Raising the bar

For students and teachers to understand the next learning steps, they also need understand what the long-term learning progression looks like.

Mapping learning against a developmental continuum makes it possible to monitor progress and set individual targets. At Wilderness School, in South Australia, teachers are collaborating across year levels to write whole school learning continua.

Heather De Blasio, Director of Learning and Teaching Excellence, says it's a process that has required them to think more deeply about the progression of different skills, subject knowledge and attributes such as leadership.

'[Teachers are] writing in the sense of a typical progression - not every student will necessarily do that. To come to a shared agreement with their colleagues about this has led to amazing conversations, passionate discussions and teachers daring to disagree with each other and challenge each other.

'So, professionally it's been very rewarding but incredibly difficult because sometimes they will think "Well I actually don't know what the next step is if they're [at this level]" and so that's involved teachers having to research.'

De Blasio says this developmental approach to learning and assessment is about helping every student achieve the maximum amount of growth, and is underpinned by three theories.

'It came out of Professor Patrick Griffin's work. I'd done a subject in the Assessment Research Centre [at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education] and got acquainted with this model of developmental learning, teaching and assessment, and his book Assessment for Teaching.

'It really also aligned with [Professor John Hattie's] work, that in order to help students to know how they're going and where to next, teachers really need to have a clear idea of what progress looks like in each subject.

'And Professor Geoff Masters, who talks about the purpose of assessment - the underlying purpose being to be able to identify where a student is at, at a particular time in their learning.'

Wilderness School, on the edge of the Adelaide CBD, is a non-denominational, independent girls school with a 131-year history. De Blasio says analysis of Year 12 results and NAPLAN data from earlier years highlighted excellent achievements, but also uneven levels of growth.

'We're always wanting to help all our students develop. The high achieving students, they almost in a way "fly under the radar" a bit because they're getting As and A+s, but that doesn't tell us what more they can achieve. So it was certainly partly to do with that, that we were interested in using this model.

'At the top of these continua, how Patrick Griffin designs it is ... the top level is beyond any student in your class - everyone has got something to aim for. We believe that, as students become more and more skilled, these will continue to be revised and we'll have to keep raising the bar. We're not there yet, obviously, but this is where it is heading.'

Supporting the model with professional development

This year, the first year of adopting the new model, all teachers have attended professional learning sessions with Michael Francis, one of the co-authors of Griffin's book.

'He's come over at the start of each term to deliver training regarding the model,' De Blasio explains. 'We believe in this, there’s a huge belief from leadership - who have been very supportive in releasing teachers to work in their collaborative teams.'

The expert input has helped teachers develop the learning progressions, including whole school continua for literacy and numeracy involving collaboration between staff from the Early Learning Centre, Junior School, Middle School and Senior School.

'And in fact we've written these (they're not all quite finished) for the skills in all the subject-related disciplines as well. From there, [staff] then identified rubrics - not like most people think of rubrics, these ones don't have any qualifiers and they don't have any numbers or any deficit language ... "can't" or that something is missing.'

All teachers have written rubrics for their subject areas, to assess where students are. 'They've actually been using them as a teaching and learning aid as well as an assessment tool. So, whilst they're teaching students a topic and developing certain skills, the students will have the rubric and know what skills are involved in this particular area of study.'

The rubrics are shared with students so they can work out what they need to do next to improve. 'For example, if they're aiming towards a prac report in science, or they're writing an essay in English, or a recount in Year 5, they know what the levels of progress look like in that particular form of writing or skill.'

De Blasio says members of staff are at different levels of readiness and capacity, but most have already reached the stage of trialling these new tools in the classroom.

'Some teachers began implementing some of these in Term 1, 2015. For my Year 12 students, I used one on text responses in Term 1 ... When I first gave it to them it was actually their first summative task of the year. I gave it to them to help them self-assess their draft and work out why they needed to improve it before I looked at it.

'I asked them to tell me how confident they were about writing a text response before they saw this rubric, and only about 30 per cent said that they were confident or very confident. By the end of [working with it] there was nearly 90 per cent that said that they were confident about what high quality looked like in a text response.'

She adds several subject areas have reported similar successes. '[Teachers] feel really empowered and that it is really making a difference, but it's early days yet. All of the year levels and subjects are looking at how it might be possible next year to use this ... to measure and monitor progress across the year. We're not saying you've got to do it in everything you do because that would just be too much.

'The teachers are [also] going to be learning how to plot student achievement at one time on a Guttman Chart and identify the Zones of Proximal Development, and target teaching at those. '

Heather De Blasio shared details of this approach at the 2015 EPPC (Excellence in Professional Practice Conference). EPPC 2016 will be held in Melbourne on 19-20 May. The theme is Collaboration for school improvement. Click on the link for registration details.

Think about your latest teaching topic: Do you know what the learning progression looks like, including for those working at the highest levels? Do your students?

Do you give students opportunities to self-assess their work before submitting it?

How often do you work with staff from other year levels to plan and assess?