ReThinking: losing our way with assessment

Assessment techniques for interdisciplinary learning

David Perry Chair, The Comino Foundation

The Comino Foundation is a small education charity with over fifty years experience of bridging the education and industry sectors. Why? Because our founder, Dimitri Comino, was a restless entrepreneur who took a ceaseless interest in refining processes of achievement and wanted schools to develop their capabilities in that arena.

The assessment of abilities in school children has been endlessly focused predominantly on outcomes – however, Comino’s interest is in the learning journey, more than the arrival. Why is it that some people and companies are serially successful in achieving things that their competitors don’t? How do they go about what they are doing that means they succeed, in depth?

So that’s our area of interest, giving school children the opportunity to work on longer-term projects with open outcomes that require them to focus sharply on what they are trying to achieve, to question their early ideas and received wisdom and to achieve results that they own, such that when questioned: Why is it like this? Why does it work this way? What have you tried to achieve? . . they have their answers, their own answers.

A significant part of Comino’s early work in the 1970s and 80s was in Primary schools, teaching both teachers and children to have a meta-awareness of how they were working and how they could change it so they achieved better results. That was a focus on the learning process.

Also, in this period, design started to appear as a learning method in secondary schools predominantly in Design and Technology. This of course tapped into the industrial/commercial aspects of adult life broadening children’s understanding of product development and manufacturing processes. The core change from preceding handicraft and housecraft subjects was again the new emphasis on process – just like the Primary children – questioning your own ways of working and refining them to achieve better outcomes.

Now, in the 2020s we are carrying this work forward by sponsoring the RSA’s Pupil Design Awards focused on social impacts rather than product outcomes as well as some other outstanding work in schools, often in collaboration with outside organisations: authentic tasks.

An emphasis on high quality approaches to the working process requires recognition of the extent to which pupils succeed or even excel for both formative and summative reasons. In the 1970/80s under both CSE[1] and GCE ‘A’ level Design syllabuses new approaches to assessment were intensively developed.

These sought to reward aspects such as creativity and originality contextualised in the designing and making of products. These responded to tangible ‘problems’, often in response to given design briefs, sometimes initiated by the pupil’s own identification of a need. ‘Problem-finding’ is a higher order skill that requires an understanding of the type of problem that, for example designing and making might resolve and an openness to not pursuing that route if it becomes clear it’s inappropriate.

Most of the responses to the Pupil Design Awards’ social issues are not through designing and making, though some are. Assessment approaches should develop from the nature of the processes engaged in, so the Oxford ‘A’ level Design assessment proforma allowed the teachers who initially marked the work before moderation by an external examiner, to shift the weighting of assessment criteria as appropriate to the demands of the individual’s task. For example, if the main challenge of a task was technical the level of ability shown to overcome it might be reflected in a decision to double the weighting of that criterion.

Another project might initially seem remote to the learner but assessment could be weighted to the ‘Thoroughness in gaining information’ criterion if it led to a quality of understanding of the project’s demands. There was even a criterion ‘Intelligent changes of target as circumstances changed’ – recognising that the initial identification of a ‘problem’ could change as experience unfolded.

To be able to make such insightful assessments as these it is critical that the student’s own teacher at least initially marks the work, drawing on observation of work in progress not just outcomes. Since John Major’s speech at the Guildhall as Prime Minister in the early 1990s referred off-the-cuff to the need to limit teachers’ assessment and coursework there has been evidence of increasing distrust of their objectivity.

Sad to say, with massively increased external accountability for schools now, this has become a much higher risk as every teacher is scrutinised closely for their contribution to the school’s grading. There is a need to go beyond the work of the past therefore in developing various means for evidencing the process a student’s project goes through, its quality and effectiveness. Fortunately since the 1980s the development and integration of IT in daily life gives us many ways to do this.

The Goldsmiths ‘e-Scape’ research project of the noughties (‘e-solutions for creative assessment in portfolio environments’) laid the groundwork for this but few people took notice. The combination of student captured records of progress contributed to a real-time database using a WiFi linked mobile phone meant that photos of progress could be captured serially. As well as that, recordings of reflective discussion with a co-student of work-in-progress, of personal reflections on progress and summative evaluations of their own work could be contributed.

The project worked to a strict timeframe of three hours of practical designing and making with allocated slots to capture the recordings. The digital database of evidence of the process of each individual child’s work, along with photos of outcomes was then subjected to a judging technique to produce a rank order of summative assessments to extraordinarily high standards of reliability. If a single grade was to be the outcome, a small team of teacher-examiners could efficiently set the thresholds using the online evidence base. And of course both judging and grade threshold allocations could all be done remotely so cost-effectively. Hopefully though, simple grade outcomes can be replaced with the overall picture of a student that an information-rich profile can display in an accessible enough format for potential employers, university admissions tutors, parents etc.

Why then did sophisticated developments such as these disappear from English schools? The answer in brief was the ‘back to basics’ movement, driven largely from outside education and frequently with an insistence on the same or closely similar forms of assessment for all subjects. Round holes for square pegs. Design, designing, Design and Technology are not knowledge-rich subjects, they rely on just-in-time knowledge acquisition to a large extent, and therefore on skills in learning-to-learn and applying knowledge as specific to the context. And these are skills that are commonly in demand in business environments which brings us back to Dimitri Comino’s interests.

So the Comino Foundation is proud to provide funding support to the development of Rethinking Assessment’s initial digital learner profile, and we are glad to hear that the Goldsmiths work outlined above is feeding into the approaches to be used. It is critical that further research is undertaken to ensure that various modus operandii are developed such that the qualities that need to be rewarded are evidenced transparently so that the users of the profile: at university and career entrance for example, understand what the profile is telling them about an individual.

We hope that the learner profile supports the further development of assessment techniques for both subjects across the board and inter-disciplinary work and so will be just the start of re-thinking not only how children’s competencies can be presented to others but also how assessments are undertaken, what skills, knowledge and competencies they will identify, bring forward and allow our children to be proud of. Gradgrind’s time is over.


[1] Certificate of Secondary Education: predominantly in ‘Mode Three’ teacher-developed syllabuses.

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