Feedback: let’s build it in, not add it on

Attachment-1Image: @jasonramasami

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.

Related posts:

What if we didn’t mark any books?

Stategic marking for the DIRTy-minded teacher


Adventures with gallery critique


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.)

Screenshot 2014-03-27 21.19.30

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.

Screenshot 2014-03-27 21.21.03

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.


• 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.

What if we didn’t mark any books?


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?

Time-management in education: a win-win solution?


Last academic year I became a union rep. It was quite a surprise to find myself in such a role as I do not have strong political beliefs or tendencies. Even if I passionately believed that we teachers, trusted with such a crucial role, should be afforded pay and conditions commensurate with the responsibility we hold, I had always been uncomfortable with the brash certainties of the unions. To convince me to take on the role, my predecessor advised me that it was about ‘standing up for the common teacher at the chalk-face’.

We all want to do a decent job. We all want to make a difference to young people in the one shot they have at education. Most of us want to become better teachers. The problem is, though, we never seem to have the time to fulfill this. Even the most inspiring CPD sessions can have a counter-productive effect, adding a sense of impending failure to the five-period day we have tomorrow. We become deflated by the realisation that we will not have the time to implement the ideas we were so excited by yesterday. We cross our fingers and hope that our coping strategies will be good enough to see our students – and us – through to the end of the year.

I have become more and more convinced that time-management strategies should play a central part in CPD. How better to sell professional improvement to your colleagues than by presenting them with a win-win scenario? You can have more impact in the classroom and you can save time. It is exciting to imagine that the two ideas might not necessarily be mutually exclusive.

To set my quiet revolution humbly on course, I have been working on the following strategies.

Organising 15 minute time-management ‘forums’ on INSET days. I originally suggested this idea from a union viewpoint, but have enjoyed taking responsibility for it myself. The idea is that a member of staff preferably a teacher with a full timetable – shares a strategy with the whole  staff that is time saving yet also improves the impact of their teaching. I delivered the first 15-minute session on marking in November discussed here and it seemed to go down very well.

 Always on the lookout for quicker options. In meetings and informal discussions, I have made it my business to question strategies that might have quicker, simpler alternatives. Fortunately, this has been made easier by having a department leader who thinks in a similar way to me. It takes a bit of courage to question at first, but if we remain non-confrontational and focus on the solution rather than the problem we can be remarkably successful. Questions such as I love the idea, but is there a quicker alternative? or Would it not be easier to do it like this? should be at the forefront of our discussions. Ultimately, new pedagogical ideas are much more likely to be taken up if teachers can see that the issue of time has been addressed.

Being wary of how I influence others. Like many teachers, I enjoy the challenge of designing tasks and lessons that both engage and instruct. Sometimes these lessons take a while to plan. We need to consider carefully how we share such ideas, especially if we are in the presence of inexperienced teachers who are still getting to grips with the basics and will be eager to please. We should constantly remind colleagues that the weekends and evenings are theirs, and – something I have too often been guilty of – avoid negative boasting’  do you know, I was marking until midnight yesterday. I would dearly love to see teacher standards and lesson observation crtieria that take manageability into account. Should a teacher be judged ‘good’ or outstanding if the observed lesson is clearly not replicable day on day?

Marking and assessment. I have been experimenting with using symbols instead of written comments for years, but over the last few months I have taken it to a new level by using symbols to help me plan strategically for student improvement see here. If you are struggling to write out endless repeated comments, may I suggest you consider switching to a symbols approach? My marking has never been as fast and effective as it has this year.

Behaviour. Purposeful, effective behaviour management is absolutely key. It is our bottom line. The better we enforce routines and expectations in our classrooms, the less time we need to spend following up bad behaviour. I am lucky enough to work in a school where expectations are well supported by SLT; I feel for colleagues in other schools who do not have this safety net. My main advice would be that you keep detentions short. Just keeping a child back for a few minutes can make your point as effectively as keeping them for an hour.

Planning. The trick with medium-term unit planning is to always have a destination in mind. How will they be assessed? When will they be assessed? What will they be assessed on? In my NQT year, I used my holidays to religiously plan every unit in advance, lesson by lesson. I saved the plans onto carefully labelled CD ROMs in the genuine belief that after two years of teaching I would never have to plan again. Oh, how wrong I was! Every class is different, every day is different, the best laid plans of mice and men… We need to be responsive teachers, listening to the needs of our children and adapting our plans within and between lessons to suit them. We must learn to rely on the skills at our fingertips, and remember that there is often little correlation – and sometimes a negative one – between time spent planning and the quality of learning. If our plans are over-detailed, we may lose sight of the needs before us.

