for improving teaching practice
For teachers to respond to student learning needs they need
detailed information about what their students know and can
do through high-quality assessment data, but they also need
opportunities to develop their knowledge as they delve into the
assessment information, says Helen Timperley.
For a long time we’ve known more about the poten- needed to know and do to improve teaching prac-
tial for using assessment data to improve teaching tice in ways that benefitted students. This has now
practice and student learning than actually how to changed. We now know what’s required if assess-
do it. Even 10 years ago, we didn’t have the right ment data is to have a useful impact:
assessment tools, didn’t know enough about their • the data needs to provide teachers with
use to make a difference to teaching practice and curriculum-relevant information
didn’t know what else teachers and their leaders
24 australian college of educators • acer
• that information needs to be seen by teach- know and can do, and what they need to know
ers as something that informs teaching and learn- and do to satisfy the requirements of the cur-
ing, rather than as a reflection of the capability riculum or other outcomes valued by the relevant
of individual students and to be used for sorting, community. You need curriculum-related assess-
labelling and credentialling ment information if you want a detailed analysis
• teachers need sufficient knowledge of the of students’ learning needs. These kinds of data
meaning of the assessment data to make appropri- are more useful for the purposes of diagnosing
ate adjustments to practice students’ learning needs than assessments focused
• school leaders need to be able to have the on identifying normative achievement, but not
conversations with teachers to unpack this mean- related to the curriculum.
ing Previous assumptions were that once teachers
• teachers need improved pedagogical con- had this kind of information, they would be able
tent knowledge to make relevant adjustments to to act on it in ways that enhanced student learn-
classroom practice in response to the assessment ing. The problem, though, is that many teach-
information ers’ previous training and approaches to teaching
• school leaders need to know how to lead the practice didn’t require them to interpret and use
kinds of change in thinking and practice that are these kinds of data, because assessment informa-
required for teachers to use the data, and tion was about labelling and categorising students,
• all within the school need to be able to not about guiding and directing teaching practice.
engage in systematic, evidence-informed cycles The interpretation and use of assessment data for
of inquiry that build the relevant knowledge and guiding and directing teaching requires a mind
skills identified above. shift towards professional learning from data and
None of this is easy, but examples of how they a new set of skills.
can be achieved have been identified in my 2008 To enable that, teachers need to ask, with the
best evidence synthesis of professional learning and help of relevant experts, what knowledge and skills
development with Aaron Wilson, Heather Barrar, they require in order to address students’ identi-
and Irene Fung of the international evidence of fied needs, and then more detailed questions. How
the kinds of professional learning experiences that have we contributed to existing student outcomes?
have resulted in improved student outcomes, as What do we already know that we can use to pro-
well as in my investigation with Judith Parr of the mote improved outcomes for students? What do
outcomes of a professional development project in we need to learn to do to promote these outcomes?
New Zealand involving 300 schools. What sources of evidence or knowledge can we
In this professional development project, stu- utilise?
dent achievement gains have occurred at a rate In doing this, teachers begin a formative
beyond that expected over the two years of the assessment cycle that mirrors that of students.
schools’ involvement in the project, particularly Answering these questions requires further use
for the lowest-performing students. The average of assessment data. Considering teachers’ contri-
effect size gain for all schools that focused on writ- bution to existing student outcomes, for exam-
ing was 1.20 and for reading it was 0.92, which is ple, requires teachers to unpack student profiles
pretty good when you compare it with expected within the data and relate them to emphases and
average annual effect size gains, using national approaches in their teaching practices. Student
normative cross-sectional sample data, of 0.20 for profiles of, say, reading comprehension on differ-
writing and 0.26 for reading. ent assessment tasks can help teachers to identify
what they teach well and what requires a different
TeacHer inqUiry and knowledge or new emphasis. By co-constructing the evidence
bUilding cycles to answer the questions, with relevant experts,
Engaging in systematic evidence-informed cycles teachers can identify what it is they need to know
of inquiry that build relevant professional knowl- and do to improve outcomes for students.
edge, skills and dispositions is a cycle that begins
by identifying the knowledge and skills students
need to close the gaps between what they already
deepening professional knowledge in Linda Darling-Hammond’s Preparing Teachers
and refining skills for a Changing World.
