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How can I live out my democratic values in practice more fully by using formative assessment techniques to influence my own learning and the learning of others?

An action research project by

Mark Potts, Deputy Heateacher

Westwood St. Thomas School. Salisbury, Wiltshire



In my last assignment I considered my own educational values and I reflected on how they influenced my own education and that of others. The powerful experience that I had in South Africa allowed me to explore and articulate my own democratic values of equality, freedom, justice and humanity more fully. In this assignment I narrate how I am living out my democratic values more fully by using formative assessment techniques as a way of influencing my own learning and the learning of colleagues and students.

Living Out My Values

Values are defined as desirable trans-situational goals, varying in importance, that serve as guiding principles in people's lives.

(Shechtman 2002)

My childhood upbringing in Merseyside led me to believe passionately in equality, freedom, justice and humanity. These values have proved to be trans-situational in that they have stayed with me as I have moved between jobs and they have guided me in choosing jobs that enabled me to live out these core values. My first job was as a Youth Worker in Bootle, Liverpool, one of the most deprived areas in the United Kingdom. Since then I have worked in three different comprehensive schools. I struggled to live out these core values when I was striving to survive in my first years of teaching as a young, inexperienced, nervous and very insecure teacher. My story is about how I have tried to live out my democratic values of equality, freedom, justice and humanity, more fully through my work.

In my first teaching job at an all boys' comprehensive school in south London, the School culture encouraged a didactic pedagogy and gave paramount importance to techniques that acted as a controlling mechanism on students. In the words of one senior teacher at the School, 'Do not smile at them until Easter'. As an inexperienced teacher and one who was very much made aware that I was at the bottom of the hierarchy, I found myself struggling to live out the values that I cherished. My teaching approach was characterised mostly as autocratic and directive. Considering my approach from a learners point of view, I can draw on the work that I did on effective learning to recognise that I would have got a low response on the student questionnaire that I designed (See Appendix 1) for questions 7 and 10.

7. In lessons my teacher is interested in listening to my ideas.

10. Sometimes my teacher lets me choose what work to do or how to do it.

Potts (2001)

I gave students few opportunities for independent learning. Most of the assessment that I carried out was summative with great emphasis on the written test. I used assessment to achieve the following:

* To exert control over learners

*To manage behaviour in the classroom

*To instil fear in to learners

*To emphasise the importance of the subject-matter

Ironically, one of the subjects that I taught was Government and Politics. Whilst I may have articulated my democratic values, I was not fully living them out in my practice. This was not a tension that I recognised at the time. Behaviour management was an issue that I struggled to come to terms with and subsequent experience has taught me that engaging students with appropriate tasks that empower them and develop their independence reduces the need to focus on behaviour management.

When I left this School for a very different school with a different intake of students and a different School culture, I recognised the tension as it had existed. At Westwood St Thomas School, a 14 to 19 mixed comprehensive with the majority of it's students coming from the most deprived ward in Wiltshire, I was immediately struck by the extent of co-operation between teachers, the good relationships between teachers and students and the prevailing atmosphere of friendliness and warmth. These features were highlighted in the most recent OFSTED report on the School in 1998

Ethos is a strength of the school. Students are positive and mainly take pride in their work and try hard to do their best. The headteacher and staff team work hard to provide a supportive environment. OFSTED (1998)

These characteristics of the School are to my mind a result of the way that many of the teachers live out their democratic values in their teaching.

Democratic teachers (i.e. those who value freedom, equality and justice) tend to be self-transcendent and open to change rather than self-enhancing and conservative. They tend to be more co-operative and affective than oppositional; influence is shared with students rather than dominating them. They are more understanding and friendly rather than strict and admonishing in their behaviour' (Shechtman 2002)

Two examples serve to illustrate this democratic culture. Firstly, the School's approach to the development of a code of conduct for behaviour illustrates the democratic nature of decision making. Parents, students, staff (teaching and non-teaching) and governors were invited to take part in a training day that developed this code of conduct. This meant that all stakeholders had an opportunity to make a contribution to this key document that influenced classroom practice.

Secondly, In September 2000 I was promoted to Deputy Head with responsibility for the Quality of Learning. One of my first tasks was to develop a 'Guidelines for Effective Learning' document. I was drawn to this task by the opportunities that it would give students to influence teaching and learning in the school, so making the democratic values more transparent and embedding in the school culture the student voice.

Involving pupils in their learning changes the nature of the pupil/teacher relationship, such that the commitment to teaching and learning is a genuinely shared responsibility. Fielding (2001).

