Sunday, 24 November 2013

Can I be that little bit better at......helping teachers yearn for the vast and endless sea?

Last month I was very honored to be asked to kick off the evening at #TMCowes.  I love events like this as it brings together like minded individuals who want to improve and make a difference.  My talk on the night was about how we as individuals can make a difference to our own teaching.  Intertwined with that was how we can go back to our schools and help others make the steps they need to improve.  As teachers we work within a larger organisation, and as a member of that, we have the responsibility and the ability to make things better.  So, my chat (which goes off on many tangents) on the evening was titled 'Can we we be that little bit better at helping teachers yearn for the vast and endless sea'?

To begin with....

During the end of my second year of teaching, there was a job position made available for an expanding team within our school which sole purpose was to work with our AST and develop teaching and learning.  As you can guess, I went for the job which was being described as a 'Learning Innovator'.  The position was a dream job for me at the time and gave me a real opportunity to have an impact in the quality of teaching with colleagues.  The interview process was brilliant and involved an open presentation section in front of all of the other candidates and the selection panel made up of three middle leaders.  The presentations were excellent and as all predictable stories go, I was last up.  If I am honest, I was very hesitant because I had just seen what everyone else had said and as you would expect, doubted if what I had to say could match the quality already demonstrated.  I gave it a good go and a number of minutes later, finished my vision and waited for the panel to pose questions.  Would they quiz me about my strategic planning, the roll out of my ideas, the way I would monitor its impact?  There was the usual pause before the then head of RE, known for her straight talking, simply looked at me and said "Bloomin' heck Dave, you'd make a bloody good used car salesman!"  And with that I embarked on a journey with an amazing team to develop teaching and learning.  

Now, before this fairy-tale story goes on, the job has made me learn a lot of things.  I have found out over the years that ideas can't be forced onto people.  I've learnt that what seems like a great idea might not actually be one.  Sometimes what we want to embed doesn't actually impact other teachers so it doesn't become embedded.  What I presented at my interview was a prime example of this, and something I will embarrassingly divulge later.  My point is this, doing the job for a number of years taught me something that I didn't know it would at the start.  It taught me that if we want people to drive teaching and learning whole school, the idea of one person with a one size fits all model, doesn't always work.  Yes we need whole school improvement and consistency, but proposing a strategy needs everyone to be involved, to have ownership and to feel that the process is of value to the teaching and learning in their classroom.  Teachers are smart and no amount of 'used car salesman' qualities can ever convince them to do something they know won't work for them. 

So over the years my thoughts about teaching and learning have changed numerous times.  We all do it and it's a natural process.  I've read, I've discussed, I've researched, I've made up my mind, I've changed my mind (repeating this process over and over again).  The last two years have been a particular turning point and the engagement with social media in the form of Twitter has meant that I have instant access to support, research, experience, debate and ideas.  There are days where my head is spinning with thoughts about teaching but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Experience allows me to filter the wheat from the chaff.  I love the profession and want to be the best I can be.  Not for pride or status, but to make a difference and have an impact with the young minds I work with.

But there are days when the million other things that we have to deal with can cause us to feel we aren’t doing our job as well as we could.  Occasionally the endless deadlines and paperwork mean sometimes thinking about lessons and improving teaching takes a back seat.  At these times teachers probably don’t need criticism about their teaching or ideas to be imposed.  Many of us are reflective enough to know things aren’t good enough.  Instead they need systems or mechanisms in place to support them.  Personally I am skilled enough to know when my lessons aren’t up to scratch.  And like other teachers at these times, I need to know that I can be better.

Now I understand that sometimes a stronger intervention needs to be taken with some staff.  Sometimes these colleagues are unable to analyse areas that they need to improve on.  But as a whole school focus, whatever systems or CPD programmes we put in place, we need to encourage all teachers to focus on being that little bit better.  Can we create that culture among staff to themselves become growth learners who are striving to improve?

So ‘what’ have I learnt that might help others?

