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Curriculum and Assessment - Teaching


Curriculum and assessment both inform the pedagogy of teachers. Curriculum sets out a broad idea of the goals of education and where the teacher should be aiming in various fields. Formative assessment is necessary in daily practice to inform on planning and summative assessment is used to measure how well children are doing in their learning and to find where the gaps are. There exist cases in favour and against certain aspects of both the curriculum and assessment and the teacher must take this on board to advise their practice. At the heart of it all is the question of what education is for. There are some who think education is learning knowledge of certain fields while others think it is for learning skills such as critical thinking. Children also learn personality traits and ways of being and behaving within the community that schools (intentionally or not) do teach. Teachers need to be aware of such debates around the profession and, in conversation with other professionals, form their own informed opinions on the subjects to support the reasoning for their own practice. The teacher takes a lot of influences on board in their daily practice but ultimately should remain focused on the class and the learners that are in front of them and doing their best for those individuals.


Curriculum for Excellence

The Curriculum for Excellence was informed partly by the OECD which pointed out Scotland’s need to address underachievement particularly of those from more disadvantaged backgrounds (OECD, 2007). There was a call to increase opportunities for more vocational education (skills as well as knowledge) and more flexibility in planning to suit the needs of the learners and the wider community (The Scottish Government, 2008). Planning the curriculum to suit learners requires continuous formative assessment by teachers and learners themselves. Within curriculum for excellence there is a focus on founding coherence between educational establishments to ensure individual learners can progress through outcomes smoothly especially when transitioning (The Scottish Government, 2008). To ensure this coherence and progression valid and reliable assessment is necessary so that information can be passed on to other institutions and to parents regarding learning and progression. Within the curriculum there are principles for curriculum design: challenge and enjoyment; breadth; progression; depth; personalisation and choice; coherence; relevance. (The Scottish Government, 2008). For each of these principles to be achieved in planning, learning and teaching there has to be continual assessment taking place. The teacher needs an understanding of where children are in their learning (and who they are as individuals) to plan for progression, make the learning relevant, introduce breadth and depth appropriately to increase understanding, and to ensure that activities are at the right level for the child to be challenging and enjoyable. Personalisation and choice relies on the teacher enabling children to learn to critique their own work to find achievements and goals for progression. Students must take responsibility for their own learning in order to develop which self-assessment can help with (Grabinger, Dunlap, 1995). To enable this teachers need to make success criteria and learning intentions available for learners to judge their own work against their aims. Similarly, teachers should encourage peer-assessment to show different approaches to the task and new ways of thinking and learning. It is through fine-tuning the skills necessary for self and peer assessment that we can make children’s thinking and reasoning processes visible to enable children to take ownership of their learning (Grabinger and Dunlap, 1995). This increases their own and their peers’ understandings and provides opportunities for learners to help one another; reinforcing community in the classroom. McKechan and Ellis point out that ‘the requirement for collaborative learning is evident in CfE outcomes’ so utilising it effectively for assessment is crucial (2014; 477). Making the learning visible can also benefit the teacher to see how the learner is thinking through problems and where any confusion or gaps may be in their learning. Building the Curriculum 3 states that ‘all learners should be involved in planning and reflecting on their own learning, through formative assessment, self and peer evaluation and personal learning planning’ (The Scottish Government, 2008; 27). Research by Graham Nuthall found that 80% of feedback on learning comes from peers and 80% of that feedback is wrong (2007). He also found that a lot of the feedback was rude or dismissive so there is a great need to teach children how to help one another and critique constructively so as to harness the value of what learners are already doing. The Curriculum states that assessment must be fair and allow all learners to show what they have achieved and how they are progressing which requires flexible and creative approaches to assessment to ensure everyone has the best chance of success (The Scottish Government, 2008). Thus, to inform practice and help learners teachers should utilise all forms of assessment available to them.

Beyond the Curriculum

Along with these principles of the curriculum learners are to achieve the 4 capacities of: successful learners, confident individual, responsible citizen and effective contributors. Building the Curriculum 3 states that assessment is integral as through assessment learners achievements and learning across the four capacities can be tracked (The Scottish Government, 2008). Along with the principles of the curriculum and the four capacities there are also aims within the curriculum regarding the experience expected for every learner to: know they are valued and supported, experience a broad Scottish curriculum for learning, life and work (striking a balance between these skills and skills for passing exams), experience a focus on literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing, and is taught an appreciation of Scotland and its place in the world (The Scottish Government, 2008). To achieve these a supportive, caring, positive ethos of respect and trust in which learners are valued and listened to is crucial and this should extend across the whole school community, including parents (The Scottish Government, 2008). The teacher must be approachable and build up these supportive and mutual relationships with learners as without a culture of trust and respect learners could disengage. In response to the OECD the curriculum has been designed to be flexible so the focus for learning can be on the learners rather than on subject areas (The Scottish Government, 2008). Focus should remain on the students and guiding them to achieve what they are able to. There is a need for fluidity and responsiveness in teaching so that learners are best accommodated to fulfil their potential and are given the time to fully understand the learning. The curriculum framework has within it broad expectations for progression but teachers are encouraged to embrace the breadth and depth afforded to them by the curriculum to meet the needs of learners (The Scottish Government, 2008). Progress is defined in terms of ‘how well’ and ‘how much’ as well as learners achieving experiences and outcomes so the focus is off the pass/fail notion (The Scottish Government, 2011). Teachers are expected to use the curriculum in ways that are best suited to their classroom environment and their learners without being constrained to meet goals in specific orders or time frames. Ultimately, assessment within the curriculum is intended as a tool to support learning rather than an end goal to be achieved.


