Adventures with gallery critique

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In last weekend’s post, I argued that there might be more efficient and meaningful ways of providing feedback than standard book-marking. As such, I have been experimenting with ‘gallery critique’, an idea gleaned from Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence and David Didau’s excellent post on the strategy.

In truth, I have always been dubious of the claims made of peer-assessment, especially in essentially qualitative subjects such as English. However well – or badly – I train students to critique one-another, two nagging doubts have never ceased to plague me. First, a student is always always dependent on the ability and commitment of the person they are paired with – some children will receive poorer feedback than others. Second, students naturally place more trust in teacher-feedback than peer-feedback – and why shouldn’t they? My hunch has always been that the process of both reading each other’s work and getting down-and-dirty with success criteria is more useful than the feedback received from the process.

Gallery critique, however, is a much more seductive option because students receive feedback from a range of others. Once over, the useful feedback ‘wheat’ can be separated from the useless feedback ‘chaff’.

I am aware that many bloggers have written coherently about how they have used the strategy, but I thought I would share how I have been doing it as my early trials have been remarkably fruitful. This week I have tried the following structure with a top-set Y11 class on a Monday morning and a mixed-ability Y9 set on Tuesday afternoon.

Admittedly, I am a control freak in the classroom and mine is a very iron-fisted version…

1. In recent lessons, both classes had produced extended writing pieces: the Y9s a persuasive speech, the Y11s an answer to AQA English Language question 6. Before writing the pieces, I gave them a gentle heads-up that their work would be included in a critique. There was a noticeable sense of care in the products they were producing (see my post on taking pride in written work).

2. The students laid their work out at their tables. (My classroom is divided into six tables of four to six students.) The Y11s blu-tacked their work, the Y9s left open their books. A pile of post-its was made available.

3. Before we began, we talked through Berger’s mantra: kind, helpful, specific. I decided that I was going to give them sentence stems to help so that I could help guide their thinking. Having to think ‘what to say’ when trying to process what you have read, as well as keeping the success criteria in mind, is quite a challenge to the young working-memory. (Hence the stems.)

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4. I took an exemplar paragraph from one student’s work, photographed it and modelled how to give feedback according to Berger’s mantra. We discussed why this kind of well-written, detailed feedback might be more subtle and successful than listing success criteria under the headings ‘what went well’ and ‘even better if’. The Y9 one – which needs a bit of work! – is below.

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5. We recapped the success criteria and I ensured that these were printed out on each desk

6. I insisted on silence for the gallery critique itself. Both classes were extremely compliant and engaged in reading each other’s work – without a peep, in fact. They spent five minutes at each table, reading just one piece of work and writing their feedback on post-its. At the end of the session, each student had spent time reading five pieces.

7. The final task was to return back to their own work, to read the feedback and then filter it down to the most useful (which they did with a highlighter).

So how successful was it?

• Students received more feedback than I could ever give them through marking – and in more detail too.

• Students seemed intrinsically motivated in both classes. They clearly enjoyed it, even those who were reticent to start with. I had no complaints, even from the very weak handful in my Y9 group.

• In the best cases students gave very specific feedback – have a look below. In the worst cases it seemed too general – ‘sort out your spelling’ or ‘improve vocabulary’ were stock phrases.

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• My classes clearly need more training in the language of critique. Modelling and sentence scaffolds helped direct thought, but many will need more practice if they are to make incisive comments.

• The most useful feedback was given by more-able students, yet the flip-side was the feedback they received themselves was less useful. In a mixed-ability class, I wonder if one of the teacher’s roles might be to ensure that they stick a few post-its themselves on the very best work so as to ensure that everyone receives something useful.

• The big question: does it match up to teacher feedback? Not quite at this stage, but it has the potential to. In my classroom, training students to trust one another’s judgements as much as a teacher’s will be part of the solution. How to identify good and bad feedback is another.

