Thursday, 29 August 2013

AFL – for better or worse?

There are so many new things or revised old ways in education that I can sometimes get a little bamboozled with things. Added to this is my fear of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ syndrome. People will gush with enthusiasm on Twitter about how something is divine or wonderful, but I am always left with a funny feeling. Is it really that good? Sadly, I have sat in meetings where things have been rolled out as if it is something amazing, when it is simply something old, renamed or blatantly obvious.

AFL has always been one of those grey areas for me. About 8 years ago, my school, at the time, was promoting AFL. I was sat there confused, thinking either someone is having me on, as I thought everyone was doing this; or the new thing is something I don’t stupidly understand. Over the years, I have had similar thoughts over SOLO and other things discussed online and on Twitter. I suppose a lot of it is about putting a term or defining what is natural in teaching on education. SOLO taxonomy is great, but I realised that I had been doing it naturally, but I hadn’t called it by the title or even use those awful terms to describe the different stages. (Sorry, to whomever came up with them. ) I am a science-fiction fan and I love to ‘reverse the neutron flow’ and listen to technobabble on television programmes, but on a day-to-day basis I do not want to sound like a new character from ‘The Big Bang Theory’: one who has no awareness of social conventions and uses words that are only found in dictionary corner of ‘Countdown’.

AFL was one of those areas. I thought I did it, but not like how the people giving CPD were doing it. They were using snazzy things like a plus and minus or a tick sheet. I tried these and they partly worked, yet like most things in education, it might work in one subject, but it doesn’t work with what I am doing now and everything. At the heart of AFL, for me, has always about these two questions:

·         Where am I? (grade, level, number, depending on the politicians in charge of education at the time of reading this blog)

·         What do I need to do to improve?

Like most people, I would photocopy mark schemes or write student friendly schemes for students to mark and level themselves, or each other. This usually worked for me and then I did some experimenting and I quite liked the results. The sequence of events goes like this:

1] Set the task and get students to complete the work. Prior to this, I might have given them some guidance, but very little modelling for a reason: the process uses it.

Write the opening paragraph to a horror story.

2] Show students an example of a good or excellent response to the task. The example used depends on the group or what you are trying to achieve with the piece of writing.

 A single blot on the vast whiteness of the landscape moved and shifted like some gelatinous mass. The blank canvas of the moor was empty apart from the image getting closer and closer. Gentle footstep could be heard amongst the reeds and grass, as bit by bit the image solidified into a man. In the distance, features started forming on the man. A black hat masking his eyes. A long silver object in his hands. A set of lips formed in a grimace with blackened teeth peeping out. It was a man with one thing on his mind: murder.   

3] Then students compare this piece to their paragraph. Usually, I would say the word ‘better’ at this point, but I recently added the word ‘worse’. Students now have to write a few bullet points underneath their own paragraph.

It was a cold, dark night and the field was empty. An owl hooted. The monster was ready for food. Its hunger was the main thing on his mind. It could smell blood. It wanted human blood. 


Better because…

·         I got to the horror stuff sooner.

·         I am clearer about what the horror is.

·         I use a short sentence for impact.


Worse because… 

·         The example zooms in on different bits and paints a big picture of the person.

·         It uses more description.

·         It uses more effective words.

4] Students now rewrite their paragraph with that information. This they can do with a partner.

The field was empty. An owl hooted, as the moon spread its light across the dark night and still grass.  It was hungry. Hungry for blood, flesh, gristle and bone. It would eat anything, as long as it was human. The shadow interrupted the moon’s light on the field. A figure with two arms, two legs and one head, but not it the places where they should be.  

 5] Students now look at mark scheme and look at where they were at the start and where they are now.

I have had some hilarious attempts in the past of students using mark schemes to work out their level. Teachers need moderators, years of practice and examples to help us ‘divine’ what mark a piece of work has achieved. Often, we don’t always agree.  However, we occasionally ask students to work out their level of assessment, yet they do not have the experience of good and bad that we have. They have an inkling, but they don’t have the knowledge. Now, obviously, more time and experience will help them, but I found this ‘better and worse’ approach has helped me, and more importantly, them.  No longer are we looking at the pinnacle of excellence and working out the insurmountable steps they have to complete to get the accolade of success. They judge where they are in relation to other things. I am better than this, but not as good as that.  Who thought the word ‘worse’ would change a simple way of thinking?
I might be doing something akin to ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, but I have found my way of doing it and it works for me. Now, people might say this is simply the plus and minus thing reworked, but I don’t; this is about relationships and the placing of students in relation to the spectrum of marks and ability. It’s all about position. When I was at school, I was ranked in subjects, so I knew if I was good, bad or average. Unfortunately, I wasn’t directly told what I need to do to move from position 112 to 111 in PE (the whole cohort was made up of 112 students.).  Successful AFL maybe isn’t just about the level and the steps to improve, but also about where a student is in relation to others and what have they done right. It isn’t a case of ‘just add a ____ and you are there’, but more a case of ‘that is so good, but add ____ and make sure you keep doing the good thing you did before’.

For better or worse, I am sticking with AFL. But, if the Emperor walks by in his new suit, I think it is better to be behind and worse to be at front.  At least, that way you can laugh at him, because at the front you have to pretend it is great and that he isn't stark naked - in the nude!

Thanks for reading  



  1. you have great technique for learn AFL. good post.

  2. Really like this idea a lot! Your examples are great too. Thanks for sharing.