Podcast #17 Formative Assessment: A Conversation with Dylan Wiliam

Formative Assessment News Podcasts Professional Learning Research & Theory

Dylan Wiliam is a world-renowned educational leader and researcher, specializing in teacher development and formative assessment. On today’s podcast, Dylan shares the key aspects of formative assessment. He offers his thoughts on teacher development. And he shares some practical ideas to consider for your teaching.

In addition to hearing Dylan speak about formative assessment and learning, there are some useful links included below.

On Feb 1, 2017, Dylan will be speaking at Oakland Schools. The workshop will focus on embedding formative assessment into daily practice. You can learn more about this workshop, and you can register for the event, by visiting this page.

Additional Links

The Dylan Wiliam website

Practical Ideas for Formative Assessment

Classroom Assessment Minute by Minute

Listen to this podcast on iTunes



The Great Graphic Novel Project

Notes from the Classroom Research & Theory

51D+o50FXIL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_The Great Graphic Novel Experiment is in full swing in my classroom. In fact, it has become the focal point of my passions this year. I’ve been so vocal about it that my wife and kids actually bought me a couple graphic novels for my birthday. I’m “all in,” as Matt Damon says in the film Rounders.

But since we aren’t sitting across from each other at a poker table, I want you to be all in too. So today I’d like to offer you some pleasure reading—and some (less-pleasurable, I’d imagine) research reading—so that you can share a graphic-novel reading experience with your students, too.

More Than Heroes

The first step toward embracing graphic novels is to recognize that they have been broadly misrepresented in pop culture. Even my own previous article featured a superhero image to accompany it.

Most of the best graphic novels, though, are not about superheroes. While my students have been busy reading the selections I brought in from home, I’ve been busy racing through every graphic novel my media center owns, in order to find more titles to add to the list. I haven’t come across a superhero yet, but I have come across an incredibly beautiful story about high school relationships and the difficulties of family life (Blankets), a modern account of life in Iran (Zahra’s Paradise), and even a touching story about how young people deal with the horrifying transition to adulthood (This One Summer).

nimonaI could go on, but I think the broader point is more important: these are stories that will speak to any reader. I passed along two of the aforementioned titles to other people in my department, who sent back rave reviews—and then sent along new titles of their own! Nimona, a work of fantasy, and the graphic novelization of Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children are now in my queue.

Imagine that, visual storytelling that appeals even to adults! I’ve found that to win people over to graphic novels, one needs to break them from the idea that graphic novels are inherently sophomoric—great until perhaps 9th grade, but then, really, not on par with “real” reading.

Aside from my low-level readers’ growing list of completed books, the most rewarding part of this experience has involved meaningful book talks with fellow teachers and other adults. You might be startled (as I was) to see how many graphic novels are authored by writers who have also penned more traditional works, from novels to screenplays (Neil Gaiman, anyone?).

The Cold Hard Facts

But, of course, if I’m going to ask you to dedicate your class’s attention to such an endeavor, I need more than an impassioned appeal. Lucky for me, the emerging field of research about graphic novels is robust. Besides being high in interest, most graphic novels also offer tangible benefits, especially for students still building their reading skills.

Meryl Jaffe, an instructor at Johns Hopkins University, claims that such novels are excellent for weak readers because they provide “concise text,” paired with images that help readers “decode and comprehend the text.” For a high school student who still reads at a 4th grade level, scaffolding that sort of success, while also providing a pleasurable reading experience, is something like discovering a mythological beast suddenly rendered into flesh!

UBB-MarathonbyBoazYakinAnd what’s more, other research hints that such visual reading may also maximize a reader’s ability to retain information. That might not seem like a key merit for pleasure reading. But consider how many graphic novels have been written about historical events and culturally relevant topics: Marathon, about the Greek tale of that famous run; Templar, about what became of that famous secret society; and Americus, about censorship in literature. They’re all fiction, but still dense with contextual facts that the research suggests students will retain.

It’s doubtful these texts will replace traditional instruction. But how enriching this is—for struggling students to discover that they are suddenly and significantly more informed about a real-world topic.

Some Resources

I’m hopeful that I’ve made the case for graphic novels as a new part of your recommendation list. If choice is your concern, recognize that there are dozens of resources out there to help you find what’s best for your kids. I’ve listed a few sites below that I found to have interesting selections, as well as additional resources that address the benefits of visual reading. Or email me! I’m happy to help you find a selection.

The resources:

Michael Ziegler

Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

The Grammar Ambush

Notes from the Classroom Research & Theory

shutterstock_201882445It happens to my husband all the time. He is a police officer, and it is rare that he can make it through a party without someone asking him how to get out of a recent ticket. It almost always starts the same way.

“Oh, you’re a police officer? Well, let me ask you this . . .”

