Notes on Making Good Progress – Part 1

progressSometimes I just get carried away a bit. I managed to get an early copy of Daisy Christodoulou’s new book on assessment called Making Good Progress. I read it, and I made notes. It seems a bit of a shame to do nothing with them, so I decided to publish them as blogs (6 of them as it was about 6000 words). They are only mildly annotated. I think they are fair and balanced, but you will only think so if you aren’t expecting an incredulous ‘oh, it’s the most important book ever’ or ‘it is absolutely useless’. I’ve encountered both in Twitter discussions.


This part addresses the foreword, introduction and chapter 1.

I have been following the English education blogosphere for some time now. Daisy Christodoulou might be best known for her book ‘7 myths about education’ (and winning University Challenge with her team). ‘7 myths’ was a decent book with some nice and accessible writing, especially useful because it gave knowledge a bit more attention again. Points for improvement were the fact they weren’t really 7 myths in my view, 3 were variations of another myth, the empirical backing was a bit one-sided, and there was an error in quoting (revised) Bloom. But any way, a fresh voice, and some good ideas; bring it on, now in a new book on assessment.

The foreword of the book (again) is by Dylan Wiliam, best known perhaps for his ‘formative assessment’ work with Paul Black. After all the government malarkey on assessment with ‘assessment after levels’ he rightly so emphasises the timeliness of the book. Schools can make new assessment systems. Of course it is telling that a book needs to address this; it could be argued -especially when a government is keen to point at top performing PISA countries- that such an assessment system could be designed by a government. Of course, we now hear this more and more, but only after finishing the old system, opening the way to all kinds of empirically less grounded and tested practices. The foreword ends with a statement I am not convinced by, namely that formative and summative assessment might have have to be kept apart. For instance, it is perfectly acceptable to use worked examples from old summative assessments in a formative way. One could argue that both summative and formative assessments draw from the same source. In fact, in one of the promoted types of assessment, comparative judgement, one advice seems to be to use exemplars for students to know what teachers are looking for: a summative and formative mix.

One thing that immediately strikes me is that I love the formatting. The book has a nice layout and a good structure. Throughout the book, polygon diagrams perhaps suggest more structure than there is (who hasn’t used triangles ;-). Contrary to 7 myths each chapter seems to really tackle a separate issue, rather than the same issue in a different guise. The reference lists in the beginning are quite extensive. though for people who know the blogosphere a bit one-sided (Oates, Hirsch etc.). Later chapters have less references, and that is a shame because the second half is far more constructive and less ‘this and this is bad’ (more on that later). I can agree with a lot of criticisms in the first half, and even with the drawbacks of ‘levels’, but I am less convinced that some of the proposed alternatives will be an improvement. More evidence would have worked there.

The book starts with an introduction. Unfortunately the introduction immediately sets the tone, and in an un-evidenced way. “In the UK, teacher training courses and the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) encouraged independent project-based learning, promoted the teaching of transferable skills, and made bold claims about how the Internet replace memory.” I find that a gross generalization. Of course I know about the Robinson’s and Mitras of the world, and there probable *are* people in those organisations saying this (and outside), but is it rife? It is a pattern that also was apparent in ‘7 myths’. The sentence after that with ‘pupils learn best with direct instruction’ (no, novice pupils, it can even backfire with better pupils, so-called expertise reversal) and ‘independent projects overwhelm our limited working memories’ (no, this depends on the amount of germane load or, if you will, element interaction) in my view are caricatures of the scientific evidence. Often this has been parried in debates that it is reasonable to simplify it this way. I’m not sure; my feeling is that this is actually how new myths take hold. Luckily, what follows is a good explanation and problem statement for the book; I think it is good to tackle the topic of assessment.

Chapter 1 starts with a focus on Assessment for Learning (AfL). I think the analysis of why AfL failed, partly focussing on the role and types of feedback, is a good one. Black and Wiliam themselves emphasised the pivotal role of feedback, in that it needed to lead to a change in behaviour in the students. This did not seem to happen well enough. On page 21 it is ironic, given what follows in later chapters, that Christodoulou writes “When government get their hands on anything involving the word ‘assessment’, they want it to be about high stakes monitoring and tracking, not low-stakes diagnostics.” I feel that when Nick Gibb embraces ‘comparative judgement’, this is exactly what is happening. The analysis then continues, on page 23, with sketching two broad approaches in developing skills in the ‘generic skills’ and ‘deliberate practice’ methods. I had the well-known ‘false dichotomy’ feeling here. By adding words like ‘generic’ and also linking one approach to ‘project-based’ I felt there clearly was an ‘agenda’ to let one approach be ‘wrong’ and one ‘correct’. It even goes as far on page 26 to say that the ‘generic skills’ method leads to more focus on exam tasks. No real support for this supposition. Actually, some deliberate practice methods focus on ‘worked examples’ where using exam tasks would be reasonable but also ‘working with exam tasks’. I agree that approaches should be discussed, by the way, but as so many discussions on the web, not in a dichotomous way if evidence points to more nuance.

By cbokhove

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8 replies on “Notes on Making Good Progress – Part 1”

I am currently reading Daisy’s book and after each section I have been reading your thoughts. I made a note in the margin of my copy about the use of words like ‘generic’ and ‘deliberate’ for similar reasons to those you outline above. For me they certainly colour the argument presented and I felt I was being beaten a little over the head, if only with a foam bat.

In reading the two opening chapters one of the questions I have is about when we say a learner has moved from novice to expert and is ready for the ‘full game’? I think about my own teaching (I have taught over the years from infants to IB diploma) and I am uncertain as to how we draw the line, or if we can. I do think this line is important, as it does determine to some extent the type of teaching and learning that fits best for students. I would also suspect it should influence curriculum design – is that what mastery curricula are all about? Or can this be achieved through ways that Daisy does not explore. I’d take for example the work of Expeditionary Learning and Ron Berger in the USA, or High Tech High. They could both be characterised as PBL style approaches; from what I see both seem very successful approaches. And both could be described as having an element of deliberate practice in them.

And then there is David Perkin’s concept of playing the game: It sounds very close to Daisy’s ideas, and yet they come from very different sides of the prog/trad debate.

Thank you for your comment.

I think the use of the word ‘deliberate’ in ‘deliberate practice’ makes the term less usable, if this is not defined more precisely. Ericsson seems to have defended dp with exactly that: if it didn’t work, then it must not have been ‘deliberate’.

I think the novice/expert dimension you refer to, is one of the most important topics binding many of us together. It seems reasonable, also based on research, that more novice students need more guidance, while less novice ones can work with less guidance. What I find annoying is that even with such a balanced approach, some like to emphasise that one or the other is *more important*. I think this is unfounded.The idea that guidance needs to be more or less is part of the ‘assistance dilemma’ and all kinds of ‘curriculum design’ challenges. Terms like scaffolding and fading (of feedback) are part of an existing research repertoire.
I would have wished we would focus on that more.

Perkin’s piece is interesting. I see overlap but interestingly the first point contradicts Christodoulou’s main thesis, but I think it makes perfect sense. Point 3 is the most similar, and mentions Ericsson. I suspect a point like 2, motivation, is of less interest to many too. I’ve seen several in the blogosphere propose that good achievement will lead to more motivation, which is true to an extent. Yet, there is also is some truth in making sure motivation stays sufficient. Also things like transfer and the collaborative are understated. In any case, it would be good to look at these different sides!

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