Being strict with myself. We cannot escape the reality that during term-time teaching presents us with a heavy workload. It is too easy to blame others for our own shortfalls. Having a couple of ground rules which we diligently stick to is probably the way forward. Firstly, I always treat Friday like any other day and avoid the urge to go home early. Secondly, I hardly ever take marking home I try to stay at school until it is finished. I rarely work at the weekend. Alex Quigleys blog from the weekend (here) on New Year’s resolutions is well worth a read. Don’t worry about how others manage; find ways that suit you and the particulars of your life.

 Dealing with the guilt. Teach your bad lessons well was once my refrain. Bad lessons were classed as ones where I spoke too much, where there were no collaborative tasks, where I spent most of the lesson reading to the class, where I missed out the starter and/or the plenary or the students were just working on one task. Often they were the lessons I spent less time planning. Recently, I have started to ask a new question: what if my under-planned ‘bad’ lessons were really my good lessons? Reading pedagogy has really helped to assuage my conscience. Take Kirschner et al (2006), for example:

In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners.

This evidence is a godsend to those of us who have spent hours and hours of our careers planning activities and resources with the aim of helping students construct their own meaning. While I am no enemy of engagement and independence, surely we can all feel a little less guilty about teaching from the front. Ofsted, thankfully, appear to have seen sense in their new subsidiary guidance.


This is the argument of one ordinary classroom teacher and the difference, however small, I am trying to make. Shaun Allison, Deputy Head at my school, has written a great blog here calling for us to focus on simple principles, instead of wasting away our time on unnecessary frivolities. Let us hope that more school leaders follow suit.

Lost time is never found again’ – so wrote Benjamin Franklin. If we are going to genuinely improve both the life chances of our young people – not to mention our own life expectancies –  we might need to rethink our relationship with time in 2014.

And with that I wish you a Happy New Year!

Further reading

Michael Tidd has been re-blogging excellent time-management articles here.

It takes time to write


‘Less is more.’

‘Quality over quantity.’

‘Brevity is the soul of wit.’

Such aphorisms may be common parlance, yet I wonder how much heed we take of them in our day-to-day teaching practice. Time, as we know, is precious; learning time is easily frittered away on meaningless trivialities.  My question is this: are we using time effectively in our classrooms and, in particular, how well are we helping our students to manage the time they spend writing?

Students who struggle with writing seem to fall into two camps: they either write too little or they write too much. Either they cannot – or, at least, believe that they cannot – imagine the next step on the journey, or they fast-forward to the finishing post ignoring the steps a good writer must take to achieve genuine success. So, how do we encourage our students to write at a pace conducive to both quality and quantity?

Recently, I have been experimenting with slowing down. In my English department, we have found one of David Didau’s ‘slow writing’ strategies to be revolutionary – read his post here. In short, the teacher gives students a series of instructions about how to form each sentence within a paragraph (begin the first sentence with an adverb; begin the second sentence with a simile; write a third sentence of only five words etc.). It works so well because students have to stop and think between sentences. Each sentence becomes a ‘sub-goal’, a necessary stage in the procedure of writing.

Here are two examples from one of my students, a reasonably able year 9 boy. In the first creative writing task I had not given explicit sentence instructions; in the second I had. The difference in quality is clear to see:

 Example 2

Example 1

Last weekend, when reading a chapter on how knowledge is stored in the mind in Hattie and Yates’ Visible Learning and the Science of how we Learn, I was struck by the concept of ‘procedural knowledge’:

“Procedural knowledge implies a sequence of sub goals. A task is broken down into components where each component is a distinct step to be defined and mastered. This entails a series of if-then contingencies.”

To what extent, then, can the writing process be classified as a procedure of ‘if-then contingencies’? If a complex sentence has been used, then follow it with a short, simple sentence. If a verb has been used at the start of a sentence, then follow it with a sentence starting not with a verb, but perhaps an adverb… and so on.

Yet surely, you might reasonably claim, writing is about free-thinking and fluency, not about adherence to hard-and-fast rules?

Based on the evidence from my own classroom, I am not convinced that relying solely on a free-thinking approach helps the novice writer to learn or retain anything meaningful. I have often been guilty of setting tasks such as ‘write an essay on’ or ‘write a crime story’ with the knowledge that my students can barely form, let alone organise, their sentences.