• The structure I am using is probably not as organic as the ‘art gallery’ style I imagine is used elsewhere; it is, however, very useful for creating the right conditions for reading and critiquing extended writing. I am quite excited about how this could be developed: as students carousel from table to table, I could ask them to hone in on certain areas of whple-class weakness.  This time I want you to look at how they have used sentence structures. This time concentrate on the effectiveness of endings…

I am excited about ways we might successfully bring feedback on extended writing more meaningfully into the classroom. Gallery critique, and the countless variations it offers, provides an intiguing option. Any strategy that might enhance student learning and simultaneously save me time is a strategy worth pursuing.

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What if we didn’t mark any books?

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Okay, so here goes. It’ll take some courage for me to utter the words – please stick with me. Perhaps my career is on the line for this one. What the heck. Are you ready for it?

What if I didn’t mark any books?

There, I said it.

What if we eventually realise that marking is inefficient and we came up with an alternative?

I have read so many blogs recently – and written one myself – about the importance of marking. Some of these pieces, written with the best of intentions, have even suggested that teachers on a full timetable – after they have finished planning for tomorrow, sitting in meetings, phoning a few parents and filling in data-entry sheets – mark every single book after every single lesson. Coupled with this is the evidence from everywhere you care to glance of the vital role of feedback: to take two examples there’s the Education Endowment Foundation, and, of course, Hattie’s effect sizes.

Please hear me out. This is not an iconoclastic argument against feedback, far from it. This is just an alternative suggestion – discard it if you will. There are three key reasons behind my proposal:

1. Marking is hugely time-consuming. I would say I spend at least eight hours a week on average marking even though I have developed one or two nifty tricks to speed it up. That’s a full day’s work for most professionals. Now, what if I was to redirect that energy into detailed planning? The kind of planning based on research and deep reflection with the sole aim of challenging and moving on students? I am not suggesting that we should be putting our feet up by 3.30, I am suggesting that by reinvesting the time spent marking into planning the kind of lessons, and sequences of lessons, that will genuinely move our students forward we might improve outcomes for young people.

2. Marking tends to happen away from the students, and too few students despite our best efforts seem to make great progress because of it. I can recall few, if any, ocassions when a student has made a giant leap forward as a result of my marking alone. Yes, a few technical errors and misconceptions are resolved, but how much else? The process can feel depersonalised and perfunctory – is it the most effective means of providing feedback on written work?

3. If we are going to work until 68, which is a genuine possibility, we need to find more manageable solutions to avoid our workload consigning us to an early grave.

Still with me? Okay, so the big question now is what do we do about feedback, both of the formative and summative variety, seeing as it has a crucial role in learning? The answer is not to ignore it, but to bring it to the forefront of everything we do in the classroom.

In my utopian, post-marking English classroom the following might happen:

  • The first stage of planning would be the ‘five-minute flick’. I would select a cross-section of books to check through to assess the learning from the previous lesson. Nothing would be written in them, not even a stray red tick. One or two, however, would be photographed.
  • Most lessons would begin with showing example student work from the last lesson. Together we would model the editing process, discuss common misconceptions. Students would be encouraged to edit their own work and ask any pressing questions.
  • Most lessons would involve a period of quiet writing practice and once a fortnight they would have a lesson of private reading. During these times I would see a handful of students individually to discuss the writing they have produced over the previous fortnight. We would agree on targets and ways forward; we would both record this. Over the fortnight, each student would get one-to-one time with the teacher to assess how far they have got and where they should aim next.
  • In my experience peer assessment is fraught with problems – mainly because, however well you train the class to do it proficiently, each student is at the mercy of the accuracy and commitment of the student plonked next to her. Therefore, ‘gallery critique’, where students circulate and critique many pieces of work, would become a regular occurrence. See my post on the strategy here. Students would become trained at assessing one another and as teachers we would have a huge incentive to do it well – we wouldn’t have to do it ourselves.
  • Summative assessment would take place as a holistic grade – or whatever a alternative has been decided upon in the wake of KS3 levels – based on the term’s work. The final teacher-student discussion of the term would be used for this. A decision would be made with the student present, thus ensuring the student is fully involved with the reasons behind the grading.

