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Feeding forward: A case study of dialogic assessment

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Elizabeth Hennah and Glenn Y Bezalel, St Helen’s School, UK

At St Helen’s, we have trialled the use of a ‘reading journal’ in English literature for Year 7 students. This is a method to implement dialogic assessment, through which teachers guide their students to exercise curiosity and create cross-curricular links between reading in English and all other disciplines. This development is, essentially, dialogic as it grows a shared space predicated on respect, mutual concern and communality, which sees the teacher and students engage collaboratively, in a manner that goes beyond any individual student’s own reasoning. Within this method, assessment is bound up with learning, thereby improving students’ educational experience and raising attainment in oracy as well as the written word. 

Dialogic assessment

Robin Alexander, a pioneer of dialogic teaching, noted that ‘talk is a powerful tool for assessment because of the way talk is embedded in teaching rather than separate from it. It enables teachers to combine assessment of learning with assessment for learning and to [provide] meaningful diagnosis and support.’ (2020, p. 19) In this spirit, our ‘reading journal’ case study aims to ‘feed forward’ through an ongoing holistic dialogue between teacher and student as well as student and student (Nicol, 2010).

With student and teacher perceptions of assessment often misaligned, we are concerned that feedback can turn into a monologue. The gap between the teacher’s insights and the student experience creates dissonance as the two parties offer different interpretations of the same feedback events. This is especially true where assessment is decoupled from learning due to the summative feel of ‘feed back’, with students viewing the grade and comment as indicative of a past piece of work with no sense of connection to ongoing and future learning. In turn, we took heed of Black and Wiliam’s finding that ‘Feedback was most effective when it was designed to stimulate correction of errors through a thoughtful approach to them in relation to the original learning relevant to the task.’ (1998, p. 36) Yet we wanted to go further in order to push the boundaries of higher-level thinking and individual curiosity.

We therefore took up the dialogic method, which involves exploratory talk with others and cooperative enquiry ‘with dialogic space to agree/disagree, challenge, question, appeal to reason and allowing possible self-correction’ (Fisher, 2007, p. 618). In a dialogic classroom, Ayesha Ahmed argues that good learning equals good assessment (2020). Dialogic assessment, a term first proposed by Alexander, therefore seeks to synthesise the potentially powerful positions of both dialogic teaching and assessment for learning (Brindley and Marshall, 2015). In this vein, Ruth Dann promotes the concept of assessment as learning, ‘AaL’, in that ‘assessment is not merely an adjunct to teaching and learning but offers a process through which pupil involvement in assessment can feature as part of learning – that is assessment as learning’ (2002, p. 153).

‘Reading journal’ aims

Drawing on Hill and West’s assessment approach for undergraduates (2019), our primary aims in this case study for younger students were to:

  1. explore the dialogic feed-forward approach and determine whether it asserted a positive influence on their learning experience
  2. identify whether and how the assessment behaviour of students was altered by the assessment approach
  3. identify the extent to which students’ self-efficacy and self-regulation skills were improved
  4. examine whether the assessment approach enhanced students’ performance and raised their satisfaction with feedback.

Our method was to use a reading journal as a vehicle to capture classroom discussion and assess students’ learning. Because students’ learning was likely to (and should be allowed to) surpass their written capabilities at Key Stage 3, they recorded entries as a combination of words, pictures and/or diagrams. This approach also helped students to share their learning with each other. Our model thus expands the assessment criteria from the written word to oracy, argumentation and student voice.

We saw this assessment approach create a learning environment that Maurice Merleau-Ponty (cited in Wegerif, 2017) called a ‘shared dialogic space’. The participants were all drawn in and found themselves thinking and learning together, building on each other’s ideas. Dialogue was used as a means to construct knowledge via discourse between teacher and student, or student and student (Wegerif, 2006). This space, predicated on respect, mutual concern and communality, saw the teacher and students ‘interthinking’ (Neil Mercer, cited in Alexander, 2020, p. 108), i.e. engaging collaboratively in a manner that went beyond any individual student own’s reasoning.

The first exemplar entries were teacher-led and conducted during lesson time. The class had read a number of creation stories from Greek mythology. An effective summative assessment might have been to write a summary of one of the stories or to complete a knowledge test, with the teacher offering a mark and comments. However, through a dialogic assessment framework, we sought to open boundaries in our exploration of mythologies for a more enriching formative experience. One dialogue between students and their teacher about the myth of Persephone evolved as follows:

Teacher: Why a pomegranate?

Students: [Silence]

Teacher: What is the etymology of ‘pomegranate’? Think of the languages you’re also studying to help you.

Student 1: Does it mean apple?

Teacher: Why do you think that?

Student 1: In French, ‘pomme’ means apple.

Teacher: Yes. Good! And in Latin, ‘granum’ means seed… Do we know of any similar stories that also include an apple?

Student 2: Snow White?

Teacher: That’s right. Go on…

Student 1: Heracles… Troy… Adam and Eve?

[Students have been studying the Adam and Eve story in their religion, philosophy and ethics (RPE) lessons.]

Teacher: Excellent. Not just a coincidence, is it? In what way are the narratives of Persephone and Eve similar?

Student 2: Consequence?

Teacher: What do you mean by that?

Student 2: The consequences of our actions…

Student 1: The story of Eve seems like a combination of Pandora and Persephone. They both eat fruit…

Teacher: But the consequences are faced not just by the characters. How are these stories relevant to us?

