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Classroom environment – Use your space to let learning take off

Why your physical classroom environment could be your best formative assessment tool yet, explain Jan Evans and Claire Gadsby...

  • Classroom environment – Use your space to let learning take off

Picture this: a Y6 maths lesson where pupils routinely copied down the lesson objective so they would understand the focus of the learning.

The school fete was taking place on Saturday and someone had previously written on the board, “Don’t forget to bring cakes for the cake sale”. We’re anticipating the silent groan as you read this.

Yes, when the class came in it was beautifully and dutifully copied down by most of the pupils as the LO. (And yes, this really happened.)

Busy teachers and senior leaders often end up relying on a few specific techniques and adopting a formulaic approach as the holy grail of all things formative assessment.

But these might not actively engage pupils in thinking. Children can, should and must assume responsibility for their own learning.

So, we need to seek out techniques that ensure pupils fully engage with the process of assessing their knowledge and understanding, with the quality of their work and how to improve it.

Also, it may be comforting to teachers in this current climate of accountability to remember that when pupils become advocates of their own learning – and demonstrate this in explicit, audible and highly visible ways – the evidence of their progress becomes incontrovertible.

The physical classroom environment has a huge, often untapped potential in taking formative assessment to the next level. Even small tweaks can ensure that pupils are hooked into the learning process.

Writing on the wall

Begin by taking a look at your own classroom walls. They may contain beautifully presented displays of key vocabulary and pupils’ work. But could they help us more with the real business of formative assessment?

An easy way to allow pupils to become effective learning resources for each other is to make a few tweaks to that ‘word wall’.

This highly visual resource can easily become one that routinely engages your pupils in collaborative, speculative discussions leading to the clarification and refinement of their conceptual understanding.

The activities can be quickly and easily targeted towards any pupils at any point in any lesson.

Now, thinking about existing displays of pupils’ work, try a re-energising technique by inviting pupils to review and respond to them through annotations. Labelling the learning in this way highlights the learning process as well as the end product.

Provide a range of large symbols such as question marks, thought and speech bubbles, arrows and addition signs for linking or adding to ideas. Cut out hands could also be used to offer a ‘high five’ or give a ‘helping hand’, with comments written along the fingers.

Now, let’s move on to the potential of new displays as a formative assessment tool. Does this sound familiar? Teachers know exactly what ‘good’ work looks like but pupils don’t.

Use a prominent display space to actively engage pupils in the reflective analysis of success criteria and developing this further into the realms of co-construction.

Having a large-scale example of a WAGOLL (what a good one looks like) and a WASOLL (what a substandard one looks like – also known as a WABOLL, or what a bad one looks like) within an enabling classroom provides pupils with an instant point of comparison for their own work.

‘How does mine look at the moment?’ ‘What specific things do I need to do to make it more like a WAGOLL?’

Developing the ability to analyse specific features of good and substandard work is crucial if we want pupils who are capable of critiquing their own and providing meaningful feedback to one another.

Encourage pupils to design their own examples to be displayed under the heading ‘WAGOLL or WASOLL?’ Other pupils then identify whether the example is good or not before annotating and improving it.

This would ensure that one display continues to evolve and change regularly, and remains in active use, but without further teacher input.

Obviously, there’s more to your classroom than just walls. The following formative assessment strategies make use of the often under-utilised ceiling space.

Hang differentiated success criteria from different areas of the ceiling (or if your ceiling is a no-go area display them prominently on the tables). Then invite pupils to stand by the criteria they need to address next.

Alternatively, invite pupils to stand by the criteria they would welcome feedback or support with, either from the teacher or a peer.

This is a great strategy for empowering pupils to identify their own targets for development and has the added benefit of generating organic and evolving pupil groupings as the learners cluster around common needs or misconceptions.

From an assessment perspective, teachers can see at a glance the percentage of pupils flagging particular criteria as problematic and can deploy their resources and energy appropriately in response. 

The long game

You’ve taught a great lesson; the learning was secure at the end of it and you might assume that pupils’ progress is on track. However, coverage does not guarantee long-term learning.

We need to create opportunities to revisit prior learning at another time. The new Ofsted framework states that: “If nothing has altered in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.” 

Why not try using the ceiling as ‘cloud storage’. Work with pupils to create and fill space rockets, time capsules or treasure chests with different evidence of their learning.

This could take the form of audio and video recordings, pieces of writing, drawings, artefacts and photographs.

Do these at the consolidation stage of the learning process, perhaps playing up the fact that they are ready to, ‘take off with’ or ‘launch’ their learning.

Attach a cord to the rocket and then hoist it up to a ceiling hook (or high onto a wall). Secure the free end of the line to another hook that’s placed within reach.

It can then be brought down with a theatrical countdown for re-entry into the classroom ready for revisiting and reviving.

This engaging technique allows teachers to celebrate what has been retained by the pupils but, crucially, also identifies that which has been forgotten or misunderstood.

From this, we can use formative assessment as it was always intended: to target and close the gaps in pupils’ learning.

Going further

Here are seven quick techniques to transform a typical ‘word wall’ into an interactive, formative assessment tool.

Challenge your pupils to discuss in pairs and:

  1. Complete words/phrases that have been partially covered up. Can they come up with an example of where it could be used?
  2. Spot which words/phrases have been removed from the display. What do they mean?
  3. Write a definition for one of the words/phrases. Other pupils can then critique this and give feedback with possible further suggestions before collaboratively devising the ‘best’ one.
  4. Devise a question that has a certain keyword as its answer. Again, use other pairs to check the accuracy, offer feedback and refine the question.
  5. Decide on the most important words/phrases for a specific topic. How do they justify their choices?
  6. Spot the odd one out.
  7. Discuss and identify connections and possible category headings. (Large, laminated coloured stars and arrows are useful for signposting the links. Plus they can be annotated with further explanations.)

Jan Evans and Claire Gadsby are education consultants with more than 50 years’ combined experience. They are joint authors of Dynamically Different Classrooms (Crown House Publishing).

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