What Works Pt. 2


Let’s start with a quiz. Of the following, which do you think has been found to have the greatest impact on learning? Put another way, if you could only implement one or two of the following , which would you go for? Ready? Here they are:

  1. providing computer-assisted instruction to all learners
  2. reducing class sizes
  3. making the school day longer
  4. getting all students to come for summer school
  5.  implementing rapid formative assessment.

Tough choice to make, isn’t it? As it turns out, rapid formative assessment trumps them all, and another 17 interventions as well according to Yeh (2011). Providing better formative feedback for learners had the greatest impact on learning outcomes, and it was among the cheapest to implement. Student achievement gains are impressive; Black et al. (2003) found an increase in the rate of student learning  of around 70%. Yes, se ven ty per cent.

In yesterday’s post, I talked about how debate as a central activity in the curriculum of higher level high schools might be a way to move away from the exam-centric focus that now prevails in most shingakkou. Debating requires students to think, research, listen, and argue.   These are skills. They are observable by the instructor and the students themselves. They can be tried, observed, given feedback (both formative and summative), and adjusted. Performance goals are clear. This is critical: students must do something in class that teachers and other students can see and give feedback on as they work toward the goals. In this way, an emphasis on the task, the process, and self-regulation emerges (Hattie, 2012).

Pedagogically, this would involve a sea change of a shift at many schools here in Kanagawa, from English as knowledge to English as a set of skills. That would also shift students from being receptive in class to being productive. And it would shift the role of the teacher from being the sage on the stage to being a facilitator/coach. This shift is necessary. And that is not just an opinion, the research cited above is clear on this.  What is needed in English classes is for students to perform–actively produce something in the target language–and receive feedback. Then using that feedback, they make adjustments.

Many teachers may not be convinced. Certainly, many English teachers see their job as to teach the content and then wait for the tests to see how the students have done. It is up to the students to take or leave–embrace or ignore, take notes or doodle, study or not–the content of the lessons, the content of the teacher’s explanations. So the “good” students prepare for tests and the “bad” students don’t prepare enough and the teachers have their expectations confirmed or dispelled when the exam results come back. Everyone gets the same lesson, everyone gets equal opportunity to take or leave the content, and everyone gets the same test. It’s fair. And yes, teachers prod and encourage students. There are often quizzes along the way or other systems in place to check progress. But what I want to argue is that there should be a greater  focus on production and skills, and greater use of real meaningful formative feedback so students can see how they are doing on the tasks, with their approach to learning. The way forward involves the regular use of productive activities conducted in an environment where (rapid) formative feedback is enabled and maximized, preferably activities that build in complexity as learners progress: projects, presentations, and debating are some that seem to fit the bill.


Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C.,Marshall, B., and William, D. (2003). Assessment for Learning- putting it into practice. Maidenhead, U.K.: Open university Press.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Oxon, UK: Routledge.

Yeh, S. S. (2011). The cost-effectiveness of 22 approaches for raising student achievement. Charlotte, North Carolina: Information Age Publishing.