In developing the guidelines I became interested in accelerated learning and developed a view that understanding the needs of learners and changing our teaching methods to meet these needs is central to being an effective teacher, thus reinforcing my democratic belief in equality of opportunity. I also recognised the importance of striving to meet the needs of all learners whatever their preferred learning style. These influences helped to shape the Guidelines for Effective Learning that are now a fundamental part of the School's self assessment process as we strive to move forward as a learning school.

In recent years the School has recognised that the professional development of staff is the key to school improvement (See Appendix 2). Our in-service training, including the MA course with Bath University, has focused on understanding learning and improving classroom practice in order to develop learners that value freedom, equality and justice.

The relationship found between effective teaching and democratic beliefs suggests that more should be done in teacher education to develop such beliefs.  Shechtman (2002) 

Our assumption has been that we can improve our understanding of how people learn and that we can be more effective as teachers in empowering learners. It is against this supportive background that I am able to take risks to try to improve my own practice and try to live out my democratic values more fully.

Assessment as a Tool for Empowering Learners.

Assessment should be aligned with the exercise of active learning,

responsibility and autonomy'. Macdonald and Twining (2002)

I have come to recognise assessment as a tool for empowering learners through my teaching of vocational courses. My introduction to formative assessment was through vocational education. As Head of Business Studies at Westwood St Thomas School in 1995 I introduced BTEC courses to the School. BTEC courses offered a portfolio-based approach to assessment with opportunities for advice and guidance from the teacher that could really influence the learning. It offered the possibility of a more democratic relationship between the teacher and the learner, where the teacher was able to point the learner in the right direction and encourage independence in learning, a quality that was rewarded in the assessment regime. It seemed to me that I was able to have a significant influence on the learner through the quality of feedback that I gave. Indeed, this point was stressed at the training that I attended to become an external verifier for vocational courses.

The success of vocational courses in the School as highlighted in the 1998 OFSTED report stimulated my interest in assessment as a way of empowering students to take responsibility for their own learning.

Students are proud of their achievements and are enthusiastic about their work. They respond well in lessons, work productively with one another and in the main sustain a satisfactory rate of independent work. They give close attention to the direction and advice of their teachers. OFSTED (1998)

Vocational education put assessment and feedback at the heart of improving the quality of learning. When my MA tutor gave me an extract to read from 'Inside the Black Box ɜ Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment'by Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black (1998), I was struck by the emphasis on informative feedback to students, that empowers them to make progress.

Feedback to any pupil should be about the particular qualities of his or her work, with advice on what he or she can do to improve Black and Wiliam (1998)


Feedback has been shown to improve learning where it gives each pupil specific guidance on strengths and weaknesses Black and Wiliam (1998)

The process of formative assessment that they suggest supports my own democratic values of providing all of my students with opportunities to continuously improve, so doing themselves justice and encouraging independence in learning (freedom).

Whilst it can help all pupils, it gives particularly good results with low achievers where it concentrates on specific problems with their work, and gives them both a clear understanding of what is wrong and achievable targets for putting it right.  Black and Wiliam (1998)

This process supports my own belief in giving greater support through constructive feedback to those that require it, thus extending equal opportunities. Here was the research evidence to support the practice that I had developed through teaching vocational courses.

The focus of Black and Wiliam is very much on assessment for learning. The assessment is as much for the teacher as it is for the students, in that the teacher learns how to modify the teaching to enhance the learning. This idea is very much in line with Judi Marshall's idea of living life as inquiry (1999) and Jean McNiff's ideas drawing on the work of Jack Whitehead.

An (internalised) enquiry is that conducted by the individual in to her own practice. She reflects critically on her work, either privately or through discussion with others, and aims to think of original ways that will help her to improve McNiff (1993)

This supports my view that as professionals engaged in the activity of learning, we should be seeking to continuously improve our practice. It is exactly what I was seeking to embed in to the School culture in developing the Guidelines for Effective Learning.

Nor should we ignore the links between assessment and self esteem. As Tom Robson, Science Advisor for Wiltshire LEA said in a recent presentation:

Self-belief grows when the learner experiences success and this is recognised by others. The learner is then motivated to learn more. Robson (2002)

I recognise this in myself as a learner. The importance of motivating learners to learn more has to be central to our assessment practice. If we discourage learning through our assessment we do our students a great disservice. Sibani Raychaudhuri brilliantly evokes the potential de-motivating effects of assessment in this poem entitled 'Self Assessment:

My red folder

in the fourth year

wants me to be clear

and positive

about what I achieve

in school

in my own words

which are foreign to me.

In my own words

in my own language

(which has no place here)

how can I feel clear

and positive?

