Getting better at evidencing the full range of young peoples' dispositions

Rethinking Assessment in conversation with Professor Guy Claxton

Al McConville Co-founder, Rethinking Assessment

You can watch the full webinar recording here

This latest Rethinking Assessment event, held in conjunction with our partners the Edge Foundation, took the form of a conversation between Bill Lucas, Peter Hyman and Rachel Macfarlane from Rethinking Assessment and special guest Guy Claxton, Honorary Professor of Education, University of Bristol, Visiting Professor, King’s College London and Emeritus Professor, University of Winchester.

Our title: Getting better at evidencing the full range of young peoples’ dispositions

Guy Claxton set out his stall: everything should flow from our understanding of the purpose of school. We can broadly think of it as twofold: firstly, to develop knowledge and understanding of the world around us (D1); secondly, to develop beneficial skills and dispositions (D2). Any assessment, or preferably, ‘evidencing’ should support those twin aims. But often an overemphasis on assessing D1 is to the detriment of D2. So, for example, the ‘Direct Instruction’ approach may help us fulfil the narrow demands of D1 assessment in the form of summative exams, but too much emphasis there interferes with our D2 aims, by suppressing creativity. It has a ‘toxic side effect’. 

Peter Hyman built on this idea. In the post-school world people are interested in the quality of a person’s work in itself, rather than a numeric attempt to capture that quality. Establishing what makes work ‘beautiful’ should be part of the journey. Self-assessment can be as valid, or more so, than external imprimatur by metric. And such judgments should be far more nuanced. 

Guy concurred. Business uses 360 appraisal, and judgment is extensively qualitative, whereas anything not ‘objective’ in educational judgement is regarded with suspicion. It’s deemed ‘susceptible to bias’, or worse, open to cheating.

So, in a broader appraisal of pupils, what dispositions should we seeking to build and evidence? Guy suggests some of the following should be considered:

  1. Curiosity, as the most powerful driver of learning
  2. Rational scepticism, as pupils wrestle with the challenges of e.g. fake news
  3. Control of attention, to ensure pupils can pick their way sensibly through the attention economy
  4. Intellectual humility, in recognition that we should hold our positions undogmatically
  5. Exploratory thinking
  6. Determination
  7. Collaboration

Are these too vague to ‘evidence’? Not if you break them down. Pupils can dissect collaborativeness themselves: not jumping in, or interrupting; listening carefully and showing appreciation for the perspectives of others; offering constructive feedback, and so forth. We know what evidence of this looks like. 

Guy noted that there’s been a shift in thinking about how transferable some of these ‘generic’ skills are. Cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Willingham has become more supportive of the idea that ‘grit’ and ‘critical thinking’ can be developed in a way that’s useful across domains. And the work of David Perkins shows that some styles of teaching are more successful than others at ‘disembedding’ ‘subject specific’ skills so that they can be intuitively used in others.

So, if Guy and Bill’s imaginary  ‘Ruby’ wants to develop her questioning ability, we could look for evidence of her progress in a variety of ways: by looking at how autonomous she is in asking questions; at how broadly she questions across domains, and how deep or rich the question she asks are. 

Peter made a pitch for evidencing oracy. We know that pupils will recognise the value of something when we take the trouble to feed back to them on it. When we break down the facets of good oracy, as Voice 21 does, and engage young people in a conversation about their progress in those areas, we support their growth in a critical area for their futures. 

There’s an opportunity now, speakers agreed, to make progress away from the narrow metrics which currently bind schools to unrepresentative one-eyed practice. Time to slay the Cyclops. The suspension of exams creates a window. Wider trends demand it. Employers are developing their own strengths-based assessments; many are committing to qualifications-blind recruitment. The mental health argument against multiple high-stakes assessment is building in strength, and universities themselves are employing a much wider range of evidencing strategies than schools. Vivas are the final hurdle for the highest educational accolade. 

So, crystal ball time…

Consensus here from the panel: the future of educational evidencing lies in cumulative e-portfolios, showcasing a young person’s story, curating examples of their best work, with video and other evidence of their vivas, project outcomes, and exam results. 

Bill heretically went further – what is the need for exams if the cumulative multi-modal evidence-base was sufficient without them? Why not leave exams to those whose chosen pathways require such as a demonstration of specialist knowledge, or where the competition for places is so high that some more quantitative performance metric is needed for selection?

John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning’ was a watershed moment in the conversation about which educational approaches to take. A comparable leap in the ‘science of assessment’ is the next frontier in showing how we can successfully evidence not only knowledge and domain-specific understanding, but also broader dispositional factors, which we know to be just as important in a young person’s success. Bring on ‘Visible Assessment’. 

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