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Arguably, no topic in education calls up more anxiety for teachers or students than those around assessing mandated ‘core’ learning outcomes. In recent years, this is made absolutely plain through the setting up and reporting through ‘league tables’. We now have them operating at the international level through the OECD’s PISA tables. At the level of different national governments, they can be seen through various literacy and numeracy tests, as well as for a host of university entrance formal admission exams.

We have also become accustomed in the past decade of reports in the media about some jurisdiction or other in the UK or the USA that there is currency in the belief in some quarters that paying teachers on the success of their students in meeting academic goals might serve a beneficial purpose.

Assessing students, metaphorically speaking, is where the ‘rubber hits the road’ for any teachers.  Without assessing and reporting common ‘core’ learning outcomes, there would be no accountability in either teaching or learning. A list of all the forms of formal and informal assessments which are practised in schools is quite lengthy: but  let’s step back for a moment and see what’s at the heart of the educational exchange of values that takes place within an ‘assessment event’, whether or not it’s via a pen and paper examination, practical coursework exercise or more student-controlled events such as in peer assessment .

Visible Learning  & The Vital Importance Of  Teachers’ Feedback. 

Let’s begin our discussions by considering John Hattie’s 2009 Visible Learning with its 800+ meta-analyses involving millions of students which highlight that at the top of the most effective forms of teaching rests the teacher’s feedback to students.  Underpinning Hattie’s notion of the ‘mastering’ of learning is Piaget’s theory of stages of development, Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and other learning theorists, like Jerome Bruner, on scaffolding learning experiences.

Hattie key message has been consistent: that the key question in education should not be ‘what works’ – because everything works to some extent – but rather what works bestHattie’s table of the most productive ways for teaching, learning and managing the pedagogical effectiveness of schools is used widely by educational policy makers and head teachers. 


Hattie was commissioned by Pearson Education to write a monogram for their professional learning series. What Works Best In Education: The Politics Of Collaborative Expertise (2015)  reaffirms why the key question in education is not ‘what works’ but ‘what works best’ and advises schools to complete EIGHT tasks. We discuss the first three here in some detail. We will bring a discussion of the other five in a future blog on assessment. Click on the cover to the Pearson free publication to the left and read the monogram for yourself, if you don’t want to wait.


Hattie positions his advice to school by appealing for a change of ‘narrative’: one that stops telling a story about ‘fixing the teacher’ to one that sees teaching as a collaborative and collective endeavour. He stresses that there is no way that a system will make an overall difference to students’ achievement of learning outcomes by working one teacher at a time.  Instead, the onus needs to be on everyone working collectively: the teachers, the school leaders, the other adults in the schools (such as teaching aides), the parents (and voters), the policy-makers and the students.

The second part of the task is for education systems to understand how to focus on progression. Hattie believes that this is perhaps the most urgent part of reframing the narrative. This is not to say that high achievement and standards are not desired, but the way to get there is through a narrative focused on progress. He explains how many Western countries have an obsession with ‘value added’, and that this is a powerful and worthwhile statistical method aimed to evaluate progress. But the problem with it is that too often statistics are used to make causal claims: claims that are related to one source such as ‘a teacher’ and are not triangulated with other evidence of progress. Rather, Hattie reminds readers that the measure of progress needs to be framed as ‘at least a year’s growth for a year’s input’ and that ‘every child deserves, at least, a year’s growth for a year’s input’.


The second task a school should undertake needs to be a debate, and subsequently, an agreement amongst its staff about what a year’s progress looks like.  His measure of typical growth effect-size per year as 0.40 is explained in detail in his 2009 publication. He makes the point that some subjects, such as arts, music and physical education, have a history of fewer standardised measures calibrated over time. That should not stop teachers from bringing two anonymous pieces of student work to ‘moderation meetings’ showing growth over three-plus months. Teachers could then be asked to place the work along a curriculum-year line and have a robust discussion about progression based on the teachers’ judgments of growth and whether this progress was sufficient.  Speaking from experience, Hattie points to such deliberations leading to healthy debates about ‘what it means to be good at –’ and the development of a common conception of progress among teachers.

Indeed, this development of a common conception of progress is the key to accelerating progress. When teachers have different conceptions or expectations about what ‘challenge’ in the curriculum means, this can have a profoundly negative impact on students.  If, for example, a teacher of a Year 6 class has a lower expectation of progress than a Year 5 teacher, it is highly likely that the students in the Year 6 class will not advance as much as in the Year 5 class – contributing to the lack of progress.

The premise of the system is that the day-to-day decisions teachers make in their judgments about performance are the critical unit of interest. Teachers are asked to account for their ‘overall teacher judgments’ in the major domains – if they rely solely on tests, they fail; if they use no tests they fail – they must defend their day-to-day judgements about the interpretation of the meaning and consequences of evidence from multiple sources.

Thus, the introduction of moderation, worked samples and collaboration to decide what it means to progress across different levels of the curriculum is fundamental to any discussion of how students should be assessed.


Hattie reaffirms that in the course of his Visible Learning research, he found that the greatest influence on learning is the expectations of the students and the teachers. Recent research by Rubie-Davies (2014) reaffirms his position in showing that teachers typically have high, medium or low expectations for all the students in their classes: with the students of high-expectation teachers being very successful in achieving their teachers’ expectations and the students of teachers with low expectations being similarly successful at making lower gains. 

Look forward to continuing our discussion of this important issue in a future blog

Rubie-Davies, C. M. (2014) Becoming a High Expectation Teacher: Raising the Bar, London and New York: Routledge.

Ral is Executive Director of Insight Africa UK a company registered in England and Wales to provide Educational Services. She holds a Masters degree from University of Leeds UK and University of Nigeria Nsukka. She also works part time with a City Council in the UK Our Aim: Every Child in Learning, Every School Outstanding Every Teacher Achieving

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