Teachers might want to give oral feedback, working with children to correct their ideas. They may wish to work with individuals, or groups, or whole classes to formatively assess knowledge, skills and understanding. To satisfy OFSTED, teachers now need to ensure that children write down their ideas, so they can be given written feedback, so children can respond in writing. It’s even better if you then respond in writing to the children’s written response, in an endless ongoing Penrose Staircase of the kind superbly illustrated by MC Esher in "Ascending, Descending".
If you choose to teach in a different way, you will face serious criticism, as these schools recently judged to be Requires Improvement have found:
"Although pupils' work is regularly marked, teachers do not always provide pupils with clear comments about what they need to do to improve. When teachers provide this information, they do not consistently ensure that pupils follow up the comments."
William Levick Primary School, Dronfield, Sheffield
5-6 February 2014
“Although work is marked regularly, and in some cases teachers make helpful comments about how to improve their work, pupils are not given enough opportunity or time to respond to teachers’ comments and advice and, as a result, some pupils continue to make the same mistakes.”
Canon Popham Church of England Primary and Nursery School, Edenthorpe, Doncaster.
17–18 December 2013.
"Teachers' marking of pupils' work is improving in English and mathematics but is not consistent across the school. In the best examples, pupils are shown what they do well and waht they need to improve. Pupils are then given the opportunity to improve their work using the advice given."
Featherstone Wood Primary School, Stevenage
30-31 January 2014
The Power of Feedback
Anyone involved in teaching will be aware of the power of giving feedback to pupils. If you are asking someone to get better at something, or to learn something new, it makes sense to let them know whether they have understood whatever it is that they are learning, or how to get better at the skill they are trying to master.
Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, authors of the widely praised ‘Inside the Black Box’ (1998) and ‘Assessment for Learning’ (2004) have researched and written extensively on the power of feedback in the form of formative assessment, in which feedback to pupils aims to help students improve their knowledge, skills and understanding rather than simply offer a score of some sort. Black and Wiliam write:
"The research reported here shows conclusively that formative assessment does improve learning. The gains in achievement appear to be quite considerable, [...] among the largest ever reported for educational interventions. As an illustration of how big these gains are, an effect size of 0.7, if it could be achieved on a nationwide scale, would be equivalent to raising the mathematics attainment score of an 'average' country like England, New Zealand or the United States into the 'top five' after the Pacific Rim countries of Singapore, Korea, Japan and Hong Kong."
(Black and Wiliam, 1998, p. 61)
Whilst Effect Size is a contentious statistic, and Dylan Wiliam is aware of the issues surrounding it, saying ‘In retrospect, therefore, it may well have been a mistake to use effect sizes in our booklet “Inside the black box” to indicate the sorts of impact that formative assessment might have,’ this does suggest that something about feedback/formative assessment is a good idea.
The really big beast in the Effect Size jungle is John Hattie, who specialises in meta-analyses using Effect Sizes to assess what works best in education. Hattie is very keen on feedback:
"Of all the factors that make a different to student outcomes, the power of feedback is paramount in any list. The overall effect-sizes of feedback from over 1000 studies based on 50,000+ students reveal that feedback is among the highest of any single factor, and it underpins the causal mechanisms of most of the factors in the top 10-20 factors that enhance achievement."
Peter Lampl’s education charity The Sutton Trust is also very keen on feedback. Their ‘Pupil Premium Toolkit’ which they published in 2011 was taken up enthusiastically by my head teacher of the time, who presented us with the recommendations in the summary and told us that this was the future. Top of the list was ‘Effective Feedback.’ This was summarised as ‘Feedback is information given to the learner and/or the teacher about the learner’s performance relative to the learning goals which then redirects or refocuses either the teachers or the learners actions to achieve the goal.’
The Sutton Trust Toolkit has now been subsumed into work done by the government-funded Education Endowment Foundation and is now the EEF Toolkit. Here, feedback is summarised as ‘information given to the learner and/or the teacher about the learner’s performance relative to learning goals.’
It is worth noting at this point that feedback isn’t always a good idea, however. The EEF say, ‘Feedback studies tend to show very high effects on learning. However, it also has a very high range of effects and some studies show that feedback can have negative effects and make things worse. It is therefore important to understand the potential benefits and the possible limitations of this as an approach.’
The wording of the original Sutton Trust Toolkit document may interest those who like Assessment for Learning and Mastery Learning: “Feedback studies have tended to have high effects on learning. However some studies also show that feedback can have negative effects so it is important to understand the potential benefits and limitations. This was part of the rationale for the design of Assessment for Learning Research‐based approaches which provide feedback to learners, such as Bloom’s ‘mastery learning’, also tend to have a positive impact on learning when used in schools.”
Education thinkers and practitioners have clearly looked hard at ways to let children know how to improve their knowledge, skills and understanding and come to the conclusion that giving feedback is a good idea. Which, intuitively, it seems to be. And there is lots of research to back up that intuition.