I have a number of other ideas but I want to keep this post as a short thinkpiece. Our education system worships at the altar of marking, but have we stopped to think about the side effects of its excessive practice? Yes, there would be questions about accountability – human nature means that some teachers might use the extra freedom as an excuse to do very little. Organisation might also be quite tricky at times.

I think there are some serious unanswered questions about the costs of marking. Maybe my proposal is pie-in-the-sky thinking but surely this is an area that could do with some serious thought and research.

Let me know what you think below.

Related posts:

Time-management in education: a ‘win-win’ solution

Why is ‘challenge’ such a challenge?

Why is ‘challenge’ such a challenge?

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‘Challenge’ is one of those buzz-words being bandied about in education at the moment. You must challenge your students! Students in the UK are institutionally under-challenged! The new curriculum is designed to create rigour and challenge!

 In the video below – nicked from Shaun Allison’s post on challenge – John Hattie clarifies the great potential of acceleration and challenge. Most exciting to me is this statement: if students don’t understand something then ‘give them harder stuff, then come back’.

I have a hunch that ‘challenge’ might singularly be the most important day-to-day consideration for the average classroom teacher like me. But why do I have such a difficulty establishing and maintaining a challenging environment? Three answers come to mind immediately:

1. We make simple content and tasks more challenging than we need to. A classic example of this is the ‘dictionary challenge’ in English. We have students root out the meaning of words even though these meanings might have been more efficiently and more effectively explained by us in the first place. In the name of challenge, we have provided a task that slows down learning. Hattie’s simple advice – “tell them the answer and then show them how to get there” – is one way to counter this problem. Quite why we have developed an education culture where explaining things explicitly is seen as a weakness is quite beyond me.

2. The time for good planning is hard to find. If we are going to up the standard of our existing content and tasks, or develop alternatives, then we need the time to do this. So what do we drop instead? This is likely to be controversial but the answer seems obvious: the quantity of marking. Why? Because marking a piece of work that has not challenged the child means that we are unlikely to be able to give useful feedback. Yes, marking should inform challenge, but many teachers with a high marking load would, I am sure, agree that it can directly limit our capacity to plan more rigourous work.

3. The risk factor. It is safer for me to ask my students to, for instance, write a persuasive letter about uniform to the headteacher than it is to ask them to write a satirical argument. This is especially so if the outcomes of this task will be recorded as part of whole-school tracking and monitoring, and even more so if it is part of GCSE coursework or controlled assessment. The fear of taking risks is a side-effect of our current accountability culture.

However, before we challenge our students we must challenge ourselves and as such I have been reflecting on three types of challenge through the prism of my subject, English.

Challenge through content. At first glance, this is the one that we would seem to have less control over. The National Curriculum, exam syllabuses, school and subject leadership all hold sway here. In English, content is bound up in the texts we teach. A simplistic argument is that the more challenging the text is, the more our students will be challenged. This inevitably leads to a thornier issue: what constitutes a challenging text? Do we only choose our texts from the ‘dead white men’ of the established literary canon, aiming to immerse our students in what Matthew Arnold dubbed, ‘the best that which been thought or said’? Or do we adopt a pluralistic approach, teaching modern texts from a diversity of writers along with the traditional?

It seems to me that the issue here is not just which texts are being taught, but how they are being taught. Is skirting over Great Expectations, reading a handful of chapters on the way and superficially touching on plot and character, any more challenging than, say, a detailed full-text reading of The Hunger Games which explores sophisticated interpretations and insights? If we are going to create the conditions for challenge, how the content is delivered is as important as what the content is. Our explanations, our questions, and how we encourage students to talk and think about the content are key.

Challenge through task. Here the teacher has more control. If we are going to challenge our students, we must set them harder tasks – so the argument goes. Take these two essay questions taught by Teacher A and Teacher B:

Teacher A: How does Steinbeck present Lennie?

