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Reflecting on Assessment, and Leading Learning

By John Bray
Reflecting on Assessment, and Leading Learning

“Focus on the process, on your growth as a learner and as a person; your grades will take care of themselves.” For over 20 years, this phrase is one I often used with students as they worked towards A-Levels or International Baccalaureate (IB) diplomas or certificates.

I reflect on this in light of a recent media flurry in the United Kingdom (UK) focused on A-level grades. A-level grading has been openly “managed,” the government explaining to students that it was time to go back to “tougher,” pre-Covid assessment standards. The fairness of this to a group of students highly impacted by Covid is in question. In this environment, politicians from the major parties have argued over the importance of A-Level grades to young people. Sadly, this discussion lacked real depth or clarity and focused on a time in life ten years after A-levels rather than the need for the examinations themselves. Hearing Gary Neville, one of the founding members of University Academy 92, speak to this on the BBC feels like progress. It encourages debate and, in time, will connect public discourse to the work in education.

Back to the opening statement.

 I have always found it productive to be open with students, sharing the system and its workings with those navigating it. Still, my message to students was purposefully naive. I encouraged them to focus on that day or week, their process, and what they can control. It is the latter element there that has been the focus of my reflection. Implied was the idea that there are elements they could not control. The percentage in 2023 that equated to an A or B for A-level students was out of any individual's control, out of any school's control. Also implied was the idea that the grades don't matter as much as the learning involved, the skills developed in the process.

Many students appreciated that. They also knew that the statement made light of the process, the necessary time it takes to achieve in culminating exams. Students were happy to remind me of the time it takes to practice math skills, learn history or geography case studies, and practice essays or understand over 600 pieces of terminology in biology, effectively a new language.

Twenty years ago, when I began my career in the UK, preparing students for assessments was not a module in my postgraduate certificate of education; however, it was necessary for teaching A-Level geography. Today, as my IB experience and this week's UK news show, exams are still a central part of the student experience worldwide. Schools are posting about their grades at the time of year: students with 40 plus IB points, how many students achieved an A or A*.

Exams such as A-Levels are milestones in young people's lives and are seen by many as a rite of passage, as they were for parents and teachers. So, are we trapped in that cycle? Is there a psychological element linked to a shared history of experience between parents and teachers? Schools and their teachers can ride waves of positivity from successful exam results or raise concerns when it has not gone as well. No matter their grades, students are emotional in these moments. Right or wrong, there is an emotional attachment to success. If we removed A-Levels or IB diploma tomorrow, what would those young people, and their parents, see as “success?”

Schools have been working towards a broader view of success, to a more holistic education, for many years. As a mentor, I coach international schools, teachers, and leaders as they develop curricula to support such missions and associated values. Schools often ask how to balance time in their community; time for faculty and staff to engage in professional development; time for students to discover to take control of their learning; time for drama, music, and teamwork; and time for engaging with the community outside our school walls. They want to know how to balance these with the faculty professional development and daily teaching and learning required to support students in their subjects and culminating assessments.

One option is to change your school pedagogy model. 

University Academy 92 has removed exams, focusing on portfolios of evidence. I currently work as a learning facilitator and designer at the School of Humanity, where an investigative, student-led and project-based curriculum drives learning. An evidence-based mastery transcript system allows learners to demonstrate understanding and growth in multiple ways while focusing their studies on their interests. Adopting entirely new models may only be feasible for some schools. Focusing holistically, encouraging young people to lead the exploration, and mapping of experiences is certainly within reach.

Schools can formalize holistic learning and reporting of it.

Organizations are collaborating to adapt how students present themselves to colleges and universities. The Mastery Transcript Consortium and Ecolint's Learner Passport are significant examples.

Schools can inform their communities about the changes in University Admission.

For example, in the United States, the number of major universities that have become “test optional” regarding SATs is over 75 percent and growing. The number of opportunities in further education that require a high school transcript rather than final examination grades is increasing in the UK. While the education system moves slowly, working within existing systems to promote holistic education and focus learning on the process is possible.

Make time and space for young people to enjoy a holistic education. Start small, and plan for long-term impacts.

It is vital to build confidence in a holistic learning mindset within your community and to create time and space for student opportunities. Choose two or three small projects that will significantly impact learning as a team.

Some possibilities: 

  • Define and celebrate “working towards success” and specific achievements through a holistic lens. Start with some simple shout-outs!
  • Communicate. Involve the community in the process. Develop student voice.
  • Encourage and make time for teachers to model holistic learning for students.
  • Use portfolios and exhibitions to share learning.
  • Have speakers from your community share their achievements and successes as holistic learners.
  • Make wellness central to being an IB student through regular communal practice and involve specialists.
  • Give more autonomy to students. Ask them what might support their learning and improve their workspaces and timetabling. Make time work for your community rather than acting as a straitjacket.
  • Develop opportunities for collective action and service.
  • Coach and encourage student leadership and entrepreneurial spirit.

Make a start, focus on how learning happens.

Let's focus on how learning happens.

The starting point for balance in challenging academic programs has to be creating time and space for it. One example of how you can rethink how learning happens to make time for your community: while I was leading an IB program in Boston, USA, students expressed that they had too many overlapping projects and needed balance. As many schools do, we collaboratively rebuilt the calendar of internal assessments (IA) based on student feedback. As well as final deadlines, each IA subject was given a specific time in the calendar when students could expect to work independently outside the class. Math, for example, being an assessment impacting all students, had November almost to itself. Additionally, we implemented a trial of three days in the calendar where students took the lead on how they would use their time. Each day focused on IA projects that impacted the whole cohort. Day one: math, day two: English higher level/theory of knowledge, day three: sciences, chemistry, biology, and physics.

The teachers' first response to the idea was that I was a bit crazy. It would cause a loss of class time for subjects. Our students' initial response was also negative. What is the point? How do we know what to do?

How it worked on the day.

In math, teachers chose a day in the week after students received feedback on their first draft. The day ran for seven hours in total. Lunch was at the standard time, and individual students had the discretion to plan their schedule for the day.

The day began with goal setting and one-to-one mentoring with teachers. Math teachers were only present for around two hours of the day. Some students worked on technical aspects, cracking the “math” of their projects. Many edited and spent time writing and reading. Others worked on a variety of parts. By day's end, the response was unanimous; can we do this for all our IA, please? 


  • A shift in mentality:

Students saw the benefit of a different process and developing understandings such as the importance of focusing on one goal, achieving it, and defining the next. Teachers' flexibility and open-mindedness to student autonomy and its impact significantly increased.

  • Balance was encouraged and enabled:

Specifying these periods reduced homework pressures and meant we could also encourage hobbies and community activity.

  • Students gained time:

The math department and students gained time instead of their predicted loss. Students made greater progress on their IA projects in one day because they could plan, work towards, and complete individual goals, allowing them to move on more quickly. There was a knock-on effect because students could assign their gained time to other activities.

  • Students developed and practiced essential skills for leading projects and self-management:

Confidence to utilize skills such as editing, time management, decision-making, prioritization, and self-management.

  • Teachers developed new skills:

Teachers adapted their practice and incorporated goal setting and autonomy more widely. This supported the articulation of approaches to learning and the learner profile across the subject curriculum.

Change in the way we assess student learning is happening. It is a slow process but one that is necessary to better the student experience and learning.



John Bray facilitates and designs learning at the School of Humanity and is the Director of Learning at iArticulatementors.

LinkedIn: John William Bray

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