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Transforming assessment principles and practices through collaboration: A case study from a primary school and university

6 min read
SHIREEN BABUL LALJI, TEACHING AND LEARNING, BIGLAND GREEN PRIMARY SCHOOL, UK
ELENA HUNN RODIGAN, INCLUSION LEAD AND ASSISTANT HEADTEACHER, BIGLAND GREEN PRIMARY SCHOOL, UK
CHARLOTTE MOSEY, ASSISTANT HEAD OF PRIMARY ITT/E, UNIVERSITY OF DERBY, UK
JACK BRYNE STOTHARD, SENIOR LECTURER IN POSTGRADUATE STUDIES, UNIVERSITY OF DERBY, UK

Introduction

Adaptive teaching as a concept is a key part of the shifting landscape in education today, and assessment plays a vital role in this. When considering embarking on an adaptive teaching journey, practitioners must be open to a change of mindset, often resulting in a change of culture and a focus on what learners can do rather than what they cannot, with an emphasis on the process of learning rather than simply teaching. Rigorous formative assessment underpins this practice; without effective monitoring of a learner’s individual journey, truly adaptive practice cannot take place. This case study exemplifies how a collaboration between a university and a school can create a community of practice (Wenger, 1998) that is mutually beneficial for the individual, their colleagues and, more importantly, their learners.

At Bigland Green Primary School, a priority to develop an inclusive style of teaching, so that all children could be part of the learning in their classroom, was identified, with the initial intention being to move away from differentiation towards an adaptive approach. In doing so, it was hoped that expectations for learners would be raised and that an even more inclusive environment would flourish. After initial research, staff at Bigland Green stumbled across the article written by Charlotte and Jack earlier that year, and the collaboration between school and university began.

Self and leadership

Through initial conversations about pedagogy, Bigland Green staff identified that they could increase the students’ potential as well as teach inclusively by using high-quality assessment for learning. They wanted to move away from children who need the most support being seen as a separate group, through the mindset that we do not want to restrict children’s learning potential. At the start of our journey, school leaders identified the work around adaptive teaching through Charlotte and Jack’s Impact journal article (Mosey and Stothard, 2022), and invited them to join the school community. Charlotte and Jack were having similar conversations, wanting to ensure that learning opportunities in their university were adaptable and, more importantly, grounded in practical experiences of what is happening in schools. Through this mutually beneficial collaboration, staff were able to have really thoughtful conversations about what adaptive teaching and inclusivity means by looking at research and then implementing it into their teaching and learning at school. The school improvement plan was utilised to map out how Bigland Green would implement change in school-wide teaching and learning for all stakeholders. As part of this, they worked with Charlotte and Jack to co-construct CPD (continuous professional development) opportunities specifically around adaptive teaching and formative assessment. The collaboration allowed both parties to see how practices in school and university can mutually benefit both target audiences: pupils and student teachers.

This collaboration particularly highlighted the importance of formative assessment for both parties. Teachers were encouraged to take ‘constant readings about where learners are’ (Wiliam, 2015, p. 4), using formative assessment strategies such as mini whiteboards, think pair share and thinking alongside clear visuals and Widgits. Supporting communication was also essential so that all children had ways of responding to the learning. Using this information, teachers could then make in-the-moment adaptations to the lesson rather than waiting until the end, in a similar way to how a pilot flying a plane takes constant readings on their position and adjusts the course accordingly (Wiliam, 2015). These strategies allowed us to start breaking down the barriers to learning for all children, not solely the children who were seen as needing the most support.For Charlotte and Jack, ensuring that learning and teaching at the university – specifically around formative assessment practices being taught in sessions – was grounded in research but also in evidence derived from schools such as Bigland Green was essential. This gave them great confidence that their professional approach for pre-service teachers (PSTs) was constructively aligned to excellent practice in schools.