Teacher B: How does Steinbeck reveal his moral, social and philosophical ideas through the character of Lennie?

Clearly question two is the tougher question, but would it necessarily elicit the better answer? Taught well it is unquestionably a stronger question, yet I think it is entirely possible that the students of Teacher A might learn more than the students of Teacher B. Why? Because, once again, the quality of teaching that counts for more than the perceived challenge of the task. Exemplars, modelling and scaffolding must be of the highest realistic standard, yet also allow room for independence and a chance to think and struggle. Be that as it may, we must also be careful not to get too caught up in raw outcomes – the quality of the outcome might not always be an indication of the quality of learning.

Individual challenge. Challenge becomes more complex when we add into the mix the fact that for each student challenge means a slightly different thing. In a sense, it is easier to think of our students working towards two concurrent challenges: a) those that pertain to the whole class such as write a persuasive speech and b) those that pertain to the individual such as use at least five different sentence starters across a piece of extended writing. I like the idea of setting a ‘challenge’ for the next extended task when giving feedback, rather than a generic ‘target’ – it just seems more stimulating.

In spite of the caveats, the breaking-down and simplifying of challenge in terms of content, task and the individual has made things clearer for me. Here are a few decisions I have made recently in light of this:

  • To teach Y8 students how to write a Shakespearean sonnet.
  • To introduce Y9 students to a range of historic political speeches before they write their own on significant social issues (and not whether football is better than rugby!).
  • To spend more time planning the way I word my questions and explanations.
  • To ensure that students redraft work more often so as to complete the challenges I have set for them.
  • To bring encourage my Y11 top set to begin their ‘conflict poetry’ essays with famous quotes about war.
  • To set individual challenges for my KS3 students.
  • Not to change much with Y10s because the English Literature exam they will be sitting in May is challenging enough!

One final thought – forgive me if I am stating the bleeding obvious. I have come  to the conclusion that challenge is almost entirely bound up in the way we immerse children in language. This might be the language we encourage students to read, write, speak and think in, along with the language we model through speech and the written word. Ultimately, if we raise the quality of language, we raise the challenge. Simple?

Related posts:

Differentiating the responsive way

The Everest writing scaffold

In celebration of failure

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“Every teacher fails on a daily basis. If you are not failing you are just not paying attention because we fail all the time.”

Dylan Wiliam

When I first heard the quote above from Dylan Wiliam it was as if I had been finally set free. I have spent the majority of my career searching for my teaching Shangri-La: the ultimate lesson, the ultimate scheme-of-work, the ultimate piece of work, the ultimate questioning sequence… Funnily enough it has only been this academic year, the year that I have stepped up my search for perfection, that I have come to accept that in this profession the perfect is an illusion, a mirage in the desert. The quest will continue – it must – but in the comfort that the treasure trove will never be located. And how could it be? It never existed in the first place.

I have been beguiled in the past few months by the theory that expertise takes roughly 10,000 hours of deliberate practice – practice, that is, primarily focused on improvement. For teachers, this is about mindful, effortful concentration on the development of our daily practice so that our skill becomes automatic. It is pretty obvious that we will become better teachers by following this path. Yet it cannot be the full answer. A violinist can become an expert – deliberately practice a note enough times and you will, I am sure, master that note. Teaching is more complex. However skilfully we teach our lessons, the children in front of us will never respond with the consistency of musical instruments. Some will stay in tune, others will not. There is no such thing as success and failure in this job: every moment is tinged with both. We can become experts but we cannot master this profession.

If our lesson planning is not too rigid, we can respond to the unanticipated during lessons and redirect students as necessary – see my post on responsive differentiation. However, these decisions are taken in the spur of the moment. Perhaps the best way to genuinely respond to our students is through a process of critical reflection that feeds-forward into the planning of the next lesson or sequence of lessons. This reflection will be based on a wide range of factors including assessment. It is not humanly possible to mark every student’s book every lesson but there are many ways to ‘take the temperature’ during and after a lesson – if I know a class, I tend to find checking a few books across the ability range is usually a pretty accurate method.