I’ve seen it happen so many times that I should have realized when it was happening to me at the neighborhood Halloween party.

“Oh, you’re an English teacher? Well, let me ask you this. When is my son going to start learning grammar? This is ridiculous. The garbage they’re sending home from his school is unbelievable! He doesn’t even know parts of speech!”

I quickly scanned the room for exits. It was a Friday night. I was exhausted. I really didn’t want to try to defend the English curriculum of a school where I don’t teach, in a class taught by a teacher I don’t know. However, this was my well-meaning neighbor who is really just a concerned parent, and who wants to make sure her child is prepared to be a good writer. And besides—for all I knew, some poor teacher from another district was defending my curriculum at a Halloween party in Novi.

I did my best to explain the concept of teaching grammar in context. I talked about all the research that shows kids don’t retain much when we teach them abstract terms and expect them to memorize constructions outside of their own writing. Then I tried to push the conversation toward reading. I explained that her son should be reading, reading, and then reading some more so that he can see what good writing looks like.

I’m still thinking about the conversation. Many parents want to see the traditional type of grammar instruction that they grew up with. And who can blame them? They did it that way and they turned out just fine. They’re concerned that their kids aren’t going to know how to communicate professionally.

Teaching Grammar in Context

Unfortunately, the problem with isolated grammar instruction is that it doesn’t work. Research since 1960 has shown us that “relatively few students learn grammar well, fewer retain it, and still fewer transfer the grammar they have learned to improving or editing their writing.”

So what do we do instead? Thumb through some teaching books or do a quick Google search, and you’ll find “mini-lessons” hailed as answers. Start writing workshops with quick bursts of targeted instruction, the lessons say.

But that’s tough. If I want to teach my kids a quick lesson about correctly punctuating clauses, they first need to know what clauses are. They need to know what subjects and verbs are, and they need to know what conjunctions are—both coordinating and subordinating. Say any of those terms in a tenth-grade classroom only if you’re into watching eyes glaze over. I’m not into glazed-over eyes, so my grammar mini-lessons have always been haphazard at best.

shutterstock_302927471After Thanksgiving, my AP Language students and my ELA 10 students are starting new writing assignments. Now is the time, I think, to deliberately use grammar mini-lessons.

I’ll use their independent novels for samples of grammar in context. I will also hold them accountable to show me they can write with these grammatical concepts in mind.

And, I can’t forget about the other part of this grammar issue: communication. The Halloween ambush reminded me that I am not doing a good job of communicating the message to my students or parents. I need to be explicit about the expectations I have for my students’ grammar, and I need to let their parents know that grammar instruction is a valued, consistent part of my curriculum.

My students’ next major writing assignments will be submitted and graded by the end of December. Look for part two of this experiment in explicit grammar instruction. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Hattie profileHattie Maguire is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her fifteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition and English 10. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.

Triathlon Swimming & Formative Assessment

Consultants' Corner Formative Assessment Professional Learning Research & Theory

I titled this blog post not to try and get your attention, well, all right, partly to get your attention, but really because I have been struggling with the swim leg of a triathlon. Floundering is perhaps more accurate description. At the same time, I became enthralled with the possibilities of formative assessment. Later you will see how I linked the two.

shutterstock_154806206For my first triathlon, actually my only triathlon, I swam with a snorkel. Yes, you are allowed to do so, however you can not win. Being the disciplined athlete I am I was unencumbered by this restriction as I wheezed around the course.

Another indignity; triathlons start in waves. The Elites begin first and, as field thins and the triathletes thicken, the older folk start last. You may be surprised to learn that I am neither an Elite triathlete, nor extremely youthful. Consequently I started from behind and fought to maintain this stellar ranking.

There is another indignity in a triathlon. They write your age on your leg. This does not worry me, I saw it more as an explanation of my performance. However, it is embarrassing to be passed on the run, by a pair of calves boldly emblazoned with the number 74!

To be honest I finished about midway between the Elites and the DNF’s. (Did Not Finish). I wanted to do another tri,  faster and sans snorkel. Enter formative assessment, if it works for kids, it should work for me, and hopefully before I am 74. Formative assessment could help,  it was unlikely to harm my performance, what did I have to lose?

The Theory
Let me clarify what I mean by formative assessment. From my understanding, it is a planned process where one assesses where the learner is in terms of learning (triathlon swimming in this instance). Based on the assessment/s, the instruction continues as is or is modified.

There are three questions that focus the formative assessment process:
1.Where are you going?
2. Where are you now?
3. What do you do to close the gap?

And then there is evidence that the learner (me) is making progress toward the goal.

There is also feedback. which, since I am too tight to pay for a coach, I am going to provide that feedback to myself. This brings to mind a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” A bird-walk but you may see the relevance.