So back to my own experience.  When I was an NQT I had a fantastic mentor.  There were times when we never saw eye to eye but I was always encouraged to take control of my development.  At the right times I had her experience shared with me so that I could make the steps forward.  Other times I was given opportunities to go forward and seek answers for myself.  I never had a method or idea forced upon me.  I wasn’t told ‘you have to teach this way!”  Of course I had examples and ideas shared, but the process she took allowed me to develop into a reflective practitioner and skilled me up to analyse what I did.  As an NQT mentor now, I try to follow a similar process.  It’s not simply telling NQT’s what to do, but showing them how to reflect, analyse, improve and move forward.  We need to instil that innate culture early on in their career so that they continue for years to come.  Only then can we hope that 10 years down the line they are still demonstrating that growth mind-set to continue to go forward and improve.

My NQT year also shared with the best piece of advice I have ever had if I want to continue to keep improving: “Stay away from the vampires in the staffroom.  They’ll suck the life out of you”.  Now we all know individuals (not just in teaching) who have to put a negative spin on everything and are reluctant to involve in change.  And for years I would stay away from them in order to keep myself positive and keen to improve.  But it is these people that we need to encourage.  We need to make them see that the daylight isn’t such a bad thing.  Instead of categorising them and avoiding them, we need to be bringing them back to the core purpose of teaching and help them find that spark again.  Their opinions and arguments actually help make whatever policy or strategy that is being rolled out stronger.  Listen to them and then challenge them to respond.  It may take time, it might be tough, there may even need to be difficult discussions, but getting all staff to regain that infectious bug of teaching and learning is a crucial thing.

Why is it though that teaching & learning and our own development can stutter or take a back seat?  Well there are numerous things that happen that just seem to get in the way.  It seems as teachers we get beaten by a lot of sticks.  There can be weeks or months when the constant data trawls, target setting, paperwork and so on seems endless.  Time for T&L seems to be eaten up in an instant.  Now I understand the importance of these and how many are non-negotiable in schools.  But I truly believe that we shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the stick, but instead we should be looking at what sticks.  We should be focusing on the students and investigating methods that help learning stick with them.  Time doesn’t seem readily available on occasions, but the importance of reading, researching, collaborating and practicing methods are essential if we are to drive T&L up.  If we are to drive whole school teaching and learning with every teacher, things need to give and more time needs to be allocated to what really matters.

Teaching and learning can also be influenced by things outside of our school walls.  Unfortunately there are these guys.  Ofsted.  I rarely talk about them.  Their influence and effect on numerous teachers (including myself) have made very competent individuals do things they wouldn’t normally do.  The biggest worry though is what Alistair Smith talked about at #TLAB13.  He said that there is something much worse than Ofsted and I tend to agree.  He labelled this monster the ‘Ofsted whisperers’.  Filtering back to schools and talked about in staffrooms are the various myths about what the big ‘O’ are looking for.  These have many teachers scrambling for their lesson plans and adding things that are never usually there.  The myths change the way teachers teach and all of a sudden our focus isn’t what the students need, but instead is what ‘they’ might want to see.  This is where we need to be brave and remember what our job is.  We need to focus on the T&L that works for the students we teach, in our lessons, for the subjects we know so much about.  We need to be conscious that we don’t become tick box robots, influenced by the whisperers, but instead be confident enough to do the right thing for those in front of us.

And then there is the ‘bandwagon’.  There are times when new ideas sweep into the profession and take the classroom by storm.  Some are absolutely fantastic and have a huge impact on learning.  Some are distorted, slimmed down or misinterpreted and lose their power.  And there are those which have no effect or benefit to learning at all.  A number of times, we as teachers become too focused on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of a method.  When time isn’t always readily available to really scrutinise something new, we simply want to find out how to use it before adding it to our repertoire.  I have been on both sides of this conundrum.  During my presentation (which I talked about earlier) I inadvertently launched learning styles on our whole school.  I will say no more!  Over the last few years I have also trialled numerous approaches and methods in my classroom.  Both as you will guess each had mixed successes.  What I have learnt though is not to be on the bandwagon.  Instead I aim to become the man, who in the picture, is stood on the tracks beside the train.  This man in my opinion assesses the ‘why’ of a method before using it.  If we are to engage all staff, especially those who need it the most, we need to not just throw the ‘what’ and ‘how’ their way.  We don’t need to bamboozle or muddle teaching with numerous gimmicks and strategies.  Instead we need to either explain the ‘why’ to them (the benefit, impact, potential) or skill them up to do this analysis themselves.  Simplify the teaching and use what works.

