Where's your head at?

Project based learning, thinking on learning and amazing Art projects

April 14, 2013
by Pete Jones

Who’s ever happy with just reaching base camp? The problem with levels

If the view from the top is so spectacular, why would you leave anyone behind?

When you show students the summit, the top of the mountain, you explain how to get there, what skills and knowledge will be needed, how difficult certain terrain will be, they may get lost along the way. Some may find the going too tough and may reach their peak for whatever reason, but one thing we do know is that with belief, resilience and the right understanding, most of those on the path will manage to get there if they so desire.

Time to call it a day or do we aim for the summit?

According to this report, “A universal feature of high performing jurisdictions is a pervasive belief that all students can learn, and to high standards.” but commenting that “ We are concerned by the ways in which England’s current assessment system encourages a process of differentiating learners through the award of ‘levels’, to the extent that pupils come to label themselves in these terms. Although this system is predicated on a commitment to evaluating individual pupil performance, we believe it actually has a significant effect of exacerbating social differentiation, rather than promoting a more inclusive approach that strives for secure learning of key curricular elements by all. It also distorts pupil learning, for instance creating the tragedy that some pupils become more concerned for ‘what level they are’ than for the substance of what they know, can do and understand. This is an unintended consequence of an over-prescriptive framework for curriculum and assessment. It should be possible to do better, particularly in primary education where there is significant emphasis on establishing the foundations for later learning. By the end of secondary education pupil attainments are necessarily differentiated and will be certificated accordingly through the examination system. However, we believe strongly that before the end of compulsory schooling, the structures for assessing and reporting achievement on the National Curriculum should foster the possibility of high achievement for all, rather than constrain it.”

Amen to that Dylan Wiliam and chums. I have spent a fair bit of my Easter holiday and before that, trying to make levels work for my subject, Art and for project based learning. After some research, some excellent conversations on twitter and a look at what various schools are doing in the UK (thank you all) I have realised that levels, levelling and especially target setting using levels can go take a long walk of a short plank in the middle of a small lake infested with ravenous great white sharks who eat levels for breakfast, very slowly, with blunt teeth, and poor digestion, but with no chance of escape. In other words, I’m not that keen on them.

Not quite the Sarlacc Pit, but you get the idea

Giving a level to a piece of standalone artwork is, to be honest a thankless task. Looking at even the most simplified of level descriptors can still make the judgement very difficult to justify. For example. “I can explore ideas in different ways, collecting information and practical resources in order to make informed choices about my work.” Is a level 3 for the exploring section of the Art and Design levels. Whereas for a level 8, it says “I can develop, express and realise ideas, confidently exploiting what I have learnt from taking risks and from my understanding of the creative process.” So realistically, an average to weak Year 7 should be getting a level 3, an exceptional Year 9 should be achieving a Level 8. But if you think about these statements, they really are just saying the same thing. This is where the problem comes with generic statements for grading work. I see no reason why a Year 3 student couldn’t achieve a level 8. I would expect anyone, especially younger students to “express and realise ideas” and “confidently exploit what they have learnt from taking risks.”

It’s just a load of wishy-washy flim-flam. I think I would give myself a level 8 for technical use of words there too.


Dr Dylan Wiliam liked our obsession with levels to drug addiction. “Children are hooked on them like addicts, the teachers are the pushers and the parents are the co-dependants.” He explains further, “like any addiction, it absorbs attention, temporarily gives gratification, artificially inflates self-esteem and exacerbates the problem and seeks attention.” Williams concludes that “constantly giving grades actually lowers achievement. Not only that, but when comments are given alongside grades, children are so busy comparing what level they got, the use of and importance of quality feedback is completely lost.”


Quality feedback, Hattie states, is one of the most valuable ways for students to improve as learners. The ability for teachers to focus their attention on giving effective feedback and for students to do something about the feedback they are given will be lost. Indeed, at a time where many schools are looking for viable alternatives, or have already come up with more appropriate models of assessment, it seems the attention for my own patch of pedagogical land is being primed for genetically modified levels. Perfect rows of well organised crops, ready to be labelled for identification. It’s a sad state of affairs.

Surely our greatest concerns within schools should be the quality of teaching, the quality of learning and the design of our curriculum. Levels can and will take away these foci from departments and schools who may well become preoccupied with how and when to assess,how this will fit into the curriculum and learning will become a series of ‘hoop jumping’ activities which are determined by making progress from one level to the next and not about stretching students, not about delivering profound learning experiences and not about qualitative feedback that gives students the next steps towards greatness in your subject.

