It is time for us to talk about this behemoth and the expectation and value of what we provide our students with. Much of what we spend our time doing as teachers and educators is focused on jumping through hoops and aligning with policy. Gone are the days of good ol' fashioned conversations with students and immersive learning experiences through 'doing'. I fondly remember my AS Level Politics lessons with Hoppy (our affectionate name for the Head of Sixth Form who was the 1st XI football manager and a brilliant teacher - side note: how many teachers or school leaders have time to run sports teams nowadays? I would love to see the statistics on that!). We used to talk for hours about current affairs and political systems around the world, intertwined with (mostly) relevant sports and news. We all looked forward to these lessons (ok, sometimes because we didn't write very much!) because we knew we would be engaged and interested. So we didn't write copious amounts of notes or complete an Amazon-depleting load of worksheets but we did learn. Did Hoppy mark our books once every two weeks with a green pen (because red was too aggressive!) and leave two or three Action Points and areas for development alongside a mark, percentage, level and what to do to move to the next level? Did he then add this data to a complex spreadsheet with conditional formatting that highlighted 'underperformance' and triggered 'intervention' without sufficient time to actually implement any actions before the assessment cycle began again? To both, I would imagine not; in fact, I never saw green pen from Hoppy. That doesn't mean he didn't provide feedback or assess work; quite the opposite. He regularly told us (in front of the class) what we needed to work on and how to improve our grades. Jim Grogan and Colin Wilson were two other great examples of teachers whose methodology would be alien to a modern classroom but led to outstanding results and fully engaged learners. The prescriptive policies and hardline expectations are going to kill teachers quicker than we can say "What went well, even better if". Let's look at feedback and why it is so important in our roles - but how we do it is probably up for negotiation!
I owe much of my thinking about the value of feedback to the guru, John Hattie, who defines it as such:
"information provided by an agent (e.g., teacher, peer, book, parent, self, experience) regarding aspects of one’s performance or understanding"
This definition forces us to question the following elements:
1. The type of information
2. The quality of that information
3. The quantity of that information
4. The format of that information
5. The frequency of that information
6. The usefulness of the agent (in comparison to other options)
7. The performance measures (and purpose of the 'assessment' which creates performance statistics)
8. What understanding is required and how that is measured
With all of these elements in play before any feedback is given (and that is before we consider the purpose and reliability of the assessment and the data it generates!), it goes without saying (ironically, I am having to say it!) that we really need to think about the usefulness of the comments we leave on students' work. The days of flick and tick are over; simply writing a mark is not good enough - our students deserve better. (NB: Please don't read "more" instead of "better" - I suggested loads of ways to reduce marking and workload in my post, Ditch that Marking which appeared as a guest post on Matt Miller's Ditch That Textbook website here.)
So what does better feedback look like? Words are banded about like meaningful or purposeful or dialogic or responsive (and I have to say I think they are all correct!) but they often translate into more work, the very antithesis of what teachers need in the present climate! I will suggest the following in the remainder of this post:
1. Feedback must be contextual - individualised if possible
2. Feedback must be swift - immediate is the best!
3. Feedback must be future-oriented - how will it be addressed in this piece of work and in future pieces of similar work?
4. Feedback must be corrective - it should address discrepancies - don't let mistakes build up
5. Feedback should provide further challenge (notice that I have said 'should' rather than 'must' here - it might not always be possible).
I hark back to Hattie and his comprehensive research:
"Feedback has no effect in a vacuum; to be powerful in its effect, there must be a learning context to which feedback is addressed. It is but part of the teaching process and is that which happens second—after a student has responded to initial instruction—when information is provided regarding some aspect(s) of the student’s task performance. It is most powerful when it addresses faulty interpretations, not a total lack of understanding." (emphasis mine)
This point suggests that feedback is part of a process and must be personalised - indeed, the marking in a GCSE examination question should be very different to that in a KS3 class piece in terms of the level of written response from both the teacher and then the student response (I wholeheartedly believe that time should be set aside in lessons/homework to address comments on marked work or there is no point in marking in the first place!) It should probably be also contextualised within departments and subjects - a one-size-fits-all approach is neither helpful nor useful. Senior leaders, I implore you to avoid these types of policies wherever you see them.
