Evaluation: it’s a piece of cake

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Never marry a tennis player. Love means nothing to them. Or so the old joke goes. I’m convinced that there should be a teaching equivalent of this line that goes something like: Never offer an examiner some cake. ‘Some’ can mean absolutely anything to them.

This is no joke, though. It is the very nature of these assessment descriptors that the interpretation of words like ‘some’ or ‘evaluative’ or ‘understanding’ is entirely subjective. Daisy Christodoulou has written about this problem with criterion-referencing, citing both Tim Oates and Dylan Wiliam on the issue of the subjective interpretation of descriptors. It seems that the English language is pretty unhelpful when it comes to precision of meaning.

So it came as no surprise when I tuned into this week’s #engchatuk to find English teachers discussing the topic of teaching ‘evaluation’, with a broad range of interpretations of what the word meant. The natural conclusion of this is that there were also a wide range of ideas presented on how we should then teach pupils how to evaluate. There were a number of interpretations (and, thus, approaches to teaching) that I don’t think I agree with and some that were close to my own interpretation.

I’m not suggesting that I am right, but this is my take on evaluation. A good way to look at it is through the medium of cakes. (Heck, a good way to look at anything is through the medium of cakes.) More specifically, though, I think a useful example of evaluation is that which Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood do when they take on the wearisome task of making their way through slabs of crème pât-doused confectionery each week. (You never hear them complain about workload, do you?)

Here’s an example:

Here are some of the comments that Paul and Mary make whilst evaluating:

  • “they look like Little Gems”
  • “they’ve lost their shape in the oven”
  • “if you wanted more definition, you could have fridged them before you baked them, and you had plenty of time”
  • “they’re great – the only thing is they’re slightly over-baked”
  • “a beautiful flavour – I love the marzipan… I’d like to have seen a bit more colour to lift it up on the top”
  • “the appearance of the top is lovely – that nice crackle on the top”
  • “you’ve caught a few of them though”
  • “for my taste, I think it’s slightly over-gingered… I like the flavour ginger but the burn that comes, for me, is too much”
  • “I would have liked a lot more nuts in it”
  • “the whole thing about a biscotti is that it’s dense with flavour, and you’ve got large areas of empty crust”
  • “the texture’s excellent, but, for me, a biscotti should be absolutely rammed full of whatever you’re putting in there”
  • “what’s making it bitter?”
  • “it’s lavender but it’s not a lavender that you recognise”
  • “it’s a very difficult thing to use lavender in biscuits… it’s just not working, that lavender, is it?”
  • “I’ve only finished one and I’m not getting [the lavender] coming through at all”
  • “for me it doesn’t look like a biscuit; it looks more like a pudding”
  • “the white chocolate doesn’t really need anything with it if it was a very thin coating”
  • “the flavour of that cinnamon… the mixed spice – it’s very strong”
  • “this doesn’t work really”
  • “the look of them, I think they look great”
  • “I’d never have thought of putting colouring in, just a swirl – so pretty, and the filling is good”
  • “I think the flavour… the biscuit is baked extremely well, it does melt; the flavour is really nice as well”
  • “I think it looks very professional”

The range of comments are varied, but they seem to focus on: outcomes (“they’ve lost their shape in the oven”); impact (“the burn that comes, for me, is too much”); alternatives to elective choices (“if you wanted more definition, you could have fridged them”); and context (“it doesn’t look like a biscuit; it looks more like a pudding”). It may be that you could identify other categories for these comments and group them in different ways – I’d be interested if somebody has spotted different patterns (I wondered about the question “what’s making it bitter?” – perhaps this is the question we ask when we want pupils to evaluate: why is this writing like this? or what’s making it have this effect?)

What one might do, having identified what these comments are doing, is to teach pupils to make similar comments – we could give them sentence stems, or model the process with a text. But I think that misses out something crucial here and that is: the importance of who is doing the evaluating here.

Paul Hollywood was born into a family of bakers – his parents own a bakery, and his grandfather was head baker at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. He started working with his parents at 17 years old and, in his own words, “lost my youth because I had to get up and go to bed early… I never had girlfriends or went clubbing until I was in my mid-20s.” By the time The Great British Bake Off hit our screens for the first time in 2010, he’d had nearly 30 years of professional experience in baking, including holding the position of head baker in such lauded institutions as The Dorchester hotel on Park Lane.

But Hollywood is just a beginner compared to Mary Berry, who began her working life demonstrating ovens for the electricity board – she’d do this by turning up to people’s homes and baking them a Victoria sponge. After studying at Le Cordon Bleu school in France at 22, Berry worked for a range of food related bodies (such as the Egg Council and the Flour Advisory Board), before becoming food editor on a number of magazines. Over her 60 year career, she has published more than 75 cookery books.

What is crucial to Hollywood and Berry’s ability to evaluate so effectively is the knowledge and experience they bring to the task.  They can evaluate precisely and judiciously because they know their way around good baking. The recipes that they are tasting may be new to them, but they have a clear understanding of the processes a baker needs to go through to achieve success across the gamut of baking techniques: they understand immediately whether something has been successful or not, as well as the reasons why it has or hasn’t worked. What is more, they can instantly identify what the baker should have done to improve or rectify. They understand the wider context of any bake – the required effect of the recipe, and the tradition that runs through a particular style of baking. And, in an instant, they apply all of this knowledge and experience to what they are seeing and tasting and… they evaluate the bake.

So how do we teach pupils to evaluate in their reading responses? Obviously, we don’t have the time to furnish them with the wealth of knowledge and experience that Hollywood and Berry have accumulated, but building knowledge and experience should be our goal nonetheless.

The way to teach evaluation is, first and foremost, to ensure pupils read lots. Build up pupils’ experience of writing and of the traditions of writing – of literary fiction, poetry, non-fiction, drama, etc. By experiencing the effects of writing, when confronted with a new text, we want them to be able to identify when a writer has followed a tradition or subverted it, whether they have been successful in achieving an impact, or how utilising techniques may have highlighted their biases. Secondly, when reading a text, we should spend a lot of time teaching context: what are the historical, social, cultural and biographical contexts that inform a text? When evaluating, pupils should be connecting their analysis to these contexts – can they read the text through the veil of what they know about the writer’s interests or perhaps the contemporary reader’s preoccupations?

I’m totally convinced that this is what evaluation is in English: connecting a text to one’s own knowledge and experience of reading. It isn’t a quick approach, like giving sentence stems or modelling the process (we should do this anyway, all the time), but it is quite simple: get kids reading more and think carefully about what they are reading. Read through the traditions of writing – from Greek myths to modern reportage. And read around the texts too – build up a picture of the context: the nourishment that fed the writing.

So where analysis might be seen as a student’s understanding of language, evaluation is an expression of their wider knowledge. You want me to end this by saying “it’s the icing on the cake”, don’t you? Well, I won’t. I’m better than that. Only an idiot would end a blog with a half-baked pun.

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5 thoughts on “Evaluation: it’s a piece of cake”

  1. I think what you have written is brilliant, gets to the heart of the issue and is something that all teacher should consider! But I don’t half want cake now!!

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