Excellence for all?

Some schools are now looking at a whole variety of more productive, useful ways of assessing work, which focuses on high expectations for all, rather than vacuous prescribed levels of achievement. I was really inspired by this article by the legend that is Mr Ron Berger. I want every child I teach to know that with the right mindset and the right support, that excellence can be achieved, no matter what their social background or previous school experience is. You don’t have to settle for a target of a 4b by the end of Year 8. Who would want that? Why do students not care to question why this is their target? If one student can achieve excellence through the sheer character of that student, then why not all? Or at least more than that one. Why not spend that time we devolve to levels and target setting to get students to think and act like intrepid explorers, all capable of reaching a particularly spectacular summit, rather than just labelling them with an expectation of where they should end up. Students just need to be shown the summit of excellence. As Berger describes, “The student work in my giant black suitcase is exemplary — beautiful and accurate, representative of strong content knowledge and critical thinking skills — but it’s not from “exceptional” students. It does not come from gifted and talented classrooms or from high-powered private schools. It’s the work of regular students in typical schools around the country. The difference is that these students’ teachers have helped them develop the skills and mindsets necessary to produce work of exceptional quality, and have built classroom and school cultures in which exceptional work is the norm.”

 As Dweck puts it so well. If we believe this, why don’t we give every sudent a level 8?

So where to go from here…

Co-construction of success criteria

For students to fully understand the process of assessment, they need to be involved in the construction of what achievement might mean dependant on their approach and learning outcomes. At the beginning, or indeed during a project, a success criteria should be developed with the students. A rubric which focuses on the standards of learning driven by consultation. Giving students the understanding of what would be an outstanding outcome for a project, will always drive higher expectations in students. They need to see what this is, how they will have to work, what they might do to exceed it, and what would fall short of this.

This standard needs to be incredibly high. The problem with levels is that if you dissolve this criteria into so many levels and sub levels, you dissolve the understanding of excellence. Hattie’s work on ‘Visible Learning’ could not make this more apparent. He states that students should be made incredibly clear what the success criteria are for a lesson/project/subject. There should be discussion about this among peers and that the learning objectivesshould be explicit and above all, just out of reach of the learner. This is pretty much thereverse of the cumbersome, vague criteria which we are supposed to be working with.


This is something we already do for Pebble. It works really well. It motivates students to achieve as high as they can. I always ask students who is aiming for the top grade, time after time, students will put their hand up for the top level. Funnily enough, many of them get there, they understand fully what’s expected, how much effort will needed to be put in and they just do it. And, funnily enough, I don’t predict if they will achieve a pass, merit or distinction. It’s their choice what they achieve. For some, it may be twice as hard as others, but they will have learnt twice as much for how to get their next time and make understand how to make further progress.

After a lot of deliberation, this is the template I have come up with to help my department co-construct a meaningful, valid and accessible assessment tool. This would be done at a point in the year, where students are ready to develop an ambitious criteria for successfullearning, using their understanding of a subject, exemplar work and obviously a rigorous input from the teacher. The questions in the boxes are for teachers to use to instigate the rightdescriptions for each level. I have given a separate column for the ‘learner description’ as a nod to the PLTS or 5Rs etc, to help students understand the dispositions needed to succeed.What they should ‘see’ in themselves or in others to achieve the highest possible learning outcomes. So, I make no apologies for its simplicity, I am an Art teacher after all, but this is my contribution to how to assess progress, without making a mountain out of a mole hill (see what I did there).

It would be easy, as I have seen in other schools, to create a simple rubric of achievement; making each level a tick box of achievements; how many colours have been mixed? How many artists have been referred to? To me this is how we dumb down the curriculum. Students need to understand excellence in our subjects. They need to know how hard it is to get there. They need to know about the depth of thinking, the challenge, the journey. They need to know as precisely as we can demonstrate, what is excellence in our subjects, what is excellence in our schools and what is excellence in learning. For me, and a growing number of teachers and schools, the concept of levelling inhibits learning, fragments the challenge of an ambitious, demanding curriculum and undermines the ability of the young people in our schools. Every student is capable of excellence. It’s up to us to find a way of nurturing the very best character out of each of our students to enable this to happen. This is one thing which might help them reach their summit, rather than settle for the view from half way up. I would love to hear your thoughts!


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