But… all we know is how the elephants have left the room.

How much of the story is missed with increased testing and snapshot assessment in education?

Julian Barrell
Jan 24, 2017 · 5 min read

During my formative years as a teacher, I became increasingly confident with curriculum requirements and my ability to prove the value of a wide range of learning experiences.

When teaching a new Year 1 class, I was keen to impress with my balloon modelling skills and transformed a standard poodle model into an elephant. Not wanting to let anyone down I then made one for each table, hiding the fact that the balloon elephants would become a focus for learning most of the term.

Over the course of a few lessons and copious amounts of patience from my Teaching Assistant, each table managed to turn their balloon models into their own, paper mache baby elephants.

Very soon the class discovered that these were not just any baby elephants, they were eight rather naughty elephants. They would turn up in strange places every morning and it became clear that something had to be done.

Both Polly and Bob seemed happy in their new habitats. Why would they want to escape?

Research was carried out about ourselves and other living things, and habitats were made to meet the babies every need… but the elephants still made it their mission to get out.

The problem seemed unsolvable, until one member of the class drew up a plan and suggested security cameras were needed. I was not expecting this solution from such a young class and thought it sounded like an excellent idea.

That evening I followed the plan as closely as possible and managed to capture the following footage:

A concerned pupil asked if the baby elephants really did come to life. I explained that I made the animation and quickly added ‘but it is a fun way to learn though!’ the pupil smiled, nodded and an understanding was established.

After reviewing the footage the following day, the class wrote letters to the Cleaners asking them to make sure the classroom door was always kept shut.

I was later approached by a smirking Caretaker, issuing a genuine apology from the Cleaners for allowing the elephants to escape. He decided to leave it a few days before showing them the footage I had sent to his phone.

Following lessons focused on speculating about what the elephants got up to every evening and writing stories about their adventures. However, no one predicted that on one occasion Bob would fail to return.

The same child that invented the security camera system was the first to make an observation, reflecting a depth of thought and perception, that I was not expecting:

“But Mr Barrell, the cameras don’t work. All we know is how the elephants left the room. We don’t know where they go to?”

Luckily, straight after Half Term, Bob did return to the class but he was heavier than all the other elephants. No one had any idea why this would be?

To cut a long story short, Bob was fed too many doughnuts by the Caretaker, who found him in the Year 6 cloakroom and looked after him. The class researched diets of elephants and compared them to human diets and discussed whether or not a healthy diet for us would be suitable for Bob. It was also discovered that our babies were Indian Elephants and the class spent time during Geography lessons considering how we could prepare for an elephant expert, who might visit, from a small rural village called Chembakolli.

Unfortunately I have little footage of the learning that was happening at this time. The database I had created was only used to track objectives, help me remember what to say during parents evenings and write reports.

It wasn’t until one rather bemused looking pupil stood in front of the class with two baby elephants in his hands that I realised how important it was to capture evidence of learning as it happens. The elephants were Bob and Polly and one of the Key Objectives in numeracy, at the time, was ‘To measure non standard units of weight.’ Baby elephants were at the top end of non standard, as far as weights go, especially as one was extra heavy, having been filled with fish tank gravel over half term. I knew that evidencing this might be useful when discussing how the objective was met in my class.

The look of puzzlement on the pupil’s face and discussion that followed, holding two elephants that were roughly the same size but very different in weight, told far more of a story than a single tick on a spreadsheet or a database entry ever could.

The clip below is not related to the Eight Naughty Elephants but does reflect the same issue raised by the bright young six year old in my class. It is slightly longer than the clips I have posted previously as it takes place over a couple of lessons. I have not edited out mistakes made in counting and time taken to think. It shows how understanding moves along at pace and how much difference even a day makes. Most importantly it doesn’t just show where the child is with their learning but also the journey that they are on.

The activity was designed to reinforce understanding of number bonds to 20 and demonstrate how work is set out can help when trying to investigate new ideas.

With increased reliance on testing and snapshot assessment it can be all to easy to overlook the process by which an individual learns. A school can train children to pass required tests, but the results only show where a class are against narrow criteria. They show nothing about where an individual is heading to or the learning process they have gone through.

Julian Barrell

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A teacher who tried to do things differently and change the way all learning is valued... Reflecting on creative teaching to inform innovation in education.