Saturday, 8 December 2012

It's what you measure that counts.

Asking which came first, the chicken or the egg is a question which has long entertained philosophers and scientists.

Likewise, asking which should come first, the curriculum or the assessment model, has provided much thought for educationalists.

This question has been brought to my mind once more by a number of events and twitter conversations. The first is the imminent closure of both the government consultation on the EBC, and the heads roundtable consultation on the curriclum. Both of which close for business on 10th December. If you haven't responded to the government consultation then you really should. The documents are on their website.  You might also like to compare the Heads Roundtable consultation document, and reply to that. Again, details are on their website.

There is a feeling amongst many educators that providing an excellent curriculum is where we should start in designing education. If we get the curriculum right, then everything else will follow.

As someone who is, and has been, involved in both the business of examining and in curriculum design I think that this is not the best place to start.  Inevitably the curriculum narrows (or expands) to what is measured.

One only has to think of the 5A*-C (inc English and Maths) which led to the rise of equivalent qualifications, early and regular entry to boost numbers. Or the reported reduction in some arts subjects with the introduction of the Ebacc as a performance measure.

Equally, removing science from KS2 tests did not always allow science to break free of the shackles of a stifling curriculum, instead it meant that science lost prominence in many primary schools and focus was given to English and Maths. Or at KS3, the removal of SATS wasn't always used by schools to develop innovative and engaging curriculum experiences for students. Rather, it allowed them to start KS4 a year early, even to the extent of entering stusents in module tests at the end of year Assessment (and the accountability linked to it) drives the curriculum.  To be fair, some schools did take advantage of the freedom the loss of exams at the end of year 9 gave them and created a new curriculum for their students.

I think that we need to think about what, and how, we are going to assess and use that to plan the curriculum.  This is 'Backwards Design' as outlined by Grant and Wiggins. (Thanks to @ for the link.)

In brief, we should decide what students should know, understand and be able to do. This then allows us to outline how students can 'show that they know', and only then should we plan the learning episodes that students will experience.  This is the opposite way round that learning is sometimes planned, often with a 'Oh, I know a really good activity we could do' sort of way.

To see how this might look in practice, the York Science project is currently attempting to design a KS3 curriculum based on the backward design principle, and I would encourage schools to get involved with that project.  

For those designing the EBCs (even though the consultation hasn't finished yet) and those who will produce specifications based on the EBCs, then it is important that they think about how the materials they are producing will be assessed. 

For those designing their schemes of work/learning then it is important to think about what you expect the students to know at the end of the scheme, how can they show this (and it doesn't have to be written - see 200 ways for some great alternative ideas), and only then, what are you going to teach to get the students to the end point.