AfL: Tight but loose….

led zeppelinOver the last few weeks there have been some very thought provoking posts on AfL on various teacher blogs. Two in partcilular resonated most with me – firstly, this one from Joe Kirby and then this from Tom Boulter.  Both focus on cutting out the ‘gimmicks’ that have polluted the waters of AfL in recent years and get to the nuts and bolts of what it is all about – good teaching.

They put me in mind of a quote from Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin fame, who when asked about how they functioned as a band, answered that they were ‘tight but loose’.  Tight as a band playing together, but loose in terms of being able to express themselves creatively as individuals.

This to me, is an approach that schools should take when looking to develop AfL……or great teaching – have a shared understanding of what effective AfL/teaching is all about (the tight bit), but allow teachers to deliver this in their classrooms in different and creative  ways (the loose bit). An approach we have tried to implement at DHS.

Developing a shared understanding of what effective AfL is

aflpicThe underlying principle of AfL is very simple – making sure that students (and teachers) know where they are in their learning, where they need to get to and most importantly, how they are going to get there.  I believe very strongly that actually, this is just good teaching and great teachers do this all the time. For this reason, AfL should never be seen as a series of add ons but just a way of teaching to facilitate good learning.

Around 2007, I saw Dylan Wiliam talking about this at a conference in London.  He articulated five key strands of AfL:


Here is a brief video clip of him discussing these 5 strategies

Dylan, then went on to talk about how these strategies could be embedded into classrrom practice by the use of ‘Teacher Learning Communities’.  For those not familar with TLCs, it is a way of getting teachers together to share best practice and then commit to trying out a new teaching strategy.  Each TLC is a group of about 10-12 teachers (from different subjects in a secondary context) who meet regulalrly (monthly/half termly).  Each time they meet, they are introduced to some new AfL teaching techniques – they then commit to trying at least one out in their classrooms.  The next time the group meets, they dicuss how it went, then start the process again.

It’s still possible to buy the fully resourced programme of TLCs here.

We did the TLCs over the course of a year, a few years back at DHS and found that:

  • Teachers appreciated the opportunity to meet with other colleagues to discuss best practice – in particular, teachers from different subjects.
  • They also liked being given a range of strategies to try out, but could then pick one or two to develop further.
  • The TLCs gave staff a much better shared understanding of what AfL was all about.  It demystified it and put it very much in a classroom context.
  • Knowing that they would have to discuss the successes and failures of their efforts at the next meeting, made them more likely to try something out in their classrooms in between sessions – a bit like the ‘weightwatchers’ effect!
  • TLCs acted as a stimulus – it widened collaboration between teachers and encouraged them to take some of the techniques that were discussed, adapt them and make them their own.

TLCs are a great model of teacher CPD, because they are about getting teachers to talk about good practice, whilst giving them the resources, time and confidence to try out new teaching ideas and then embed them into their own classroom practice – personalised professional learning.

Keeping it tight but loose

Having discussed, shared and tried out lots of AfL strategies during the TLCs, I wanted a framework that teachers could refer to, to keep in mind the key principles of AfL, whilst giving them the freedom to make it their own.

The inspiration for this was Jim Smith (@thelazyteacher).  At another conference, Jim was talking rather brilliantly about the many strategies he employs to develop independence with his students.  He also referred to a ‘learning cycle’ – which looks at the main ‘episodes’ of learning that should happen during a lesson.

I took this away and adapted it – to incorporate the main principles of effective AfL we had been looking at during the TLCs.  The result follows:

learning cycle

lc1Again, coming back to the ‘tight but loose’ idea.  It’s tight because it reminds teachers of the key principles of effective teaching/learning/AfL (delete as you like!) that they should be thinking about when they plan and deliver their lessons.  The bits in red are particularly important aspects to be considered and link back to the ‘Big 4’ of great teaching  – questioning, feedback, challenge and independence – see earlier post.

lc8It’s loose, because whilst the principles are expected to be delivered, how teachers do it is up to them.  For example, we have removed the shackles of the ‘3 part lesson’ – each ‘cycle’ may happen once in a lesson, twice or 3 times…or more.  That depends on the skill of the teacher to judge how the learning is going and then how they respond to that with their teaching. Teachers are also encouraged to be creative and take risks with their teaching – try things out, reflect on what works and then share it through the range of CPD activities we put on at DHS.

lc2So as an example, at the start of the lesson, get them engaged and interested  (the tight bit) and use this as a way into the learning of the lesson by asking and generating good questions.  Keep this loose by doing it via a range of techniques, such as presenting students with a ‘big question’ that makes them think, or an image, or a piece of text, or an unusual classroom arrangement e.g. a great English lesson, where the classroom was set up as a 19th century workhouse.

A full copy of our learning cycle can be downloaded here – learning cycle

tight but loose

Many thanks to Jimmy Page, Dylan Wiliam and Jim Smith!

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3 Responses to AfL: Tight but loose….

  1. Pingback: Edssential » AfL: Tight but loose….

  2. Pingback: Peer Observation – Priceless CPD, for free! | Mr Campbell Writes...

  3. Pingback: Developing a shared understanding of what effective AfL is | New College Durham – TLA Talk

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