Consider this analogy. If you were to give a learner driver, who had had some basic training in the use of the foot-pedals and steering-wheel, a set of car keys and ask him to drive from London to Newcastle, he might, with luck, arrive safely. On the journey, he might hone some coping strategies, and perhaps as a result might think himself a more competent driver. Yet many complex driving skills that take time and practice – say negotiating a roundabout or learning how to reverse park – would have been overlooked totally. That’s why we have driving lessons: to teach, slowly, the complex procedural knowledge of how to drive. And do you know what? Almost all of us eventually pass.

In the same way, we need to teach our students to write in careful stages, so that they avoid racing to the finishing line and learning little en-route. That is why at KS3, and when possible with KS4, I am breaking writing into smaller sub-goals and attempting to reinvent the notion of ‘finishing’.

Hattie and Yates’ also assert that “the simple truth is that procedural learning (a) is slow and (b) requires much feedback and extended practice.” ‘Slow writing’, therefore, should not become a selection of nifty strategies to be used once in a while; instead, if it is to have genuine and sustained impact, it should be extended into a fully-fledged teaching philosophy.

So, in a world and educational climate in thrall to the concept of ‘rapid progress’ and silly quick-fixes, how can we sell slow to our students? Here are a few strategies I am working on (in no particular order). These are about getting students to think more carefully at the point of writing, not about the redrafting process:

·       Limit ‘end thinking’ and focus on ‘stage thinking’. We should create meaningful obstructions that force our students to stop and think about a sentence or paragraph before – and while – writing it. David Didau’s example discussed above works brilliantly. As students become more proficient they can design their own sentence descriptors. Another incredibly simple strategy is to enforce the rule that no sentence in a piece of writing should start with the same word.

·       Provide more structure so that students focus on the how and not just the what. When writing creatively, students can be given a fixed storyline that they must follow in a set number of paragraphs. Alternatively, write the first and last paragraphs for them (or together). Both strategies help to alleviate the ‘cognitive load’ created by having to tell the story and craft fantastic sentences simultaneously. If students are planning themselves, make sure that each paragraph is planned thoroughly in terms of both content and technique before they begin (modelling the process in detail is also vital).

·       Pause writing tasks regularly for critique. I find this to be particularly useful after the first paragraph is complete so that any bad habits are weeded out as early as possible. This only need take a few minutes. At the moment, I am photographing paragraphs with the CamScanner app on my iPhone, uploading them onto Dropbox on the PC and then critiquing them as a class. I tend to pick an above average piece that still needs some work – that way the critique is useful to all.

·       Focus on handwriting and presentation. We must ensure that  the act of writing is given an elevated position. A student’s attitude towards writing can often be inferred from their handwriting. A couple of tips. Get the student to rewrite it if you cannot read it (this worked brilliantly only last week for me). Let them know that their work may be chosen for the class critique and that the rest of the class will desperately want to be able to read their great ideas. Nevertheless, it is important that students recognise that the messiness of editing is to be applauded.

·       Create maximum quantity limits rather than minimum expectations. I am sure that we have all looked at the exercise books of our colleagues’ classes and experienced a pang of failure when realising that students in other classes have written twice as much as ours. This teacher mindset, however, is damaging. Simply telling students that they need to write 3, not 5, paragraphs, will take away unnecessary pressure and give them the time to think about improvement. Effort only equals success when the effort is pin-pointed on deliberate improvement.

·        Control the pace of writing – Tell your students that they must not move on to the next paragraph until 10 minutes (or another arbitrary figure) is up. Ensure your classes know a range of editing strategies so that those who ‘finish’ first can improve their work. It is important that a correlation between ‘coming first’ and ‘success’ is not encouraged in the classroom.

·         Broaden the ‘slow writing’ approach to all writing. As an English teacher, I now teach ‘reading’ skills by focusing on the language – or ‘genre’ – of literary analysis. One of the most truly liberating things I have done of late is to kiss farewell to PEE. It is far too clunky and simplistic. Students do not write sentences like the one below if they are only taught PEE. (See my post on the ‘sentence escalator’ for more ideas.)

new doc_1


·        Cut out unnecessary lesson and curriculum content.  To allow the time for genuine deep learning, we need to pare-down our practice so that we can give reasonable time to the curriculum areas that make a difference. See Alex Quigley’s brilliant post on curriculum design and ‘threshold concepts’ – here – for fantastic thinking in this area.

·         Repeat learning. A wealth of cognitive science research – as well as what we experience with our own eyes – makes it abundantly clear that students recall only a small percentage of what we hope they will learn. Joe Kirby’s brilliant post last weekend on creating a ‘mastery assessment’ system based on memory – available here – is a must-read. We must not be afraid to return to the same writing skills over and over again – not only to hone them, but just to get the students to remember them.

