Fraser Lauchlan, co-author of ‘Improving Learning through Dynamic Assessment’, explains how the approach was first developed and how using this method of assessment can lead to effective intervention for many children with learning and behavioural challenges.
I first became aware of dynamic assessment 15 years ago as a doctoral research student. It was very much a new ‘thing’ then, considered cutting edge and innovative, but not a lot was known about it in the UK. Since then it has grown in popularity and is used mainly by educational psychologists when assessing children’s learning and behavioural difficulties. However it is also used by other professional groups such as speech and language therapists and those working in the area of learning support, such as special educational needs coordinators.
Dynamic assessment is based on Vygotskian principles, the Russian psychologist who died in 1934 but whose work was suppressed by the then Communist regime and eventually published in the West in the 1960s and 70s. Vygotsky’s ideas were considered fairly revolutionary and it was little wonder that his work was suppressed. One of his main arguments was that children should be assessed for their intellectual capacity when working with someone, for example an adult or a more able peer, rather than be assessed alone. This view was, and possibly still is, considered controversial, as it is commonly considered that in order to understand someone’s intellectual capacity you must assess what they can do on their own, for example on an IQ or similar test. Vygotsky argued that it is just as, if not more important to see what a child can do with carefully guided assistance. This will give an idea of the learning potential of the child, and where the next steps of learning should be targeted (or the processes of learning), rather than concentrating on the products of that child’s learning (i.e. using a standardised test and focusing on where they are now).
These ideas were developed by several developmental psychologists in the 1970s and 80s. For example, the Israeli psychologist Reuven Feuerstein, well-known for his cognitive enrichment programme, ‘Instrumental Enrichment’, developed a dynamic assessment test called the ‘Learning Propensity Assessment Device’. Psychologists in the U.S.A., such as Ann Brown and Joseph Campione, developed a different, more structured approach to dynamic assessment. However, the truth was that in the UK at least, dynamic assessment didn’t really ‘take off’.
Part of the problem, in my view anyway, was that practitioners could not see how dynamic assessment could be easily integrated into practice. When I was trained in dynamic assessment in the mid-1990s, there were few psychologists in the UK trained in the approach, and so training was usually given by psychologists from Israel or the U.S.A. who were not familiar with the working environment of educational psychologists working in local authority settings in the UK. As the years passed it was becoming increasingly clear that professional psychologists in the UK were struggling to put the ideas underlying dynamic assessment into practice.
Improving Learning Through Dynamic Assessment, co-written with my colleague Donna Carrigan, is a culmination of 15 years work on developing the dynamic assessment approach, as both a researcher and a practitioner, and an attempt to bridge the gap between theory and practice. After completing my PhD that investigated the use of dynamic assessment in two different educational settings, I trained as an educational psychologist and worked for 10 years in a local authority setting. It was as a practitioner, working daily with children who were encountering difficulties in learning, that the idea of putting together our development work in dynamic assessment in the form of a resource textbook first emerged. Donna and I started to document some of the case studies that we were working on, in order to gather together some useful resources and ideas that would form the basis of the book. We were working with children like James (name changed to ensure anonymity) who was referred to me in primary school for assessment as he was having severe difficulties in the classroom with all areas of the curriculum. The school admitted that they were at a loss as to where to go next, and had considered that a move to a special school might be the best option for James, where he would receive more intensive support and a curriculum more suited to his needs. James was from a socially disadvantaged, single-parent family and wasn’t receiving much support at home. His progress at school was certainly slow and the teachers felt there was little else they could do to help. Using dynamic assessment with James allowed me to explore his potential as a learner. He responded extremely well to the help and structured assistance, and was able to ‘internalise’ this support and work independently. James reached a high level on the tasks set. In collaboration with the school, it enabled us to consider the next steps of his learning and the areas that were most urgently in need of support. Having video-recorded the dynamic assessment I was also able to show his teacher and his mother the level that James could achieve. This alone was important in changing the lowered expectations of the teacher. While his learning difficulties did not disappear overnight, he did nevertheless make good steady progress and, most importantly, the teachers felt there was now a plan of how to address his learning challenges in a positive way. James completed his primary school education and went on to secondary school, where he was able to achieve some qualifications, something that would not have been thought possible when he was first referred to me in primary school.
We have written Improving Learning Through Dynamic Assessment to help practitioners, especially educational psychologists, put the powerful ideas of dynamic assessment into practice. The book is a step-by-step guide in how to undertake an assessment and how such an assessment can lead to effective intervention. By doing so, it is hoped that practitioners can help address the learning and behavioural challenges posed by many children, including children like James.