Fixated by Feedback

Challenged by Tom Barrett’s #28daysofwriting post about proxies for learning, I began to consider what proxy most transfixed me. Having spent many of the last few posts on the subject of feedback, I knew quite quickly what it was: feedback.

If the feedback in the classroom is good, I consider that there is good learning going on. If the marking in a book is good, I consider that there is a good learning going on. Am I right?

It’s true that good feedback helps learners. But it is not true that the quality of the feedback is directly proportional to the amount of learning that goes on. I could be giving the best feedback in the world but spend my whole time teaching my students about Lithuanian Christmas Jurds and the lifecycle of the Wiggy Boond, both of which I invented*. The students would then have an awful lot of great feedback about things that are completely made up and do not help them at all with the next stages of their education.

Earlier today I was going through one of my pupils books and I noticed a piece of work that was unmarked. Yes I know. Take me outside and shoot me at dawn. It was just a few sentences of the child practising some sentence structure work. It was OK, but the child had gone on to do better things in their subsequent lessons. I realised it had been a lesson where the boys (for, as I’ve said before, it is a boys school) had done some practice, then I’d stopped them and done some modelling on the board and not gone back to the books.

So what did I do, given my feedback fixation? I back-marked it. I wrote a comment that wasn’t for anyone except an inspector.

And then I realised that all I’m doing is creating work for myself. The marking I’ve given doesn’t show the learning of that child. Nor does their performance in their book. The learning lives somewhere in their head. Getting overly fixated on one thing is not helpful.

*Sincere apologies to all those students, many of whom now adults, still believe in Christmas Jurds and the Wiggy Boond.

#28daysofwriting Day 14

When good feedback looks like direct teaching (Lessons in Feedback 7)

#28daysofwriting Day 12

The problem with formative marking is that you can waste valuable minutes at the start of a lesson with children leafing through their exercise books to find the coloured comments of their teachers and make their own written response. This time could be spent teaching.

I’ve found that some of my best lessons have been when I’ve done some cursory marking of a set of work to assess the understanding of the children. I’ve then put the books into piles – rough groups to start the next lesson. I’ve then directed my teaching to each of these groups so that they are all working on their next steps during the lesson.

I’m not sure which of these approaches is more effective, I’m just aware that formative marking can take an awful lot of time and then be an excuse to do less direct teaching.

Maybe I need to do some action research to delve into this further.

When the marking is not for the child (Lessons in Feedback 6b)

#28daysofwriting Day 11

I currently teach Year 1. Virtually none of my marking is for the child.

This is because (a) they can’t read it, and (b) they’re not yet independent or self aware enough for the marking to affect what they do.

Here’s how I use marking to make a difference: I photograph the marked work and send it to their parents. In Year 1, I’ve found that the most effective way of feeding back to the child is via their parents.

But I could do the same thing by not actually marking the work, but just messaging the parents about what their child needs to do next.

So what is my marking for?

Often it’s guilt. It’s the feeling that I should be writing something so that when an observer (senior manager, colleague, inspector) looks at the work they know the teacher has been busy.

This is why a school’s marking policy is so important. It defines how guilty a teacher feels after marking a set of books. Should you tick and flick? Should you mark in various colours, training your children to know what each colour means*? Either can be valid so long as the feedback is good enough to make a difference to the child in the next lesson.

*pink for think, green for good is one example

Who is the feedback for? (Lessons in Feedback 6a)

#28daysofwriting Day 9

One of the questions that came up in our recent book scrutiny was this: who is the marking for?

In some recent posts, I’ve been hinting at a broken logic that exists behind many schools marking policies. This logic looks like this.

  1. We must do brilliant feedback because the Sutton Trust says it’s the most effective way of making a difference to the education of our students.
  2. Marking is the same as feedback so we must do brilliant marking.
  3. We must write a brilliant marking policy so that all teachers do the same brilliant marking.
  4. We must beat our teachers with metaphorical sticks when they fail to comply with the marking policy.