Knowledge or Wellbeing?

Some question the value of learning skills alongside knowledge and the flexibility of curriculum and assessment. Biesta believes the four capacities are more concerned with the emotional wellbeing of pupils rather than their emancipation (2009). While Watson views the 4 capacities as an example of modern tendency to aim for how children should be over what they should know (2010). But is educations purpose emancipation or teaching what Watson thinks children should know? Even assessing the four capacities requires a value judgement as they are relatively abstract concepts and thus harder to measure objectively. Biesta also believes that it matters what pupils learn and what they learn it for and that education should be difficult and challenging not just accommodating of learners needs as education is creating our future citizens (2009). The curriculum though doesn’t necessarily counter any of this. Teachers are encouraged to challenge learners and to teach for a purpose (suiting the learner and the wider community). What is lacking in the curriculum is the necessity to teach what Watson and Biesta might consider the right learning. The curriculum places a degree of trust in teachers, schools and local authorities to work out what might be best to emphasise for their learners. A focus on the learners’ wellbeing might well be the best aim for education as this also influence what kind of citizens they become. Biesta claims that there are three functions of education that should always be there:
‘1. Qualification – education should prepare a workforce but at the moment there is a skills gap between what is being taught and what employers are looking for
2. Socialisation – education continues culture and tradition and creates learners as members of social, cultural and political orders
3. Subjectification – enabling learners to become autonomous and independent in their thinking and acting and to a degree behave in ways distinct from the orders mentioned in socialisation (2009).’
Some see the curriculum as focusing more on the socialisation and subjectification aspects while qualification becomes secondary as the focus shifts to the learner. However, there is no necessity in that as wellbeing and social skills could go hand in hand with increased ability and willingness to learn. There being a skills gap though is a problem as jobs change and technology impacts on this education must try to keep up and predict for a future need. This is something that requires continuous reflection, professional conversation and study to try to keep on top of. Biesta also points out that the rise in the language of ‘learning’ rather than ‘education’ has happened parallel with greater focus on assessment even though what is being ‘learned’ may not be accessible through assessment (2009). However, having the teacher and learner working together to assess formatively throughout their education and with various assessment methods does enable some assessment of the more abstract learning. Some also believe the curriculum is ‘downgrading knowledge’ such as Young and Muller who claim that interdisciplinary learning erodes the distinction between academic and everyday knowledge; denying learners access to the ‘powerful knowledge’ found within disciplines which can have a negative impact on their life chances (2010). However, is ‘knowledge’ really the aim of education over all other things. A well-rounded individual could be better placed to succeed than one who knows facts but is not confident and cannot think critically. White argues that schools are to shape the individual and teach everyday knowledge in a useful and meaningful way (2011). Whitty points out that ‘knowledge is not the same as school subjects and school subjects are not the same as academic disciplines’ (2010, p. 34). Placing value so strongly on ‘academic’ subjects over everyday knowledge seems contrary to logic as everyday knowledge is what learners are most likely to need and use out with education. Gill and Thomas claim that high level knowledge is the skill of being able to differentiate between concepts and this is something found in both academic and everyday knowledge (2012). Building the Curriculum 3 does place value on subject areas stating that throughout a young person’s education there will be increasing specialisation and depth and subjects will become the principle means of structuring learning (The Scottish Government, 2008). The curriculum could be interpreted to be asking to create a strong foundation of confidence and understanding in learners so that they can handle this more disciplined study further on in their learning.

Assessment as Measurement

TIMMS, PIRLS, PISA studies are all used to compare national education systems on their outcomes and are used by the government to raise standards (Biesta, 2009). These measurements have meant discussion about education can be based on more than assumption or common-sense beliefs. However, we cannot base educational practice solely on factual information as when using the data we need to make value judgements about what is educationally desirable. There also remains the issue of whether we are measuring what we value in education or measuring what we can easily measure (Biesta 2009). Discussions regarding the purpose of education and the value to be placed on certain things does necessarily need to continually happen but it remains the case that it could be entirely subjective with no rational answer (Biesta 2009). If teachers do not discuss this though they could remain reliant on common sense understandings of education which may benefit some groups over others. Education places a greater emphasis on certain subjects, yet the real-life value of these skills varies between individuals;

‘[it] depends on the access such knowledge gives to particular positions in society and this…is exactly how the reproduction of social inequality through education works’ (Biesta, 2009; 4)