Frustratingly, although the detailed knowledge we have built up of our students helps us to predict their response with some degree of prescience, we can never be sure how our plans will play out. That’s why I have never understood how you can fully plan a lesson before you have taught the lesson prior to it. It is natural that we should have fixed and clear long-term goals for our students. However, to successfully steer our students towards these goals our weekly and termly plans must have in-built flexibility.

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Take a lesson I taught this week for example. My Y8s were writing a poem inspired by Imtiaz Dharker’s Blessing. The idea was that we would model together the start of an example and, with a scaffold I had given them, they would write their own. Some could use the scaffold as a support, others were expected to borrow from Dharker’s techniques to create something a little more original. My job would be to sit at the computer writing my own version which I would stop to show the whole class intermittently so that it would a) act as an exemplar to prompt their own thinking and b) enable me to model my meta-cognitive thinking.

It sounds great written down, but, quite frankly, it did not work for all. The scaffold I had provided made the task too hard for some, and my lack of circulation meant that I was not able to ‘take the temperature’ and respond as I normally would. The lesson was flawed.

Today was take-two; I went back to the drawing board. I freed myself up so that I was able to intervene with individuals and I modified the scaffold. The results were much better, but still not quite where I had hoped. But then, when are our hopes ever fully fulfilled?

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The above example illustrates why my self-critical nature is very useful to me. I struggle to understand how the micro-planning of units of work weeks in advance, or, even worse, expecting all the teachers in a department to work from a pre-designated plan can lead to genuine success.

For me, reflection is the most valuable thing I do. However, I am aware that as with everything in this profession it has its limitations. I am aware that reflection relies on the impossible: the objectivity of our intuition. I am also aware that learning is invisible and defies an easy definition. Who is to say that those who struggled on the Blessing task learnt less than those who produced a lovely completed poem? I only have their written performance to inform my reflective process.

Be that as it may, thinking backwards and thinking forwards are such a vital part of our job. Inherently it is an individual, independent process. Yes, discussion and collaboration with our colleagues play an important role. (I love the fact that my school has introduced coaching to provide a whole-school structure that enables us to verbalise these internal processes.) Nevertheless, it remains true that the teacher occupies a solitary, lonely position – only we are privy to our hour-by-hour experiences in the classroom.

We must train ourselves not to respond in an emotionally negative way to our shortcomings otherwise our frustration will wear us down. Instead, we must learn to celebrate our failures and help our colleagues to feel confident in doing the same.

Watch Dylan Wiliam’s talk here:

Pride in the product: how much do we value our students’ work?

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During a lunch break last week, three male English teachers in our thirties huddled together in the corridor to admire the writing of a thirteen year-old girl. As Ed and I marvelled and cooed at the craft and accuracy of her descriptive sentences, Gavin – her teacher – raised her open book on his fingertips with all the awe and nervous tenderness of a father presenting his new-born child to visiting grandparents. Gavin talked with pride about her work and about how he had guided her to this standard.

It was a lovely moment. Here was the work of a student who clearly values the act of writing and exerts a huge effort to produce such a final product. Equally, her teacher’s pride in her work makes his challenging job all the more worthwhile.

And now for the dampener. Unfortunately, too many students do not value the act of writing like this. Too much written work in secondary school is scrappy, chock-full of thoughtless errors that have been repeated to the point of automaticity. It is expedient to shift the blame: ‘it should have been taught at primary school’ or ‘that child is bone idle’ or ‘he’s just not clever enough to write properly’.

My question is this: if we do not give all students the opportunity to find value in their written work, is it not a surprise that so much of it is littered with preventable mistakes?

