Get the lowdown on the latest news on formative assessment and digital tools for schools

Is the evidence mindset holding back innovation?

In education, we are fond of talking about evidence. Where is the evidence of progress in the students’ books? Have we collected enough evidence for the upcoming SATs moderation? What evidence can we show of the impact of quality feedback?

There is good reason for this. In an environment where monitoring, observation and inspection feature prominently in assessing the effectiveness of teaching, teachers and even schools themselves, it’s no wonder that there is such a focus on the trail we leave as proof of good practice.

Put it this way: if Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumb trail through the forest had been anywhere near as robust as the paper trail of learning and assessment in students’ books up and down the country, they wouldn’t have had that unfortunate encounter with the old woman in the gingerbread house.

While visible evidence of learning, and progression in learning, has a role to play in accountability, is it possible that this evidence mindset could actually be stifling innovation?

A recent conversation with a member of the senior leadership team at a successful secondary school provided a case in point. This particular school was not rolling out the use of Google Classroom more widely because of concerns that evidence of progress would not be visible enough to SLT or to inspectors: ‘What would we show Ofsted if the learning was online? There wouldn’t be anything in the students’ books’.

Having students’ learning outcomes in books or folders creates a comforting paper trail documenting the sequence of teaching and learning and – hopefully – showing the student’s progress. But it also limits the tools at the teacher’s disposal to support that progress and drive it forward. An online learning environment like Google Classroom lets teachers pull together the best online resources for students to learn from, watch, evaluate and discuss. And it means students can debate issues, collaborate on tasks and submit work in one place.

Paper-based learning outcomes also leave the teacher with the time-consuming task of providing handwritten feedback when they could be using time-saving digital assessment tools to lighten the marking load.

With an integrated assessment tool such as StudyBee, which sits inside Google Classroom, teachers can give tailored feedback linked directly to assessment descriptors at the click of a button.

StudyBee’s customisable data analysis tools also allow teachers to check on pupil progress throughout the term and make decisions about the next steps in their learning with ease.

In order for educators and students to benefit from the digital tools that promise to drive progress in both teaching and learning and make teacher workload more manageable, isn’t it time we rethought the evidence culture and brought it in line with the best that education technology has to offer?

Download your free trial of StudyBee today.


Is Google Classroom the ultimate mastery learning tool?

Mastery learning is a concept that has enjoyed its fair share of the limelight in education in recent years.

While it is not a new idea – it was first proposed as an educational strategy back in the 1960s – it has gained popularity in recent years due to its successful application in the education systems of Pacific Rim countries, most notably. In case you’ve missed the hype, this method of pedagogy breaks down the content of learning into units with clearly defined learning objectives or outcomes. Students practise applying the skills taught until they can demonstrate a high level of proficiency – in other words, they are tested and must achieve a score of 80% or more. Only then can they progress to the next unit of learning.

The current popularity of mastery learning is in no small part related to the fact that it ties in well with the concept of the ‘growth mindset’ – the belief that attainment is not determined by fixed concepts of ability but is instead something achieved through the repeated practise of key skills.

In the mastery learning model, the student’s progress relies on well-focused and well-timed feedback from the teacher to move the learning on. And this is where a digital learning platform like Google Classroom, which streamlines dialogue between teacher and student, really comes into its own.

Paper-based learning effectively limits the number of times a teacher can give feedback on the same piece of learning – how long a handwritten paper trail of student/teacher interaction is it realistic to create? – and can make the process of reattempting and redrafting a cumbersome experience for the student. Digitally based learning in Google Classroom takes care of these problems. Children can cut and paste passages to redraft (taking into account teacher feedback) to their heart’s content or keep on chipping away at that tricky Maths investigation with pertinent input from their teacher until they crack it. It is, surely, the ultimate mastery learning tool at our disposal as educators.

And if you use a digital assessment tool like StudyBee, which plugs straight into Google Classroom, it’s possible to give tailored feedback against selected learning objectives to every student in your class in a few clicks of a mouse. Download your free trial here.

