Why bother asking students what they think?
Asking students to measure their level of understanding using traffic lights is a waste of time. Students lie. They might rev their engines in public and look like they've got both hands on the wheel but so what? Many can't drive, some run red lights and plenty stall.
'Traffic light' signals get the thumbs down.
'Thumbs up, thumbs down' gets a big red light to STOP.
'Smiley faces' get 1 out of 10.
When children colour code/traffic light (red, amber, green), the immediate visual representation offers immediate feedback and allows a teacher to determine their level of success, confidence and understanding. Well, supposedly.
Thumbs up, middle or down is another quick-look strategy. Apparently, in ancient Greece they used a closed fist (I have a good grip on the matter) or an open hand.
But we can't trust students and they lie for good reasons because they have their own agendas. Green can mean stop and red can mean go. They are experts at playing good cop and bad cop with teacher emotions and they don't want to be seen by their mates as not knowing something.
The problem is we are asking students how they feel and that's never going to be accurate. Let's look at it from the student side. You might:
- feel completely unsure about something but you don't want to look stupid in front of your mates so it's a thumbs up.
- feel you are 100% but don't want the attention again. Last time your teacher embarrassed you by asking you to explain something. Everyone got on your back for showing off.
- feel like playing up a bit today and so you show an unhappy emoji even though you 'get it'.
- dislike the teacher and so you give yourself 0.5 out of 10. You do this whilst he's being observed and feel that 'serves him right.'
- feel brave and do the opposite of what you are really thinking.
The self-assessment lights are dodgy. Children are not sufficiently knowledgeable to be able to make informed self-assessments.
Toys Out Of The Box
I'm a huge fan of assessment for learning (AfL). The best teaching is responsive and formative based and has guided my practice for years. But it's tough and not for the faint-hearted. You have to have your wits about you and you are always on the lookout. As Audibert (1980) says, it is the constant analysis of a connected moving picture.
Wallace and Kirkman (2014) say in their book Talk-Less Teaching, "A great teacher assesses the impact of their teaching as they go along and adapts their teaching according to the information they glean. A great teacher is readily flexible, ultra-dependable 'chameleon teacher'."
I've been singing and dancing all the advice written and have embraced diversifying assessment. I've always enjoyed sharing SNOT with children as well (ask yourSelf, a Neighbour, anOther adult, then finally, the Teacher).
Traffic light icons are promoted as a top tip in the 'inside the black box' series and I gobbled up the guidance for peer and self-assessment. I still refer to these booklets today as they talk a lot of sense. But not total sense.
I have never felt entirely comfortable with traffic lights or their variants. They seemed to work but then again, I couldn't be sure. I had my suspicions that instant feedback was just instant deception. Traffic light cups not only make a mess of learning but also the classroom as half the time they are on the floor.
The signs aren't difficult to spot. When I know children really well then I can easily pick-up what they know, what they don't know and what they partly know. It's in their voices, in their eyes, it's written all over them. Teachers are great mind-readers.
Self-assessment is seen as an essential component of AfL because it can help children direct their activities towards their learning goals. It can also direct their activities towards the learning goals of others if they are not being honest.
Of course, children need to build their own metacognitive skills and so traffic lights gives them an opportunity to self-assess. They need to work out where they are at in their own minds. But they aren't assessment experts. They are amateurs.
A child might think they know something inside out but prod their thinking with an actual conversation involving some quirky questions and they can go from green to red in the blink of an eye. What really makes the difference are learning conversations.
Traffic lights can serve a purpose if you have the type of classroom that values mistake-making, a growth mindset and is psychologically safe. We all excel in that type of environment.
When we feel secure with our surroundings, our peers and our teachers then a green light really can mean green. When the red light shows then wait here.
The basic principles of developing a classroom climate for effective learning are:
- all contributions are valued
• no learners are excluded
• learners feel safe to be creative and take risks in learning
• co-operation, collaboration and respect for fellow learners are paramount
But then as influential blogger and teacher Andrew Old says,
"We are the worst judges of how good we are at something. We are also very poor at judging the performance of others at carrying out activities that we are not good at ourselves. These inherent biases in human beings are, in psychology, known as aspects of the Dunning-Kruger effect."
Then of course, we have to factor in our students with colour vision defiency. As Colour Blind Awareness remind us, "Avoid ‘traffic light’ systems for marking without secondary labels. Colour blind people can’t be relied upon to know the difference between red, green and orange."
Even if students are being wonderfully honest, we still have to be suspicious. In Pimp Your Lesson, they point out that 'thumbs up' and traffic lights "cannot and must not be used as a way for a teacher to feel they are getting genuine, accurate feedback about the understanding of pupils in their class."
Self-assessment doesn’t help students towards becoming autonomous learners. Self-assessment is more like self-deception. The use of choice cards and traffic lighting doesn't encourage student voice and empower student engagement and learning. It clouds it and muddies assessment.
What we actually need is honest learning conversation. The teacher is the expert, not the pupil and it's us that makes accurate assessments. Self-assessment is about as accurate as peer-assessment. If your mate is assessing you then you'll do well. If it's someone that doesn't, expect a list of critiques.
About the author
John is an ex-primary school teacher and Ofsted inspector who has spent the last 20 years working in the education industry as a teacher, writer and editor. John’s specialist area is primary maths but he also loves teaching science and English. John has written a number of educational and children’s books, and contributed over 1,000 articles and features to various educational bodies. John is eTeach’s school leadership and Ofsted advice guru, sharing insights on best practice for motivating and enriching a school team, as well as sharing savvy career steps for headteachers and SLT.