Student 1: The seasons?

Student 2: Suffering and death…

Through Socratic questioning, the teacher was able to draw out related interdisciplinary knowledge that the students had gained from French and RPE. These cross-curricular links opened up the myth of Persephone as a foundational story of Western culture, with parallels in the Abrahamic religions, leading her to explore the Adam and Eve story more broadly. Ultimately, this fed back into English as a discipline that requires a knowledge of etymology, narrative and cultural context.

Feeding forward

As students and teachers moved through the curriculum, entries were no longer teacher-led but developed as a result of discussion. Rooted in Vygotsky’s claim (1991) that ‘higher mental functions’ such as reasoning originate in forms of social interaction, we saw all students inspired and challenged, as thinking aloud together ‘create[s] new meanings, knowledge and understanding’ (Mercer and Littleton, 2007). This reciprocity helped teachers to gain a much deeper grasp of their students’ thought, resulting in ever more purposeful and supportive guidance to find new ways forward.

When reading Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights as a class, a student asked why Lyra (and all female scholars) was not permitted to enter the Retiring Room of Jordan College. This question might be considered a tangent if the aim is to explore biblical allusion and retelling (Pullman’s His Dark Materials is a reimagining of Paradise Lost, which is itself a reimagining of the story of Adam and Eve). Yet the teacher saw an opportunity to ‘grasp’ and ‘challenge’ students to think about the historical and cultural context of the setting. In a school assembly, girls were shown a snippet of the school production of Blue Stockings, a play by Jessica Swale about the discrimination faced by female undergraduates in Girton College, Cambridge in 1898. Simply by asking the student about the possible connection between Lyra in Jordan College and the ‘bluestockings’ of Girton, the significance of gender could be illuminated. This exploration fed forward; the teacher looked beyond Key Stage 3 towards Key Stage 5, when a feminist critical lens might be applied. As Carless (2007) notes, ‘feeding forward’ not only impacts on subsequent work but also offers more specific direction on how a student’s prior work can be applied to future thinking.

Individual development

As the shared dialogic space developed, individuals of all aptitudes showed demonstrable progress in thinking and knowledge, as well as improved attitudes to learning. We use pseudonyms here to protect their identities.

For example, Emma has a verbal score of 121, and is ranked at the upper end of the year group based on her cognitive abilities test (CAT) results. When introduced to Beowulf and Old English, she chose to explore German cognates to understand in a deeper, more developed way the place of German words in the formation of the English language. By drawing on the expertise of both her English and German teachers, Emma displayed increased self-efficacy, as she could develop her interest in language in a personalised and multifaceted way.

In the shared dialogic space created in her English classes, Emma’s practice influenced others. Saskia, a classmate, would not have been identified as ‘gifted’ using a traditional CAT assessment, with a verbal score of 97, ranking at the lower end of the year group. However, as she spoke with Emma about her work on cognates, this ‘collaborative discourse’ (see, for example, Nussbaum, 2008) inspired her engagement with Anglo-Saxon history and culture, which she presented in apt, creative ways. Had a different approach to assessment been used, Saskia might have felt limited by her current literacy skills, potentially demotivating her. Instead, English had become her favourite subject.

Conclusions

The reading journals provided a balance of in-task teacher guidance and student empowerment. By creating shared dialogic spaces, the students were able to self-reflect and engage critically with their work throughout. Mastery experiences, whether through expert teacher guidance or peer review, inspired students to move forward and make inter-disciplinary connections. As Black and Wiliam’s survey concludes, the interactions ‘between teachers and students, and of students with one another, will be key determinants for the outcomes of any changes’, with the quality of these interactions ‘at the heart of pedagogy’ (1998, p. 16). Even those who found the learning initially challenging were buoyed by those crucially timed points of contact that opened up vistas of learning that would have otherwise remained closed.

References

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Alexander R (2020) A Dialogic Teaching Companion. Oxford: Routledge.

Black P and Wiliam D (1998) Assessment and classroom learning: Principles, policy and practice. Assessment in Education 5(1): 7–74.

Brindley S and Marshall B (2015) ‘Resisting the rage for certainty’: Dialogic assessment: A case study of one secondary English subject classroom in the UK. English Teaching: Practice & Critique 14(2): 121–139.

Carless D (2007) Learning-oriented assessment: Conceptual bases and practical implications. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 44(1): 57–66.

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Matthews MS (2018) Utilising non-test assessments in identifying gifted and talented learners. In: Callahan CM and Hertberg-Davis H (eds) Fundamentals of Gifted Education: Considering Multiple Perspectives. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, pp. 135–145.

Mercer N and Littleton K (2007) Dialogue and the Development of Children’s Thinking: A Sociocultural Approach. London: Routledge.

Nicol D (2010) From monologue to dialogue: Improving written feedback processes in mass higher education. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 35(5): 501–517.

Nussbaum EM (2008) Collaborative discourse, argumentation, and learning: Preface and literature review. Contemporary Educational Psychology 33(3): 345–359.

Vygotsky LS (1991) The genesis of higher mental functions. In: Light P, Sheldon S and Woodhead B (eds) Learning to Think. London: Routledge, pp. 32–41.

Wegerif R (2006) Dialogic education: What is it and why do we need it? Education Review 19(2): 58–66.

Wegerif R (2017) Defining ‘dialogic education’. In: Rupert Wegerif. Available at: www.rupertwegerif.name/blog/defining-dialogic-education (accessed 24 January 2021).

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