This year I have been privileged to have heard a number of inspirational teachers speak at conferences.  At #pedagoolondon, the amazing Kev Bartle talked about bringing on the ‘Trojan Mice’.  This speech constantly goes through my head and has had such a powerful influence on my thinking.  Explaining it here won’t do it justice, but one thing he talked about was how little ideas, driven from the bottom up (our classrooms) can grow and become a powerful driver in whole school teaching and learning.  His speech empowers teachers to go ‘guerrilla’ and try things.  He encourages the sharing and collaboration of ideas.  It recognises that teachers are professional enough to choose methods that work for students, rather than having ideas forced upon them.  This can be a powerful message to engage those colleagues who need support.  By challenging them to trial and investigate ideas themselves, or collaborating them with others, we can take that small step to bring T&L back to the forefront of their thinking.

There have also been calls to ‘reclaim your classroom’ from some quarters.  Now I don’t picture scenes from Le Miserable with barricades and revolutions.  Although I agree that we should be given the responsibility to take ownership of our development, I don’t think things are as bad as that.  What I do agree with in this call is that we need to focus on what works well for us and our students.  If teaching and learning is the number one thing for a teacher, can we set up systems that free up time for teachers to focus on it?  Reclaiming your classroom to me is releasing the shackles that may be the reason that some feel held back.  It’s about giving individuals the autonomy to focus on what works best for them and the students in their subject.  I know I may be repeating this point but I really think this ideology can be a great thing if structures and systems are in place to support it.

And this is one of the reasons why in October this year we ran #TLT13.  The Teachmeet movement and various teacher led conferences give people the chance to meet and discuss pedagogy.  Many are out of school hours and not directed time but so many are well attended.  Teachers look to focus on things that matter to them, taking away what they need and having discussions that will help them move their practice forward.  As a colleague of mine said after #TLT13, “It’s helped me fall back in love with my craft”.  And that’s simply what it’s about.  But can we create this spark within schools and with all teachers?

Why though?

The big question though is why?  Why should we be so concerned with continually getting better?  Why should we do anything different?  Why should we be trying to be that little bit better?  And when we feel ready, why should we go out and help our colleagues.  Well because you are reading this or you heard this speech at #TMCowes, you yourself are probably already on a journey of improvement.  You are already actively engaging in moving your practice forward.  By doing so and monitoring the impact of it, you are benefiting the students you teach.  You are playing your part in improving teaching and learning and know your school, its departments and teachers better than anyone outside of its walls.

Now when I was growing up I never thought about being a teacher.  I was inspired by many, but it never crossed my mind as a potential career choice.  My main sport which I played for years on end was Basketball.  My hero was Michael Jordan.  We would stay up late into the night to catch live games and see coverage of the NBA play offs.  The best job in the world in my eyes at an early age was being a professional Basketball player.  Something happened during college that made me completely change courses and rethink my career.  Now as a teacher, I look back and think it would have been nice to fulfill my dream, but I genuinely believe I have the best job in the world.  I think that as a teacher we work with amazing people and shape the lives of others.  We do this job because we love working with young minds and guiding them through their education.  I now no longer want to be a Basketball player.  Instead I want to be the Michael Jordan of teaching.  This is a guy who had set backs, had responsibility, had failures, had successes, had days of continual practice and days of victory.  His ability to learn and develop from every situation is something I try in some small way to emulate.  It's this mentality that we need to develop across the school.

The reason so is because of the students and making a difference.  I am all aware that this isn't always the case though.  A few years back in my own teaching I had an arch-nemesis.  A student who I think came into school on the days I taught him, simply to destroy it within 2 minutes.  There are days when teaching and learning probably falls off of our radar and we instead start to self doubt or wondered if there is any point.  There is though.  I had a student who by many was seen as 'off of the rails'.  He would be in the head of years office on a daily basis and that look would appear on teachers faces when his name was mentioned.  I worked hard in my methods to ensure that when I taught him, I provided an opportunity for him to achieve.  In return, this student worked his socks off and engaged with the subject.  He continuously resubmitted work, sought advice and asked for feedback.  When it looked as though he wouldn't do well, he walked away with an A*.  School is about building these relationships.  It's also about sharing the passion for our subject with students.  On those days when things have gone worse than expected, I have seen teachers brush themselves off, look at what they do in lessons, evaluate their approach and come back the next day that little bit better.  I've been there myself many a time.  These teachers make me want to be better and its this development, even on a small day by day scale, that has the impact in lessons with the students we teach.