You may have read this post and wondered whether I am advocating ‘spoon-feeding’. I am not. Independent, imaginative and resilient young writers are what we all hope to create.  The strategies above are designed to scaffold the very best writing from all. I have found them worthwhile when teaching the full range of abilities.

There is no such thing as perfection; everyone can improve if they are given time to write…

Marking: minimum effort for maximum pleasure


This is my eighth year as a secondary English teacher. I teach a full timetable of lessons and it would be a fair estimate to say that I spend, on average, an hour a day marking… or in other words over 8 full days an academic year bent over a never-ending pile of biro-scrawled offerings.

At the beginning of this year, I decided to take a step back.  What is time well spent and what, quite frankly, is a waste of time? Could I realistically cut down the marking hours, yet continue to have a positive impact on my students? Or even better: could I claw back precious time, yet have an even greater impact on student progress than I once did. Minimum effort for maximum pleasure, you might say.

With this in mind, I have devised a strategy of using symbols, rather than laboriously writing out repeated comments in the students’ books. Have a look at this slide:


I had been marking a class set of Y10 essays on John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novella Of Mice and Men. Instead of writing out comments slowly – and slowly it must be; my handwriting is pitifully awful – over and over again, I scribbled praise comments and targets on a piece of paper. In their books I used symbols in their place. If, for instance, a student had shown analysis of language at B-standard, I would write **%; if they also needed to improve the way they made links to the novel’s context, I would write T4. Each time another student required similar praise comments or targets, the symbol could be repeated. Stars for ‘good’, ‘very good’ and ‘excellent’; symbols for the criterion successfully hit. As new praise comments and targets became necessary, new symbols were produced and quickly added to the handwritten list. When the work was handed back, students copied them from the PowerPoint slide I had quickly produced. Simple.


What I love about this system is that praise and targets are not pre-ordained (as it would be with a generic target list worked out before I had started marking). The targets are instead my direct response to their work – and thus still individualised. It also means that:

  • Students have to read their comments as well as their grade. (There is a lot of research to suggest that students rarely read comments when coupled with a grade.)
  •  Lesson time is not wasted deciphering my handwriting – Sir, does this say ‘elephant’?
  • Praise is much more focused on assessment criteria than it once was.
  •   I win back in the region of one minute per student, or, let’s say, an hour a week.
  •  It can be used again – modifications necessary of course – next time round. It is also a useful tool for guiding future peer- and self-assessment.

So where next? There has been a lot of buzz on twitter lately about DIRT (Directed Improvement and Reflection Time). Too often in the past, I have assiduously set targets, yet left it at that. Right, kids, there’s your Of Mice and Men target – now we’re doing Shakespeare. Without time to act upon them, targets are left to rot… and rot they do.

The target symbols can really help with DIRT, as they can be linked to scaffolded tasks that support improvement:



This, however, is not without its pitfalls. As I have discovered, the DIRT tasks do not always miraculously lead to oceans of beautifully sustained progress. The student below was set T7 (see slide above):


The left hand piece was his original paragraph; the right hand his improved one. He has hit his target – improving his expression through better vocabulary choices – yet only superficially so.  The link between the quotation and the 1930s context is woolly to say the least in the second as well as the first paragraph. There is still not sufficient explanation as to why the phrase ‘one behind the other’ demonstrates that they were ‘very close friends’ or ‘had a strong companionship’. Something else was needed.

Yet, in other circumstances it worked well. This student was asked to write a completely new paragraph (on the right hand side) in response to part b of the question.



Her second attempt is a significant improvement on her first, if, albeit, a paragraph with a very different focus. On reflection, it seems to me that the first student was in fact completing a reflective task, rather than an improvement task. By asking him to rewrite  a failed paragraph, he was always going to be restricted by the limitations of his first attempt – trapped forever, you might say, in its clunky assumptions. The second student had more of a chance to improve because, quite simply, she had been given a task that genuinely gave her the freedom to do so.

My DIRT strategy from now on will be two tiered:

  • Students begin by reflecting on their original piece by correcting SPG errors, improving vocabulary and responding to any questions I have written in their books (writing these could also be streamlined with a symbols approach).
  • They will then complete a written task, free from the shackles of their original offering, with the aim of improving their work by focusing on one target I have set and one target they have chosen from the list.

And this is precisely what time-saving strategies are about. They release us from our – too often – self-imposed prison cells to allow us the thinking space to become truly reflective. Minimum effort really can lead to maximum pleasure; our students can only benefit as a result.