My red folder

in the fourth year

wants me to be positive

about my grade E

in English History:

the heritage and glory

of the British Empire

in my own words.

My red folder

in the fourth year


out of nowhere

wants me to assert

what I achieve

in school

in my own words

How can I blow the trumpet

they've taken from me?

Raychaudhuri (1988)

My reading of Black and Wiliam, Gipps, Harlen, Torrance and Prior and reflection on my own experience, led me to believe that one of the main reasons for the re-motivation of students was through the formative assessment techniques encouraged by the vocational courses. Students who previously had not fared particularly well in tests and examinations were re-engaged in learning through the vocational courses. As our School's OFSTED report in 1998 points out:

Most students begin key stage 4 GNVQ courses with modest standards in the key skills of literacy and numeracy. All make at least satisfactory progress. Many make good progress and achieve results which are in line with national expectations. Those who respond well to the good teaching make rapid progress to attain high standards. OFSTED (1998)

The courses encouraged positive feedback to students that empowered them to make improvements to the quality of their work. I developed the skills to provide this type of feedback. It gave me great pleasure to see students submit work of a vastly improved standard having taken advice from me on initial drafts. Nor were the students penalised for this by the external assessment system, but they were in fact rewarded for it and encouraged to reflect on the learning process that they had gone through.

Extending The Use Of Formative Assessment

Convinced of the benefits of formative assessment for learning, I wished to spread the word amongst my colleagues. I decided to take an action research approach, 'To put the ideas generated by basic research to the test of practice', (Torrance and Pryor 2001). I will try to demonstrate how my own learning and that of my staff colleagues and my students has been influenced by my actions on formative assessment.

I took the opportunity to put the research to the test and share the results with staff on a Training Day in October. I decided to use video evidence of my own assessment practice in the classroom and that of a colleague, Bob Ainsworth. I took some video footage of myself teaching my AS Level Economics class and of Bob assessing and giving feedback to a Year 11 Business student. I made sure that I gained the consent of the students involved. The video footage is included as Appendix 3.

I find the use of video footage of classroom activity to be a particularly powerful tool for training and development. It brings the issues directly to colleagues attention and gives a real insight in to classroom activity. It provides an excellent opportunity for discussion and often I find that when colleagues view footage of classroom activity they make unexpected observations.

Having viewed the video footage of my teaching with my colleagues in October, I claim to have learned the following from it:

A colleague made the point that what struck him most about the way that I interacted with the students was the way in which I encouraged the students to use specialist economic terms in their responses. On reflection, I see that what I was doing was re-orienting the students' thinking.

Dialogue with the teacher provides the opportunity for the teacher to respond to and re-orient the pupils. Black and Wiliam (1998)

In terms of questioning, I feel that most of the practice that I demonstrated was divergent questioning. However, on one of the occasions when a student made a response that I had not expected, I feel that I missed an opportunity to build on it and scaffold further and deeper learning. I feel strongly that such opportunities should not be missed. Even though it would have taken me on to an issue, 'unemployment', that is not an area of knowledge for the current module, it would have developed students' thinking as economists and this is what I wish to develop in my students.

The video footage and discussion of Bob's assessment of the student has led to further dialogue between Bob and me about his assessment practice. This has been captured in emails printed as Appendix 5. I feel that I can claim to have had some influence on Bob through this process. Making the video itself and putting it in the public domain put the focus firmly on his assessment practice. This has helped him to reflect and consider ways of improving it. 'If I was to do it again, I think I would change it slightly'. Ainsworth (2003).  He goes on to outline, in his email response, how he is developing a way of involving the student in planning their own improvements to their work through dialogue with him. This is good formative assessment practice and empowers the students to improve their learning. 

Empowering AS Level Economics Students to Learn

The next challenge for me was to live out my belief in empowering students through formative assessment more fully by changing my assessment techniques with my AS Level Economics students. AS Level Economics is not a vocational course and is regarded as an academic course. The assessment regime favours external examination. In the past I had assessed students during the course through interim tests to assess how much they understood and given them a grade. I decided to change my assessment practice by focussing on setting tasks that enabled me to provide useful feedback for learning and by deliberately avoiding grading of their work.

The difficulty is in showing my influence on the learning of my AS level Economics students. I share responsibility for this group with a colleague. I teach them 60% of the time and he teaches them 40%. We split the teaching of the modules accordingly. This means that I had to deliver three topics for the first module between September and January and help students to be ready for their external module examination. I decided to create three extended assignment tasks, as shown in Appendix 6a. I decided that I would assess these formatively. I made a deliberate decision not to give the work a grade but to give written feedback on what they had done well and how they could improve. Examples of the feedback that I gave to students are included in Appendix 6b. I then gave them time to improve their work and I re-assessed it to check their understanding.

