• The Curious Coach

Actually, we all like some fences

Updated: Apr 25, 2020

No fences here - Rice paddies in Antananarivo

I’m on the flight back to SA following the last few days in Madagascar, working together with the teachers of the American School of Antananarivo. Over the course of my stay, we read, questioned, and dug in to our beliefs on #assessment and student agency, led by the essential questions:

  • What is the relationship between learning and assessment?

  • How can assessment practices be leveraged to enhance student agency?

A big part of the workshop was considering the starting point of fostering assessment-capable learners – communicating learning intentions and success criteria. It seems like the basics, and yet with everything else we are supposed to be paying attention to, we sometimes kick-off the game without the team knowing where the try-line is.

As we worked, teachers asked such good questions along the way.

“How do we develop and communicate learning intentions and still honour inquiry?”

“How do I show success criteria and still encourage creativity?”

“How do we co-create success criteria and not bore our students for the rest of the lesson?”

I always come back to the same analogy in response to these questions.


As a parent of two very adventurous kids, I used to look for spaces to take them when they were toddlers that had fences. There aren’t many in Jo’burg, and a significant amount of pools, so this was of particular importance to me! But even when there were no pools, a fence was still high priority. You see, fences worked for my kids, and they worked for me.

We’d walk in to a venue, and I’d take them around the space; we’d explore the things they might like to play on, I’d throw a ball with them for a few minutes, show them where the fences were, then I’d walk away and sit down, with them in eyeshot. And then they’d run riot for a few hours: they knew where the boundaries were and were free to do what they liked within them. As a parent, I was close enough to be at hand should there be a need, but otherwise I knew they were safe and encouraged them discover and learn on their own.

Now, imagine the scenario without fences.

We’d walk in to a venue, and I’d take them around the space; we’d explore the things they might like to play on, I’d throw a ball with them for a few minutes, then I’d walk away and sit down, with them in eyeshot. Then I’d see them wandering off on to the road and would jump up again, and tell them (ok, I’d be worried so probably in a panic) to stay where I could see them. I’d go to sit down again, but see my son running towards the pool and race over to scoop him up. At this stage, my daughter would be right beside me, unsure about what she was supposed to be doing and therefore too worried to go play on her own, and my son would be screaming, cranky that I kept him from adventuring. And I would be exhausted and confused, and probably thinking going out with toddlers was too much bother.

Fences aren’t just for kids: everyone likes them, albeit with various levels of flexibility. I’m disappointed when I put in a huge effort on a project, only to find that the platform I’ve used isn’t available at to my intended audience. I was hugely frustrated when I wrote my first dissertation and my tutor wouldn’t share a model with me – I had no idea what a dissertation looked like. If I’m travelling, I could kick myself when I forget to check the weather report before I leave and suffer the consequences upon arrival. Fences come in all shapes and sizes, but they help us to make informed choices and have some control over the outcomes.

Sharing learning intentions and success criteria are just us pointing out the fences to our students. Depending on the experience of your students, those fences might be close-in and high (say, if we’re learning how to use fret saw to cut Perspex) or can be a long way out (like if we’re designing an avante garde garment)…

…We still need to tell students about them so that they have the confidence and security to fully engage as they learn.

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The Curious Coach is a place to wonder and share educational 'aha's!', inspired by fellow teachers, readings, travel, and the memories made over 15 years in education.

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