Saturday, 1 March 2014

Scrapping Levels: Opportunity or Threat?

I have read a few things lately about the use of levels in schools that help me to understand why some teachers and managers are happy at their demise. However, these comments also make me feel that we need something to replace levels.

If schools and teachers are using levels and not using the information to inform intervention and support progression, then I would agree levels are not fit for purpose. But I would question why they would not.

I am not really interested in measuring students; schools will need a way to do this. They can use grades A-E as I had when I was at middle school (before levels) and compare students against other students in the school. An A or B grade will keep parents happy. Tracking can be done through percentages and scores on tests. If schemes of work are built where content gets harder then we'd assume that students are progressing in their studies if they get more than zero in a test?

I would agree with those who question the use of levels in reporting. I would ask: 'how honest are the levels we report to senior management and parents'? And I suggest the answer is not very. Is it possible to accurate to within a sub level? Are students always learning at the same level and does that level get incrementally bigger each term? In the case of science, I would say not. So why does a good proportion of reports, I have seen, imply this is the case?

Another question would be 'how confident are teachers with level descriptors'? In my experience, not very! I have watched lessons that were engaging and entertaining, but not above level 3. I have seen levelled objectives that were not levelled correctly. I have worked with many teachers who couldn't describe level ladders even in a simplified version such as 'identify', 'describe', 'explain', 'use key ideas', and 'link key ideas'. Without understanding the levels and progression they represent then levels are useless.

However, how do teachers ensure they are pitching their lessons correctly, how do they know whether some concepts are more difficult than others, how do they know what advice to give to students to help them move forward in their understanding?

I want to take my students from a concrete understanding (level 4) to an abstract one (level 6), how will the teachers of the future know this without having the structure of levels? Will we be taught it? Will it be forgotten?

I won't stop using my knowledge of levels to help my student progress. I won't stop using that knowledge to help students understand the generic outcomes and how to improve their understanding and written work. I won't stop using levels to understand where to pitch the difficulty of my lessons.

What will the science teachers of the future do to help them understand the difficulty and progression in key stage 3 science? I am concerned that the 'scrapping' of levels means that we are throwing away the idea of progression in the thinking of our students and instead of helping students to understand more difficult concepts we will just expect students to know 'more'. This is not the same.

What is more difficult, understanding the particle model or understanding balanced and unbalanced forces? What constitutes a higher level of knowledge, remembering the first 20 elements of the periodic table or being able to explain the difference between metals and non-metals?

I don't ever believe that if a system isn't working we should just throw it away before firstly considering what the problem is and secondly thinking about why the system was introduced in the first place. We need to ask ourselves what Paul Black was trying to achieve in his work that underpinned the idea of levels, and if we are throwing that away when we throw away the level descriptors. I think we are.

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