Learner well-being and assessment: mutual support systems

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The Four Purposes of Curriculum for Wales (See page 23 of the Curriculum for Wales Guidance) embody a vision of education which incorporates the importance of learner well-being. Promoting learner well-being has been given added urgency by the impact on learners of the Covid-19 pandemic. Every practitioner can contribute significantly to the mental, emotional and social well-being of learners through their use of assessment in the classroom.

George MacBride pictured at
Myth or Reality ? EIS Conference. Picture Drew Farrell.

Well-being is more fundamental than immediate feelings of satisfaction: it encompasses developing as a person, flourishing, being fulfilled and contributing to the community. As the word suggests, it is concerned with ‘being’ at the present moment as well as ‘becoming’.

Three terms – affiliation, autonomy and agency* – usefully summarise interrelated characteristics of classroom cultures and practice that are fundamental to promoting well-being. As practitioners use assessment to support individual learners on an ongoing, day-to-day basis, and identify, capture and reflect on their progress over time [Guidance p224] they can promote affiliation, autonomy and agency through carrying out the mutually complementary responsibilities which the Guidance [p227] envisages for practitioners and learners.

Affiliation refers to the learner’s engagement as a member of a school community which supports progression in learning and a shared culture and ethos of respect for all. Respect includes recognising the right of children to have their voice listened to as they take part in school and classroom activities, including using assessment to review and plan their learning. This is particularly applicable in a curriculum which recognises that progression along the learning journey can follow different pathways within a common route map.

Learners need to understand what it is intended that they learn. This is a key aspect of a classroom culture of engagement which promotes affiliation. If learners do not understand the purpose of a learning activity they will not perceive it as intelligible or valuable and hence not engage meaningfully with it. Sharing understanding of intended learning with learners can extend beyond immediate next steps to encompass a bigger picture of how their current learning can be applied in other contexts and taken forward to the next stage. When learners understand how their learning activities relate to learning intentions, they can generate and select evidence of learning that matches relevant success criteria. Sharing is not a one-way process: a sense of affiliation is strongly supported when learners are themselves involved in contributing to the planning of learning intentions, to the development of success criteria and to the design of learning activities aligned with these.

Affiliation without autonomy is not enough. The well-being of individuals is enhanced when they can take responsibility for their activities and make informed choices. Practitioners can ensure that learning and assessment activities provide opportunities for all learners to make informed choices within the safe space afforded by the classroom community of learning and, thus, to develop the dispositions and capacities needed to do so throughout life.

Jointly developing and sharing appropriate learning intentions and success criteria (group or individual) is a powerful means of promoting learners’ sense of autonomy. Involving learners in developing and understanding these through dialogue with the teacher and with one another empowers them as they contribute actively to planning learning and as they evaluate (using the processes of self- and peer assessment) how well they have learned. Learning intentions and success criteria must be sufficiently high-level to provide space for individual learners to make their own choices and produce different types of evidence to demonstrate the achievement of agreed success criteria; the capacity to justify choices and decisions is an important aspect of autonomous and responsible action.

Autonomy will be less valuable if the available choices are not significant. Agency implies that learners can see that their choices will make a difference to them and/or to others now and/or in the future. As learners participate in learning and assessment activities which afford them opportunities to make real choices while understanding the consequences, they develop competence in carrying out this responsibility to themselves and others.

Learners will develop their capacity for agency when they independently and cooperatively use the success criteria through regular self- and peer-assessment activities. This affords learners the opportunity to value and exercise responsibility (with support) for contributing to their own and others’ progression in learning. As learners select evidence of achievement of learning intentions or identify next steps in learning, they develop the capacity to exercise judgement and to present their arguments and conclusions to others. They can consider evidence derived not only from within the classroom but also from other contexts in the school and, where relevant, beyond this.

Throughout assessment, dialogue and feedback are at the heart of developing learners’ sense of affiliation, agency and autonomy. Feedback, whether focused on immediate next steps, learning processes, or a further stage of learning, involves dialogue. Whatever mode is used, learners must engage with and respond to feedback. To support this, practitioners have a responsibility to develop learners’ capacities to carry out their classroom responsibilities of: contributing to developing learning intentions and success criteria; selecting and reflecting on evidence of progression; and discussing how to progress their learning. Promoting well-being is part of the everyday professional work of all practitioners.

G MacBride

(Honorary Research Fellow, University of Glasgow, Member of Assessment Group, Curriculum for Wales)

*McLean, A. (2003) The Motivated School London: Sage

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