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Inside the black box revisted (again)

'Inside the black box', written by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam was written in 1998 and consisted of nineteen pages. How come  this pamphlet, because you can hardly call it a book, has had such major impacts in education systems in the UK and across the world?

The answer lies in the content, which was to herald the focus on formative assessment in classrooms and schools across many systems, but particularly here in the UK.

My earliest memories of hearing about formative assessment was, first of all at an In-Service day for teachers with our local authority, in which we were told there had been some new research written about how we could all improve our teaching, and we were to start getting the learners involved actively in learning, deciding what they wanted to learn, and that we would all be doing this from now on. The second, was seeing Dylan Wiliam on a TV programme talking about formative assessment, and the techniques teachers could use in their classrooms. The teachers in the programme, and myself, were particularly taken by his 'no hands up' strategy, and the use of lollipop sticks to support everyone to be engaged in a lesson.

Both these memories, reflect some of the reasons why the work of Black and Wiliam with regards to formative assessment is still being discussed and debated today, and has still not been fully implemented properly in so many schools and systems. There work is an example of a piece of well researched and well intentioned advice that has somehow mutated into other things in many classrooms and schools, and therefore has failed to have the impacts, or results, expected across the system. There is no doubt that this work has had positive impacts for teachers, schools and learners, but there still remains a feeling that we still 'haven't got it' in many instances.

Perhaps the two biggest failings associated with the research were the lack of time given to assimilate and understand its main messages, and how quickly it was turned into a series of techniques to be used, and observed, in classrooms.

I have returned to 'Inside the black box' many times over the last nineteen years, and each time I find messages that have either been lost or twisted into something else over this time period. I consider some of these in this post, to help remind myself of what was said, and the actual impacts we experienced as formative assessment became the latest 'thing' in education.

Lets remind ourselves of some of the main messages.

'Learning is driven by what teachers and pupils do in classrooms.' This seems such an obvious observation, but Black and Wiliam thought it so important that it was worthwhile stating on page 1 of 'Inside the black box' (ITBB). This remains just as true today as it did then, despite all the government focus on curriculum, testing, accountability and structures that had proceeded it, and which continue to this day. The statement points us, and policy makers, to where our attention needs to lie, if we are to improve what we can achieve for all our learners. Much of the work of others like Fullan, Hargreaves, Sahlberg, Harris, Hattie, and more, have emphasised the same point, around the primacy of teachers and learners in the learning process. Black and Wiliam, and other researchers, all recognised the complexity of learning, and that if we wanted to improve this, our focus has to be on teachers, individually and collaboratively. They felt we were too focused on inputs and outputs, rather than what happens between these. The 'black box' of which they wrote, was the classroom and the teaching and learning that happened therein. Indeed, Wiliam has commented recently that he wished they had not used 'assessment' at all, because what they were talking about was good formative teaching and learning practices.

'We start from the self-evident proposition that teaching and learning have to be interactive.' This is stated on page 2. They point out that teachers have to know their pupils well and, using their knowledge and experience, they have to adjust their teaching according to how their learners are responding to the learning taking place. They describe this ability as 'formative assessment', where teachers are responding and giving feedback to learners as they are engaged on learning tasks and activities. The learners would also be receiving feedback from their peers about their learning, as they supported their own, and others', learning. Black and Wiliam observed that good teachers had always operated in these ways, but that they wanted to question whether such practice positively supported learning, and could it be improved further by making the process more systematic and visible?

' we also acknowledge widespread evidence that fundamental educational change can only be achieved slowly - through programmes of professional development that build on existing good practice.' This appears, on page 3, as a caution to governments and system leaders, as well as teachers themselves, to not to try and go too fast, but to build on what they do well already. I am sure many of us who have been involved with the adoption of formative assessment strategies and practice, would think that this is definitely one piece of advice that was generally ignored. There was a push from all levels in the system  to introduce everything Black and Wiliam talked about as quickly as possible, without giving people the time to engage with the research and the associated literature, so that they thoroughly understood what they were doing and why? Black and Wiliam had looked at nearly 600 pieces of research, as well as their own, in order to offer the advice they did in 1998, from this there first key message was about taking our time with changes we made. If only!