I heard the privilege of listening to one of Her Majesty Inspectors for schools recently. These are like the ninjas of Ofsted inspectors. She explained that when Ofsted visit a school, they are charged with investigating how well the teachers comply with the marking policy of the school. They do not judge the quality of the marking policy. Maybe they should.

It’s a bit like if someone has a cold trying to make them better by observing how they wipe their nose – more broken logic – it’s so many steps away from the thing that actually matters: the quality of the feedback.

Lessons in Feedback 5: The Foundation of this Book Scrutiny is Love

#28Daysofwriting Day 6

Albert Rosenfield: [to Sheriff Truman] (courtesy of imdb.com)

Now you listen to me. While I will admit to a certain cynicism, the fact is that I am a naysayer and hatchetman in the fight against violence. I pride myself in taking a punch and I’ll gladly take another because I choose to live my life in the company of Gandhi and King. My concerns are global. I reject absolutely revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method… is love. I love you Sheriff Truman.

is one of my favourite quotes of all time. And I was reminded of it today during a book scrutiny.

Given that feedback is the thing in education and, as I explained previously, many schools have taken that to mean written feedback is the thing, it follows that looking at what teachers have written in books (a book scrutiny) is a very important process. Perhaps the most important process in school improvement known to mankind.

It was so important at my last school that it became the process for identifying the ‘weak’ teachers and culling them. (Please excuse me. I’m currently doing the topic of ‘dinosaurs’ with my Year 1 class and I am perhaps slightly overcome with the brutal world of the Cretaceous just at the moment. It may be affecting my language.)

As a ‘culled’ teacher, it is with a certain amount of trepidation that I approach a book scrutiny at my new school.

But I am learning that not all book scrutinies are the same. At my current school the foundation of the method is love. The boys (for it is a boys’ school) are all well known, their individual foibles and treats discussed with some affection. They are individuals. And whatever tensions exist between the staff, there is a deep abiding respect and a sense of we’re-in-this-together. It’s almost like love.

What it means is that you can talk about the strengths and weaknesses of your own books with a certain confidence that any criticism will be there to make you a better teacher, not to boot you out of the school, or even mauled by a Postosuchus (that’s another dinosaur reference, this time from the late Triassic).

And I’m sure it means that the feedback gets better as a result. We all look at each other’s books. We can see some good things. It makes us think of things we can do better. We go and do them.

It’s quite nice really. A bit like Albert Rosenfield in Twin Peaks, even though he’s an arrogant bastard when you first meet him.

Lessons in Feedback 4a: Pleasing the Parents

#28daysofwriting Day 3

In my previous post on this subject, I suggested that there’s only one thing teachers need to do in the independent sector and that’s please the parents.

So the big question is how. What do parents who pay actual money for the children to go to school want? I think they want opportunities for the children. Opportunities to excel at sport and music. Opportunities to broaden their life experience. Opportunities to excel academically.

I’ve discovered in my short time in the independent sector that parents love getting feedback about their children. A quick chat turns into a mini-parents’ consultation. An email turns into an essay about their child. I was warned when I started that you have to be prepared to say no, otherwise the demands become ever-increasing and unmanageable.

I wanted to do something proactive. Something that would enable to efficiently keep the parents in touch with what is going on in the classroom. I’d heard of Class Dojo, but never used it at my previous schools. It sounded like the right sort of thing. A web-based platform that also works on Android and iOs devices that can connect with parents. It sounded like I should set it up.

On my first day in class, at 7:30am I still hadn’t done anything about Class Dojo. I logged onto my computer, set up an account and by the time the pupils were coming in an hour later I had setup all their names and my behaviour system. It was fantastic.

By the second week I had all the parents connected. They were watching videos (I use Magisto for this, as I posted previously), seeing photos of their children’s work and communicating with me about lost items and organisational details. I swiftly found that by being proactive about feedback to the parents, I kept the impromptu parents consultation to a minimum and dealt with small matters before they big issues.