Jamie Portman kicked off #TLT13 and made me think about the value of school.  His school unfortunately burnt down in 2009.  For 3 months, students at his school were taught in a shared Primary school, a moth-balled Special School, rooms in a Youth Club and office spaces in a local wood yard.  What he learned from the experience was incredible and has stuck in my mind since his speech: 'Buildings don't make a school - the community does'.  What we do on a daily basis probably makes it hard to see this.  We use the same facilities every day and rely on the resources and systems in place.  This situation made every member of staff at Jamie's school have to think on their feet to deliver low energy - high impact T&L methods into these relocated lessons.  The story is inspirational and one we can all learn from.  For me, it points out the fact that when everything else is gone, the teachers (as well as the students, parents.......) are really what matters.  Adapting on a daily basis, reflecting on lessons and actively seeking to be better, in the various situations we face, is inspiring.  Therefore our development and improvement is critical.

We as teachers can also be powerful at creating environments for students to produce great things.  Sometimes we need to take risks to make these things happen.  In 2012, I sat in my front room and was dazzled my the Olympics.  In particular I fell in love with cycling.  Then a very dangerous thing happened.  Knowing that in September my Year 11 GCSE PE class would be moving onto science, technology, ICT, role models, media and sponsorship in sport, I planned out and ran a PBL project.  It was a risky and to some, a stupid thing to do in an exam year.  The project itself was a huge success.  I learnt so much from it and realised that even if I never used PBL again, there were so many elements that will improve my teaching.  What if I hadn't taken the risk?  Would I still be doing the same old thing?  It also brought about one of my career highlights.  During one of the presentations, one of the girls spoke a sentence before breaking into tears in front of a packed audience.  The pressure had got to her.  I ushered her partner to continue the speech and see it through.  Stepping up to the challenge, her friend continued the talk.  Without any signal or signs, the girl who only seconds before felt she couldn't continue, picked up at her next speaking section and delivered a presentation that differed completely to moments before.  Confidence oozed and I was one of the proudest people in that room to see a student overcome a massive challenge and finish what she had started.  Students can do amazing things and it's us that has a huge influence on that.  Worth remembering on days when we feel lost!

The work of Ron Berger and his book 'An Ethic of Excellence' also strikes a note here.  If you have never read the book I would highly recommend it.  If anything is going to reinvigorate you as a teacher, this will.  If you can't wait, I would urge you to see the You Tube clip of Austin's butterfly.  What it does is remind us that with our highly skilled intervention in the classroom, and setting up a culture and ethos with students, we can help them create some truly beautiful work and make a difference to their lives.  We all remember our favorite teachers, and more often than not, it was because they cared enough to make us the best we can be.

Back to reality and I understand that with all of the reasons and pep talks that sometimes we can feel very insignificant.  I have been there myself and even wrote an email a few years back to a well known educational writer when I felt lost.  At this time I couldn't make sense of teaching and was frustrated most days with what I was delivering.  In my eyes I was simply not good enough.  In the email I asked numerous questions.  At one point I even asked how to become a 'superteacher'.  The response I got was that I shouldn't be looking for this.  It's a myth and doesn't exist.  We see others do amazing things in public, but rarely do we see this amazing teachers have off days. We all have them and we are all human.  All we can do is focus on making ourselves better through focused development.  Looking back now these are incredibly wise words.  I felt worthless compared to some amazing colleagues, but instead of this holding me back, I learnt that I can only control what I do and need to focus on precisely that.  

If we are going to be better, we can do no worse than listening to the (adapted) Stephen Covey quote and keep the main thing the main thing.  Maybe that should be part of the message we use with all staff.  Forget what doesn't work, forget all of the gimmicks.  Instead strip back all that you do and have the bravery to focus on the main thing.  Focus on how to make yourself that little bit better.  Focus on making the learning in your classroom, and ultimately across school, the best it can be today.  Then plan for tomorrow.

