As we explored in our previous blogs, breaking out of the dominant assessment model – where a unit of work builds up to a summative assessment – led teachers in our project schools to adapt their curriculum and assessment processes in exciting ways. During the project, teachers gained time because they no longer had to direct all of their teaching towards a single, highly scaffolded summative piece. As can be seen in the fourth blog in our sequence, these curriculum and assessment changes generated a greater volume and variety of student writing, which meant that the way teachers engaged with their students’ writing changed, too. They found that there were far more opportunities for formative assessment: looking at students’ exercise books more regularly, reading and sharing student writing more often during lessons and increasing their adaptations to subsequent lessons by planning responsively. All of this was managed without adding to workload. Here’s what Chloe from John Stone School had to say about marking books specifically:
it’s changing the way we view how we’re doing [marking]. So it’s like every two weeks ‘where is this student at’ [instead of] ‘what can I give as a target for this piece of work’. So it’s like ‘what do I need to work on moving forward’... I think it’s definitely a perception and perspective change. I also think that there’s so much emphasis on ‘have I written what I need to in the books?’, ‘is there red pen?’ because it’s all about accountability... but actually what is asked of you for this [the work of the project] is to be present in the teaching and learning. And not just retrospectively tick a box of getting red pen in the books and saying, ‘look I’ve done it’.
The shift in practice created a change of perspective about the role of teacher feedback. As Chloe highlights, when teachers were no longer structuring work towards a single, final piece, the focus was no longer simply on making sure students worked towards specific, narrow targets, but instead was on ascertaining what they could do and what they needed to develop further, within a wider range of options. Consequently, feedback could be targeted more at what students needed and subsequent lessons could be adapted accordingly. There was also much more material to work with, providing yet more opportunities for teachers to find out about their students and for students to develop their writing repertoires in a range of directions.
What teacher feedback involves and looks like in English is complicated: the subjective nature of the subject means that unlike, say, Maths or Science, where work assessed is generally objective, the judgements English teachers make require nuance and a more subjective approach. It seems to be that it’s a range of formative practices - ones that aim to ‘feed forward’ rather than ‘feed back’ - that make the most difference. In this blog, we’re looking at some of the most effective types of teacher feedback that we saw across the project and sharing a few tentative thoughts.
Different forms of feedback
In the project schools, we noticed a shift in the way teachers gave feedback about their writing. There was more variety, more precision and more dialogic engagement with students. What follows are some examples, drawn from both schools, that we thought worked particularly well.
1. Marking focused on meaning as well as techniques
When working to the dominant assessment model, feedback to writing can prioritise techniques above all else. The problem with this singular focus is that it disregards content and meaning: marking is directed towards how something is said, whether or not it is effective. This didn’t disappear completely during the project, as you can see in Example A below. However, in most cases, once students were guided to write a number of different pieces within a single unit of work, focus shifted more towards thinking about other aspects of writing, such as audience, purpose and form. In Example B, the teacher has made comments that are specific to the meaning of the speech, responding directly to the student’s ideas - ‘need to establish your expertise, who are you?’ and ‘rewrite this so you make the audience think about their children’. These comments work well because they encourage the student to think about how to do this, pushing for further experimentation and practice. The teacher’s written feedback here is more useful than in Example A because it engages with the student’s ideas and gets them to think about what they want to say, not just how they should say it. Consequently, the student is better placed to make tangible changes to their work.
2. Marking engaged in dialogue with students
Engaging in dialogue with students through marking helped to deepen their thinking and develop their writing. In Example C, the student has written a letter to Donald Trump about his views on climate change, trying to persuade him to change his mind. The teacher asked three questions in their written feedback. The student then numbered and answered these, so further developing their writing.
3. Talk was an important source of information about students
Teachers reported that listening to their students was a good way to learn more about what they had understood. They found this happening more when students were given freedom to develop their writing in different ways. Carly from Kiteford said:
...because we’re not focusing on that one end of topic assessment... a lot of our assessment or learning is happening holistically in the classroom through oracy... getting them to talk about [their work] and then listening to those conversations is really nice holistic AfL for me because I can walk around and… you get way more than just pinpointing oh ‘top’, ‘middle’, ‘bottom’ to figure out what they’ve actually taken from the lesson because they’re vocalising it in a more natural way...
4. Planning and teaching was responsive
Vachana, the KS3 co-ordinator at Kiteford, shared an example of how she adapted her planning to address the needs of her class. She had the confidence to use a fundamental principle of rhetoric as the basis for her lesson rather than simply supplying them with a definition:
I started off like ‘actually what is rhetoric?’ … and a lot of them raised their hand and said ‘it’s like rhetorical questions’ and I was like okay, that piece of information is totally missing. Instead of giving them a description of rhetoric I actually had to think before the lesson, okay let’s go there… I asked them to choose a menial thing, anything like a pen or a hair band, ‘alright… give it a value. Okay you’ve given it a value, give it a really big value. So £500 for a hair band. Okay, now sell it to someone in the class. Go and sell it to someone in the class and see if they’re going to buy it. You really have to make it saleable. You’ve got one minute to plan in your head your spiel. Go!’ So they’re thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking and then suddenly the class is in chaos. Everybody is up and ‘£500 for this pen! £1000 for this!’
5. Responding ‘live’ to student work – celebrating, editing and re-directing
Greg, at John Stone, described how he focused more on small adjustments he could make in lessons in order to develop students’ writing while the process was ongoing rather than after the fact:
...at the moment what I’m doing is inviting people up. While we’re doing a task I will sit someone in... my chair and we will watch them work while everybody else is working [under a visualiser].
When asked what he was doing while a student worked at the front, Greg described how he narrated the process. Using a student to live model in this way supported all students in the classroom to understand what he valued about the piece of work in progress.
In another example of this, he demonstrated the benefits of narration as he circulated the room, reading students’ work as they were writing. This practice can encourage editing and refinement and support students with ideas of what successful writing is. He reflected:
...I just very quickly went around to each book and just picked one thing I liked then said it out loud... for example... I said ‘I love his choice of [vocabulary] in the first sentence... if you think that’s really good, take it and use it in your work... if I’ve seen half a dozen books and I think hang on a minute they’re all doing the same thing they shouldn’t be doing, I’ll stop them, we’ll discuss it, we’ll have a go, I’ll model it then they’ll try it out for themselves.
6. Viewing writing as a process, not a product
Greg also emphasised his view that writing was a constant work in progress:
I’m trying to challenge this dah-dah-dah done! No... writing is never done. Never done. And trying to get them out of that mindset of ‘I’ve got to finish the paragraph, it’s done, it’s finished, I never have to look at it again I can move on’... I just keep saying to them ‘just write. Your rule is the pen doesn’t leave the paper... I don’t mind at this stage how good or bad it is, just write what’s in your head’, I think that’s what can slow down especially more conscientious students... Yeah but I want to get it right. Well don’t get it right, write your paragraph, get your green pen.
Altering students’ mindset in this way can help them to recognise the complex nature of English. Additionally, refocusing students’ energy and attention on classwork rather than saving energy for a final summative piece can help students to get comfortable with drafting and the process of honing their craft as writers.
What’s the verdict?
The project helped us to think deeply about what makes effective teacher feedback for writing. Teachers responded well to the opportunity to reflect on their own use of feedback and to try out different strategies. While we can only offer a small-scale overview rather than anything definitive, it seemed that effective practice involved drawing on a range of different kinds of feedback, both written and spoken.
Look out for our next blog when we’ll be focusing on self- and peer-assessment!