Hattie and Yates in Visible Learning and the Science of how we Learn have summarised some very interesting research into how we value the product of our labours. There is considerable research into what is known as the IKEA effect – that we place huge value on those products that we have had a role in producing, especially if this has been challenging and we have had to exert a large amount of effort. Plenty of research validates this finding. One study that caught my eye involved the construction of LEGO models. The participants whose LEGO models were immediately dissembled after production valued their products less than those who were allowed to keep their products intact. Other studies corroborate the finding that we only value products that we have fully completed.

Hattie and Yates sum up with this food for thought:

“Such findings confirm a simple truth: that people will value their labour, and what it produces remarkably strongly, and this goal overpowers other considerations. Try asking yourself: would you enjoy going to work if everything you did, or made, was not valued, was rendered meaningless, discarded, or even destroyed, as soon as it was completed? Just how strongly would you exert effort if this was the case? What implications can you see for valuing student work, and for encouraging students to genuinely exert themselves?”

All of this points clearly in one direction. To demonstrate that we fully value the products they create, we must give students kind and careful feedback, as well as the time, patience and opportunity to reflect on and redraft their work based on our feedback.

But is this enough?  What happens to the work after this? Can we get our students to value their work to an even greater extent? The simple answer is that we find more opportunities to celebrate the final product. I do not think we do this well in the secondary sector and I think this has become engrained over the decades. I left secondary school eighteen years ago and I do not remember one piece of work that I completed in those years (except for one which I will come to in a minute). I do, however, remember a few treasures from my primary years.

This is not to say that there is no celebration of student work at secondary. The problem is that the majority of students go through secondary without having any public recognition of the products they are producing day-by-day. In my English department, we invite the crème-de-la-crème of KS3 writers to a lovely presentation evening every July. This amounts to about twenty students whose work achieves very public recognition – or, if we are cynically-minded, 740 students whose work is overlooked. Of course, it is vital we recognise the talent in our midst, yet I cannot help feeling that most kids are institutionally undervalued, simply because they are exceptional at nothing.

Ron Berger provides a tantalising solution to this problem. In his book An Ethic of Excellence Berger discusses his approach to excellence through redrafting and critique. Yet there is another crucial aspect to his approach: the product of every student’s labours is celebrated. They exhibit their products, take part in gallery critiques, invite in experts in the field of study to critique the work, and the work itself is anchored in real-life contexts. A culture of value pervades everything; students, whatever their ability, are given the sense that the quality of their work is of great importance, not just to the teacher, but to everybody. Students are not just working to such inspiring goals as ‘this term’s assessment’ or ‘moving from a level 5 to a level 6’, they are working to a deadline when their work will be publically shared. Concrete goals are intrinsic to Berger’s vision.

Berger’s rural Massachusetts elementary school context is, of course, very different to mine. However, if I am to value student work more than I do now there are many simple strategies I could easily employ. These strategies must conform to three  features: 1) every student’s work must be valued with no opt-out option; 2) they must not add to workload otherwise they will be unsustainable; 3) students must be made aware they are leading up to this point of public recognition from as early as possible.

Here are some I am looking to embed more regularly, with at least one a half-term.

  • Creating benchmarks of brilliance. Every student attaches a piece of great work to their book/folder as a signature of what they can do in the subject. (See here.)
  • Class anthologies. Creating an anthology which includes something from every student and is then distributed to all and/or published online. The only piece of work I remember from high school is a poem published in a class anthology my Y9 teacher produced.
  • Blogging student work. I do not have the ICT facilities available to do this regularly, but it would certainly be manageable once an academic year.
  • Producing a piece to present to parents on parents evening. This would be a great way to involve parents in the process.
  • Regular use of gallery critique in lessons. David Didau has written a lovely blog post about this here.
  • Having classes present their work to another class. There are countless ways this can be done, but the knowledge an outsider will read your work is hugely motivating.

I am sure there are plenty of other ways to do it – feel free to leave any ideas in the comments box.