It is the focus on the small number of fields of education that have given credence to studies such as TIMMS, PIRLS, and PISA so it is not necessarily fair that they be given such value in the formation of policy and curriculum. Building the curriculum 5 states that ‘Scotland will participate in international surveys of achievement to compare performance…[which] will contribute to guidance…to help achieve better outcomes…’ (The Scottish Government 2011; 9). This seems contrary to the focus on learners needs and on learning a variety of subjects and skills which are difficult to measure outcomes on. Ball claims that teachers and schools are spending more time trying to prove that they are meeting policy targets or performing above standards (2003). Focusing on reaching standards and appearing to perform effectively draws attention away from the learners and how they can best achieve. In terms of assessment it is true that those who attain highest qualification in school and in university are more likely to access higher paid jobs and this tendency for society to value ‘academic’ qualifications acts to reproduce social inequality (Nunn et al 2007; Biesta, 2009 & 2010). There is a risk that schools could become more driven by other outside concerns rather than a focus on what makes powerful knowledge for the learners (Priestly and Sinnema, 2004). Priestly and Sinnema claim that within CfE there is a ‘lack of consistency on the importance of knowledge across documents’ which makes the curriculum less coherent and causes confusion on what is important and what matters most (2014; 22-23). There also remains the risk of curriculum narrowing to focus on assessment skills which can lead to children feeling as though they are not talented in school as creative and enjoyable activities are restricted (Berliner, 2011). Learners should remain the central focus as some assessments can lead teachers to ignore students’ interests, bypass relevant current issues and narrow the curriculum (Priestly and Sinnema, 2004). Assessment should never overshadow learners.

Teachers Role

The role of the teacher in this is to take on board the curriculum, how assessment is intended to be used and critiques of this and form from it their own pedagogy that works with their classroom and learners. Ensuring there is an ongoing professional dialogue regarding such things and that assessment is reliable and valid is crucial in creating high-quality professional development (The Scottish Government, 2011). The teacher needs to remain aware of the role of assessment in their daily practice and the necessity of it to inform their planning and the learners next stages within the curriculum. Assessing constantly also means that teachers can engage parents or guardians in their child’s learning for support (The Scottish Government, 2008). When doing summative assessment teachers need to remain aware it can have unwitting impacts and can cause teaching for assessment. Outcomes, despite influencing rankings in national and international studies, should remain secondary to what learners need from their education. Although the curriculum and these ranking assessor bodies tend to focus on subjects such as math, English and science this does not necessitate their value to the detriment of other areas to the learners. There is a degree to which these are valued because they are easy to assess as opposed to the more creative aspects of subjects (e.g. expressive arts) or the underlying skills (e.g. critical thinking) which some would argue are of greater value. The curriculum and the Scottish National Standardised Assessments which were introduced in 2017 also have a focus on maths and English ( Teachers need to be aware of the changing world as well in which, though also important, English and maths are only one aspect of employable skills so from early on, alongside these, teachers should focus on what skills learners might need in the future for things such as employability. Teachers need to keep asking ‘what makes good education?’ and focus their pedagogy on this so that they can justify what they are doing and why as without it league tables could become the primary concern (Biesta, 2009). Hattie, when measuring effective size of different teaching practices found assessment was 0.79 which is among the top ten influences on achievement so it is undoubtedly valuable when done effectively (Hattie, 2012). There is evidence to support the practice of ‘in moment’ assessments which provide immediate feedback as speed of learning can increase up to 70% to 80% even measured by standardised tests (Hattie, 2012). Along with this very clear LI and SC for the learners is necessary for the teacher to assess how effective they were at the end of lessons to inform their own practice (Hattie, 2012). Evidence also suggests that learning is best when learners become their own teacher and teachers become learners (Hattie, 2012). Thus, there is a call for teachers to continually assess themselves and their practice. Teachers should consider themselves change agents as the attitude and expectations placed on learners can make a significant difference to their learning (Hattie, 2012). Although policy within education can become constraining teachers should take advantage of the agency that CfE has proffered and make their practice what they want it to be with their informed and professional judgement of what education should be. In treating the curriculum as a guideline teachers can work it to fit their class and their learners needs.


The curriculum is broad and obscure in some respects, but teachers should embrace the freedom to practice as they professionally think is best for learners. This responsibility being placed on teachers does require that they be well-informed and up-to-date on issues so effective CPD is necessary alongside to ensure improving practice. The messages regarding assessment are also a little unclear as in some areas of the curriculum it seems that assessment is a means/tool for learning (assessment is for learning), yet it is also the end goal when the curriculum focuses on outcomes. Allowing external bodies such a PISA to have such an influence on curriculum also counters the value of subjects and skills beyond what such bodies measure. Assessment should focus on establishing and communicating the learners next steps and providing opportunity for that rather than a process of ranking. Establishing learners’ awareness of assessment and improving their own skills in the area could lead to greater resilience and less high-stakes fear when any kind of summative assessment occurs. Ultimately, teachers need to remain aware of all such issues and attempt to keep their focus on the learners as far as possible and minimise any negative impact any outside factors could have.


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