The Practice
shutterstock_113167474Swimming is challenging for me. If the swim leg of a sprint triathlon was 50 yards, I would be fine, but it is not. It is 1/2 mile, which is a long, long way for me. The ride and the run are OK; note I did not say easy, or enjoyable.

Back to the swim.

I have purchased flippers, snorkel, goggles, hand paddles, and even a clicky belt thing that gives feedback (with an annoying click) when you roll your hips. (I do like my toys). I have read books, studied videos, and crawled the web for tips and insight. I have had lessons, (see I am not that tight), and I have practiced in a pool and in a lake.

I practiced body rolling, arm strokes, getting my butt up, and bi-lateral breathing. I am better than I was. (I once read a T-shirt that said, “The older I get, the better I was.” I agree with the sentiment, but digress.)

So why am I not much, much better at swimming by now?

Formative Assessment Insights
Here is what I am learning, thanks to formative assessment insights:

1. I do reflect on my swimming skills ( I use the latter term rather loosely!).
2. I found I check how I am going quite regularly. I even make a mental note of my performance. In most cases, I think I should do a little more of this, say breathing, and a little less of that, say sinking.
3. I do understand the learning progressions needed to swim that distance.
4. I have clarified my learning intentions.

However, I think I need to look more deeply (an unintended pun).

Dylan Wiliam proposed five strategies for formative assessment:

1. Clarifying, sharing, and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success.
2. Engineering and eliciting effective evidence of learning.
3. Providing feedback that moves learning forward.
4. Activating learners as instructional resources for one another.
5. Activating learners as owners of their own learning.

OK, I’ve got #1 and #5. For me, #4 is hard ‘cause it is just me. So that leaves #2 and #3.

I do get some evidence courtesy of an expensive, and thankfully waterproof, Garmin watch. I can tell lap times, distance, and stroke rate. But … so what?

This evidence is also feedback, but it is limited and after the fact. I have to download it on the computer to get it. What I need is in the moment feedback. I know I could pay for this, but we have been here before. I am too cheap, so let’s move on. I still need feedback.

Interestingly, I just realized the pool gives me feedback, like when I swallow water instead of breathing air, which does make me think about the quality of feedback.

I am highly motivated. I have found that the possibility of drowning is great motivation, but I am hesitant to recommend it as an educational strategy.

What I am beginning to see is that if I address the three focus questions of formative assessment:
1. Where am I going?
2. Where am I now?
3. How do I close the gap?
It is evident that it is quality feedback that moves me forward, that links #1 and #2 to achieve #3. It is the ability to provide quality feedback, in the moment, based on evidence, that is most helpful.

What have I learned?
Well, I think Wiliam’s Five Strategies help me think about learning, be it for triathlons or teaching literacy. The three focus questions are pivotal to implementing the strategies.

Once the direction is known, then it is time to determine what sort of evidence is needed to ascertain progress towards the destination and when each piece of evidence is relevant. Evidence and feedback often appear related at this point.

For example, the number of strokes it takes to get to the end of the pool is useful to know. However, feedback on form while actually swimming with the form of a sunken log, is far more helpful. Effective feedback is what is needed, at that moment, to move me forward (not downward).  It is the immediacy of the adjustment which underscores a central tenet of formative assessment: formative assessment changes the learning while it is still malleable. James Popham‘s definition of formative assessment is:  “Formative assessment is a planned process in which teachers or students use assessment-based evidence to adjust what they’re currently doing.”

shutterstock_158438201Effective feedback, grounded in where the learner is in the moment, is critical. It would be helpful, though not always essential, to have feedback from peers and/or a more knowledgeable other. However, in the end, it is the learner’s (my) responsibility for success. Interestingly, this raises the issue of goal setting, which is something for another day.

In the end, Wiliam’s Five Formative Assessment Strategies embedded in the three Formative Assessment Questions, provide an effective learning framework that works as well for triathlons as literacy.

So to put this in a growth mindset, which is pivotal to formative assessment, I can’t swim 1/2 a mile comfortably, YET.

Les HowardPrior to coming to Oakland Schools in 2004, Les Howard worked as an independent consultant across the United States based in San Francisco. Les came to California in 1994 to help establish Reading Recovery in California. He has been an educator for almost 40 years, almost 20 years in Australia. During this time he has been an elementary teacher, assistant principal, and literacy consultant and district literacy coordinator. Les is also a trained Ontological Coach.  He believes coaching is a powerful process that empowers educators. He loves being outdoors and loves bicycling hiking, paddling, triathlons and adventure races, and trying to tire out his border collie. He and his wife enjoy traveling and camping. 



