Feeding back, feeding forward, winning a prize and developing as a professional
The report of the ‘Task Group on Assessment and Testing’ (TGAT), December 1988, introduced me to the term ‘feed forward’. It is not a particularly elegant term but it serves to remind us that when tutors comment on students’ work, the process involves more than delivering a judgement and more than ‘feeding back’. I argue that assessment is a sense-making process that is integral to education and that education is not time bound. This is crucial in our professional development as educators
Courses and programmes are of course ‘time bound’. ‘Carpe diem’ is the key phrase in the classic film ‘The Dead Poets Society’. Even when the last assignment has been submitted and the last assessed comments have been written or typed, the assessment process is not over. Time moves instead to a focus on the future. It was not always thus. When my M.A. dissertation was examined, the comments were to be seen only by the exam board. So my tutor waited with me until the secretary who guarded the filing cabinet containing the comments was out of the room, stole the key, got the comments and let me have all of thirty seconds to read it. Then we scrammed like ebullient schoolchildren!
Too often, in the past, assessment was something that was ‘done to students’ behind their backs. For me to make sense of my own work I needed to know more than simply that I had passed. I needed to know what the work signified: what it demonstrated in terms of knowledge, skills and understanding and what I might do next in terms of my career and future learning. So, as well as feedback I needed ‘feedforward’.
Back then, there were no assessment criteria in the way that they are ‘vital’ to today’s assessment processes. If an academic told you that your work was good or bad that was more or less it. Almost the first thing that I did when I got the job of being in charge of an M.A. programme was to draft assessment criteria and guidance to go with them. I wanted a language of assessment that could be shared and developed by both students and tutors so that the processes of teaching and learning could be developed. This became a vital part of my professional development as an educator.
It was looking back at what I wrote in 2005 about a 20,000 word prize-winning M.A. dissertation that prompted this reflection on assessment and professional development. I was not the supervisor of the dissertation as I was what, even today, is referred to as a ‘second marker’. The student won a prize for her work from IPDA. I enjoyed reading the dissertation and I have never forgotten its content. My assessment comments read:
“You will need to think carefully about where you go next with your ideas about further research. This is not simply a case of doing a doctorate next. It is also a case of what should follow in terms of the children, the teachers and the school (and other schools). And, of course, your career.”
I presented the IPDA prize for this dissertation in Jerusalem. The dissertation was about girls who had been losing self-esteem and reputation because of teaching processes. ‘Sit up straight in silence with your arms folded and listen to me!’ Remember that ‘well worn’ anti-teaching technique? Eventually the girls managed their teacher so that she did her job. They got their education. The self-esteem that had been plummeting began to rise. I learned a lot from that student. She fed forward to my future learning and my professional development as an educator. As teachers, tutors, supervisors and general educators we need to acknowledge what we have learned from our students (Urban 2009). If we can do this, we can ‘defy gravity’ (as the song goes) as educators. We can ‘look to the Western sky!’ It is interesting that this key part of professional development comes from our students. It is not something that is gleaned from a training course on assessment. It is a vital part of the affective factors that Vermunt (2016) reflected on at the IPDA conference at Stirling University. There are, it seems, ‘wicked assessment processes’. But they only remain ‘wicked’ if we fail to manage what is happening within the development of our pedagogy.
- Vermunt, J.D., 2016. Keynote address. Paper presented at the IPDA conference, 25-26 November, Stirling, UK.
- Urban, M., 2009. Strategies for change: rethinking professional development to meet the challenges of diversity in the early years profession. Paper presented at the IPDA conference, 27-28 November, Birmingham, UK.
Cliff Jones, firstname.lastname@example.org.