Some students heeded the advice that I gave and did improve their work, others didn't. Those that did paid close attention to my comments and changed, or added the information. As you can see in Appendix 6b my initial assessment of TV's work asked him to draw a production possibility curve and use it to illustrate opportunity costs. This is precisely what he has done, as shown, following this assessment. The two pieces of work from HD show that she has heeded my advice and improved her work.

I make the claim that for these students the process of formative assessment that I implemented enhanced their learning. I make this claim on the basis that it meets all five of the conditions for formative assessment as outlined in a paper by Dylan Wiliam:

1. A mechanism exists for evaluating the current level of achievement;

2. A desired level of achievement, beyond the current level of achievement (the reference level) is identified;

3. There exists some mechanism by which to compare the two levels, establishing the existence of a 'gap';

4. The learner obtains information about how to close the gap;

5. The learner actually uses this information in closing the gap.'

Wiliam (1999)

What about the students that did not respond to my feedback?  I conclude that this was because I did not provide classroom time for students to respond.

Enhancing the quality of learning through improved formative feedback takes classroom time, and is in conflict where teachers feel under pressure to cover a statutory curriculum. Black and Wiliam (1998)

This is a lesson that I have learned for assessment of work for the next module.

In line with my own democratic values and the ideas of Stoll, Fink, Earl and Fielding, it seemed to me to be important to seek the views of the students on how they had been assessed.

It is not surprising that pupils would rather be elsewhere if their opinions are not sought and they have no opportunity to contribute to decisions that affect them" Stoll and Fink (1995)

A discussion that I had with Sarah Fletcher of Bath University, who is research mentor for the Westwood St Thomas School MA group, led me to seek their views as a focus group through video evidence, rather than through a questionnaire. (Sarah's ongoing dialogue with me about this assignment has proved to me the value of formative assessment. She has given me ideas for taking my learning forward as I write it.) I prepared questions for the students (See Appendix 7), set the video camera running and left the room.

My notes from the video footage and the video footage itself show how the students have understood my assessment practice.

SH To what extent did it..(help us to learn)?

MT I think it did help us to learn. It gave us points we needed to work on and points we knew we were strong on

SH And we had to re-do it, didn't we, until we got it right?

MT What do you think Tom?

TV I think it's a good way of assessing It tells us what to work on.

Later, they are comparing it to other practice that they experience around the School.

MT How is the assessment different to Mr Evans, or in other subjects?

SH Totally different

MT Mr Evans didn't thingy

HD We did have a test.

SH We should have been able to do it again, like copy it out and improve it.

TS In Physics we do a test paper.

MT There's no feedback is thereɝ.Business, you get feedback and grades too., I think that's a lot better.

Clearly, they value the feedback that they are given and the direction that it gives them to improve their work. They can see the link between assessment and learning. One student expresses the desire to be given a grade as well. He remains to be convinced of the benefits of comments only on the work, the approach that Wiliam favours.

The Influence of Year 10 Students

Whilst conducting my research in to the influence that my assessment techniques were having on students in my Economics group, I was involved in an after school session in November 2002 with the Westwood St Thomas teacher research group to which a group of students were invited. The students were not ones that I teach. The session presented the opportunity for the group to discuss with the students what it is that they see as most useful in assessment. The following quotes from students struck me as extremely interesting.

It is useful to have the assessment criteria beforehand, so that I can use it as a checklist. I can guess my mark when I hand it in. Garvin (2002)

To me this confirms the importance of self-assessment as expressed by Black and Wiliam as follows:

For formative assessment to be productive, pupils should be trained in self-assessment so that they can understand the main purposes of their learning and thereby grasp what they need to do to achieve'. Black and Wiliam (1998)

Another comment was:

We should have individual targets for ourselves rather than competing against others. Garvin (2002)

Another student confirmed this:

Personalised comments from the teacher are the most important form of feedback, as they show real interest. Glew (2002)

Again, our own students are articulating Black and Wiliam's findings in their own ways:

Feedback to any pupil should be about the particular qualities of his or her work, with advice on what he or she can do to improve, and should avoid comparisons with other pupils. Black and Wiliam (1998)

I left the session excited by what I had heard. I was very pleased that we had invited the students along and exhilarated by the way that the students had articulated their views. Here was confirmation directly from the students that they found the most useful assessments those that informed their learning and empowered them to improve. The session influenced my own learning as I reflected on the value of it and recognised the importance of involving the students in formulating the School policy on assessment. This was an important learning experience for me and has changed my approach to developing the school assessment policy. Whereas the intention in the School Improvement Plan for 2002-3 was to consult with staff colleagues, I now recognise the importance of working with students as well in the formation of the policy. After all assessment practice affects them most directly. I will also involve them in monitoring the implementation of the assessment policy and in evaluating its effectiveness. Inclusion and the pursuit of justice for our students are key democratic values that are demonstrated through these actions.