Okay, so how?

Many people have blogged about Professor Dylan Wiliam's keynote speech at the SSAT conference.  The points that he makes are incredibly powerful and sum up much of what I have talked about so far.  In his presentation, Wiliam talked about how to raise the quality of teaching.  He talks about how it takes 10 years for expertise to develop.  Unfortunately, teachers slow, and most teachers stop improving after 2 or 3 years.  We do this, as he says, because in the first few years, teaching as an environment is challenging.  As we grapple with the job, we continue to improve.  As we get comfortable with routines and management of our lessons, we then begin to coast.  He highlights the point again that as individuals we need to spend 10 years deliberately practicing and improving what we do in order to become expert at our job.   But when do we realistically stop?  Have we taken our foot of the gas.  Do we get to the stage where we think that what we do works, so lets just continue to go with the flow?  If so, it is important that we get this message out there.  We need to personally think about the long haul and embark upon this journey.  Once we are on it, we then need to get colleagues on board as well.  Wiliam finishes by saying "If we create a culture where every teacher needs to improve, not because they're not good enough, but because they can be even better, there is no limit in what we can achieve if we support our teachers in the right way".

So how can we go for 10 years?  Well obviously setting goals that far ahead is too vague and very unrealistic.  Instead we can learn from Sir Dave Brailsford and the ethos behind Team GB and Team Sky.  I am sure you are all aware of the now familiar phrase of 'marginal gains'.  Brailsford and the team believe that if he can make 1% improvement with the riders, the equipment, the materials, the facilities and the training, it will collectively have a greater effect in competition.  As teachers we can also learn from this and look to improve our own practice 1% at a time.  Focusing on our planning, then our feedback and then maybe our questioning  to find those improvements can have a profound effect overall on the quality of our lessons.

I have also been lucky enough to attend a GB seminar where the not so familiar term 'compassionately ruthless' is also used by Brailsford.  With each rider, they are asked the following questions and asked to think about what it will take to be the best they can be.  This as a combination can be a structured and manageable way to get teachers to think about their own development.  Its flexibility means that it can also be an excellent addition to coaching as an approach to moving practice forward.

A phrase being used a lot within my school is 'Leadership at all levels'.  The approach by our head is to empower every member of staff to lead practice across the school.  Now this doesn't mean that every member of staff has to rewrite whole school policies and lead INSET.  Instead it focuses on taking responsibility and leading in the classroom, with colleagues, with departments, with students and so on.  The focus is to hone in on what we do and become drivers of it with others.  Now the flexibility of this combined with the empowering nature has seen many colleagues feel they can step up to make improvements, even if it is only in their own classroom.  A simple phrase it may be, but a powerful idea it is.

The Butterfly Effect is a (chaos) theory that flutters around how small actions can potentially grow with unexpected results.  However, in a school context and used in a structured way, it can be used as an opportunity for staff to take the ideas/practice from their classroom, and spread them among colleagues. As teachers we need to be encouraged to try new things, develop them and reflect.  We need to be encouraged to collaborate and share these ideas with colleagues.  We need to provide an environment where everyone feels they can have an input and contribute.  The beauty of this is that an idea may only resonate with a few staff.  That is perfectly fine.  For those staff their practice has been refined.  The effect also has the potential for ideas to spread further and invigorate many more, some of whom may have been on the fringes of development for a long time.  Are we able to provide a platform or create a culture in our schools where this theory can be implemented?  Involvement, empowerment, autonomy and collaboration in a very simple approach.

But why limit it there?  Discussions about teaching & learning and the collaborative approach to this doesn't have to be restricted to just your own schools.  Social media such as Twitter provides an almost 24/7 full access to debates, discussion, ideas, support and reading.  Showing the impact of its use and dispelling myths can open upon a fantastic resource for personal improvement.  Many teachers may not be as savvy or willing to engage with new technology, so is there a way we can bring Twitter to them?  Many schools share blogs of the week collated from the network or summaries top tips that were shared on it?  Is there a way that we can engage as many teachers as possible with it in a productive way?

