Festival Feedback – Is AfL wrong?

For me, this was one of the must-see sessions at the festival.  When it was introduced however, Dylan Wiliam observed that: “they say there is nothing like a good introduction … and that was nothing like a good introduction”.  He was right.  Perhaps Dylan Wiliam and David Didau didn’t really need introducing, but I’d like to see if I can do a better job.

If you’re a teacher, it is highly likely that elements of your classroom practice are based on research carried out by Dylan Wiliam.  He originally began his working life as a Maths teacher, but now – nearly 40 years later – he is the Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the KCL Institute of Education.  Much of his recent work has focused on the use of assessment to support learning.  In 1998 he co-authored, with Paul Black, a major review of the research evidence on formative assessment.  Their findings have had a significant influence over government policy, and over the way in which teachers have been encouraged to use Assessment for Learning (AfL).  You can see him in action and learn more about his work here.

In March this year, David Didau wrote this blog, proposing that Assessment for Learning might be all wrong.  Better known to some as @LearningSpy, David Didau is a practising teacher and author of the best-selling book “The Perfect English Lesson”.  His blog is one of the most widely-followed educational blogs in the world, so it was not too surprising that Dylan Wiliam duly responded to his comments.  I enjoyed following this emerging debate, and there was no way I could possibly miss this live showdown in the Old Gym at Wellington College …

Wiliam & Didau

Looking at the picture above, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these two are going at it hammer and tongs.  Actually, Dylan (left) has just said “Are you going to start?”, and David (right) has just said “Pardon?”.  There was no blood-letting at this debate, but more a friendly comparison of broadly similar views.  Some interesting points to emerge …

  • AfL tends to check short-term learning, and only rarely establishes that something has well and truly been mastered.  A good way for schools to address this would be for them to build more “spaced learning” into the curriculum (for more on this, see David’s blog here).
  • According to one study in New Zealand, 80% of the feedback pupils receive is from their peers, and 80% of that feedback is bad.  The book which contains this survey was highly-recommended by David Didau: “The Hidden Lives of Learners” by Graham Nutall.  Self-assessment is also notoriously unreliable unless carefully managed.
  • The most important aspect to effective feedback is the relationship between the pupil and the teacher.  If this is based on trust and respect, they will give one another feedback which really counts, and which therefore results in effective long-term learning.
  • Learning from mistakes has been proven to result in better long-term recall than getting things right the first time.  Therefore teachers should not wrap their students up in comfortable learning blankets, but should make activities challenging, not only so that pupils have to think harder but also so that they are more likely to make the sort of mistakes which help them to learn.
  • Students actually do much more learning when unsupervised than when receiving direct instruction, so teachers need to make sure they are well-equipped with effective independent learning skills.

Of course, that is only a very brief overview of a discussion which lasted for half an hour, but there’s still plenty to think about there.

If you would like to know more about all of this, David has posted his own reflections on the Festival here, and Dylan has duly added his comments.


7 thoughts on “Festival Feedback – Is AfL wrong?

  1. Who made the last point in your list? Did both agree with that?

    • The point Dylan made was that teachers of musical instruments understand that progress is made when pupils practise independently rather than during instruction. I agree in as much as I think learning doesn’t occur as we’re immersed in activities but later as we think about what we did. Does that make more sense?

      • Hi David. That does indeed make things clearer – as of course does your own blog, which I have just added a link to. I really enjoyed your session – many thanks for constantly encouraging educators to reflect on important issues such as this.

  2. Pingback: What I got up to at the Wellington Festival of Education Part 1 | David Didau: The Learning Spy

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