We often wonder why our students forget so much of what we hoped they would learn. Might this be because we never give them a chance to value their work? And finally: if we don’t value their work, why should they?

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The Everest writing scaffold

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On 29 May 1953, Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers officially confirmed to have reached the 8,848-metre summit of Mount Everest. After the failure of many previous expeditions, their feat has become a legendary benchmark of human commitment and ambition.

So what has this piece of mountaineering history got to do with learning in a modern secondary setting? Well, I think that their success provides a perfect analogy for the importance of, and interplay between, the modelling and scaffolding of extended writing.

Hilary and Norgay’s success would not have been possible without the use of scaffolds: a series of basecamps, a slow acclimatisation to high altitudes, bottled oxygen, thick woollen suits and heavy wooden ice-picks all played a part in staging their ascent. Without these essential scaffolds, rudimentary by today’s standards perhaps, it is fair to assume that they would have failed completely.

Their incredible achievement has since paved the way for many successful ascents. In fact, nearly 4,000 climbers have also reached the earth’s highest point since Hilary and Norgay including, amazingly, an 80 year-old man and a blind person. Hillary and Norgay wrote the original model, a model which has both inspired and instructed all those who have followed in their footsteps. The chances of success since the 1950s have been further improved by the development of more sophisticated scaffolds: fixed ropes, lightweight aluminium axes, closed-cell foam insulation boots and high-tech communication equipment to name but a few.

Reaching the peak of Everest, therefore, is a metaphor for the successful completion of a challenging writing task. If even the most talented climbers following in Hilary and Norgay’s footsteps need the influence of models and high-tech scaffolds, is the same not true of young writers? And if the scaffolding is developed to a higher quality, then is it not true that many more will find success than just the odd maverick? Yes, not all will reach the summit, but by attempting and falling just short, do we not learn more than by playing it safe at sea-level?

My belief is that scaffolding is not about making written work easier; instead it is about quite the opposite. Our scaffolds should make the work harder, more challenging, yet also ensure that success remains a tangible possibility. So how do we design effective scaffolds that allow this to happen?

It is important to note before I share some other strategies that models and modelling are the most important scaffold. Success is much easier to imagine and conceptualise when there are concrete examples available. Indeed, Hattie and Yates ascertain that cognitive load theory research has demonstrated that presenting students with ‘worked examples’ (completed model answers) is one of the most effective means of providing guidance. Moreover, if we teach writing without models we run the risk of  having to compensate with too much scaffolding so that extended writing becomes ‘painting by numbers’ or ‘filling in the gaps’. I have two key modelling strategies: 1) the use of multiple completed exemplars, and 2) the use of ‘live’, or shared writing, where students and teacher co-construct a text or part of a text. I have written about these strategies in more detail here and here.

Before considering how – or indeed, if – we will scaffold student writing, I find these questions to be useful:

  1. How will I ensure that scaffolds will extend and not restrict?
  2. How will I ensure that scaffolded resources are simple to use and understand so that they do not inadvertently create an impediment to learning?
  3. How will I know that the fine balance between support and challenge has been struck?
  4. How will I foster grit and determination in my students, yet ensure that the gap between where they are and where they need to be is not too big a challenge that they ‘give up’?
  5. When should the scaffolds be removed? (Because, ultimately, that is what we are aiming for.)

Below is the ‘Everest’ writing scaffold that I have developed for preparing students for extended essay writing. It is a ‘macro’ scaffold comprising of ten interweaving ‘micro’ scaffolds. Many of the strategies below can be planned in advance or improvised there-and-then as necessary.

