In our recent book, Making every lesson count, Shaun Allison and I have used the following diagram to introduce the idea that feedback is a two-way process:
The notion on the left, that feedback should inform planning, is often overlooked; instead, teacher-to-student feedback is very much the flavour of the month – to the extent that ‘quality of marking’ has now become an accepted measure of a teacher’s effectiveness. However, there is a logical error inherent in this way of thinking. Quality of feedback can only be contingent on the quality of the initial input. Harry, for example, might have received high-quality teaching and no written feedback from his teacher; Hannah, in another class, might have been the recipient of poor teaching and lots of remedial feedback. It is absurd to suggest that Harry’s teacher’s marking is of a lesser quality than Hannah’s teacher’s marking, without taking into account the quality of the initial teaching. If students are clearly making good progress, does it matter how much or how little red pen is in the books?
The craze for written feedback might also lead to a reliance on flimsy teaching methods. The mistakes I notice in my students’ written work are often the results of conceptual knowledge gaps or ingrained bad habits. Sometimes they are a combination of the two, and these cannot be solved by a couple of lines of red biro. Let’s say I write, ‘You need to use the possessive apostrophe accurately’ in a child’s exercise book. This is only useful if: a) he already knows and understands the concept of the possessive apostrophe, and b) the feedback reminds him to use the possessive apostrophe in his future writing. If these requirements are not met, then my written feedback will not solve the problem alone. Only focussed teaching and/or sustained practice over time will lead to a genuine improvement.
DIRT (dedicated improvement and reflection time), when the class can begin to practise their mistakes, is a useful starting point. Too often, however, it only papers over the cracks. The most useful thing about looking at student work is that it provides us with a recipe for future action. We learn what we need to teach again or teach better; we learn about our students’ working habits and how they can be improved.
It is important that schools and departments provide teachers with the flexibility and space they need to respond to their classes. Schemes-of-work and plans should have built-in room for this; they should not be too rigid. Destinations should remain the same, even if the journey is very different for each teacher and each class. This term, we are starting fortnightly revision lessons with our year 10s. Not only will these allow us to review previous content, but they will allow us to revisit areas of general weakness too. The link between reflection and planning is crystal clear; it feels like a powerful process.
It is frustrating that reflective and responsive planning, unlike marking, is largely invisible. We cannot pin it down or measure it; it happens in a teacher’s thoughts. Perhaps it is the root of what we call ‘expertise’, where our knowledge of how to teach our subject meets our ever-growing understanding of our students’ learning. When we watch a successful teacher in action, we witness a complex array of behaviours. It is difficult to distinguish which of these strategies is the cause of her success; it is even more difficult to conceptualise the thoughtful planning that has carried her to this point in time.
How best to bring this tacit thinking to light? How best to learn from the best teaching? Shaun Allison and I have started interviewing some of our most successful teachers in an attempt to tap into what they do and why they do it. These interviews have been fascinating, but we are struggling to find the best ways of sharing this information. How do we use it to develop the practice of others? I also like the idea of ‘learning observations’, when a teacher coaches another right through the planning, teaching and reflection process, so that both the thinking and the action are modelled.
The best that teachers and leaders can do is to encourage not only a culture of learning and reflection, but also one of humility. At its best, the idea that there are ‘great’ or ‘outstanding’ teachers in a school will create a few over-inflated egos; at its worst, it will lead to division and resentment. I have learnt most from those teachers who are never afraid to say that they have got it wrong and that they are going to try it again another way.
When school leaders and subject leaders do this, and when the staff room is full of teachers talking about the problems they are trying to solve, this is when our students will really start to learn from feedback.