Establishing principles before embarking on practice.


Examinations appear to rule education systems across the world. Not only do they dominate, but they are largely limited to an unimaginative written format that often fails to assess what they claim. Many of the assessment methods adopted in schools today do little to encourage learning, and some are a major obstacle to providing more inclusive approaches to teaching. This theme was to the forefront of our minds today, as our latest group of students on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education here in Bangalore, got to grips with considering the relationship between assessment and the provision of an equitable education system.

Assessment is obviously an important part of the teaching and learning process and the summative measures used at the end of a period of teaching can be useful in providing an overview of attainment and progress. However, when schools use only these summative approaches they miss an opportunity to really understand what is happening in the classroom and in the learning experienced by children. With this in mind today, Jayashree, Mary and Johnson have each challenged the thinking of our students, presenting them with ideas and encouraging them to debate principles of assessment alongside the mechanics of how this can be applied.

A series of activities based around those principles of assessment articulated by, amongst others Tim Loreman, Joanne Deppeler and David Harvey, enabled our student colleagues to reflect on their own practices and those of their colleagues. As an observer of part of this session, on my return from visiting a school across the city, I was immediately impressed by the way in which well-established assumptions and ingrained practices were being challenged. Having been given the space to think and debate issues in a supportive environment, our students were soon developing innovative ideas of how the assessment procedures in their schools might change to become more inclusive. As they presented their ideas to their classmates it was easy to see that they have a high commitment to developing their own practice and experimenting with approaches which they hope will benefit both pupils and teachers.

What we assess, how we do this and how the information from assessment is used were all questions considered. The formative processes of using assessment information and alternatives to simplistic pen and paper approaches found favour with all the class, and the examples they provided of how this might be further developed were greatly appreciated by all involved. The concept of assesment as a celebration of learning may not have been debated by teachers everywhere, but here in Bangalore was discussed with considerable flair and enthusiasm. As I listened to what our students had to say and the ideas that they articulated so effectively, I appreciated that I was probably learning as much in this class as any of the them. The importance of starting from a set of principles, rather than simply following established assessment practices was an important part of the message that everyone took away from today’s sessions. If this applies to assessment, then surely it is equally critical in all other aspects of what we do in schools.

This is a theme that we will revisit later in the week on this course, as we consider the role of children in the assessment of their own learning, and in appraising the teaching that they receive. With such reflective teachers, the delivery of this module is proving to be a real pleasure and I am sure that we will all continue to learn from each other.

As I sit here writing, awaiting the latest downpour of rain that is most certainly on its way, I cannot help but think that if all teachers were given more opportunities and time to reflect upon the practices in their schools, it would be far easier to establish a more inclusive education system. This freedom, of course, is unlikely to happen and therefore we will continue to be dependent upon the professional commitment of small groups of teachers, such as these to ensure that progress will eventually be made.


12 thoughts on “Establishing principles before embarking on practice.

  1. Hi Richard – this sounds like a breakthrough session. Indeed, establishing principles of practice I think has greater resonance than providing teachers with a grab-bag of specific strategies. I think your students’ (and your) approach has greater flexibility with respect to application in differing contexts.
    Recently the Auditor General here in Alberta was investigating some corrupt government behaviour and observed that when you want people to do the right thing it is best to establish “the backbone of principles rather than the corset of rules”. On a few occasions I have had the opportunity to discuss this quote and its relevance to teaching with colleagues. The conclusion? Much better to establish and follow broad principles when teaching that you can refer back to and rely on than to try and deal with all aspects of the specific minutia we encounter in practice.
    Enjoying the blog, as usual.

    • Hi Tim,
      I like the quote and feel that I may well use this in further discussions on the principles we are trying to establish. It was good to be able to use some of your work in yesterday’s session. We have students here who are really going to make a difference in the lives of children and teachers.

  2. Hi Richard,
    Particularly in the Indian education system, the educational establishment as a whole is as much to blame for popularising the current method of assessment where only the theoretical knowledge and rote learning is tested rather than true understanding and how their learning is related to practical reality. Besides, as you mentioned, rather than celebrate children’s achievement, it is often used to fuel unrealistic, meaningless expectation and competition among children and very often used negatively to highlight what they haven’t achieved (or what parents have determined they should have) rather than celebrate what they have achieved in their own individual capacity. The current system of testing how much children can ‘remember’ must be replaced by how much have they ‘learned/understood and how much have they ‘experienced’. You are planting the seeds and hope they bear much fruit.

    • Hi Benny,
      The problem is not wholly an Indian one, we can see this issue of inappropriate or inadequate approaches to assessment in England too. As you rightly say, the assessment of memory is often separate from understanding. As an example of this, when I was nine years old, as part of a school Christmas celebration around the world I was taught a Russian Carol. I can still remember this quite well, but have no idea what the words mean!
      Celebrating achievement, rather than merely judging attainment is a critical factor here.
      Another good posting Benny. Thanks for this.

  3. The CBSE board of education is on the lines of HOTS – High Order Thinking Skills, where the students will need to put on their thinking hats.. From what I have heard and perhaps experienced as a mother too, many questions asked in the tests and exams are on the application of the concepts learnt.. The catch as I see it is that the children need practice on this.. They maybe thorough on the concepts but articulating on the application of these concepts need the skill of being able to arrange thoughts in the mind and putting it down on paper.. This is a HUGE challenge..
    I have also understood that as teachers we many times assess children to understand ‘WHAT’ they dont know rather than on ‘WHAT’ they know.. I strongly feel that we need to give them lots of practice on skills of Oral Language, Reading, Writing and Math (while working on the concepts) before we start assessing them..

    • Hi Malathy,
      You make some interesting observations here. Teaching to the test has become a major problem in many countries – not just here in India. Similarly using tests to catch children out on what they don’t know is hardly going to fill them with confidence. I wonder if perhaps we should be asking children themselves more about how we could assess their learning? What insights might they provide do you think?

  4. about the CBSE system evaluating children as Malathy has mentioned, i have something to share. Recently over the past two months I have done informal educational evaluations of quite a few children along with some of my other colleagues at Brindavan and have seen that this sytem is giving rise to a lot of anxiety for many children and parents. While the evaluation shows no major problems with these children and does not indicate they are learning disabled, it points to most of these children not performing well in terms of grades. The interviews with parents and children told us that they were not familiar with the kind of evaluation used- the kind of tasks given for evaluation in the class were not the same as those in the exam. Some of the teachers themselves were not comfortable with this. So it points to a need to help children trransition from the system of reading and then locating answers in the text to understanding application questions and answering them. if this is not done, we’ll have more children sent for assessments!!

  5. Hi Jayashree,
    I think there is an indication here of the necessity to involve parents and children in the assessment process right from the start. I am sure that many parents have difficulties in navigating the complex systems that have been put in place in schools. If they felt more ownership of these approaches, we may create a much more inclusive learning environment.

  6. One of the biggest challenges I face from myself is an unanswered question of ‘Will the children be able to tell me what they want to be assessed on?’.. In my perspective this also stems from the fact that I may have not have understood children that well and hence unsure of this..
    Perhaps once I get back to my classes starting monday next, I would pose this question to the children.. Let me see what they come out with..

    • This is a profiund point Malathy. I think it takes time to both have the confidence to involve children in this way and to challenge our own traditional ways of teaching. Hopefully tomorrow morning’s session may help a little.

  7. Richard, be it in the sessions or in the posts or in your replies, you look at things in a positive light and express it too. One aspect that I certainly need to learn and implement..

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