Teaching vs. Learning: How Assessment Informs Instruction
One of the most overlooked and understated aspects of the common formative assessment process and the role these assessments play in a professional learning community has to be the degree to which the results of high-quality assessments inform teachers about the need to change instructional practice, particularly if students are not learning. While in the work of PLCs we emphasize the need to focus on learning not teaching, this is often misunderstood as "teaching is not important." Nothing could be further from the truth.
Assessment, learning, and teaching have an intimate relationship which suggests that teachers have a significant role in determining the extent to which learning in the classroom is of high quality and relevant to what the students require if they are to be successful. Black and Wiliam (1998) in their highly acclaimed article "Inside the Black Box" say, “Learning is driven by what teachers and pupils do in classrooms.”
Teachers have to manage complicated and demanding situations, balancing the personal, emotional, and social pressures of a group of 30 or more students while activating the conditions for academic success. Student achievement can be raised only if teachers can manage the task of teaching more effectively. The analysis of the TIMSS video study points out, "A focus on standards and accountability that ignores the processes of teaching and learning in classrooms will not provide the direction that teachers need in their quest to improve" (as cited in Black and Wiliam, 1998, p. 140).
Increasingly, the evidence shows a need for a fundamental shift in teaching practices in classrooms (Bennett and Rolheiser, 2001). As a former director of education responsible for teaching, assessment, reporting, and evaluation, I witnessed, firsthand, the impact and observable benefits of a program for improving instructional strategies in the classrooms. Teachers were invited in school teams to participate in organized, coordinated staff development in a program that later came to be known as "Instructional Intelligence," the vision of Dr. Barrie Bennett at the University of Toronto OISE.
To this day teachers continue to hone their instructional skills and repertoires. Teachers involved in this work have now come to understand the power and impact of improving their instructional skills, strategies, and tactics and the resulting benefits to student achievement. Of importance is the link teachers now see between the need to balance their instruction on the basis of the evidence they obtain from their formative assessment during instruction.
The examination of teacher practice therefore, must be guided by the results of assessment that teachers carry out on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. So, common formative assessment will assist teachers in making similar sound judgments about student progress toward the standards, or the needed adjustments to the curriculum content and plan, about what instructional strategies are most likely to get them there. We must be aware that the shift required by teachers is, first and foremost, to consider what instructional strategies to invoke in order to change the results the students are achieving. This distinction is supported by Douglas Reeves when he talks about the distinction between cause and effect results. Too often, we only focus on student results and forget that we need to also consider the effect of adult (teacher) actions on student achievement.
A PLC affords teams of teachers (the adults) the opportunity to collaboratively develop and deploy all manner of skills, provided they thoughtfully use the results of common formative assessment appropriately to inform classroom teaching.
Bennett, B., & Rolheiser, C. (2001). Beyond Monet: The artful science of instructional integration. Toronto, Ontario: Bookation.
Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(2), 139–148. <http://www.kappanmagazine.org/content/92/1/81.abstract?sid=b0cf162d-9409-4d9f-b983-00980971c2df>
Stiggins, R. J., Arter, J., Chappuis, J., & Chappuis, S. (2005). Classroom assessment for student learning: Doing it right, using it well. Portland, OR: Assessment Training Institute. <http://www.solution-tree.com/Public/Media.aspx?ShowDetail=true&ProductID=BKT007>