In conversation: Dylan Wiliam

Individual schools need to work with parent communities to ensure they receive useful, meaningful information about their child's learning, instead of providing simplistic A to E grades.

That was the advice offered by Professor Dylan Wiliam when he visited the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) to record a video conversation as part of the organisation's Rolling Summit on assessment reform and innovation.

Wiliam is Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the Institute of Education, University of London. Teacher readers were invited to submit a question for the Q&A at ACER's Melbourne office. Educator Elaine Mills got in touch to say her school is looking to remove A to E grading from student reports and she wanted to hear Wiliam's thoughts on the issue.

On the topic of communicating student achievement, the academic said 'we've actually basically lied to parents that the information we're giving them is useful and meaningful ... these grades that we give to students, really don't tell parents anything at all'.

He recalled a conversation with one parent during his time as a mathematics teacher in London. 'He was pushing me to tell him what "position" his child was in the class – his "rank" in the class. I resisted and resisted, and eventually I gave in and I said “okay, he's in the top three, but it's the worst class I've ever taught. So, now what do you think you know?”

‘The point is, that parents think As and Bs and Cs and Ds are meaningful, but what we should be asking the parents is: “Now, what do you think you know about your child now that I've told you he's got an A?” And the answer is “nothing”, so I think there's been a bit of dishonesty here, because we've pretended to parents that these grades are meaningful, and they're really not.'

Wiliam argued parents not only need quality information about how their child is doing, but also quality information about how they can get better involved in their learning.

'Certainly in secondary school parents do need to be involved in understanding whether their child is likely to get into medical school or not. I think it's a disaster if an 18-year-old finds out that they can't go to medical school because their grades aren't there, because nobody has told them that they're failing. So, there's a difficult balancing act to be struck I think, but I would say that the balance at the moment is far too far towards telling students where they are, rather than helping them get better.

'And, when we've helped schools change communication systems, when you advise schools to tell parents not where their child is, but what that child needs to do to get better, then the parents are usually very positive – provided you explain the changes to them.

'... we have to help parents understand that really they should be concerned about things like “is the teacher giving feedback that helps the learner move forward?” rather than just telling them how well they're doing right now.'

Dylan Wiliam Interview - Designing the Future from ACER on Vimeo.

Wiliam also discussed streaming by ability and differentiated teaching. He said the idea of mixed ability teaching was attractive to him, and the way forward is to look for 'pedagogies of inclusion'.

'If a school groups kids by ability for just one subject it will be mathematics or modern languages. And if they group for all but one, the one that won't group kids by ability will probably be the English department. So I think one of the things we could learn is to say: “What is it about English teaching that lends itself to greater willingness to teach mixed ability classes?” and it's to do with a much more inclusive pedagogy.

'One of the things I've be interested in recently is to say “How can we employ this in mathematics?” ... and I'll give you one example. A typical mathematics lesson on the area of a trapezium in an Australian school would probably look like this: the teacher would introduce the rule to the students, the teacher would then do one example. The students would do 20 in their seats and the teacher would walk up and down the aisles helping the students, and the quickest students would do about 20 in about half an hour and the other students would be struggling on the first five.'

Wiliam said a common lesson approach on the same topic in Japan is for the teacher to introduce one way of calculating the area, then ask students to work in groups to see how many more conceptually distinct ways they can find for calculating the area.

'What's really interesting is the way that they would then operationalise that – the groups would be working on these different ways and the teacher might then differentiate by going to a group of highly able students and saying "one of these methods involves completing the trapezium into a triangle, and using the properties of similar triangles to subtract the area of the smaller triangle off the area of the larger triangle. See if you can find it”.

'And so the point is, all the students are engaged in the same activity, but the teacher has found a way of differentiating to stretch the really able ones without marginalising and ghettoising, if you like, the lower achieving students.'

To watch the full interview with Dylan Wiliam, click on the video.

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