Implementing Assessment for Learning in a primary school; the perspective of a principal and deputy principal

In 2017 Karaka School principal, Sarah Hynds, and deputy principal, Carla Cook, decided to make Assessment for Learning their school-wide focus for the next two years. They wanted to implement an evidence-based, school-wide, proven pedagogical approach that was linked to their school vision and values, and placed the holistic learning and development of their students at its centre.

In the case study below they discuss the journey they’ve been on over 2017 and the key lessons they’ve learned.

Setting the foundation; what needed to be in place before you started your AfL journey?

Before introducing AfL, Sarah and Carla established a series of foundational building blocks to ensure that teachers were at a place where they were ready to engage. These included:

  • Establishing why this work was important for their students, drawing on Hattie’s Visible Learning and exploring the purpose of assessment
  • Introducing modeling books and the importance of having learning intentions for every lesson
  • Implementing learning pathway folders
  • Establishing student-led conferences in place of parent teacher interviews
  • Building relational trust with staff, so that teachers felt comfortable and were open to having Sarah and Carla regularly come into their classrooms
  • Introducing teaching as inquiry and linking the appraisal process to teachers’ inquiries
  • Engaging an external facilitator (Janet McCarroll from Evaluation Associates) to support the school in their journey and establishing the plan for 2017, including specific and measurable goals

How did you set about implementing AfL at Karaka school?

Professional learning workshops

The six capabilities were implemented one at a time over the course of three terms. Janet (the external facilitator), would provide a theoretical workshop on each capability, which was followed up by a practical workshop run by Sarah and Carla to demonstrate to teachers how to implement particular approaches. Teachers were also expected to undertake independent reading before attending each session. The main book used was Clarity in the Classroom.

Classroom implementation, observation, coaching and sharing

Teachers had approximately 4 weeks to trial each capability in their classroom. They were then observed on that specific capability and their practice was videoed. Carla and Sarah also gathered student voice about that capability. This was followed up by a peer coaching session and practice analysis conversations.  Before the practice analysis sessions, teachers watched the videos of their practice. Sarah and Carla then took a coaching approach to the conversations, using careful questioning to empower the teachers to identify what was happening in their practice and to identify their next steps and learning goals.

Throughout the year, teachers were provided with opportunities to share their learning and particular strategies they were trialing with other teachers.

Aligning professional learning, teaching as inquiry and appraisal

The professional learning focus (AfL) was also the focus of teachers’ inquiries for the year and was also the focus of their appraisal, ensuring that there was alignment and coherence across all activities. For their inquiries, teachers were asked to go through each capability and reflect on: (1) where they had come from; (2) what they had learned; (3) the impact it had had on their practice; and (4) the impact it had had on their students. At the end of the year teachers had the opportunity to share their inquiries and this provided a rich learning opportunity, enabling staff to learn from each other and to gather inspiration for the following year.

Staff also completed an assessment on what stage they were at and their students were at for each capability at the start and end of the year, so that they could measure progress.

What has been the impact of AfL on students?

There has been a transformation in how students perceive themselves and their learning. Students know they are at school to learn and have a new sense of ownership over their learning. They are active participants in the learning process and in identifying their learning journeys. Students also have a deeper understanding of what it means to learn and that learning at times can be challenging and that they may find themselves in the ‘learning pit’. They have developed resilience and strategies to support them when they are in the ‘learning pit’. Students also are more willing to take risks with their learning. There has been a shift from a focus on getting things right to giving things a go.

What has been the impact of AfL on teachers’ practice?

Teachers are now reflecting more on what they are doing and the impact that it’s having on their students. They also are talking constantly with students about their learning and are seeking feedback from their students. Teachers now priortise time to analyse their most recent assessment data and to engage in data conversations about what it tells them about their students learning, their teaching and next steps. The school has become a more collaborative environment, where sharing is encouraged, there is an open door policy in every classroom, and staff see themselves as learners, whose practice is continually evolving

Key lessons for other schools

  • Prioritise learning time: Teachers need time to practice their new learning. It is pivotal to schedule time slots into staff meetings and into professional learning time for learning conversations, peer coaching, individual reflections, data discussions and the sharing of practice.
  • Recognise and acknowledge teachers will be at different stages: particular capabilities will resonate with certain teachers and they will progress quickly. Find ways to harness this so that others can learn from what they are doing. Similarly, some teachers will find particular capabilities challenging and they need to be supported.
  • Have a plan but be flexible: It is important to have clear goals and a plan to guide your year. However, be willing to adapt this during the year in order to ensure that the professional learning is meeting the needs of the teachers. This means that as a school leader, you need to be aware of what is going on for your staff.
  • Have a single focus: Don’t try to change everything at once. Prioritise AfL and allow yourselves enough time to embed it in practice (at least 2 years).
  • Communicate expectations: Be clear with your staff from the outset what your expectations are, what they will be asked to do over the year, and why it is important.
  • Create alignment – link the professional learning focus, to teachers’ inquiries and their appraisal.
  • Involve everyone: senior leadership, teachers, students and parents and whanau
  • Acknowledge and celebrate success and achievements
  • Create ownership: while external facilitation is essential, it is also critical that AfL is owned and driven by the school.

Top Five Tips from Sarah

  1. Ensure the ‘why’ is clear from the start
  2. Take time to embed the learning, which is why AfL remains the main learning focus for 2018 and they will revisit and delve deeper into all the capabilities
  3. Empower teachers to take ownership, for example by co-constructing the second year of learning and taking a coaching approach during practice analysis conversations
  4. Aligning everything – vision, values, strategic goals, annual plan, professional learning, curriculum, appraisal
  5. Leaders need to be actively involved and relentless in their belief and vision

Top Five Tips from Carla

  1. Ensure the ‘why’ is clear to get buy in from all. Establish, what is the purpose? and why is this worth spending time on?
  2. Understand that this learning is going to take time to embed effectively. It is important to revisit the key concepts and learning and to ask staff where they would like additional support
  3. Set up supports, for example providing the release time, staff meeting time, peer coaching, individual practice analysis conversations
  4. Teachers need to see examples of what the capabilities look like in practice
  5. Make links so that professional learning is linked to personal inquiries and to appraisal