One classic way to give feedback to children is to get them to write down some ideas, and then have a teacher respond in some way. Giving written feedback to children takes a huge amount of teacher's time and effort. Many teachers have written about their marking practice, and how and why they mark in the way they do, not least David Didau, Joe Kirby and Andrew Old.
Marking is, however, simply one form of feedback, and it is not the only way to let children know whether they have understood, or how to improve. It is simply one of many ways to provide feedback.
So how have OFSTED turned good, researched-supported practice in an orthodox ‘preferred teaching style’?
The specific references to feedback, assessment and marking in the 2014 School Inspection Handbook are as follows:
Outstanding - Consistently high quality marking and constructive feedback from teachers ensure that pupils make rapid gains.
Good - Teachers assess pupils’ learning and progress regularly and accurately at all key stages, including in the Early Years Foundation Stage. They ensure that pupils know how well they have done and what they need to do to improve.
There are, of course, hundreds of other things which OFSTED say they are looking for when they inspect, but the key point here is that this can be interpreted by inspectors to mean that OFSTED specifically expect teachers to mark work in such a way that the marking clearly demonstrates that teachers are using it to ‘improve pupils’ learning’ (127) and that ‘pupils understand well how to improve their work’ (125).
It appears that ‘formative assessment’ has mutated, in the eyes of far too many OFSTED inspectors who are desperately trying to justify their subjective opinions, into a ‘preferred marking style’ requiring written feedback. In a remarkably short time we have moved from Black and Wiliam identifying and developing effective ways to use formative assessment to assist learning fifteen years ago, to Hattie, the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation jumping on the ‘feedback’ bandwagon, to OFSTED expecting to see children given specific written ‘feedback’ for all their written work, with children responding in writing to the teacher’s writing, and then teachers responding in writing to the children’s writing.
This has imposed huge time demands on children and teachers. The best way of describing this madness I have come across is ‘Triple Marking’, as reported by Cheryllkd after she had met with Elizabeth Truss: “One teacher told her about the ridiculous marking she has to do. It seems ridiculous to me anyway. Triple marking I think it was called. Teacher marks, child comments and then teacher comments on the comment. Wow! How much learning could be happening while all that marking is going on?!”
This week, I asked Twitter how marking had changed in schools recently. It appears that various consultants are advising on updating marking policies to please OFSTED, with extensive written feedback being mandated for all written work. Depressingly, marking is now being graded by Senior Management in some schools, using something akin to OFSTED grades, in an effort to second guess the OFSTED machine before it rolls back into schools, on the search for written feedback.
What do OFSTED Inspectors say about marking?
There is no doubt that inspectors do expect to see children respond to marking, and teachers responding to children's responses (and so on, and on, climbing that endless staircase), and that ‘feedback’ has become synonymous with ‘written feedback’. Much praised Ofsted inspector Mary Myatt confirms this when she writes, “Too often what we see is feedback without any response. So, how can it be moving learning forward? The kid has ignored it, not because they can't be bothered, but because they haven’t been expected to.” The message here is that children should be expected to respond to marking in writing, an expected teaching style regardless of the teacher’s professional judgement as to how to give feedback.
When it comes to marking, “It is better to think of it as feedback," advises Mary. "In other words, a conversation with the child about what they have done well and what they need to do to improve.” A conversation requires responses from both parties, not simply feedback from an expert to a novice. Again, expecting written feedback in a 'conversation' is a preferred style of teaching.
“When it comes to giving feedback on a piece of creative writing," writes Mary, "reasons should always be given for the comment. ‘A high quality piece of work because…’ is much more productive. This is what some schools are referring to as www (what went well). Areas for improvement are often described as ebi (even better if).” Simply reading, and acknowledging that you have read a piece of work, is not a teaching style of which Ofsted approve.
Mary is also aware that high quality feedback takes a lot of time, and thankfully she suggests, “Marking every piece of work is neither necessary nor sensible.” Many schools, however, won’t let teachers do this - because of Ofsted’s preferred teaching style.
Ofsted's orthodoxy of Triple Marking is a preferred teaching style
The stupidity of a hugely time-consuming marking policy is one of the many things which drove me from the classroom. Triple Marking is a preferred teaching style, and it isn’t mine. Yes, I like giving written feedback, and, like the researchers mentioned above, I know that it is powerful when used properly. When you are expected, as many teachers increasingly are, to mark every single piece of written work a child produces in class to an impossibly detailed degree, with 'what they have done well and what they need to do to improve' as Mary Myatt demands – and, boy, can primary children in particular produce a lot of written work, with little encouragement – the written feedback becomes formulaic and worse than useless, resented by teachers and ultimately self-defeating. Ofsted, through its inspectors’ actions and the fear it generates in schools, is imposing this teaching style on more and more schools, and is, once again, having a damaging, negative effect on teaching and learning in England. Those of us in education need to challenge this preferred teaching style and get off the Penrose Staircase of endless 'feedback'.
Thanks to CKeeling (@dackblog) for the Penrose Staircase metaphor - a perfect summary of the situation.