Assessment as an Act of Love

Behold Zarathustra, new lyres are needed for your new songs.

(Nietzsche 1885/1995:220)

It was Rinaldi, in conversation about Reggio Emelia, who argued that to assess a child – to sit beside them as the original latin suggests – is an act of love, an act of nurture and in recent years there have been moves to make the notion of assessment more about development than end points  (even as governments move in opposite directions). But too often, we fail to see that what we are doing when we assess formatively, is just push pupils down the yellow brick road to the exam factory. How often do our assessment processes really value the human being at the heart of the learning, or put them in the driving seat?

In school this week, we have been putting our Year 7s and 8s through their PDR process – (Pupil Driven Review) – and it has made me think that we are starting to get to grips with a model that is about growth and development and not simply pruning children into the shape we had in our minds to start with. The PDR is the end point of a year long curriculum in which pupils study their usual subjects but in which the RE, Drama, PHSE and English are pulled together into a programme called English and Philosophy. I’ve written a little about this here and its Triple A pedagogy, but this end point is a chance for the children to celebrate all their achievements and to think hard about what it is they need to work on.

Before they start, they complete a 2,000 word (1,500 for Year 7) essay in response to a philosophical question. These can range in complexity from “Is the world a fair place?” to “To what extent are we products of our environments?” to ” Whose responsibility is it to effect change in the world?” They are expected to link these questions to the texts they have studied, knowledge gained right across the curriculum and their own research and ideas. Here are just a few snippets from children right across the ability range:-

“I am not the prettiest person and I have problems learning, but I am loved and I love other people and I think that makes me lucky.”

“I personally think forgiveness is letting go of the need for revenge and releasing negative thoughts of anger and hatred. Forgiveness just means that you’ve made peace with the pain, and you are ready to let it go and move on. As Ghandi once said “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”  It takes a strong person to face pain head-on, forgive, release it and carry on as if nothing happened”.

“Reading Twelfth Night made me realise that love is a whole lot more complicated than I had first thought. From the outset, with the quotation “If music be the food of love, play on…”, Shakespeare sets out the idea that love needs some form of self control – a quality that Orsino is lacking. This self control is seen in Viola, sitting “like patience on a monument smiling at grief” and so Shakespeare offers us very different ideas of what love might be.”

In their PDR, they share extracts of this and other work they have done across the year and they share this with their parents, a teacher, three peers from their class and in some cases, an external community partner to the school. For three days, the timetable is collapsed and PDRs take over. So what happens?

The children prepare a 15 minute presentation in which they share their learning from the year and outline what it is they think they need to do over the forthcoming twelve months in order to improve. Learning is something we encourage them to think about in terms of life in and out of school and so they may refer to all kinds of other places and situations in which they feel they have grown or developed or been inspired. For example, one child said:-

“I work hard in school because I want to be a midwife and I know I’ll have to work for it. To be able to help a woman to bring a new life into the world would be a privilege. I knew this is what I wanted to do when I was able to assist my Mum when she had my brother – it was an amazing experience and showed me how much support women need at this time in their lives. I know it won’t be easy and sometimes things go wrong so I need to be strong for those people at that time. So I need to work hard on my Maths and Science, but I also need to be able to be calm and control my emotions.”

Needless to say, her Mum and I were a little teary. Not really in control of our emotions.

Once their presentation is done, they sit down with their peer panel and feedback is given to them from their classmates on three areas – behaviour, progress and interpersonal skills. For me this has been one of the most powerful aspects of the learning. You know how you sometimes bottle it at parents’ evening and don’t quite tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth when it comes to the little darling? Kids don’t bottle it. We’ve done a lot of work on being positive and constructive, even as we criticise – building word stems to allow children to articulate their ideas. But once they get that in place, there’s no stopping them. You can see parents sit up as not an adult “who has it in for my child” tells them that there is a problem – but another child. A child who says:-

“You think it’s quite funny to make silly noises when the teacher is talking and you hardly ever get found out as they can’t prove it was you, but you stop the lesson. And you do it a lot. And to be honest, it’s starting to impact on how I feel about sitting near you because I just want to be able to get on. I like you but sometimes I’d rather not work with you.”

Once the peer review is completed, the classmates leave and the child is left with the parents and teacher and a pile of progress data, attendance data and behaviour data and we start the long conversation about school, life, hope and….data. Relationships are built – this is a good, decent half hour face to face with someone who knows your child – not a quickie in the hall. And proper targets are set as a result – targets that pull together the ideas of the child, the feedback of their peers and the reports from teachers and which try to look holistically at the social, cognitive and emotional development of the child. Is it perfect? No. But it’s better that sending a sheet of levels home with a list of Grades to Beat. It’s better than parent’s evening. It’s heartwarming and developmental.

And at the end, you notice the little things. The ruffling of the hair; a pat on the back; a thumbs up and you realise that here is an important moment for any child – the pride and approval of a parent or care giver. Because even if they did get a bit of a dusting down on behaviour, they still stood up there and presented. They still wrote a really long piece of work. They still were able to achieve something. They made their parents proud. And you can’t measure that.