  • Upstream knowledge. Often my students struggle with writing because I have failed to ensure they have the essential knowledge and understanding they need before they begin. If they are writing, say, about Shakespeare’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth then they must have a detailed understanding of her character before they start. I know this sounds obvious, but too often I have found myself giving students with flimsy knowledge an over-challenging task. I am then left with two untenable options: spoon-feeding or underachievement.
  • Verbal responses. Regular opportunities to verbalise ideas are crucial all the way through the build-up to the final writing piece. However, these need to be structured so that they support writing. I have written – here – about one strategy I use to scaffold writing through structured discussion. I am also now trying to be explicit about how students respond to questions in lessons. If we are commenting on a poem, for instance, I will get them to respond in full, analytical sentences: ‘I think the poet uses the word ‘emerald’ as a metaphor for how precious this place is.’  With clear modelling, explanation and visual scaffolding on the board – sentence stems and the like – this should be possible every lesson.
  • Key words. These are best embedded way before the final written product is attempted. Repetition through teacher explanation and questioning, student verbal response, spelling tests and practice sentences and paragraphs is key.
  • Planning.  Just like the writing itself, planning needs to be modelled and scaffolded. A great way to do this – as John Tomsett explained brilliantly in this post – is to work backwards from an exemplar essay, so that students replicate the plan they imagine the writer originally worked from. From here, they can design their own plans with this model in mind. There are, however, plenty of well-trodden ways, some more scaffolded than others, to help children plan.
  • Practice paragraphs and sentences. Before students write an extended piece, I like to set the challenge by having them write practice paragraphs – Hilary and Norgay would not have attempted Everest without the extensive mountaineering experience they had on smaller climbs. It is through practice writing that knowledge and understanding of subject content and written genre come together. These can be modelled first through exemplars or shared writing. This is a good stage to look at explicit grammar constructs. I am particularly in  love with– and passionately so! – the sentence structures Chris Curtis has shared in his blog (here); they can be easily introduced and trialled in practice paragraphs. Students might write these paragraphs individually or, if the class are motivated, they can work in pairs (this is another great way for students to verbalise the genre they are writing in – see here). These shorter pieces are easy to peer-assess or self-assess in fine detail through simple check-lists.

So, how do we scaffold during extended writing?

  • Writing frames. My aim, usually, is not to use these. I have been guilty in the past of giving students such detailed writing frames that an essay becomes an unwieldy list of prompted sentences. However, I do offer my very weak students an ordered list of sentence stems, but only after they have given it a decent go beforehand or I am unconvinced by the quality they have produced without a scaffold.
  • Procedural check-lists. These help keep students on track as they write. Again, we have to be judicious about how much we use them and with whom:

                Have you used a topic sentence?

Have you used an embedded quotation?

Have you chosen a word/phrase from the quotation to analyse?

Have you linked your analysis to the play’s context?

Have you made a link back to the original question?

  • Time. I have written before – here – about the importance of slowing writing down rather than speeding it up. Students need time to work through their difficulties; learning, as cognitive science makes clear, is necessarily slow and difficult.

And after writing?

  •  Response to marking. Dedicated time for editing and improvement in response to teacher marking is vital. See my DIRT post here.
  •  Redrafting. This provides the perfect opportunity for students to start again. They may have failed to reach the summit in the first attempt, but they will certainly be more prepared for their second attempt. By withholding the opportunity to write a second draft are we sending the subliminal message that this is it, you cannot get any better?

Naturally, it is almost impossible to include all of the above stages in every unit or cycle of work. Likewise, there are many other useful scaffolding strategies I have not had room to include. As with any teaching and learning strategy, we need to take from it what is useful to us and the students we teach.

Realistically of course, many students will struggle to reach the summit and will fall short. Frustratingly, we also know that many will perform well with scaffolds in place, but will seem to have forgotten it all next time they put pen to paper. Some educators will argue that students learn more through more struggling and less scaffolding, but my question is slightly different: can we not have both? I will, however, concede that it is imperative that students also get accustomed to regularly writing without scaffolds as this is how they are ultimately assessed at GCSE.

To me, however, scaffolding challenge is a vital component to the teaching of writing. Most kids can produce two pages of writing without much struggle, but very few can produce two pages of excellent writing.

Scaffolds do not have to ‘dumb down’; in fact, they can provide quite the opposite.

MOUNT EVEREST HEROES