Maybe it is up to you to take the responsibility and embed these strategies tomorrow?  Can you be the champion among your fellow teachers to start them on this journey of improvement?  Are you able to set things up?  Are you the first cog in driving that culture of learning with your peers?  Are you able to help them see the 'why' and not just the 'what' and 'how' surrounding teaching methods?

There are many ideas and opportunities that can be low energy but high impact (as Jamie Portman says).  It could be as simple as driving T&L in your own department.  Maybe creating forums like a 'Bring and Buy' where teachers come together to discuss pedagogy?  Anything that can be put in place to get teachers to engage with professional practice and look at ways to be that little bit better.

With all of the great blogs, articles and books out there, can we encourage teachers to engage in further reading?  In my own experience, there is so much quality out there but too few staff grasp this opportunity to further their knowledge.  A huge part of this is simply down to time.  Updating your staff library, showcasing some inspirational educational books, or even creating an in house book club could all be simple to launch.  As part of my role within school to do this very thing, I set up Edssential in an effort to get more colleagues increasing their professional reading.

Or at a larger scale, can we become Phil Jackson (who)?  Jackson is probably the greatest Basketball coach of all time and worked with the immense talent of Micheal Jordan and Kobe Bryant.  His ability to work with others and combine all of the details towards a final target meant he had many successes.  Can we be a leader like he is and use coaching methods to increase discussions and support among staff?  Can we make teaching and learning the number one thing being talked about and coached within your school?

And this comes back to the main point.  Can we firstly be that little bit better in our own teaching, and then secondly, go forward and take as many of our colleagues on a similar journey.  This is where the Trojan Mouse, the 'Reclaim your Classroom', the Butterfly Effect and all the other things I talked about come together.  Can we be the reason why teaching and learning improves?  I believe it's most powerful when it comes from within, and even more powerful when it is fostered through a classroom up approach.

It's not simply good enough anymore to have a one size fits all approach.  Various methods, initiative and strategies from above probably still have their place.  Many monitoring procedures and policies are probably still essential.  But if we want to drive real change, we need to be the ones who go into school tomorrow morning and make the difference.  We need to be the ones who start the process off by embarking on our own journey of improvement.  We need to be the ones who begin the sharing of ideas and collaboration with fellow staff.  We need to be the ones who drag those teachers who have stepped away from improvement along with us.  They are our colleagues and we are a collective group.  Telling them what to do or how to do it is not always what is needed.  Instead we need to help others to want to improve.  We need to be the first step in creating that culture where people 'want' to improve.  Trying to set up those discussions, whether at planned in house events, or even by the photocopier are so important.  As Antoine de Saint Exupery once said, "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders.   Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea".  So there you go.  Can you be that little bit better at helping teachers yearn for the vast and endless sea?

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Can I be that little bit better at ......using methods to make feedbackstick?

In my previous post I looked at reasons why feedback might not stick.  It focused on whether it was the way in which we as teachers approached it, or was it simply the way that students perceived feedback that was the issue.  Whatever or however we approach it, we probably have methods that we use on a regular basis with students.  These methods are used day in day out and vary from subject to subject, student to student.  In the same theme as my last post, is it the methods that we use with students that causes feedback not to stick?  If we look at what the key principles from the last post are, can we design strategies in our lessons that are efficient for teachers as well as effective for students?

What makes a good method?

Now this isn't a criteria or a magic tick list that we should use every time we give feedback.  In fact there are lots of things that I haven't covered such as it needs to be timely, works best if its formative, targeted and regular (but we know this already).  Instead it is a list of common themes or important points that have stood out to me when reflecting on the feedback process that I hadn't fully considered before.  The practical methods that follow after try in some way use all, most or at least one of the key components that makes feedback effective.  So when we plan to give feedback to students, can we use these points (and those from my last post) to make the process have more impact?

Have we got a plan? - Before we give students feedback, do we know why we are giving it?  Do we know how we are giving it?  Do we have a plan?  If we are just using it as a tick box exercise then I'd urge you to think again.  Maybe the following cycles or flow chart will help you make a more effective plan for the feedback process.  The method you use can be as you see fit, but the core principles stay the same:

From top left: Diagrams by Tom Sherrington, David Fawcett, Shaun Allsion and David Didau

Be less work for you and more for students - Whatever method you choose should make more work for students to act upon it than it does for you providing it.  As Wiliam (2011) states "feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor".  If you find that you're spending hours providing it for little or nothing to be done by students in return, I'd rethink the method you are using.