They quickly demonstrated in ITBB that formative assessment did indeed raise standards of attainment and 'improved formative assessment helps the (so-called) low attainers more than the rest, and so reduces the spread of attainment whilst also raising it overall.' (page 4) They said that for this to be the case, feedback was crucial, learners needed to be actively engaged in their learning, the results of teacher assessment had to be used to adjust future learning, and that teachers needed to consider pupil motivation and self and peer assessment to support learning. Because of the rush to implementation, these message were quickly skewed into pupils being up and about in all their learning, 'three stars and a wish' was given and expected to be seen, more 'flexible' planning proformas were introduced, and learners spent  a lot of time assessing their own work and that of others as a ritualistic part of many observed lessons. Everyone  rushed to 'prove' they were 'doing' formative assessment. The local authority I worked for interpreted some of these messages as meaning each child needed an personal learning plan (PLP), the first section of which required learners to identify their 'preferred learning style'. Teachers were instructed to take note of these as they planned the learning. I would like to say that these have all disappeared, but I still see and hear of such plans being used, and insisted on, in schools across Scotland.

Black and Wiliam then went on to identify a whole raft of common teaching practices and approaches that were actually detrimental to learning, but which had commonly been observed by themselves and other researchers. To them, this demonstrated that there was still much we could do to improve practice, and therefore attainment off all our learners. They pointed out all the legislation and structural changes that had been introduced in England, and elsewhere, designed to bring about improvement and development, in which they noted 'that existing good practice could hardly have survived, let alone risen to the challenge of a far more demanding set of requirements.' (page 8)

So, yes there were still many things we could do to improve how formative assessment was understood and used in schools, and by teachers. They identified that 'the ultimate user of assessment information which is elicited in order to improve learning is the pupil.' (page 8) This could produce a negative impact if classroom cultures focused on extrinsic rewards which promoted fixed mindsets in learners about what they could, or could not, do. But, if teachers 'created a culture of success, backed by a belief that all can achieve' (page 9) then formative assessment could become a powerful weapon for improved outcomes. Feedback was crucial, should help learners improve their learning and understanding, and should be specific to them, in order to have the biggest impacts. These findings and advice were to be supported by later work by Carol Dweck, John Hattie, and others.

There was still great scope for pupils to self-assess and peer-assess, though they recognised the reliability issues that lay around this. They pointed out that 'pupils can only assess themselves when they have a sufficiently clear picture of the targets that their learning is meant to attain.' (page 9)They saw this element as a key component of formative assessment practice, provided the pupils were taught how to carry out such assessment in a meaningful and accurate way. This was to lead to the setting of learning intentions and success criteria by teachers for every lesson, with a great deal of time getting learners to write these down, or stick them, into their jotters. It also seemed to lead to a lot of meaningless peer-assessment comments appearing on pupil work, and most of this was designed to 'show' that formative assessment was happening, rather than to support the learning of learners. A consequence of not giving teachers enough time to understand and think about what was actually being said, then considering how they might meaningfully shape this for their learners. such mutations were occurring across schools and systems, and most teachers were so busy they didn't have the time to look at the original recommendations and research themselves. We had created cultures where teachers and school leaders waited to be told what to do, and from which we still suffer today.

Black and Wiliam considered effective teaching and how teachers planned for this. They pointed out that planning should change so that learning is clearly identified, and time provided for learners to 'communicate their evolving understanding.' (page 10) A more dialogical approach to learning was being recommended, as the importance of questioning by teachers was being emphasised, with teachers seeing these times as another opportunity of assessing the depth of pupil learning. Again, they recognised inherent dangers in this process if teachers didn't thoroughly understand what they were doing and why. I would suggest, that this is exactly what happened in many cases, and more lip-service was paid to this aspect, rather than any deep understanding of how it improved learning. This was as much the fault of those observing and directing teachers, as the teachers themselves. There remained a distrust of seeing pupils talking for too long, rather than 'doing' something, which generally meant writing stuff down.

