#IATEFL Day 1 - Kicking Some Serious Assessment

The first day proper of IATEFL was pretty intense - lots of running around from talk to talk, lots of the other kind of talking with all sorts of great educators I either hadn't met in person before or hadn't seen for a few years, an interview, my first official report, and much more.

But throughout most of the sessions I attended today, one hot topic kept coming up - assessment... how we assess, why we assess, if we should assess, and what we can do to change and improve assessment. Although not directly mentioned, it first came up in Donald Freeman's opening plenary as he talked about the myths of 'direct causality,' 'sole responsibility,' and 'the goal of proficiency'. Teachers do not directly cause learners to learn, he argued. They are not solely responsible for the success or failure of their learners. They should not focus on nor worry about proficiency so much as it is not an easily defined or indeed realistic goal.

This is where assessment can be a problem - it often creates an artificial environment of direct causality (teacher teaches to the test, learner learns for the test); teachers and students alike feel sole responsibility for their perceived successes and failures; and it all becomes about proficiency. You pass a test, you earn a score, and you therefore demonstrate your proficiency.... But this misses the point of language learning (as Mr Freeman alluded to in his talk). It is much more complex and learners need more space to think and grow both within and outside the box (or 'suitcase' as we saw in the talk).

Fast forward to the young learner panel (including a chance to meet one of my MA tutors, Juup Stelma, for the first time as well as a first face-to-face meeting with Vicky Loras - whoop!) and assessment came up again. Juup and Vicky had both talked about affording learners the chance to explore and be creative through projects and and focusing on the process of their production rather than the accuracy of the end result. This stood in contrast to the talk of how the Cambridge YLE exams have been implemented in Uruguay (as explained by Maria Muniz and Magdelena de Stefani). Although a high emphasis is placed on integrating English into every day class activities and promoting 'gradual immersion,' the reality is that kids still get stressed by testing and teachers still find it difficult to resist the temptation to plough through past papers. This leads to the problem of being 'frozen' that we heard about in the plenary and we fall into the trap of satisfying the demands of the test rather than the needs of the learners.

And finally, a session with Jeremy Harmer entitled 'An uncertain and approximate business? Why teachers should love testing.' Jeremy presented interesting for and against cases before presenting the fact that tests are here to stay as they always have been. What, therefore, can we do to make sure they are better and that we prepare learners for them better? I'll let you view that talk and arrive at your own conclusions:

A couple of things struck me during the talk. First of all, I nodded my head while listening to Jeremy's suggestions to 'get inside the test' and 'bring the students in,' which mirrored many of my thoughts from my recent webinar on assessment for Teaching English.

Secondly, one area (or rather one example) where I found myself shaking my head in disagreement was the classic argument that test are important to show skills with the brain surgeon card being played. "I want my surgeon to be qualified. I want her or him to be someone who has passed tests with top marks and who has been assessed with flying colours!" so it goes. The fact that this person has passed tough tests shows that they are ready to perform complex and demanding tasks like brain surgery.

However, this example excludes something very important.


Personally, if I were to go to a surgeon, I would not be so concerned with the letters before and after his/her name or the multitude of certificates and awards on display on the walls. I would want to know how often this surgeon had one this procedure before. I would want her/him to reassure me that she/he had done it many times. I would want to know that my surgeon would actually do it and not some trainee doctor or intern. Also, I would be listening to the doctor carefully and watching out for signs of confidence and competence in his her voice and general demeanour. In fact, I would be assessing the surgeon before deciding to let her/him cut me open or not.

Experience - it's more than a score!