The next part of the cycle requires teachers to The third is the principle that you need to
deepen their professional knowledge and refine provide multiple opportunities to learn and apply
their skills. In synthesising the evidence of the new information and to understand its implica-
kinds of teacher learning that are associated with tions for teaching practices. Interpreting assess-
changes in teaching practice that usefully affect ment information, understanding the implications
student outcomes, I’ve identified three fundamen- for practice and learning how to teach in different
tal things embedded in the content of professional ways in response to that information is a complex
learning. undertaking. It typically takes one to two years,
The first is a focus by the teacher on the links depending on the starting point, for professional
between particular teaching activities, how differ- learning to deepen sufficiently to make a differ-
ent groups of students respond to those activities, ence to student outcomes.
and what their students actually learn. Without Part of the reason for this is that using assess-
such a focus, teachers can’t tell whether changes ment data for the purposes of improving teaching
in their teaching practice are necessarily related to and learning requires changing prior assumptions
positive impacts on student learn- about the purposes of assessment information. If
ing. teachers’ prior theories are not engaged, it’s quite
Interpreting assessment The second is the principle that possible, as Cynthia Coburn has pointed out, that
the knowledge and skills developed they’ll dismiss the new uses as unrealistic and
information, are integrated into coherent prac- inappropriate for their particular practice con-
tice. Knowledge of the curriculum text or reject the new information as irrelevant.
understanding the and how to teach it effectively must Engaging teachers’ existing ideas means discuss-
implications for practice accompany greater knowledge of the ing how those ideas differ from the ideas being
interpretation and use of assessment promoted and assessing the impact that the new
and learning how to information. Identifying students’ approaches might have on their students. If they
learning needs through assessment cannot be persuaded that a new approach is valu-
teach in different ways information is unlikely to lead to able and be certain of support if they implement
in response to that changes in teaching practice unless
teachers have the discipline, cur-
it, teachers are unlikely to adopt it – at least, not
without strong accountability pressures to do so.
information is a complex riculum and pedagogical knowl-
edge to make the relevant changes assessing THe impacT of cHanged
undertaking. to practice. Understanding theories acTions
underpinning assessment informa- The final part of the cycle also involves knowl-
tion, theories underpinning the cur- edge about and the use of assessment information.
riculum and those underpinning effective teaching Given the varied context in which teachers work,
allow teachers to use these understandings as the there can be no guarantee that any specific activity
basis for making decisions about practice. A skills- will have the anticipated result, because impact
only focus doesn’t develop the deep understandings depends on the context in which those changes
teachers need if they’re to change teaching practice occur. In our best evidence synthesis of profes-
in ways that flexibly meet the complex demands sional learning and development, Aaron Wilson,
of everyday teaching and to link the assessment Heather Barrar, and Irene Fung and I identified
data to requirements for new teaching approaches. that the effectiveness of particular changes depends
In fact, without a thorough understanding of the on the knowledge and skills of the students, their
theory, teachers are apt to believe they are teach- teachers and their leaders. Judging impact requires
ing in ways consistent with the assessment infor- the use of assessment information on a daily, term-
mation or they have promoted change in practice by-term and annual basis. To be effective, teach-
when those relationships are typically superficial, ers need a range of ways to assess their students
as Karen Hammerness and her colleagues explain informally and formally.
in their chapter, ‘How teachers learn and develop,’
26 australian college of educators • acer
leading cHange knowledge and skills to check the impact must
Recent research analyses demonstrating that it is become part of the cycle of inquiry.
teachers who have the greatest system influence When teachers are provided with opportuni-
on student outcomes have led to an increasing ties to use and interpret assessment data in order to
focus on what happens in classrooms and how to become more responsive to their students’ learn-
promote teacher professional learning. For more ing needs, the impact is substantial. Teachers,
on this, see the introduction to Linda Darling- however, can’t do this alone, but require system
Hammond, John Bransford and Pamela LePage’s conditions that provide and support these learning
Preparing Teachers for a Changing World, the work opportunities in ways that are just as responsive
on teacher effects by Barbara Nye and colleagues, to how teachers learn as they are to how students
and the work on instructional and school effective- learn.
ness indicators of Jaap Scheerens and colleagues.
Teachers, however, cannot achieve these REFERENCES
changes alone, but require the kinds of organi- Bransford, J., Darling-Hammond, L. & LePage, L.
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meta-analysis by Viviane Robinson, Claire Lloyd a Changing World: What teachers should
and Ken Rowe identifies school leaders have the
greatest influence on improving student outcomes
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professional educator • vol 8 no. 3 • september 2009 27