Paper review: “Inside the black box”

There are nearly 17,000 Oxford students on taught courses. They turn up reliably every October. We send them to an army of lecturers and tutors, drawn from every rank of the research hierarchy. As members of that hierarchy, we owe it to the students – all 17,000 of them – to teach them as best we can.

And where can we learn the most about how to teach? There are 438,000 professional teachers in the UK. Maybe people who spend all of their working time on the subject might have good strategies to help people learn.

The context of the paper

Teachers obsess over assessment. Assessment is the process by which teachers figure out what students have learned. It is probably true that assessment is the only reason we have classrooms at all.

Inside the Black Box is of the vanguard of recent changes in educational thinking. Modern teaching regards good pedagogy as a practical skill. Like other types of performance, it depends on a specific set of concrete actions which can be taught and learned. Not everyone is a natural teacher – but nearly everyone can become a competent teacher.

Formative assessment is the focus of Inside the Black Box. The article argues that this process, in which teachers figure what students know and tell them how it’s going wrong, is essential to good classroom practice.

What is the black box?

The black box is the classroom. After societal convulsions over class sizes, funding deficits, curriculum reforms, and examination structure, it’s time – says the article, in 2001 – that we focus on what actually goes on inside the classroom. These social changes, it says, adjust the inputs to the black box, and society expects better things out of the black box. But what if changing the inputs makes the work inside the black box harder? Don’t we have an obligation to figure out what needs to happen to get students to learn?

The article touches three questions:

  • Is there evidence that improving formative assessment raises standards?
  • Is there evidence that there is room for improvement?
  • Is there evidence about how to improve formative assessment?

The answers are yes, yes, and yes. In meta-analyses of educational experiments, formative assessment consistently raises standards. These experiments match the experience of teachers, who know that the least effective lessons are those which do not respond to students’ needs. Standard observations – such as those from Ofsted – ask teachers to answer what are they learning, and then how do you know, and then what are you doing about it?

The second question – is there room for improvement? – is one they address in great detail in the context of primary and secondary education. Some criticisms (the giving of grades for its own sake, unintentional encouragement of “rote or superficial learning”, relentless competition between students) seem applicable in different parts of our university context. A greater weakness is a lack of emphasis. People engaged in university teaching frequently center the delivery of knowledge instead of learning, an idea exacerbated by our obsession with lectures and masked by the long lag between those lectures and the exams in which we assess them.

Recommendations

Inside the Black Box makes specific recommendations for instructors about how to engage in formative assessment. Those recommendations – unusually, for an item in the educational literature – are specific and detailed. But rather than focus on them, it is worth examining three themes which run across the article.

The overriding focus is the importance of formative assessment. If we care about what students learn, then we’ve got to be checking what it is that they actually are learning. Opportunities for formative assessment should be “designed into any piece of teaching”. In extremis, this idea has interesting implications for the institution of lectures, which generally lack them entirely.

A subsidiary idea is the importance of setting clear objectives for learning. Too many students view learning as a series of exercises rather than a step in the formation of a coherent body of knowledge. The overarching direction should be made clear. And on a more detailed level, we need to be explicit about what outcomes we want our students to obtain so that they know whether they are making satisfactory progress. Formative assessment must make reference to expectations, and formative self- or peer assessment becomes impossible if those expectations are not well-understood.

And this discussion ties into a final point: when students truly apply themselves to the task of learning, their self-perception and self-esteem becomes bound up in it. Ineffective expectation-setting and insufficient clarity about the means for improvement result in students feeling demotivated, which causes them to revise their goals downward. They put in less effort and achieve outcomes that are worse. These effects are costly and can be avoided by effective formative assessment.

Inside the Black Box is a diversion from our diet of scientific articles, but I think it is worth our attention. Pedagogy is difficult to get right. In the university context, good practice is the subject of little attention and rarely assessed. Thinking about good asssessment means that our students benefit.

But all communication activities are a form of teaching. Really good teachers communicate really well. When good communication happens, everyone benefits, inside and outside the black box.