Feedback should cause thinking - Out of all of the reading, in all of the books, in all of the research papers and from all of the blog posts, the key message that has stuck with me about how I use feedback comes from Dylan Wiliam (2011):

"If I had to reduce all of the research on feedback into one simple overarching idea, at least for academic subjects in school, it would be this: feedback should cause thinking"

Now this is a simple and powerful message, but one I never thought of before.  For years I simply thought feedback was me telling students what they got wrong and what they should have done.  We know as adults how demoralising that must be if that is all we ever hear.  There were even times when I simply attached a grade or score, occasionally with a "check the marking criteria" added in for extra fun.  Now I have worked on my methods for a few years now in an effort to make them better.  But they still haven't involved students as best as they probably could.  And now with this simple Wiliam quote, I've probably been missing a trick.

When students receive feedback it should make them question or reflect about what they have just done.  It should force them to think about what they know and what gaps they still have.  It should force them to think about how to act upon the feedback in an effort to move their learning.  Did my previous comments and grade do that?  Definitely not.  So can future methods do this?  I'm confident they can.  So look at how you give feedback to your students.  If they can simply read it and dismiss it then it probably won't work.  If though it forces students to think, before taking future action, it is heading towards being a method that may just have a positive impact.

Do our methods answer the three questions - In Hattie and Timperley's paper titled  'The Power of Feedback', it was put forward that effective methods of feedback revolve around three key questions.  Now these three question crop up time and time again in other material.  But do I ever use them every time I give out feedback.  If you've never seen them before, the questions we should be addressing in feedback are:
  • Where am I going?
  • How am I going?
  • Where to next?
In a summary, they also addressed these as:
  • Feed up
  • Feedback
  • Feedforward

As Hattie points out in most of his literature, in an ideal environment, the comments we provide addresses these questions with the students.  The use of these questions in our structure ensures that we don't merely provide feedback, but instead link directly to the learning and then look forward in helping students make progress.

"Where am I going?" or feed up addresses the intention, goal or aim of the piece of work/learning.  As Black and Wiliam (1998) explained, “the provision of challenging assignments and extensive feedback lead to greater student engagement and higher achievement”.  It is therefore important for the feedback to have maximum effect, the goal is specific and challenging, with the task complexity low.  This goal may be the learning objective of the lesson, the core question of the task or even a target for which the student needs to work on (from previous feedback).  The important key component in this question though is we provide clear success criteria for meeting this aim.  Too often our comments are specific and accurate, but don't clearly link to the goal or learning taking place.  It is essential that we talk about this criteria so students can see where they are in the process and how far away they are from getting to the desired goal.

"How am I going?" or feedback provides reference to how that student is doing in relation to the goal or objective.  It's what we do most frequently and made up a lot of the comments I used to provide.  It is normally in this section that we highlight misconceptions or brilliant pieces of learning.  If we link it back to the previous question, this element can help show students where they are in their journey and what's been happening so far.

"Where to next?" or Feedforward - This last year was the biggest revelation in my teaching.  Why I hadn't used this word before I simply don't know.  As Hattie (2011) states "This feedforward question can have some of the most powerful impacts on learning".  A simple change in terminology with students can be a powerful thing.  When we talk about feedback, we are doing just that: looking back at what was.  This is a great starting point but students also need to know how to move forward.  This question ensures that we as teachers provide comments that help students take the next step in the learning process.  We've talked about the goal and where they are at, now we look at what is the next step to move this learning on.  It is vital here that we spend most of our time sharing this with students if we want them to progress.  As Sadler (1989) talks about in his work, it is this part of the feedback process that helps 'close the gap'.

So when we provide our comments to students, do we answer these three questions every time?  Maybe that is one of the reasons that it doesn't have the impact it should?