Feedback should be as quick as possible from when a student completes the work. This is the dream (how good would it be to be able to mark the work as soon as a student has done it or is doing it?). My colleague, Dan Fitzpatrick, advocates this very thing when using his swanky Samsung Chromebook. He states,
"Being in a classroom with my Chromebook device means I am no longer tied to my desk. This means I can be free to move around and work with students. Moreover, when students are using their 1:1 devices I can comment on student work in real-time - the comments features in Google Docs allow this to be almost instant."
Dan has a number of brilliant uses of real-time, live feedback, and the following image showcases how Docs has been useful for this. This is seen in the context of a Year 7 class that needed ongoing dialogue to ensure their answer was the best it could be:
Hattie (2012) argues that, "Effective feedback must answer three major questions asked by a teacher and/or by a student: Where am I going? (What are the goals?), How am I going? (What progress is being made toward the goal?), and Where to next? (What activities need to be undertaken to make better progress?) These questions correspond to notions of feed up, feed back, and feed forward. How effectively answers to these questions serve to reduce the gap is partly dependent on the level at which the feedback operates. These include the level of task performance, the level of process of understanding how to do a task, the regulatory or meta-cognitive process level, and/or the self or personal level (unrelated to the specifics of the task). Feedback has differing effects across these levels."
I love that feedback is not just about it going back to the student - it is a little bit like a game of chess - it goes back into the student's hands with a proverbial "Your Move" attached to it. To this end, I suggest that there must be a going-forward action attached to any and every piece of feedback. "Good work", "Well done", "Excellent!", "Awesome!" may well be lovely platitudes but how does a student know WHAT they have done well or even HOW they did it so they can do it again? Be specific with the praise and criticism but also ensure that there is a tangible action for students to respond to. Again, this sounds cumbersome and it certainly can be. However, things like marking codes (common practice in many schools) can really help. Below are a few examples I like the look of:
I cannot not mention the idea of comment banks too for those who use electronic submission of work - Keep notepad built right into Docs is a real time-saver. I have created a very short screencast to talk through how this could be used:
It is also worth noting that the feedback is not a stick to beat teachers with (we don't need any more!); essentially, it becomes a student's responsibility to act on it and use it to improve their own performance. I can't wait to write a post targeted at OfSTED, SLT and the DfE about when it became more a teacher's fault that students underachieve than any other person who is involved in their life (parents, social services, youth-workers, peers, the child themselves!). I love how TeacherHead relates to this in the top part of one of his infographics about reducing workloads:
Penultimately, we address the notion that feedback should be corrective. Many of us have heard the mantra that practice makes perfect. It is wrong. Practice makes permanent. Only perfect practice makes perfect. How many times will a child have spelled 'would've' wrongly or not added a capital letter to a place name by the time they reach Year 11? English teachers in GCSE classes shouldn't be addressing these basic errors (nor should any GCSE teacher for that matter!). These errors should've (!!) been ironed out years earlier. We should correct misconceptions and not leave them - indeed, I am still an advocate of re-writing spelling mistakes three times at the bottom of the page! We cannot be sloppy in our marking for literacy and concept errors - they will come back to haunt us (or their future teachers) when it crucially matters.
To this end, one big issue with students is that they see a score or grade and immediately ignore the feedback. In fact, many of them skip past lots of comments and corrections to find out "what they got". I really like the idea that Alice Keeler suggested on Twitter regarding feedback (and not just because she used a Bitmoji). This idea of not releasing a grade until they have responded to feedback is genius and avoids this pitfall.
Finally, I want to suggest that feedback should provide further challenge wherever possible. Lots of brilliant educators are leading the way in providing Challenge Stations or Wonder Walls (as an Oasis fan, I really like this one!) to challenge students to take their work one step further. I don't want to patronise teachers in giving suggestions here but essentially, you can preload extension tasks and challenges to deepen learning at the beginning of each topic/year and encourage students to continue to learn going forward. It is way too easy for students to simply give up when they have met targets and/or done the work that was necessary. Dreamers never did play safe!
I am sure I will be revisiting some of this material in the very near future, considering I have just started reading Mark.Teach.Plan by Ross Morrison McGill (aka Teacher Toolkit) and haven't even mentioned peer- and self-marking, Google Forms self-marking quizzes, success criteria, questioning or AfL.
But for now...peace.
*This article is indebted to work by John Hattie and Helen Timperley, much of which can be found in the following PDF. I highly recommend you read this in full. You can do so here.