Learner’s eyes

All learners have the right to high-quality teaching, and staff at Bigland Green knew that this was an important part of their implementation journey. They moved away from setting children by ability and moved towards mixed-ability flexible groups, underpinned by formative assessment. In doing so, children could learn from each other, supporting a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset, often seen in sets as explored by Dweck (2017). Charlotte and Jack provided CPD based on their continuing research focusing on the relationship between formative assessment and adaptive learning and teaching. Bigland Green could further plan to scaffold learners rather than differentiate in their weekly plans. As such, they were able to empower learners rather than restrict them in their learning tasks. Learners took more initiative in their learning, choosing the support that they might need to complete a task. For example, in mathematics, they might choose to use cubes or Dienes or they might opt to use a number line, and the teacher would adjust their teaching in supporting them in doing so, based on formative assessments throughout the lesson. Working walls were developed further to support all children, aiming to remove barriers to learning. For Charlotte and Jack, these adaptations were used to demonstrate real-life practice in schools and offer PSTs access to how leadership teams might go about implementing change and actioning this. The authenticity of these examples was crucial. PSTs had access to high-quality, real-life examples for them to explore and critique in their university sessions.

Colleague’s eyes

An important part of Bigland Green’s journey of adaptive teaching was the teachers’ desire to create more inclusive classrooms. We facilitated a chance for teachers to explore each other’s classrooms. Through professional conversations and collaborative CPD, school staff started to develop a pedagogy toolkit to support teachers in adapting planning prior to the lesson and adjusting practice during the lesson, thanks to formative assessment. Brookfield (2005) suggests that creating safe spaces where teachers can talk openly and try new ideas lends itself to more reflective practice, and this is the hope at Bigland Green. Charlotte and Jack’s visit to Bigland Green was designed to open a space for these conversations to take place, shifting the emphasis onto the leadership team to become researchers. Learning and teaching conversations supported teachers and teaching assistants to take risks in their teaching. Some teachers tried flexible grouping and using scaffolding instead of restrictive differentiating, as well as using low-threshold, high-ceiling tasks to include all children. For Charlotte and Jack, this was also transformative for their colleagues. As a university with a civic agenda, they were keen to reach out to other institutions and schools to explore excellent practice in school. Charlotte was also keen to share this excellent practice in school with colleagues, as well as encouraging lecturers to explore opportunities for their own collaborations. For Jack, leading the Teacher Education Research and Innovation research cluster at the university meant that it opened up a channel for collaboration and dissemination of the research taking place, so that it might have greater impact and benefit.

Theory

Evidence-based practice is an important part of Bigland Green’s school development, and having this opportunity to collaborate with researchers in this field has provided the school with an excellent opportunity to put theory into practice, which is often a challenge for practitioners in schools. The initial article in Impact (Mosey and Stothard, 2022) that sparked Bigland Green Staff’s adaptive teaching journey has led them on a path of professional discovery and has opened up their practice in a way that has positively impacted the children and the learning. For Charlotte and Jack, this collaboration has also identified areas and needs for further scholarly work and empirical research, which might bring greater benefit to learners and teachers of the future. This collaboration is also essential for ensuring that the gap between practice and theory can be adequately addressed. Knowing that practice at Bigland Green is rooted in ongoing research is exciting and motivating and, essentially, will lead to greater life chances for Bigland Green’s children.  

Conclusion

Creating collaboration between schools and universities requires time and patience, but the benefits for each party have been noticeable in this example. Bigland Green continues to discuss teaching and learning as a school community, and they feel very lucky that this also includes academic researchers who can enrich their practice, with the ultimate goal of providing the best learning that they can for their children. For Charlotte and Jack, the collaboration has been invaluable, rooting their academic work in practicalities and nuances of school life. Bigland Green staff plan to visit the university to give a seminar on their journey so far and discuss the benefits of such a collaboration, to inspire the teachers of the future through their expertise and first-hand experience of leading in school.

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    Author(s): Bill Lucas