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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Intuitive Assessment, Teacher Agency and Being a Disobedient Educator - Part 1

I have been thinking, wondering and considering various innovations around assessment. It has been sparked in part by a request that was made in a closed leadership environment on social media by another principal, and by the timely words in the latest hit book about education, which is currently going viral in New Zealand, Disobedient Teaching, by Welby Ings.  (More about that another time). 

I am inspired by many things, people and situations, and often I act on this inspiration.  I am, however, not that often encouraged to be disobedient (well, not openly), to step aside from the fear that constrains me as a leader, to be a little radical, and then to ask my staff to be disobedient with me!  

I won't lie, or sugar coat things to you - I was a little anxious, and a little excited too! 

I have been thinking about assessment for sometime, mostly because I don't feel what we currently do is 'cutting the mustard'.  It is my hunch that what we do with our current assessment overview is not very encouraging of intuitive, formative assessment practices.   When another principal asked the wider network for ideas on whole school assessment practices that aligned with the notions inherent within the book 'Disobedient Teaching', and others indicated in that post they wanted to find out what schools were doing as well, I offered to ask the #BFC630NZ crew.  This group of educators are some of the most innovative and cutting edge educators I know, they span the length of the country and teach in a varied set of schools, settings, and across different age groups.  I figured this would be a good platform to seek ideas and advice from and to aid in my own thinking around this.  (You can read the storify on Disobedient Teaching here). 

I hosted that chat Tuesday am, at 6:30.  I got to school a little after 7, and started going through the mid year data we were going to be discussing later that day at our staff meeting.  I was feeling a little disappointed with some of the trends in our data and I had some hunches about this that were adding to my wonderings about assessment practice.  I shared a conversation around these wondering with a member of the SLT (senior leadership team) and that is when I had an idea! 

A fairly, smack you in the face, a little radical and a little risky, kind of idea.  

I ran it past the SLT member (who has stepped back in class full time this term due to staffing shortages, so if we were to do what I was thinking, it would impact on her) and she got excited about the potiential.  We ironed out some kinks, and by 9am I had run it past the other leadership members, who were also excited to see where it might go. 

I did a bit more reading and research, placed some 'Disobedient Teaching' quotes on the white board in the staff room for teachers to ponder during the day, and ran the concept past a trusted colleague up the road over coffee at lunchtime.  (Just to ensure I had my ducks in a row and wasn't being irresponsible as well as disobedient!) 

The Idea 

At our staff meeting, after we had poured over the data and pondered the 'what nexts', I annouched that I had an idea I wanted to run past them.  I read the two quotes above, then I asked them to try something a bit different, and to join me in being a little disobedient in relation to assessment. 

 I have a great bunch of teachers in my school, and I wanted them to know that I trusted their professional judgement, their experience and that if doing something a bit different means that myself and the SLT have to step aside to let them do their job, then so be it!   I wanted them to know I had their back, and that I believe in them.  

I then presented 3 options to consider and asked if they were prepared to give it a trail during term three.  Alongside the options I presented some 'must do's' for the term (because we are in contracts and have a professional obligation to hold up our end of the bargain) and one caveat. 

The Options 

Option One:  Go off reservation!

In other words, I gave the staff that wish to, the equivalent of a blank cheque to go and do whatever they wanted to in regards to assessment, however they wanted to and that I trusted them to do what they know is right for our students learning.  You see, to be an intuitive teacher and implement intuitive formative assessment practices, you have to know your students, know your curriculum and not assess to a timetable, but to the needs of your students.  I know I have teachers that can do this.  I wanted to give them the option to show me what they can achieve when all the shackles (even the imagined ones) are removed. 

Option Two: Status Quo 

Just like in the classroom, I knew I had some teachers who would be be a little wary of removing the safety barriers.  And, here is the thing, wanting to operate within boundaries is ok!  I wouldn't take away the safety net for any student in a classroom that I knew might need some support or scaffolding.  Option two is about carrying on with our current assessment timetable and format.  One staff member who has chosen this option, and is recently back into teaching after having taken a break for a number of years remarked that for now, this was a good thing for them to do, and 'that's the reason we have it anyway, right? Perhaps next year I will be ready to try something new!'.  I will confess that I was impressed with the level of reflection behind the statement, and I really respect the reasoning behind the decision.  


Option Three: Collaborate with others of your choosing/like minds with a mix of option one and two! 

Option three is a bit of a mixture of both options one and two.  It gives people some form of scaffolding but allows for the creativity that comes from collaboration with others.  I am really looking forward to what the self selected teams come up with.  Collective risk taking, creativity and innovation - could be quite a journey! 