Recent analysis by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) brings together the findings of many mastery learning research projects, and provides some thought-provoking insights. Overall, the mastery projects in the sample boosted progress by +5 months’ over the course of a school year. Interestingly, the EEF overview highlights some key features of mastery learning in the sample groups that had the greatest impact:

  1. Mastery learning is most effective when it is collaborative

Mastery learning places emphasis on all students progressing through new units of learning at the same time, so it is perhaps unsurprising that in successful mastery learning environments peer mentoring plays a key part. Alice Keeler has written about encouraging collaboration in Google Classroom in her blog and offers some great practical tips.

  1. Mastery learning is effective when every student works at the same pace within a group

If you’re unsure how to assign tasks to individual groups in Google Classroom, Ditchthattexbook offers practical ‘how to’ guidance on using the Grouping feature here.

  1. Mastery learning is most effective when used for short periods of time

The EEF analysis indicates that the impact of mastery learning approaches decreases when used for more than 12 weeks at a time. Student outcomes in the sample studies showed that lower attaining students made more progress than higher attaining ones. This suggests that mastery learning may be an effective instructional vehicle for delivering targeted intervention to narrow the gap. And that’s a useful piece of knowledge for the GC-savvy teacher to have up their sleeve in the next round of pupil progress meetings.


Use Google Classroom to break away from fixed-ability thinking

Fixed-ability thinking in the classroom hinders learning and can define what a child believes they are capable of.

These are key take-aways from the book Learning without Limits, published in 2012 and co-written by Dame Alison Peacock, and the work of the project of the same name run by the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education. Between them, they have helped reignite debate amongst educators in recent years around the impact of determinist beliefs about children’s ability.

However, you don’t need to look far to find examples that prove this labelling of children according to their perceived ability is still rife in schools. Lesson planning makes explicit differentiation of activities and resources for so-called ‘low-ability’, ‘core’ and ‘more able’ groups. In some classrooms, children are seated according to ability – a physical manifestation of fixed-ability thinking that does nothing to open up educational opportunity to all.

This results in what Italian educationalist Loris Malaguzzi termed ‘prophetic pedagogy’. If the child is told that they are of ‘low ability’ and is exposed only to the sort of learning, discussion and resources deemed appropriate for children of ‘low ability’, their potential to succeed is not only capped by the expectations of those around them but is also stunted by their own developing perception of what they are capable of.

And this is not just a question of semantics. Some schools have banned staff from talking about ‘low ability’, ‘core’ or ‘more able’ pupils. But staffroom conversation falls back upon a new shorthand – ‘lower attaining’, ‘those at risk of falling behind’ – that still embodies the same preconceptions.

Writing in the TES at the start of the school year, education commentator Nancy Gedge, highlighted the benefits to all children of inclusive classroom practises that seek to promote collaboration and the collective learning of children irrespective of educational need. And you need only spend a short time in a classroom of a school that has abandoned ability grouping and allowed children to self-select the appropriate level of challenge in their learning to see how learning and progress flourish.

Digital learning environments such as Google Classroom offer huge potential to level the playing field for all learners while giving teachers control of formative assessment tools that enable them to monitor understanding and progress, and set next-steps for each child. Here are three quick ways you can use Google Classroom to move beyond fixed-ability thinking:

1. Use Stream to promote collaborative leaning

Allow all children to learn from each other in Stream. Use a video with high-quality audio or an animation with a useful audio commentary as the basis for discussion rather than a text. By reducing the reading load of the resource, more of your students will be able to access the content independently and participate in the discussion.

2. Provide a range of different resources

Make available to all learners a range of resources in different formats (video, audio, text, animation) but with the same educational content and let them self-select the resource they are more confident using. If you make these available before a lesson or before you start a unit of learning, students can use the resources as a pre-study tool to give them the foundations they will need to participate in learning in the physical classroom.

3. Allow the child to select the right level of challenge

Instead of setting different tasks or activities for different ‘ability groups’, set one activity for all with different levels of challenge built in for children to select. Google Classroom allows you to give personalised feedback to individual children, which can include targeted questions to further their learning and set next steps. Using a formative assessment tool such as StudyBee, which can be used to assign customised learning objectives to every Google Classroom assignment, helps you to stay on top of this highly personalised dialogue with your students about their learning.

Download a free trial today and see how StudyBee could transform your interaction with your students.


