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 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.

For the Inspector’s Eyes Only

It’s Saturday morning and lots of teachers around the country are getting up early to start their weekend chore – marking the books.

A picture of some books. Some of them have been marked.
Books are king. But who are they really for?

And what a chore it has become recently.

You tick and highlight and comment. You make sure you have the correct shade of the correct colour of pen that your school has chosen to mark in.You date objectives and targets in front of the book. You write detailed ‘active’ challenges or gap-tasks that will re-engage their children with their last lesson and help them with the next small step in their learning. You check that the children have responded to the previous gap-tasks and you might even write more on them. After all the learning dialogue is crucial and it is even better if it is personalised to each learner.

And then there’s the marking codes that indicate whether the child has worked independently or not. The sign that means you gave verbal feedback. The stamp that indicates the child did really well. And the other colours that supply teachers and teaching assistants are allowed to use for marking. And the colour that the child does their self assessment in. Maybe there’s even a fifth colour that other children are allowed to their peer assessment in.

But who are we doing all this for? Do the children really need this level of complexity in their written feedback?

Some of my best lessons have come from when I’ve simply sorted books at the end of a lesson. It goes something like this:

  • This pile got it and they reasoned about it. They need to consolidate in a different context. Or if they’ve already done that, learn something new.
  • This pile almost got it. They made some process errors – they’ve got the concept, but need more time.
  • This pile didn’t get it, but they can. They might need a different model – a different presentation. They might need some equipment, but they’ll definitely be much closer to it by the end of the year.
  • Whoah! This pile not only didn’t get it, they don’t get some of the concepts that go before it. I completely over-pitched to these children and need to go back a few steps.

But the problem is, inspectors don’t see you sorting. They don’t see your lesson evaluations or your day-by-day adjustment of planning. They don’t see you using your excellent subject knowledge to tweak things so that the children can make the best possible progress.

No. Inspectors only see your books. Books are King.

Did you know that in many schools the books are thrown away at the end of each year (after having their covers removed and shredded so that no child can be identified in the rubbish)?

And yet books are king.

I would like to work in an education system where brains are king and we can be proud of what we our children do with our books? But how can inspectors judge that?