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Making room for impact

Dylan Wiliam, UCL Institute of Education

Dylan Wiliam, UCL Institute of Education

4 Jan 2024, 9:31

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Since Paul Black and I published ‘Inside the black box’ over twenty-five years ago, I have spent a lot of my time talking to teachers, school leaders, and policymakers about the improvements in pupil achievement that are likely if we support teachers in developing their practice of formative assessment. As well as identifying literally hundreds of practical techniques that teachers can use to increase the amount of formative assessment they do in their classrooms, we also explored different ways of supporting teachers in this journey, culminating in the idea of school-based, teacher-led, learning communities.

However, very early on in our work with schools and teachers, we realised that there was something else we needed to do, and that was to figure out what teachers would stop doing, or do less of, in order to make space for working on formative assessment. After all, if teachers’ plates are full, we have to take something off the plate before adding anything else.

In a session with school leaders, therefore, I would ask them what they would take off teachers’ plates to create time to work on formative assessment. I anticipated they would find this difficult. I did not expect that they would find it quite literally impossible.

At first, I assumed that the difficulty was due to people looking for things that don’t help pupils, or even that harm them. This can be an effective strategy in the business world, where there is often slack or waste, but in schools, almost everything teachers do contributes to pupil progress. The essence of effective leadership in education is stopping people from doing good things to give them time to do even better things. In the business world, this kind of thinking is called Pareto analysis (after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto). The key idea here it to ask, for any resource expended, could it be used in a different way to secure a better outcome, perhaps best summed up by Stephen Covey in The seven habits of highly effective people, where he talks about a man trying to cut through a large log with a blunt saw. Somebody asks, “Why don’t you sharpen the saw?” To which the man replies, “I haven’t got time.” If you want to cut through the log, sawing is good; stopping sawing to sharpen the saw is better.

I often say to teachers, “I think you’re spending too much time marking.” A common response is, “Are you saying marking is no good?” To which I reply, “No, marking is good. But just consider the possibility that the hour you just spent marking those books could have been spent in a different way that would have resulted in even more learning. This is the essence of Pareto analysis. We can’t make more hours in the day, but we can make sure that the hours we have are being spent in the way that is most beneficial to our pupils.

I thought this elegant formulation would be enough to help schools to identify ways of creating “breathing room” for teachers, either to work on new ideas, or simply to get their lives back, but I was wrong. School leaders, and teachers, tried to add new ideas and routines without taking any away, and therefore it is hardly surprising that many reform efforts foundered.

Initially, I thought this failure to de-implement was caused by a lack of commitment, but I have seen these efforts founder so many times, and I began to suspect that de-implementation might be a lot more complex than implementation, for a number of reasons.

  • We appear to be cognitively primed for addition. Humans tend to look for problem solutions that involve adding new things even when taking things away would be a better approach.
  • Related—humans tend to be loss-averse. Typically people would prefer not to lose £20 than to gain £20;
  • We lack a delete button. We cannot unlearn things, so habits we have formed keep on coming back;
  • Any attempts to de-implement have to be context-specific; what works in one setting might be impossible, or ineffective, somewhere else;
  • De-implementation increases workload in the short term;
  • Teachers in particular often feel that anything that reduces the effort they are putting into their teaching is somehow unprofessional, and can engender feelings of guilt;

This means that any serious attempt at de-implementation requires more than just some noble aspirations. It requires an explicit process, which is what Arran Hamilton, John Hattie and I set out to provide in our recent book Making Room for Impact (Corwin 2023).

We began by reviewing research about de-implementation in social and health care, the business world, and education. Through this process, we identified four key processes that might be useful, and these are discussed below in the context of a specific educational example, namely homework:

Remove: could we stop setting homework entirely, at least in primary school?

Reduce: could we reduce the amount of homework, for example by not setting homework in the two weeks before holidays so that staff do not return to a pile of marking?

Re-engineer: could we mark homework in a different way, for example by interleaving traditional marking with whole-class feedback, peer-assessment, and self-assessment?

