Fragile – Do Not Drop – AfL Inside

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Is formative assessment dead?

Something I overheard a colleague say the other day is troubling me. A few teachers were having an informal chat and one of them said, “No one really does AfL anymore, do they?”

As far as I was aware, AfL wasn’t a choice where you either did or didn’t do it. I thought AfL defined teaching and if you called yourself a teacher then what you really meant was you were a formative assessment teacher. I walked away wondering whether I was the only formative assessment teacher left standing.

Not happy with the idea that AfL had somehow slipped away in the night and no one had told me, I decided to remind myself exactly what formative assessment entailed:

  1. clarifying and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success
  2. engineering effective classroom discussions, questions and tasks that elicit evidence of learning
  3. providing feedback that moves learners forward
  4. activating students as instructional resources for each other, and
  5. activating students as owners of their own learning.


Yep, five affirmatives and these key ‘no brainer’ strategies were still part and parcel of my teaching, so I thought I must have been hearing things. I consulted Dylan Wiliam’s book Embedded Formative Assessment, double-checked and came to the conclusion that everyone should be using AfL.

Things got worse though. I then picked up Daisy Christodoulou’s new book Making Good Progress and the first chapter asks ‘Why didn’t Assessment for Learning transform our schools?’ This confused the hell out of me and I sensed some sort of conspiracy.

Was I really the only person left being a formative pedagogue? Formative assessment had ‘worked’ remarkably well for me and so something had to be wrong.

Determined to work out whether I had just wasted the last 20 years of my life being a responsive teacher, I soon found out that AfL was being ‘done’ but it had been misunderstood, mistreated and messed up by, yes, you guessed it, a high-stakes accountability system.

As Daisy Christodoulou points out,

“One possible explanation is that the government support for the policy was, in fact, counter-productive. 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. That is, the involvement of government in AfL meant that the assessment in AfL went from being formative to being summative: no longer assessment for learning but assessment of learning.”

And she’s right. Although having enjoyed being an AfL teacher for years, it has been seen by some the type of teaching ‘maverick’ teachers experimented with. For many teachers, it’s only the results that count and messing about with low-stakes AfL is dangerous.

Back To The Drawing Board

I have always pushed and pushed for ‘active assessment’ where teaching, learning and assessment are connected and importantly, where pupils own their own learning. I have always followed the big idea that we use evidence of pupil learning to adapt teaching and learning, to meet their needs.

But I have been hoodwinked. Now it’s all coming out in the open. Whilst I have been a proponent of the pedagogy of contingency and constantly adapting my teaching, it would seem that some of my colleagues have been talking the talk but not taking formative action.

  • Colleague A tells me he “did a lot of that formative stuff but never really acted on the info because it was unpredictable and hard-work. It was easier to just follow my plans and stick to the bullet points.”
  • Colleague B said that it was “unsustainable and unworkable because we had to pass exams first”.
  • Colleague C confessed, “it works to a point but not for every lesson.”
  • Colleague D whispered, “individual progress is impossible to track.”

This was devastating news, the ‘black box’ had been stamped on, squashed and was battered.

Whilst some of us have been adapting our teaching work to meet pupil learning needs, some teachers have just been plotting a course of their own regardless of wind speeds and weather conditions.

The whole point of collecting evidence of pupil learning was to do something with it, not ignore it.

Of course, this isn’t the picture everywhere and AfL is definitely being taught with insight and passion in many schools because they ‘get it’.

AfL 2 – Certificate TG (Teacher Guidance) 

My approach is simple: find out what pupils know, what they partly know and what they do not know and then help them upgrade their thinking and advance their learning by giving them a flight path. There is no doubt that putting AfL into practice has not been easy for some schools because it requires schools to prioritise this approach to assessment and safeguard that other initiatives do not clash with its implementation.

The problem has always been that AfL has never been given a proper chance and it has been done over so it is time to revisit it and look again at the huge impact it could makes and indeed does make.

For me, assessment for learning is best summarised and executed in the Active Assessment in Science by Stuart Naylor and Brenda Keogh, and then later by the same authors and myself in Active Assessment in Mathematics and Active Assessment in English.

The books in this series demonstrate how thinking, learning and assessment can be joined together in an imaginative and united way,  so that thinking promotes learning, learning enables assessment to take place and assessment acts as a stimulus to both thinking and learning.

Each of the books translate AfL into usable and practical strategies for both primary and secondary classrooms. If you want to see what real AfL looks like then take a look.



Has AfL left the building? No, it’s still singing and will be on stage for the forseeable future.

3 thoughts on “Fragile – Do Not Drop – AfL Inside

  1. I’m a firm user of AfL but fear I too am alone in the practice.
    The problem for me is when everything has to be evidenced. AfL in my teaching and learning is minute by minute and second by second and having the knowledge of how to think on my feet and adapt – but unless I have a teacher cam and brain download I can’t possibly provide ‘written’, what’s usually expected, progress. For me, the evidence is the learners.
    I had to take a massive intake of breath a year ago when, at my new school, the newly appointed (RQT) who was questioning evidence in books, said well I don’t know who Shirley Clarke or Dylan Wiliam is but this is our policy so do this. Sigh.

  2. Wow! I would feel dirty using only formative assessment to assess my students! Imagine having students in the class bumbling along not understanding anything and the teacher not picking that up until the next test. Not mentioning the fact that AFL allows us to personalise learning and drive students forward with their mindset and thinking. I am astonished that any colleague can play down the power of knowing exactly where their students are in every lesson.

    In a sequence we go as far as having a cold task and cold mind map discussion (placing where the children are in their current knowledge) building to skills work for which we assess through questioning and reflective sentences, marking with feedback and verbal conversations with pupils. Then we create a piece or an assessment again at the end to see how much progress has been made. Results are shared with children and reflected upon. We often use dimilar techniques on a samller scale within a lesson.

    I love AFL and I love using it to adapt my planning and learning tools. I can’t see how else you can personalise a lesson and give students the tools or support they require.

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