The Must Haves

After consultation with my SLT, we included a small set of requirements that would still need to be met in order to meet our professional obligations to several contracts we are a part of, and in order to minimise what could end up being an onerous workload come term 4.  


  1. 6 yr Net/weeks at school RR/Cluster writing task 
  2. Any ALL/ALiM (Accelerated Learning in Literacy and Accelerated Learning in Math)  
  3. Evidence for LTF (Learning Talk Framework) meetings (like PLGs) 
  4. A process to ensure students continue to progress 
  5. A basis in good practice and link it into coaching 

The Caveat 

That everyone will share their journey to their colleagues in week ten of the term at staff meeting, outlining what they did (even if that was Status Quo) and what difference it made.  


Going Forward

I am unsure what the outcome for the term will be but I am certain that by stepping aside and giving my teachers agency, we are going to have some interesting outcomes.  Across our staff there is a wide variance in terms of what people are going to do, from those going off reservation, staying status quo, and going for option three.  I was not surprised to see a fairly even mix of what people would do, but I think this is a good thing.  I do not want a cookie cutter approach to teaching in our school, and I want teachers that are about being the best teacher they are meant to be - not a clone of someone else's ideal, all doing the same thing in the same way, every day.  Our children are not all little clones and they deserve a range of teachers who see them as little human beings deserving of an education that fits them, not the other way around.  We have to stop making our students fit the system and instead bespoke it for the students and the teachers.  

As the principal it is a little risky, but in some respects by doing this I am modelling risk taking so that they can risk take.  Someone asked me the question that I am sure some of you reading this is no doubt thinking 'but what if someone doesn't do any assessments?'.  I guess this is a risk, but I am confident in two things - the first that my staff are professional and capable, and the second, that we have the systems and support structures in place should we have a concern.  For example, our LTF meetings are about discussions on best practice around students we are targeting, and these require teachers to bring evidence of learning and progress to the meetings.  I did tell staff that (when outlining the must haves) turning up to one of these sessions without any evidence would be a bit of a red flag for SLT, not as a warning, but as a way to be transparent.  For our beginning teachers who might need more support, I have all the confidence in my mentor teachers.  They will provide support and guidance.  In addition, all our teachers are either coached or mentored so support is simply a conversation away.  

I have been quietly researching the ins and outs of teacher agency (I have a draft post on this for later) and what excites me the most about this trial is that what we are doing this term is an example of teacher agency at its most potent.   I am looking forward to what we find out, and what impact this will have on us going forward.  I will be documenting our journey and I am hopeful that what we learn about data, assessment and our students will be a powerful form of self review.  

Perhaps one of my favourite responses when I asked one of the team what her plan was, was 'Oh, I am definitely going off reservation, but the most important thing you said was about this being about professionalism and making a difference for our kids' (or words pretty close to this).  

There does feel like there is a bit of a buzz going on, and I am looking forward to the conversations we will be having.  

Here is to being a little disobedient!  Watch this space! 
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8 comments:

  1. I am really interested. That's pretty far out for me. I am worried about over assessment and over checking/compliance stuff. Would love to folloe your journey

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  2. Thank you Cushla - I am excited to see what comes out of it. I trust my staff to be creative and do what is right for our students. We will be looking at our data in 9 weeks time to see if acceleration has happened and if there has been a shift - I think it will be the sharing of their stories at the end of term that will be the most interesting. I wonder sometimes if the barriers we have in our head are ones we self impose, and by removing obstacles and giving people space, the magic might happen!

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  3. Sounds like you are an amazing leader with people who trust you! I look forward to following the journey.

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  4. Amazing - not at all. Open to try something new -yes. I am hopeful that increasing agency will result in wonderful things.

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  5. Trailblazing. Brave. Exciting. Kinda of magical, too. An act of transformative and agentic leadership. Very excited to hear about what happens at the end of term!

    It's so encouraging to see teachers being affirmed -and empowered- as professionals who have the best interests of students at heart, and assessment as the way to help them do their best rather than some arbitrary tick box exercise or performance measuring stick.

    Ka rawe, Steph!

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    1. Thank you Ximena. I think it's pretty exciting. I hope teachers use this as an opportunity to explore unchartered territory, with 21st C thinking ideas/assessment. I know one is using classcraft as part of going off reservation and that looks pretty interesting! Hardest bit will be withholding judgement if someone experiments with something I'm personally not a fan of.

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