Replace: could we use artificial intelligence to create and mark bespoke homework assignments?

At this point, people often point out that changing the way that homework is set and marked in this way makes it less effective, but this is precisely the point. AI-generated and marked homework might indeed be less effective than that set and marked by the teacher. The important question is not whether teacher-generated homework is better. The point is whether the improvement is enough to justify the extra teacher time it would take.

The same goes for “off-the-shelf” lesson plans or using textbooks rather than having teachers produce their own curricular materials. Teacher-generated lessons plans may, indeed be better than off-the-shelf resources (although they often aren’t) but what matters is whether the extra quality is worth it in terms of the time taken.

Now, these particular ideas may not be practicable in your school, which is why our de-implementation process begins with identifying possible areas where de-implementation might be feasible.

This first stage—the Discover stage—involves identifying a small group of staff who will form the backbone organization of the de-implementation effort, and this group is given explicit permission by the school’s senior leadership to look for areas for de-implementation. The backbone group then prospects for potential opportunities for de-implementation and then reduces this list down to a small number of potential areas. Most importantly, at this stage, the group also postulates what it is that sustains these practices.

The second stage—Decide—begins with proposing the high-level de-implementation strategy including the levers that will be used to change practice. The next step is preparing the detailed de-implementation plan, including anticipating any problems through a detailed pre-mortem (if, in a year’s time, this failed, why might that be?). The third step is to picture what success will look like, agreeing success criteria and also agreeing a set of “kill parameters”— criteria that specify goals that if the de-implementation effort has not reached a particular point by a particular date, then we don’t waste any more time on it.

The third stage—De-implement—will look different in every school, depending on local constraints, priorities, existing practices, and so on. What happens in the De-implement stage will depend on the careful groundwork laid in the Discover and Decide stages, and the monitoring and evaluation data collected during this stage will provide feedback on progress.

When the De-implementation stage is complete, the next stage is to Re-Decide, beginning with a careful evaluation of the data collected in the De-implement stage, followed by decisions about next steps. Depending on the data, this might mean deciding to continue with the existing de-implementation effort because the data suggest that more progress is possible. On the other hand, depending on what happened in the first and second stages, the backbone group might decide that there aren’t really any further areas for de-implementation, or that if there are, de-implementing might take up more time than is likely to be saved, and the de-implementing process is ended. A third possible outcome is that the existing group is wound up, but another group begins to work on de-implementation.

These steps may seem simple—trivial even—but it is our experience that without a clearly structured framework, de-implementation efforts rarely bear fruit, and that teachers are increasingly required to do more and more things with less and less time, so nothing really changes. Arran Hamilton, John Hattie and I have spent a lot of time thinking about what should be priorities for school improvement, but we have become convinced that the necessary starting point is taking things away; giving each teacher time to sharpen the saw.

Embedding Formative Assessment (EFA) is crucial for fostering a culture of continuous improvement in education. By incorporating formative assessment practices, educators can gain valuable insights into student learning, identify areas for improvement, and adapt teaching strategies to meet individual needs, ultimately enhancing student achievement and engagement.

Embedding formative assessment should be a priority for every teacher and for every school.

Effective Formative Assessment
  • Designed to boost learner engagement through effective use of formative assessment techniques, and foster a supportive learning environment in which students experience success and motivation increases.
  • Aims to enhance responsiveness in lessons across your school, and empower teachers to collect better evidence, make better decisions, and improve learning every lesson.
  • Achieves positive impacts on learner outcomes, as evidenced by the EEF’s report (Feb 2019) showing two additional months’ progress in GCSE Attainment 8 scores for learners in EFA schools.
EFA funding available

SSAT are delighted to have secured additional significantly subsidised places from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), through the DfE’s Accelerator Fund. As a result, we can now offer funding for our Embedding Formative Assessment (EFA) programme to 150 state funded schools with a secondary phase in England.

For more information on EFA including how to apply contact us at hello@ssatuk.co.uk, or visit us here.

Spend a day with Professor Dylan Wiliam the originator of the EFA programme for free.

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