Three fast ways to prepare for Parents’ Evening in Google Classroom

The appointments are made, your marking is up to date and this time you’ve stocked up on snacks to get you through to the bitter end. Yes – Parents’ Evening is just around the corner.

In addition to the pressures on the evening itself of keeping conversations on-track, getting your message across in the allotted time and greeting the very last parent as warmly as you greeted the first, there’s also the small matter of preparing for the appointments themselves.

The impact on learning of open dialogue between home and school are well-recognised and Parents’ Evening can be a valuable tool for communicating effectively with parents. In order to make the most of the face-to-face time with parents, it’s useful to do your homework first and decide exactly what you want to say. But this can be time-consuming. Half termly or end-of-unit attainment data is easily collated, but how can you gather together quickly the other information that gives a more rounded view of your students?

For those using Google Classroom, here are our top tips:

  1. Encourage students to reflect on their learning skills

Pose a question in Google Classroom to find out which skills the students feel they have used in their learning or feel they have developed since September. Even better, ask a short series of questions about strategies they have used to tackle tricky areas in their learning. How resilient do they feel they have been? What could they do to improve their learning strategies? This will help gather information about the way your students see themselves as learners. Whether you agree with their self-evaluation or not, this is important information to share with parents so they can support their child’s progress.  

  1. Identify areas of learning a student needs to revisit

Create a quiz in Google Forms about your students’ learning over the last half term or in a specific unit then share the link in Google Classroom. If you opt to have responses automatically collated in a Google Forms spreadsheet, you’ll have a quick overview of any misunderstandings or gaps in each student’s knowledge and any areas in which a student’s knowledge and understanding excels.

  1. Get a snapshot of attainment in different tasks

If you’ve been using a formative assessment tool such as StudyBee, which sits inside Google Classroom, use the information in the Course Progress pane to get a quick overview of the child’s attainment in different tasks. Was there an activity they struggled with? Or one in which they flew? Check back on the feedback you gave and consider how well the student responded.

StudyBee allows you to track a student’s level of attainment in different tasks and assignments in just a few clicks, allowing you to plan effectively for their next steps. With this level of control, it’s easy to make your planning and teaching as responsive to the needs of your students as it can be.  Download a free trial today and see how StudyBee could transform your formative assessment and save you time.


Is your school prepared for Ofsted ‘teacher workload’ scrutiny?

It’s a familiar sight in school car parks up and down the country. As the premises manager locks up for the night, teachers stream out of the school building weighed down by the books, stacks of paper and assignments that they will spend the evening or weekend marking.

It’s no secret that marking is one of the biggest contributors to teachers’ workload. And now it has been singled out as one of the areas that Ofsted inspectors will focus on in their assessment of Senior Leadership Teams and how effectively they manage the workload of teaching staff.

Tweeting at the start of the academic year, Ofsted Director of Education Sean Harford, announced teachers would be asked to rate their SLT on how much consideration they give to workload when introducing new policies. Inspectors will assess the impact on teacher workload of SLTs’ decisions regarding planning, the use of data, marking and assessment.

While marking and personalised feedback are time consuming, research shows that they have considerable impact in moving learning forward. The Sutton Trust/Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching & Learning Toolkit concludes that it can accelerate progress by up to eight months. This makes quality feedback the biggest hitter in the teacher’s arsenal of tools to support the progress of their students.

If Ofsted’s spotlight on teacher workload is to drive positive change in this area, schools will have to evaluate their own formative assessment practice and be prepared to explore some bold alternatives.

So how can educators continue to provide their students with effective feedback in a way that is both well-targeted and time-effective?

As digital learning environments such as Google Classroom continue their steady march into UK classrooms, it may be that online assessment tools hold the answer. Assessment tools like StudyBee, which sits within Google Classroom, allow teachers to assess a student’s work against customisable National Curriculum descriptors and provide feedback at the click of a button. What’s more, teachers can use their bank of digital marking to get an overview of a student’s progress towards attainment targets or a snapshot of their learning over the course of a unit of learning or half term.

The integration of digital marking with assessment data analysis for formative assessment saves time and provides meaningful feedback that can inform next steps in planning. To find out for yourself how StudyBee could streamline marking and assessment in your school, download a free trial here.