Perceptions about LOA Design and Implementation at the Two Schools
Both administrators and teachers agreed that the design of LOA tasks at the two reform schools was outcomes driven. One principal maintained that “our LOA tasks are always designed according to learning outcomes.” There was an unequivocal agreement among the teachers and administrators that LOA tasks were designed based on the learning outcomes of every lesson. Moreover, it was also pointed out by a teacher that “LOA questions or tasks are typically designed sequentially corresponding to the different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.” A variation on this theme, though, was that the design of LOA tasks is content-focused. As one teacher puts it, “designing LOA depends on the lesson. If I’m teaching birds in Egypt, for example, you will find observation and role-play tasks. Tasks are always related to the lesson content.” Such a powerful link between the learning outcomes and/or content and LOA ensures the validity of assessment on the one hand and may promise a positive impact of LOA on learning.
Administrators and teachers also highlighted that LOA enhances differentiated instruction. According to one teacher, “sometimes we use formative assessment for differentiation purposes based on the different levels of task completion, or the different levels of mastery from one language skill to the other.” Both administrators and teachers maintained that, through LOA, teachers are able to differentiate students by outcome, performance level, or task completion. They become, thus, better able to provide extra questions/tasks for high ability students, and design remedial interventions for low achievers. Another aspect of differentiation is by learning styles. As one teacher puts it, “LOA is diagnostically utilized to differentiate students in terms of ability and learning styles. I use a questionnaire for this purpose. Most of my students are kinaesthetic and visual.” A gap, though, was identified by a teacher concerning students with learning difficulties. According to her, “helping students with learning difficulties such as dyslexia is a bit tough. You know they find difficulty with reading. They don’t do well in assessment and feel disappointed. We need more training in this area.”
Teachers and administrators further emphasized the fact that LOA informs instruction and student progress and that LOA adds great value to teaching and learning. As one teacher put it, “if I’m not aware of what I’m doing in class and students are not aware of what they’re doing, then they’re not learning, and I’m not teaching as well.” Both teachers and administrators explicitly stated that LOA provides teachers with effective guidance to modify or develop their instructional plans and strategies. As one teacher put it, “LOA helps me improve my teaching practice. It ... urges me, if you may, to use more resources, activities, or worksheets.” Teachers also maintained that self- and peer-assessment provides students with clear indications of their progress towards instructional goals and outcomes. According to one teacher,
LOA is very important for me and for the students as well. It helps me to make sure that I am on the right track. It also informs my planning of lessons and interventions. Self- and peer-assessment help students become aware of their own progress.
A further benefit stated by teachers and administrators was that LOA enhances students’ autonomy and motivation. According to one teacher, “LOA helps build students’ autonomy. They become responsible for their own learning.” Teachers and administrators maintained that students build more autonomy as learners through LOA tasks because they become more in charge of and accountable for their own learning. Through the different deliverables students produce as products of learning, which they include in their portfolios, they build more self-confidence and gain more motivation to learn.
Classroom observation, on the other hand, generated certain interesting patterns which may reflect a level of disparity between the perceptions of teachers and administrators and the realities of LOA implementation in classrooms.
First, a clear focus on linguistic accuracy was demonstrated in Arabic classes. While the four language skills were addressed in class through different activities, teachers’ feedback typically focused on correcting language errors of students more than supporting their reading/listen- ing comprehension and/or scaffolding their oral/written fluency/profi- ciency. A clear focus on Bloom’s lower-level thinking skills was clearly demonstrated by teachers through the questions they asked in classes and through the feedback they offered to students in response to their work. Enhancing the lexicon of the students and their grammatical competence were obviously the primary priorities of Arabic teachers as demonstrated in their follow-up questions and feedback. English classes, on the other hand, demonstrated attempts to improve the language skills of students through LOA tasks and assessment activities. While vocabulary and grammar were present as priorities for teachers, they were mostly addressed in the context of a reading or a listening passage. Comprehension questions were more frequently posed by teachers, still focusing on lower- level thinking skills, though. More analytic and/or evaluative questions were sporadically traced in English classes. However, all answers from students were accepted by teachers with little evidence or argument. The LOA tasks designed by teachers were found to focus more on lower-level thinking skills in the first place, and, hence, little feedback was given pertaining to higher-order analytic/evaluative competences.
Instances of peer assessment were traced in English classes more than Arabic classes. However, in both subjects, the focus on linguistic accuracy was evident in the way students assessed the performance of their peers. Little was generated by students pertaining to higher-order thinking skills and/or critical/creative thinking. It was also evident that the peer- assessment process was not well-planned since little or no criteria were discussed or even explained by teachers, and no systematic instruments were used, such as checklists or rubrics. Students’ mutual feedback, thus, relied on linguistic accuracy as substance and remained in the lower- order thinking skills domain. Sporadic attempts to suggest alternative options were traced; however, they were totally unsupported and lacked evidence and/or development of a sound argument.
Improving the Design and Implementation of LOA at the Reform Schools
Teachers and administrators reported a number of challenges they typically faced in implementing LOA, resolving which could improve the design and implementation of LOA at the reform schools.
First, both administrators and teachers maintained that parents resist LOA because of their grade expectations. According to one principal, “parents give us a very hard time when it comes to LOA. They always request grades. They keep intervening with the project work of their kids, even doing the projects themselves.” Both administrators and teachers indicated that parents are a major challenge in implementing LOA. Parents are quite used to being grade oriented. Grades, for them, are the one and only indicator of their children’s learning and success. Moreover, transfer students, and those new to the schools, have considerable difficulty with LOA. According to one principal, “recently transferred students often complain about assessment and grading. They take some time to get used to the system at our school.” Both administrators and teachers indicated that students who transferred from other schools, as well as those who were newly enrolled, found LOA a considerable challenge because they are more used to rote learning and their language skills are not developed enough. With effort and focus, they start to manage their expectations, progressively develop, and get used to the learning environment set up at the reform schools. Moreover, administrators believed that further investment in equipping labs and IT learning management systems would improve the implementation of formative assessment at the reform schools. As one principal put it, “LOA practices will improve a lot when our facilities are complete and when the new e-learning system is in place. Our students will be able to do more practical work in the labs and online.” Professional development of teachers was also emphasized by administrators as a major mechanism to improve the design and implementation of LOA at the reform schools. As one principal put it, “the sustained training of teachers is a key to improving LOA.” Among the main needs identified for teacher training, according to one principal, is “how to design and share grading criteria with students.” Another area, according to one teacher, is “how to handle students with disability or learning difficulties in the context of LOA.”