The quantity of feedback our students need after completing a task is largely dictated by the quality of teaching they have received before and during this task. I would argue that much of the best and most useful feedback our students receive happens as they are working, not necessarily after they have finished working.
Let me explain. Last week, I was off sick for three days in a row, the longest illness I have had in nine years of teaching. (Don’t ask – it wasn’t pleasant!) It meant that my year 11 students had to plan and write a full piece of iGCSE English language coursework without my help or guidance. As a result, their first drafts were patchy to say the least, littered with very avoidable errors. As I teach just short of sixty year 11s in two ‘middle-sets’, the marking has been a gargantuan task, one I have still yet to complete. Without me to steer them, many students went way off-track.
This episode has got me thinking about feedback and its role as an in-built part of teaching. For me, feedback is an ingrained element of adaptive, reflective practice, often indistinguishable from other elements of instruction such as explanation and questioning. Too often feedback is solely equated with marking and the associated reams of red pen on paper and weekends slaving at the kitchen table. Marking, it must not be forgotten, is only an instrument of feedback, not the process itself.
Feedback – both from and to the students – informs almost every decision teachers make, whether we are planning or delivering lessons. It influences many pivotal moments:
1) During initial planning. Once a topic has been taught a few times, we become aware of the pitfalls associated with it. Our initial instruction should improve and, as a result, pre-empt much of the obvious feedback we will be required to give.
2) At an individual level as students are working. There are countless ways to intervene with an individual – from sitting with them for a few minutes to tapping a spelling error on their work as you glide past without saying a word.
3) At a whole-class level. By peering over shoulders at work or listening to verbal responses during discussion we can quickly collect data. With this to work on, we may need to stop the lesson to re-explain, model again, show an exemplar, scrap the task completely or take any number of similar actions. Or, of course, we might decide to take no action at all.
4) In between lessons. A quick sample of work from the previous lesson usually gives some indication as to whether we should circle back over previous content in our next lesson. Even just a clear-sighted reflection on the previous lesson can be enough: What did they grasp? What did they struggle with? What should they not forget?
Last week, my year 11 classes missed out on the constant reframing and adaption that forms the nuts-and-bolts of my teaching. To offset this shortfall, lots of written feedback was required.
There is a persuasive school of thought that argues that teachers should give students lots of room to make mistakes so that feedback becomes meaningful. It is no use feeding back on something that has not challenged them beyond what they already know or can do. This, however, must be offset against the concern that mistakes can become embedded without quick remedying. Take the student who misunderstands an essay question from the word go. A quick word from his teacher as he writes his introduction would steer him on the right course. To let him languish under this misconception for the remainder of the essay might well be counterproductive.
A balance needs to be struck to ensure a high level of ‘correctness’ without the unintentional creation of a dependency culture. Barak Rosenshine (2010, 2012), who has summarised over 40 years of research into ten ‘principles for instruction’, outlines as his seventh principle the importance of a ‘high success rate’ in the classroom. In other words, successful classrooms are those in which students become used to getting things right. It is hard to imagine how this could happen without skilful and regular feedback.
I am particularly uncomfortable about the way that the research into the effectiveness of feedback has been used in some schools as the rationale for increasing expectations of marking quantity. Yes, this week, my students have required more written feedback than usual; at other times, however, these classes have only needed a lighter touch. I think quantity of written feedback should be guided by need and nothing else.
I am currently working on a number of strategies to speed up feedback and bring it into the classroom and out of my living room. These include marking with symbols, live marking/editing and gallery critique as well as staple verbal feedback.
Imagine if a school were to make two daring policy decisions.
1) We aim to ensure that the vast majority of marking and feedback will take place during lessons..
2) We aim to ensure that all students get the highest quality feedback at all times.
Are the two mutually exclusive? I am becoming more and more convinced that a nuanced understanding of how to give high-quality feedback is more essential than the quantity and format of that feedback. And what better way to engage teachers in educational research and pedagogy than by offering them a scenario that could potentially decrease workload and improve practice in equal measure?
Feedback. Let’s build it in, not add it on.