Were the parents happy? Yes. And what’s more, because they were in touch with what was going on in the classroom, they could be part of the feedback loop with their own children, an extra voice helping the children refocus on their learning and make better progress. Awesome.

Lessons in Feedback #3: instant images

This week I could see that some pupils weren’t getting it and others clearly were. When this happens I like to the use the good work of some as exemplars to those who haven’t ‘got it’ yet.

But how to do this?

Of course, I could wait, mark the good work and the bad work and then start the next lesson by showing some how they have failed. But this seems a little harsh to me.

Or I could hold up the good work and talk about what makes it so good. But then some can’t see it.

The best thing for me is to instantly show an image of the good work so that all can see what their successful peers have done and work towards getting it.

Now I’ve had very efficient ways of doing this in the past at previous schools:

  • visualisers are great, but I don’t have one in my classroom.
  • I’ve found an iPad connected to an Apple TV to work great.
  • I’ve tried to use an Android tablet with a Chromecast, but the wifi settings of a Chromecast are often not geared for the networks found in schools and so don’t work.
  • a tablet with Reflector App on your PC works well, so I’m told, but I haven’t got that working in my classroom yet.

And so, without the required technology, I was forced to take a photo on my tablet, share the photo with my computer (via the cloud) and then display the photo on the screen. Rather an inefficient process.

Although this took a few extra seconds, it was still a more efficient way of feeding back than holding up the work and expecting everyone to see from all over the classroom.

And now I’ve added the ‘more efficient image feedback’ heading to my New Year’s resolution mindmap – so I have to find a more efficient solution by the end of the year.

Lessons in Feedback 2: Video

Recently I moved from teaching Key Stage 2 pupils (aged 7-11) to Key Stage 1 (aged 5-7). Suddenly my written feedback had no meaning as, being five, most of my pupils couldn’t read anything I wrote. They also didn’t have the self awareness for feedback to actually make an impact beyond that lesson. I needed something that would enable them to reconnect with their learning, both later on (like after a weekend), and at home.

The answer was video.

I started using a service called Magisto. This collects your videos and photos, then edits them into a splendid-looking short movie with sound and effects. It is free if you want to do 20 videos or less, but if you need to add more you have to pay a yearly subscription. Here’s an example of some stop-motion videos I collected into one Magisto movie.

Each week I would take a few photos and videos of work and activities in the classroom, then put them into Magisto and share the resultant video with the pupils and parents. It often took less than ten minutes.

What I found was that it was a great way of getting 5-year olds to remember what they had done in the previous week and therefore connect them with their learning. Also it provided a way to engage the parents with their child’s progress, so that they too could talk to their child about their learning.

The children and the parents loved having this and it became a far more effective way of feeding back than marking. One father told me that his son, who had made tremendous academic progress during year 1, had only done so because of the video feedback.

It made me realise that for this age of children engaging the parents is the most important thing you can do.

Lessons in Feedback 1: Marking

For a few years now, educators have been working with the influential Sutton Trust Teaching and Learning Toolkit in their back of their minds. This states that the best value, most effective thing you can do is provide effective feedback.

Many schools have taken ‘feedback’ to mean ‘marking’ and this has arisen to a whole load of both sad and funny stories about pen colours. The best of these, in my opinion, is this one. While for some schools, the marking policy has resulted in a greatly increased teacher workload, others have seemed to have a more enlightened approach. I was surprised to find my son who is in Year 10 at a local grammar school asking me for a particular colour of pen similar to one I use. It seems that at his school, the teachers ask the students to do their own marking. Brilliant – not every teacher is being beaten by the marking policy – some get their students to do it.

My own experience of ‘being beaten by the marking policy’ involved my handwriting, which to be honest, did tend to get a bit spidery, especially towards the end of the a set of thirty books. I also had a conversation with a school leader in which I was criticised for crossing out a word. Apparently a teacher should set the best example and use Tippex when they make a mistake in their marking.

Sometimes I wonder if we’ve drifted from the idea of providing effective feedback so that a student can gain greater understanding and have become more concerned with how books look so that external visitors will get the best idea of the school.