Assessment Horizons - maths around the world, frequent feedback and equitable assessment

by Guest Blogger, 20 September 2023
New Assessment Network team member James Beadle has had a varied career in teaching and assessment, taking him from Shanghai to Budapest and now to Cambridge as our new Senior Professional Development Manager.

We spoke with him about differences in Maths teaching internationally, the importance of frequent feedback in the classroom and how and why fair assessment structures are crucial to an equitable society.
Before joining Cambridge, your career began in Maths teaching. Could you tell us about your experiences teaching maths around the world? 

“I qualified as a mathematics teacher in England, before going on to teach in international schools in Shanghai and Budapest. Working abroad, I found that although mathematics is often viewed as a ‘universal language’, in my experience both the teaching and learning of it can vary significantly across cultures. 
Different cultures often place different emphasis on certain areas of mathematics: the secondary mathematics curriculum in Shanghai has a smaller focus on statistics and probability, and a greater focus on algebra than you would normally see in England. 
Language can also make a huge difference. The mandarin word for ‘hexagon’ is ‘‘Liù jiǎo xíng’’, which literally translates to ‘six corner (or angle) shape’. The word for triangle is Sān jiǎo xíng, which translates ‘three corner shape.’ This is a far clearer relationship than that between the words triangle and hexagon - imagine how much easier it is for Chinese students to learn the name of shapes than English students!”
Do you have any thought on formative assessment gained from that time that you’d like to share? 

“To directly quote Dylan William, ‘the shorter the time interval between eliciting the evidence and using it to improve instruction, the bigger the likely impact on learning’. As a teacher, I became increasingly convinced that one of the most powerful things you could do in the classroom was give feedback as quickly and often as possible. 
If your students work on a set of problems for a lesson, only to have them marked at the end and discover that their solutions are all incorrect, then not only have they likely learned very little, but it’s also going to be a very demoralising experience. As giving frequent feedback can be incredibly demanding on a teacher’s workload, I was always looking for timesaving, yet still effective strategies, such as online diagnostic questions, mini whiteboards, loop cards or peer marking.

Metacognition is also incredibly important. If we can teach students so that they can both identify when they have made a mistake and how to seek out the knowledge to correct it, then we are equipping them with the skills to be able to independently learn in the future, something that I think is increasingly key in the 21st century.”
You’re currently studying on the Postgraduate Advanced Certificate in Educational Studies: Educational Assessment. Have there been any particular ‘lightbulb moments’ for you on the course? 
“Prior to joining the course, I think I thought of assessments as a very narrow concept: essentially, tests you give to students. Having met other assessment professionals on the course, I’ve gained an appreciation for how broadly they are used across society, and the many forms an assessment can take, from a job interview to a wine tasting on a sommelier course. 
A large number of schools, universities and professional organisations are increasingly looking to take advantage of the opportunities offered by digital assessment and artificial intelligences, and the Postgraduate course has acted as an excellent forum for us to discuss and explore these issues.”
Do you think of yourself having an ‘professional assessment identity’? 
“That’s a very good question! Throughout my career, I’ve worn many different assessment ‘hats’, from grading and moderating students’ internal assessments within my department, working as a marker for Cambridge International, to helping design new syllabuses and assessment schemes. 
Having worked with assessment in a wide range of forms, I’m increasingly convinced that it plays an absolutely crucial role in education. If we are to move towards a more equitable society, it is key that any assessment structures we put in place give all individuals the same opportunity showcase their talent and potential. And so one of the most important things we can do as educationalists is ensure we have a thorough knowledge of assessment principles.”
What type of projects are you looking forward to working on now that you’ve joined the Cambridge Assessment Network team as Senior Professional Development Manager?
“I’m looking forward to getting back in the classroom! The Assessment Network has an excellent set of programmes designed to help schools, universities and other organisations enhance their expertise in assessment, and I’m excited to be helping to deliver them. We also have a very strong online offering (I would highly recommend, from past experience, the A10 courses), which I’m looking forward to help develop further.”

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