However, it would be dishonest of me to suggest that there were no teachers who were wary and saw this is a fad. Teachers such as myself, who have ‘been in the game’ long enough, are naturally cautious about the next ‘big thing’. But this is not a new thing. Mini-whiteboards have been available for at least a decade and are common place in many classrooms. All we were doing was that these were being used regularly, with a common routine (to ensure students focus on the learning, not the tool), and for a sustained period of time.
The nature of whole school implementation is to ensure that colleagues are not only using this strategy in their classroom teaching but are deliberately planning for the use of mini-whiteboards at opportune moments in the lesson. Whether they are testing prior knowledge using multiple choice questions, asking students to write learnt definitions or simply checking for understanding using simple Q&A, the ability to test whether students have learnt something in the moment enables teachers to respond to misunderstandings or misconceptions in real time, rather than let that error fester.
Finally, it is important to make clear that the rollout of this strategy included all subject disciplines. There was no opt out for any department. Yes, it was sometimes logistically challenging, but there are always solutions and it is our jobs as school leaders to support our colleagues. Whether it is a Maths lesson in a classroom, or a PE lesson on the astro-turf pitch, mini-whiteboards are a powerful tool that aids learning anywhere. By filming teachers across various disciplines, it was important to utilise the breadth of the curriculum. Hence, over the next few weeks, our colleagues will see teachers across a range of subject specialisms showcasing a formative assessment strategy using a mini-whiteboard.
Naturally, we will review the impact of this in the short and medium term by looking at checkpoint assessment data to see whether our specific take on formative assessment had enhanced students’ ability to learn the knowledge (be it disciplinary, procedural) we have taught them. Where the data does not conform to our expected uplift, we will be speaking to teachers and helping them to isolate the teaching and learning issues. No doubt, mini-whiteboards will play a significant role in the triage!
The long-term impact is slightly less clear, as we have only just implemented this! I know where we expect this to go, but this depends upon how embedded the tool is within the classroom, the curriculum and ultimately the culture, over the next year. With new colleagues joining our wonderful school, there will naturally be a need to ensure the rationale is explained and deliberate practice and use monitored. But like all things, this will be reviewed, analysed and adjusted to ensure we do not take this for granted.
Beyond embedding, next steps
To some degree, the term formative assessment itself is problematic. William himself has, on occasion, mentioned that in hindsight, he should have referred to this as responsive teaching. From the point of view of a school leader attempting to develop this practice across our academy, this latter term actually clarifies what we are trying to do: encourage teachers to be more responsive to the information that students provide, by adapting their lesson in the moment to ensure students have learnt what has been taught. But this is hard. And whilst there is an implicit requirement to do this, asking teachers unused to mini-whiteboards to anticipate every misconception, error and ultimately abandon the planned lessons AND be confident enough to re-teach aspects of learning that has not been mastered, is a challenge. One that requires further training, an open-mindedness to taking on feedback and plenty and plenty of deliberate practice.
But that is what motivates us as teachers and school leaders: to ensure we utilise all the tools at our disposal to ensure students learn.