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.

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.

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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

Strategic marking for the DIRTy-minded teacher

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This academic year has heralded a profound change in my approach to assessment. I now mark with feedback strategies in mind. Some classic blog posts have influenced my thinking: Tom Sherringtons, David Didaus and Mary Myatts.

It is not easy to mark and plan simultaneously. If our students are to both respond thoughtfully and ‘close the gap’, our assessment must be detailed, purposeful and strategic. The structure and organisation of the improvement lessons and tasks has to be at the forefront of our minds at the point of marking. Without rigourous planning, these improvement lessons, which are a test of our flexible thinking, can become and I am speaking from experience here a complete shambles. Remember this too: DIRT (directed improvement and reflection time) is dedicated to learning that students have already struggled with. This inevitably has implications on how smoothly the lesson will run.

 Try asking these questions:

·         Which is most suitable – a redraft of the original task or a new approach to the learning?

·         How much curriculum time do I realistically have available and how can this be best used?

·         How will I model and scaffold the learning again (taking into account that we have identified weaknesses and not strengths)?

·         What will I do if the initial improvement task is unsuccessful?

Below are some strategies I am developing in my English lessons.

10 minutes of gritty editing. The first thing I always do – the ‘starter’ if you like – is that I get my students to respond to spelling, punctuation and grammar errors which I have circled and coded. I insist on complete silence (to avoid 25 helpless cries of ‘Sir’) and ensure that dictionaries, thesauruses, green pens so that I can easily identify their editing – and post-its are available. They must edit alone. If students want to ask a question – only one each – then it can be written on a post-it note and stuck on my desk. I also highlight any words I feel they could find a better alternative for and indicate with questions and symbols where they need to elaborate. My colleague, Kate Bloomfield, uses asterisks in the margins to indicate the number of errors per line this encourages students to seek and rectify the mistakes themselves.

gritty editing

Redrafting. If we just ask students to redraft, they will inevitably rewrite their original with better handwriting. A pointless waste of time. First we must model the editing process carefully. Some students may need help with concision. David Didau’s post this week – here – on encouraging his students to cut 20% of the content is a great strategy. Others struggle with elaboration. My colleague, Gav McCusker, asks his students to edit creative writing in layers – add a layer of similes, a layer of vivid verbs etc.

When can I find the time for redrafting? Time in our modern curriculum, unfortunately, does not allow for redrafting everything. Instead, we can quickly redraft at paragraph or even sentence level (see my post on the sentence escalator here for some ideas). Setting DIRT as homework has been incredibly successful I have found, especially if I mark the first draft only for improvement, withholding levels for the final draft produced at home. My less-able year 11 group use our fortnightly Friday, period 5 lesson to type up and improve a piece of work I have marked from the past two weeks. The line “the weekend does not start until you have improved” has become my refrain.

Creating new tasks focused on target areas. Allowing ourselves to become completely blinkered by the power of the redrafting process might be a mistake. If a students work is based on poorly conceived ideas, or simply does not cut the mustard, starting from scratch on a new or similar task creates a useful clean slate. New tasks show students that writing knowledge must be remembered and transferred to new contexts; they also enable us to manage the process in a  faster, sharply-focused way. After feeding back on a Y9 creative writing task written from the  perspective of a WW2 soldier, I asked students to write a descriptive paragraph in response to a wartime photograph using the following improvement targets (I had written the ‘t-numbers’ in their books):

 DIRT targets

Modelling and scaffolding.  This is where DIRT gets hard. How do we model and scaffold improvement strategies with a mixed-ability class who may need signposting in a multitude of directions? How can we simultaneously  provide 30 students with the individual guidance needed to ‘close the gap’? You will notice from the above slide that I have found one way of solving this. The improvement task is linked to the targets as well as 10 italicised scaffolds.

Another strategy that I have mentioned in a previous post is DIRTy modelling. The teacher writes a paragraph or so with the whole gamut of improvement areas covered and shares it with the class – students identify how they can improve by seeing how the teacher has met their targets in the model.

Reflecting on what went well. If you double-tick excellent passages and sentences, students can reflect and write analytically about why you have ticked here. It is a great way not only of helping students to reflect on positives, but also of reinforcing  analytical writing techniques – the analysis, in this case, is of their own writing. Comparative writing techniques can be worked on through highlighting a good and not-so-good sentence and asking students to write a comparison of the two, explaining why one is more sophisticated or accurate than the other.

Drills. Certainly not fashionable, but probably very effective. Write out your spelling mistakes 5 times. Write out 5 sentences with a correctly used semi-colon. Write out 5 sentences beginning with an …ing verb etc.

Re-teaching. Why are we so frightened of repeating ourselves? Why not just go over all the learning once more, irrespective of who got it the first time round? The research that Hattie and Yates have surveyed convincingly argues that we should repeat learning, that students should over-learn. If we repeat something that some students already know, we are reinforcing and strengthening this learning, so that it is not forgotten. Cognitive science research demonstrates this, yet many of us are frightened that repetition means no learning. As long as this kind of feedback is speedy and focused, surely it has a place, particularly when we need to feed back quickly.

Flexible curricular. If we are serious about improvement, we must centralise the feed-forward process thanks to David Fawcett‘s post for introducing me to this term – in the curriculum, streamlining superfluous subject content where we can. Our ruthlessness will be to our students’ benefit. Not only should our short-term planning be directed by assessment, so should our long-term planning. The next unit of work we plan, and even next years curriculum, must be informed by our findings. Over-prescriptive curricular and schemes-of-work can be the enemy of learning.

Ultimately, the planning and management of improvement tasks is more challenging than it first appears. I am very much a novice. My hunch is that the more strategies we have at our fingertips, the more skilful we can become at ‘closing the gap’.

Related blog posts:

My post – Marking: minimum impact for maximum pleasure.

Harry Fletcher-Wood – Slovenly language and foolish thoughts: howcan I help my students get better at writing history essays?

Canons Broadside – DIRTy ToEs – Differentiation by Assessment

Shaun Allsion – Marking Matters

Mark Miller – Revision Before Redrafting

Belmont Teach – Fast Feedback