Inside the Black Box. Simple and Profound Transformations. #Questions #FormativeAssessment

On wait time, the nature of questions, visible thinking, formative assessment and deeper learning:

A particular feature of the talk between teacher and pupils is the asking of questions by the teacher. This natural and direct way of checking on learning is often un-productive. One common problem is that teachers do not allow enough quiet time so that pupils can think out and offer an answer. Where, as often happens, a teacher answers her or his own question after only two or three seconds, and where a minute (say) of silent thought is not tolerable, there is no possibility that a pupil can think out what to say. There are then two consequences. One is that, because the only questions that can produce answers in such a short time are questions of fact, these predominate. The other is that pupils don’t even try to think out a response—if you know that the answer, or another question, will come along in a few seconds, there is no point in trying. It is also common that only a few pupils in a class answer teachers’ questions. The rest then leave it to these few, knowing that they cannot respond as quickly and being unwilling to risk making mistakes in public. So the teacher, by lowering the level of questions and by accepting answers from a few, can keep the lesson going but is actually out of touch with the understanding of most of the class—the question-answer dialogue becomes a ritual, one in which all connive and thoughtful involvement suffers.

There are several ways to break this particular cycle. They involve giving pupils time to respond, asking them to discuss their thinking in pairs or in small groups so that a respondent is speaking on behalf of others, giving pupils a choice between different possible answers and asking them to vote on the options, asking all to write down an answer and then reading out a selected few, and so on. What is essential is that any dialogue should evoke thoughtful reflection in which all pupils can be encouraged to take part, for only then can the formative process start to work.

Inside the Black Box
Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment

Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam

In those few sentences above, one can find some of the simplest and easiest methods to transform teaching and learning in significant and profound ways.

If you spend time visiting and observing classrooms in this country, you know that we all can improve on the methods suggested above.

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NOTE: Just about everything that I have read about assessment in the last decade references and/or connects in some way to Black & Wiliam’s article “Inside the Black Box.” Yet I wonder how many educators have taken the time to read it, study it, and strive to implement it. And, I do not mean to sound accusatorial. I genuinely wonder.

3 thoughts on “Inside the Black Box. Simple and Profound Transformations. #Questions #FormativeAssessment

  1. Bo,
    I took your question seriously so I read “Inside the Black Box” and I’m grateful I did. It gave my a lot of clarity, affirmation, and hope. I’m clear that I have only just begun to understand how to properly and authentically assess students on a regular basis. I often use Socratic method with lots of discussion so that I am aware of who is understanding but I am clearly not doing enough to assess every student. I am often trying to move the lesson along and by doing that I am ignoring many students’ learning. I often have larger tests at the end of the unit rather than small, frequent assessments. I am not investing in the required time although I do believe in the outcome of doing so. Why? I suppose I have not completely matched my pedagogy to match my beliefs about how students learn. I am just getting clarity about my beliefs and my pedagogy is slowly following suit. Another reason is that I still have it in my head that I need to “cover” a certain amount of content. I wish I was changing faster than I am. Nevertheless, I am hopeful I will continue to evolve into the teacher my students want and need, thanks to you, Black, Wiliam, and all the other educators (especially at Mount Vernon) who are trying to change the way we teach children.

    • Jenny,
      Thanks so much for offering a reflection here. I so appreciate your statement, “I am often trying to move the lesson along and by doing that I am ignoring many students’ learning.” While I’m not sure that you are “ignoring” students’ learning, I do think we teachers have a great deal of reflecting to do about how to transfer from teaching mode to learning mode. There is pressure to “cover” material – from numerous sources. Nevertheless, there is wisdom to “less is more” when we shift focus even more to what students are learning and how they are deepening that learning. Assessment plays such a critical role in that deeper understanding, and Wiliam & Black are fundamental to being a strong practitioner in assessing FOR learning, not just assessment OF learning.

      Thanks again for finding ways to engage and implement with such commitment and for sharing your thinking here for others to connect with in our journeys, too.

  2. Good question, Bo, I’ve wondered the same thing. I almost never run into a teacher who has read it. Most of them are vaguely aware of the idea that they should wait longer… but rarely know how to implement it in a thoughful way. I don’t see it as a failure of the teachers, but of those who teach, train, supervise, and coach them.

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