Mr Trent Driver, Dean of Academic Development
At the Girls Grammar school assembly on 3 August 2011, the winners of the Music Department’s annual Covers Competition were announced to the acclaim of the assembled school. Over several preceding weeks girls from all year groups submitted their own performances of works by other songwriters. From a diverse range of entries, the winner of the Senior division was a Year 11 student with her acoustic rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Have you ever seen the rain? Originally released in 1970, this song and I go way back. As a result, I was concerned as to where this cover was going to take it.
This version, on the first listen, drew few parallels for me with the song that accompanied me on road trips in my youth along the NSW coast. Stripped back to vocals and a sparse acoustic guitar, it was a departure from John Fogarty’s original frustrated lament of society’s fading idealism at the end of the 1960s. When she observed that we were seeing the ‘calm before the storm’ and noted that ‘it’s been coming for some time’ in a timbre reminiscent of Sarah Blasko, the sense of impending loss was less prominent than the optimism of what this change may bring. The delicate touch given to this reworking asked me to re-evaluate something I had taken for granted for a long time; the student’s rendition was meaningful in a way very different to the context of the song in its original time and place. Her reinterpretation allowed me to get more out of something I had thought I understood. On reflection, it was all a good cover version should be.
Good cover versions look for the core of a song, look for its truth and ask how it can be built upon in a new context so the audience can interpret it differently. It is a work of renovation rather than reinvention, of extension rather than replacement. A good cover version pays homage to the essence of what gives a song currency, and interprets it in a new light. It sets us the challenge to look at something we have taken for granted with a critical eye and add to it for a future audience and changing contexts.
Educational researcher Professor John Hattie (2009), in his analysis of factors that promote improvements in academic achievement levels of students, draws attention to the critical eye that can be applied to enable the extension and the renovation of students’ approach to their own learning; the role of self-assessment, self-evaluation and the ways students seek and use feedback. He asks how students can revisit their work in the light of changing contexts as they move through their schooling. Out of more than one hundred different factors that influence improvements in students’ learning over time, Hattie’s meta-analysis ranks self-assessment (or self-reporting), the analysis of feedback, and reflecting on feedback from teachers as the most influential (Hattie 2009, p.173). These far outweigh the impacts of continuous practice with test-type instruments and the analysis of grades. He is confirming that it is not the result of a performance that is important, but how we take the meaning from it.
In terms of a best practice approach for preparing for an assessment, what does this tell us? Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam’s (2001) research into assessment practices argues that focussing on grades given to individual pieces of work reinforces what was done wrong and where holes in our learning lie, and fails to draw out how students can move towards their goals. Pondering on a grade therefore creates a focus on finding the ‘right answer’ or entering into a guessing game as what a teacher wants to see, rather than drilling down into how the student might develop their own ideas and how they understand what they can do to substantively (not quantitatively) progress. By making the grade the goal, Black and Wiliam would argue that students overlook an analysis of how they learn and as a result real improvement becomes elusive.
So with this in mind, how can students achieve the holy grail of academic assessment – how can they use our past performance to improve their future performance and achieve the successes we hope for them? Frey and Fischer (2011) suggest that when looking back on assessment they have done, time and effort should be spent on the feedback that allows them to self regulate; in other words, to identify actions they can take to become an independent learner. Students who demonstrate continual improvement over time reflect on what they do, as individual learners, to assist them in taking responsibility for improving their understanding of concepts and ideas. ‘I need to do more work’ may in some limited cases be part of the answer, but time is a zero-sum concept and a scarce commodity in a balanced school life. Identifying the specific learning goals then becomes significantly more beneficial.
As assessment tasks loom on the calendar, preparation is frequently dominated by developing drafts, seeking feedback and reflecting on that feedback. In the case of more objective types of assessment this will often happen in the context of past papers or sample tasks as students try and understand the standards required of them by an upcoming assessment. All the feedback that comes from this work is valuable, irrespective of where it comes from. Understanding a teacher’s view of a draft and how it demonstrates an understanding of the skills and concepts the task demands is essential, as is asking the questions as to what strategies can be used to take a practice piece of work to the next level. Asking for another’s critical eye helps students reinterpret their understanding.
However, internal feedback, by which students themselves ask critical questions about their own drafts, is often overlooked. Despite the view that ‘it doesn’t matter what I think, only what my teacher thinks’, this approach is consistently identified in academic research as a key contributor to improving learning outcomes. With all assessment tasks at Girls Grammar students are armed with detailed criteria to apply to their work. Putting a piece aside after it has been drafted to seek some intellectual space, revisiting it, and only then critically asking how it meets the expectations of the task is an essential learning experience in and of itself. Using the key parts of a task question and the specific parts of the criteria as a checklist can provide a simple structure to use. This asks girls to become systematically curious about their own work. The questions this process raises and how a student seeks and finds the answers to them are central to girls becoming independent and persistent in their approach to learning, a characteristic of any definition of scholarship.
The greater challenge is to reflect critically on past performance as we move from one assessment period to the next. The challenge of self-evaluating performance in a task is to move away from a memory of a grade or a mark and towards building a memory of a strategy based on recommendations from a teacher. The challenge is not to question why a piece of work did not reach a given grade but what approaches will improve the standard of the next. The challenge is not only relying on the critical eye of a marker, but taking the time to self-assess performance in a formal way. The conclusions from these become important personal learning goals, far more powerful than a quantitative focus on a grade.
Too often, learning driven by data can be reduced to a version of the 1980s video game Frogger. The aim of the game was to guide our green hero across a river by jumping from one moving log to another to the safety of the riverbank. Replace the logs with assessment tasks, slipping past us like time in a term, and our focus lies on lurching from one assessment to the next until we get to the end of the year. By seeing our academic progress in this way it is too easy to miss the point. The As, Bs and Cs all add up to another, cumulative grade. What they don’t add up to is the personalised approach required by each individual girl to achieve their own successes in their academic life. These are actions, not numbers.
Creative musicians can take a song and by their own active reflection see how they might rework it. Research into student behaviours that contribute to improvement in their individual learning highlights the importance of spending time reflecting on how we learn and construct our ideas. This research asks us to perform cover versions of our own work, not just hit repeat on our iPod and play the track the same way again. What the research doesn’t say is that being critical about your own work is not easy and requires time and honest reflection, but if the results are as sublime as the efforts of the school’s burgeoning musical talents then it has to be something worth aspiring to.
Black, P and Wiliam, D (2001) Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. British Educational Research Association, retrieved August 6, 2011, from http://weaeducation.typepad.co.uk/files/blackbox-1.pdf
Fogarty, J (1970), Have you ever seen the rain? [Recorded by Creedence Clearwater Revival] on Pendulum [CD] San Francisco USA: Fantasy Records
Fogarty, J (1970), Have you ever seen the rain? [Recorded by Johanna Davie] [MP3] Brisbane Girls Grammar School
Frey, N and Fisher, D (2011, May) Feedback and Feed Forward. Principal Leadership, retrieved June 17 2011 from
Gurr, D. (2010) Thinking about leadership for learning. The Australian Educational Leader, 32:4
Hattie, J. (2009) Visible Learning. New York: Routledge