Troika: What has made you choose education as a professional path?
Alberto Costa: I come from a family of traders. My parents have always been interested in commerce and it seemed to run in the whole family. This means I’m the only educator to date in my family as everybody else works in sales and services. My choice to follow a career as a teacher was influenced by some of the great teachers I had and by the fact that continuing with my parents’ business did not resonate with my desires. I’ve always been interested in people, cultures, languages and I felt the language classroom was the environment where I could deal with all of these things together.
T: What was your own educational path like?
AC: I’ve always liked languages and chose to start studying English in a language school when I was 13. At 16 I decided to attend private English classes to prepare for the Cambridge FCE exam (currently called B2 First) and two years later, when I was 18, I started doing freelance jobs teaching English and participating in conventions as a translator and as a tour guide. I came to learn, then, that working with communication gave me a lot of motivation. I was also inspired by one great teacher I had in secondary school: Profa Rosa, who taught me Portuguese and who motivated me to study Letras. While I was in university and working for Cultura Inglesa, I started preparing for the Cambridge Proficiency Exam (currently called C2 Proficiency) as well as attending the Cambridge Certificate for Overseas Teachers of English (COTE) course in 1989. This was my first immersion in professional development for language teachers and I still remember how challenging (but also how exciting) it was to teach, be observed, receive feedback and read the likes of Penny Ur, Jim Scrivener, Jeremy Harmer, Marianne Celce-Murcia, Diane Larsen-Freeman, to mention a few. My next step, in the early 90s, was to start the Cambridge Diploma for Overseas Teachers of English (DOTE) course. Taking the DOTE course allowed me to take leading roles in my school, such as working as a teacher trainer and director of studies. It also allowed me to specialise in teacher training and development and to become a tutor for courses such as ICELT, CELTA and DELTA.
T: How has assessment become your main focus?
AC: My interest in assessment became evident when I was doing my research for one of the DOTE assignments. The first concepts I was introduced to included validity, reliability, washback… and they focused heavily on item writing for external assessment. Later I came to learn more about formative and summative assessment and making use of this knowledge made a big difference in the way I taught and assessed learners, as well as in the way I prepared and developed novice teachers.
T: The way you see it, how important is assessment for a person’s learning process?
AC: Language assessment literacy (LAL) is essential in learning and teaching. H. Douglas Brown (2004) illustrates the integration of teaching, assessment, and evaluation and how we cannot isolate each one of them. Learning about these concepts in the first place and understanding their impact on teaching and assessment practices is of paramount importance. It’s not about focusing only on formative or summative assessment, it’s about building a culture of assessment. It’s about using feedback to promote assessment for learning, assessment as learning and assessment of learning outcomes (using various methods: projects, portfolios, written, oral and practical tests/exams…), rather than assessment of learning alone.
T: To what extent can proficiency exams influence learners’ motivation? What’s the role of Cambridge exams nowadays?
AC: I believe well-constructed proficiency exams can bring several benefits to learners and motivation is one of them. The fact that you have standards to meet already leads the school community to make decisions that will hopefully impact teaching, learning and assessment positively. When I refer to the school community, I mean to say that a proficiency exam is not just about issuing a certificate to learners. We need to get a bird’s eye view of the process i.e., how the curriculum is structured, what teaching and assessment practices benefit (or hinder) learning during the course or the school year, what competencies we are helping the learners to develop, what standards we are meeting and what we will be doing with the data we collect. In other words, looking at assessment as a virtuous circle. I also believe that institutions can meet these standards with the support of the Cambridge exams. It’s not because I work for the organisation, but I’ve seen this positive impact from both angles: as a learner myself and as a teacher. But, again, it’s not the exam alone that will do the trick. We will have to consider the whole ecosystem to, then, measure this impact.
T: With AI becoming a reality, how do you see the future of assessment?
AC: This is the one-million-dollar question! I imagine that the education community will have more questions than answers. Because generative AI moves at light speed, it’s difficult to foresee what will happen next. But in my humble opinion, one thing is for sure: AI will speed up many processes in large-scale assessment and will also affect how schools and exam boards will be dealing with real-time exam behaviour. How, in practical terms, this will happen, I wouldn’t be able to tell right now. But, like mobile phones, VR and other technologies, AI is here to stay.
T: How do you see the assessment debate in Brazil nowadays?
AC: I think we need to join forces to amplify the assessment debate in Brazil. Culturally, our society’s notion of assessment relates to performance in ENEM and Vestibulares, or to performance in the end-of-year school tests. What I mean here is that assessment only has some importance when it relates to tests. The virtuous circle I mentioned in question 5 above is still a distant reality to most institutions. It’s high time we held hands to bring more relevance to assessment in language teaching degree courses as well as in teacher development initiatives. I’m sure it’ll benefit everyone!
T: Who are the main names teachers should try to follow?
AC: Off the top of my head, I’d suggest Dylan Wiliam, Douglas Brown, Scott Thornbury, as well as the Brazilian specialists Jussara Hoffmann, Professor Douglas Altamiro Consolo, Professor Matilde Scaramucci, Isabela Villas Boas & Vinnie Nobre (who wrote a book together about assessment).
H. Douglas Brown (2004) Language Assessment: Principles and Classroom Practices. Pearson.