The authors recommended that teachers needed to consider carefully tests and homework exercises they set. They must be all designed carefully to support the planned learning taking place. Feedback on these tasks needed to be given that supported the learners with their learning, showing them how they could move this on. Too much testing and homework had been observed which had little connection to the learning supposedly taking place in classrooms. Done correctly, and well thought out, such tasks could still help to support the learning process, especially in older pupils. This was to lead to more demands on teachers, rather than for learners, with more homework being set as well as there being an expectation of more detailed feedback being provided, usually written, for all learners. Another example of increased activity by and for teachers, but with questionable outcomes for learners or learning.

Black and Wiliam identified a number of ways learning and teaching could be improved through better understanding of, and engagement with, formative assessment by teachers. Key was teachers asking 'Do I really know enough about the understanding of my pupils to be able to help each of them?' (page 13) They recognised the difficulties that existed for teachers and schools of all that they proposed should happen, and that there was no one single answer to bring about improvement. Not least, they saw the requirement for more time to be given so that teachers and learners could make the changes necessary. Both teachers and learners needed more time to deepen learning. Teachers would need to consider and face some of their entrenched beliefs about learning, as well as their beliefs about the potential of all their learners to learn. They would need alongside this, changes in policy so that there was more focus on improving what goes on in the classroom, and that developing formative assessment practices should become a priority for all.

Black and Wilaim consistently pointed out that formative assessment was not a 'quick-fix' that could be added to current practice. It would take time and support if we were to achieve all the benefits they had identified. They recommended four steps for development. The first was to be an extensive programme of professional development for teachers, as well as other in the system. They recommended clusters of schools working to support each other, as well as to provide external evaluation of the impacts being achieved. They wanted a dissemination process where teachers and schools could share their progress and what had worked, or not. They did caution against slavishly copying what another teacher or school had done, noting that gains will only accrue when 'each teacher finds his or her own ways of incorporating the lessons and ideas ...into his or her own patterns of classroom work.' (page 17)  Thus, they had identified the importance both of context and for focused collaboration. The removal of obstacles that might get in the way of full implementation would be key. These included curriculum structures and policies heavily focused (even then) on summative assessment and accountability measures. They recommended policy makers to look closely at anything that might get in the way of teachers focusing on formative assessment, then doing all they could to remove or reduce these. Finally, they recommended further research into formative assessment strategies and impacts, and that this should be ongoing, aimed at supporting teachers and schools further.

On page nineteen there are two quotes that are crucial, and which I believe so many people have forgot or never even noticed. They are worth repeating so that you consider yourself where you, and we, are.

'The main plank of our argument is that standards are raised only by changes which are put into direct effect by teachers and pupils in classrooms.'

'Our educational system has been subjected to many far-reaching initiatives which, whilst taken in reaction to concerns about existing practices, have been based on little evidence about their potential to meet those concerns.'

My question would be, are we really any further than where Black and Wilam thought we were in 1998?

Wiliam is correct in stating that what they were talking about and recommending was to do with effective learning and teaching practices and the supportive collaborative cultures and structures that would be required to assure these. They based their recommendations on the research that existed at that time, and there has been a whole host of research that has emerged since then that backs up what they were saying. Their thinking and their recommendations were generally sound. However, can anyone really say they have been assimilated into professional practice, or have we moved on to other 'things'?

We still remain a profession that is constantly busy and seeking the Holy Grail of perfecting schooling and learning. That puts us at risk of any 'thing' that comes along or is being peddled as the answer to all that ails or concerns us. We have to engage with research, like that of Black and Wiliam, and, where we understand that it can help us improve, take the time to implement properly and understand the impacts we are having on learning. Constantly jumping from one thing to another, being pushed by the system to do so, doesn't get us any further forward, and continues to fail learners and teachers.

Reference: Inside the black box Black P., Wiliam D. King's College London 1998 London


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