Issues with ‘I can’ statements

Are we there yet?: Standards based assessment for mastery learning in physical education – issues with ‘I can’ statements.  

When working with primary schools or running primary assessment courses since level descriptors were removed from the system, I have become increasingly concerned at the number of schools continuing to use or starting to use ‘I can’ statements.  Not only does this approach increase teacher workload, potentially prevent a growth mind set for children, and create what is essentially a checklist, but it also totally ignores the complexity and interconnected nature of learning.

The system approach to assessment and curriculum has transformed, yet teacher practice has not yet moved away from its previous practice.  In order to address this state of affairs I wish to confront poor or limiting practice.  When my three children were younger and we travelled for any length of time in the car, they would continuously ask “Are we there yet?” Years later, they see the journey as part of the excursion or holiday and very much part of the process. It is a focus on the journey or assessment as an integral part of the teaching and learning process that leads to greater progress and higher standards, not a sole focus on the destination. Are we there yet with assessment practice in PE?  ‘I can’ state… Nooooooo!

Curriculum transformation

Part of the rationale for curriculum transformation was to improve our performance from the standards plateau that as a country we found ourselves experiencing, and reduce the burden of administration for teachers, especially around assessment practice.  The reformed National Curriculum has been developed around a mastery or standards-based approach which has meant refocusing on less content but in greater depth, and moving learners on only when they have mastered a skill or a concept. Part of the rationale for the removal of levels from the system measure was for teachers not to feel so pressurised to constantly race through a level, but to spend time deepening and embedding learning.  Viewed in this way, learning and progress become more than just a linear or ladder approach, progress becomes 4 dimensional.  The new standards developed (for physical education and other ‘foundation’ subjects) are key stage standards.  The national expectation set is that all learners should ‘Master’ these new standards.  In planning to meet these new key stage ‘threshold’ or floor standards, teachers are expected to work back from the standard and ‘scaffold’ or plan progressive learning overtime – two years in key stage 1 and four years in key stage 2.

Part of the issue in physical education was that the transformation away from ‘content and coverage’ (6 activity areas) to learners and their (mastery) learning, was that primary PE teachers required more extensive subject knowledge than their training or experience had provided. Many did not (and still do not) feel confident to plan learning progressively and respond to learners’ needs, as opposed to following rigid set lesson by lesson plans, where assessment for learning becomes redundant. PE and Sport Premium funding is being used to address this knowledge deficit gap, but until it does the issue remains – how can we plan for mastery in PE, then teach for mastery, before we then assess for mastery, when we don’t have a grasp of what mastery looks like?

Teacher workload

So how does teacher practice manifest itself when there is a lack of subject knowledge within the system? With a plethora of meaningless checklists to somehow prove that assessment is taking place is the frank answer. Teachers and more frequently commercial companies, have attempted to deconstruct the standards into statements or targets that are hierarchical.  This series of checklists for each taught activity in PE, are too often written as ‘I can’ statements. The issue with such statements are that they are superficial and disconnected from each other.  This ‘tick box’ culture is something that led Ofsted (2007) in its report on ‘Reforming and developing the school workforce’ to pose the question in the ‘Time for Standards’ section: Ticking boxes or improving learning?” A ‘tracking’ resource I reviewed recently, listed a range of activities and a hierarchical range of ‘I can’ statements for each activity.  When the number of formal decisions a class teacher would have to make during the year is calculated (assuming 30 in the class, 12 x 6 hour units of work and an average of 9 statements per activity, with a Likert 1-5 point scale for each statement) it amounts to 16,200!

Constructing a curriculum offer that meets learners’ needs should be something that is informed and driven by assessment information for learning against standards – and this is certainly not the practice of following a commercial scheme of work for PE in a Lemming-like fashion word for word. Learning outcomes and success criteria are very much part of the process of planning.  These are our short and medium-term targets, so why create an additional statemented administrative layer with excel spreadsheets or similar?

You need to…

Another issue with ‘I can’ is that often children can’t. In physical education where performance is growth related, some children in a class will be nearly 12 months younger and therefore less developed than other children. This situation is exacerbated when assessment points are too frequent.  Some children can and some children can’t.  The issue in primary (and often secondary) PE, is that it doesn’t matter whether children can or can’t, if it is the end of a half-term block then the activity and learning focus will change anyway! This creates a disconnect between ‘that which has been taught’ and ‘that which has been learnt’. In other words gaps in learning (or statements left unchecked) are not addressed because a different activity is taught with different statements. If practice is actually focused on mastery learning, and activities are seen as the vehicle for learning, then the duration of learning blocks should be considered and the use of assessment information to set targets for learners should be integral to this process.  “You need to” becomes a far better approach than using ‘I can’ because it promotes an ‘improving’ rather than a ‘proving’ approach for both children and teachers who engage in thinking about learning and how to improve.  ‘What do you need to do to improve your balance?’, versus ‘Can you balance on one leg for 3 seconds?’!  The targets, in this example, about how to balance, become personalised and progressive to children understanding what balance is, what moving versus static balance is, how strength and flexibility are important in achieving balance, and the interrelated attributes of agility and coordination – this is the learning journey. The interconnected complexity of learning becomes transparent and the contrast between a growth mind set and a closed mind set is obvious. Which is easier? Yes you’ve already guessed – tick a box!

Learning Complexity

As a principal lecturer for PE initial teacher training at the University of Worcester in the 1990’s, we used to use competency statements.  Tutors would tick off statements when trainee teachers demonstrated that they had met the competency.  The problem was, a trainee could have all statements checked, but still be a poor teacher.  The next year the Teacher Training Agency introduced standards, and this meant trainees had to provide reflective documentation that demonstrated they understood the interconnected nature of learning and teaching.  Statements were invalid, unreliable and insufficient for the purposes of assessment.  Any good teacher will understand that performance is made up of a number of interconnected aspects, including (but not limited to) the application of skill, thinking and decision-making, psychological factors and physical attributes including fitness.

We must move away from the checklist mentality of learning and think about learning as progressive and where learning targets are constantly revisited.  It is the process (journey) targets that are important for it is a focus on the processes that deliver the results, rather than the results themselves that drive learning and progress. CPD is required that develops teacher expertise in this respect, so that in 2020 if the PE and Sport Premium is discontinued we will have built knowledge capacity and capability for sustainability within the system and ticking boxes will be a thing of the past.  Are we there yet? Hopefully reading and responding to this ‘call to action’ leads us on track. We’re getting there!

We run our Standards-Based Assessment For Mastery Learning course regularly through the school year. We are based at The Stables Business Centre, Worcestershire, but also run courses in Liverpool, Manchester and London. Contact or call 07803 603450 for details of courses. Andrew is the Association for Physical Education’s national lead on curriculum and assessment.

The course costs £190+VAT and includes two-course luncheon and unlimited tea and coffee.  It also includes a colour bound course booklet and a 2GB memory stick with background documents and the PowerPoint used and course certification.

ALSO – Receive a 50% discount off A Practical Guide to Assessing Without Levelsworth £12.50 or a reduction from your course fee.