Re-thinking Our Kids as Readers…

Consultants' Corner Research & Theory

imsis591-033Kids in schools today get tested, evaluated, assessed, analyzed, and then tested some more.   In this process, students often end up with a wide range of scores attached to their names, from MEAP scores to NWEA scores to grade level equivalency scores to recommended lexile levels for reading.  We may be, as the saying goes, “data rich and information poor.”  We have lots of statistics and other data, but we’re not really sure how to use it all.  This is particularly true when it comes to reading.  I often hear teachers describe their students as readers by assigning grade levels for their reading abilities, as in “she’s in the 9th grade but she reads at the fourth grade level.”  This grade level labeling, for lack of a better term, is especially common in our talk about young people who are not meeting the academic expectations placed on them at school.  Statements like, “half of my students are reading two grades below level,” are pretty common in my conversations with teachers concerned about their students’ reading skills.

So what did his “fourth grade reading level” score really mean, was it at all useful, and what was getting lost in the process of using this score to describe him as a reader?  The fourth grade reading level meant that on one particular day, he answered most of the multiple choice questions right about a text that a testing company like ETS or Pearson decided was something that most fourth graders should be able to read with little difficulty. When presented with questions about more complex texts, he probably began to get lots more questions wrong.  That is what his 4th grade level reading score meant.

Don’t get me wrong though – this score does have some use as a general screening tool.  A very low score on a generic reading test lets us know that we need to pay attention to how this student reads a wide range of different texts, and it lets us know that he likely needs additional support for reading.  It does NOT tell us, however, that he can’t read any text above a fourth grade level, and it does not tell us that he is incapable of thinking deeply about a wide range of texts.  It tells us only that he struggled with the texts on this test.  This is important to remember because not all texts, and not all reading activities, are the same. Thus, when properly motivated, and when armed with in-depth prior knowledge, this kid can likely read far above his assigned level.

I88748677 (1)s this important to know?  Of course it is, because if we can find ways to motivate him and build prior knowledge before reading, we can help him move far beyond his test score.  However, if we think he can’t read more advanced texts, we might never ask him to him read, or we might just give him low-level texts when we can find them.  We might never challenge him to use the resources he already has to become a better reader, and we might allow him to move into learned helplessness and believe that he doesn’t have the potential to read advanced texts well.

The big picture is that reading is a complex process… there are many factors involved in reading comprehension, and when we reduce a kids’s reading to one single score, we may be missing pieces of their reading puzzle.  So what’s the solution?  Some initial steps are outlined below:

  • Engage kids in conversations about reading and find out what their interests are.
  • Learn more about when, where, and what they read.  Most kids read more than their teachers might expect, but they don’t always consider it “reading,” especially if they are not reading school books or novels.
  • Talk about reading in your classroom and encourage your students to read outside of school for their own purposes.
  • In the classroom, rely more on diagnostic and formative assessments to learn about your students as readers.
  • Use metacognitive strategies (e.g. Talk the Text),  talk moves (e.g. “Tell me more…)” and Visible Thinking routines (e.g. “What makes you say that…”; http://www.visiblethinkingpz.org/) to learn more about how your students think while they read.
  • Consider your students to be dynamic, changing readers instead of good or poor readers.  Challenge all of them by learning about their strengths and pushing them to get even better, no matter where they are starting.  If we believe they can make progress, hopefully they will too!
  • If you’re interested in learning more about these issues, the research articles below are great places to start!

Alvermann, D.E. (2001). Reading adolescents‘ reading identities: Looking back to see ahead. Journal of Adult and Adolescent Literacy 44: 676-690.

Dutro, E., Selland, M., & Bien, A (2013).  Revealing Writing, Concealing Writers:  High-  Stakes Assessment in an Urban Elementary Classroom Journal of Literacy Research 45(2):99

Franzak, J. (2006). Zoom: A review of the literature on marginalized adolescent readers, literacy theory, and policy implications. In B. M. Gordon & J. E. King (Eds.), Review of Educational Research (Vol. 76, pp. 209-248). Washington DC:    American Educational Research Association.

Moje, E.B., Overby, M., Tysvaer, N., & Morris, K. (2008). The complex world of adolescent literacy: Myths, motivations, and mysteries. Harvard Educational Review 78(1): 107-154.

O‘Brien, D. (2006). ―Struggling adolescents engagement in multimediating: Countering institutional construction of incompetence. In D.E. Alvermann, K.A.  Hinchman, D.A. Moore, S.F. Phelps, & D.R. Waff (Eds.), Reconceptualizing the Literacies in Adolescents’ Lives (pp. 147-160). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Stockdill, D.& Moje, E. B.  (2013).  Adolescents as readers of social studies:   Examining the relationship between youth’s everyday and social studies  literacies and learning.  Berkley Review of Education 4(1):  35-68.