Validation of My Actions Through a School Visit

As part of my NPQH training I am required to make a visit to another school in order to develop my school improvement project. My school improvement project is about improving assessment practice. This gave me the opportunity to validate my actions on formative assessment and to help to develop my thinking about how I might develop the project further. I arranged a visit to Haybridge School in Worcestershire. They have introduced formative assessment in to teaching across the School.

I visited the School in January 2003 and talked to a number of teaching staff who had incorporated formative assessment techniques in to their teaching. I have included my notes from the visit as Appendix 10. Talking to teaching colleagues at the School confirmed my belief that formative assessment is part of good practice. Teacher after teacher talked with enthusiasm about how it empowered students and encouraged them to take responsibility for their own learning.

Giving students the criteria for essays is empowering the students to assess their own work. (Connolly 2003)

It's all about empowering them (students) to be successful (Meyrick 2003)

There is a strong commitment from the teachers that I talked to in helping students to be successful in developing the skills for learning that will be of value to them for the rest of their lives. They saw formative assessment as playing a leading role in the development of those skills.

What surprised me was the extent to which the teachers had responded to the research on assessment in their own classrooms. They were living out the idea that grading acts as a barrier to learning and were enthusiastically embracing the ideas of Wiiliam and Black from Inside the Black Box (1998).

The giving of marks and the grading functions are over-emphasised, while the giving of useful advice and the learning function are under-emphasised. Black and Wiliam (1998)

This will influence my own classroom practice in that I will emphasise in my feedback the advice that I give to students on how they can further their learning. I will then give them the time to follow the advice.

Another key learning point for me from the visit was how the School had encouraged the growth of formative assessment through professional development and the establishment of a working party. This process had encouraged experimentation by the teaching staff within their subject areas. This seems to me to be totally consistent with the democratic principles of empowerment enshrined in formative assessment. In this case the managerial process is empowering the staff and encouraging them to take risks within a supportive environment, an approach that the school improvement literature supports. Each department within Haybridge School was trying out different aspects of formative assessment and adapting it for their own purposes. This action research approach was leading to healthy discussion amongst colleagues about how to improve teaching and learning.

Another key learning point was the existence of a tension between the demands of the School assessment and reporting system, based on target setting and predicted grades given to students, and the implementation of formative assessment processes in subject areas with its' emphasis on constructive feedback and avoidance of grading of students. This is a tension that is recognised by some staff, though not all and it will be interesting to see how this is managed. I now recognise it as a tension that is arising in our own School as we develop formative assessment practices.

The Next Steps

My experimentation goes on as I seek to find an effective way of formatively assessing my students so that they can improve their learning, and I seek to live out my democratic values more fully by empowering them to do so. I do believe that I have been able to demonstrate in this assignment that my learning has developed as a result of formative assessment, through both self-assessment and peer assessment. I also feel that I have been able to demonstrate a measure of influence on colleagues and students learning through this process.

As a School we are moving towards a set of guidelines for assessment for use 'Inside the Black Box' Black and Wiliam (1998), i.e. in the classroom. This process is involving colleagues and students in the drawing up of the guidelines, thus living out my democratic values as a teacher more fully. I will be disseminating this research to members of the working party. I will also be sending a copy of this work to the LEA adviser on Teaching and Learning in Foundation subjects, who meets with colleagues in other schools in Wiltshire to work on assessment issues. This is a journey that I have travelled and continue to travel. It may be that others can learn from it and improve their own learning.

As for my own future learning, this assignment has led me to reading the work of Stoll and Fink. As a result I have become interested in action researching further the impact that student involvement in learning can have on the school as a learning community.



BLACK, P and WILIAM, D (1998) Inside The Black Box, Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment London, King's College School of Education

GIPPS, C (1994) Beyond Testing, Towards a Theory of Educational Assessment. London, Routledge Falmer

McNIFF, J (1993) Teaching as Learning, An Action Research Approach London, Routledge

STOLL, L and FINK, D (1995) Changing Our Schools Buckingham, Open University Press.

STOLL, L, FINK, D and EARL, L It's About Learning (And It's About Time)London: Kogan Page



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