Less is more - As I talked about in my last post, sometimes the less we say has the most impact.  One thing that came up time and again in both literature and in my survey was that students struggle with a large amount of comments.  Too much feedback and the comments get ignored, give the impression the work must be bad or become too specific that the students doesn't know what to do with it.  Are our methods to much for our students to actually understand?

Will they do anything with it? - As I said in my last post, if students can't act upon the feedback to move the work or learning forward, you might not have bothered.  Students need the opportunity to both read and do something with your feedback.  It normally works best when students can act on it there and then.  Leave comments idle for lessons on end and the feedback loses its impact.  Two students in my survey specifically found that some teachers had given comments over 30 days ago and the students still hadn't improved that piece of work.  Now it's slipped from their memory and they can't remember the context it was in.  When giving feedback, ensure there is either an immediate opportunity for improvement, or one very soon.  Use a cycle as the basis for our methods is a really great reminder.  Do we always plan in time to do this?

Comments first! (Grades later) - Nothing more to really say on this.  As I detailed in my last post, as soon as we add grades or praise, the impact of feedback reduces and in some cases actually has a negative effect.  We need to break the grades culture or at least use them in a more constructive way.

Do our methods promote a Growth Mindset? - We need to ensure that the methods we use help students see that reading or listening to feedback is important, that mistakes are good for learning, that good habits can be learnt and should be repeated, and it's effort that is the key to making them improve.  John Tomsett has written a lovely post that encapsulates this message as a shift in culture here.  Some students really find feedback (and especially poor performance or mistakes) dents their self esteem and confidence.  So can we ensure we create a culture it our classroom that challenges these beliefs and make feedback an integral component of what happens in it?

Do what Ron does! - If you have never read 'An Ethic of Excellence' by Ron Berger, or have never seen one of his videos online, I would strongly urge you to do so.  Ron Berger's book explains how he gets students to create work of excellence using some very key principles.  I have blogged about it here.  What is fantastic about this is that everything that Ron does puts the role of feedback (in his method called critique) right at the heart of the learning in the classroom.  Students are set challenging tasks, break down examples of excellence, create success criteria together, use a drafting process, critique each others work (after being trained to do so) and seek this feedback from all sources automatically.  No one book has changed my thinking of the power of a feedback culture and its role in exceptional work.  Students are fully involved in the process and work continuously gets reviewed and improved.  The whole process of feedback becomes visible!  Do we create a culture in our classrooms using similar protocols that makes feedback and its power sing from every corner?  And neither have I yet (but I am seriously working on it!).

Key components from Berger. Do we create this?

The students do it all the time! - Another great book I would urge you to read is 'The Hidden Lives of Learners' by Graham Nuthall.  The book looks at learning from the perspectives of students and reveals a number of things we were probably unaware of.  One of the main points is that students receive 80% of the feedback they receive from their peers, and most of this is wrong.  So much peer feedback takes place beyond our control and we need to ensure that we train students up to give this effectively.  Unless all students work in silence for an entire lesson, they will always ask a friend or peer for help, advice, guidance or feedback.  We need to ensure that we involve students in the process and teach them exactly what high quality looks like and how to give it.  We also need to involve students in the process of feedback if they are to engage in it.  Too many times feedback can seem a one way process.  As Nuthall explains in his book, unless they are part of the process and it includes them throughout, we are more likely to get them to act upon feedback.  Do the methods we use train students to give high quality feedback?  Does it teach them to spot high quality feedback?  Do our methods involve students?

So what methods help feedback stick?

It's probably very important to say straight away that these methods are not my own.  They are ideas that have been discussed in department meetings, chatted about in the staffroom, read about on Twitter or seen mentioned in research/books.  Some were even suggested by students during my in-house survey.  They're purely on the list because they in some way attempt to bring together all three topics I've raised over the last two posts: the teacher, the student and the methods.  They aim to make the feedback we give stick and encourage the comments to be acted upon.  So can I get a little bit better at making feedback stick?

Critique – “Drafting and crafting”.  My ultimate favourite method which we can draw key principles of effective feedback from.  Even if you don't do the full process, there are so many principles we can extract and adapt.  Here is a link to my post specifically on this method.

A process where students are trained to give very clear and concise feedback in order to create work of excellence.

As students are working towards a piece of work, they create a number of drafts versions of it.  These drafts are ‘critiqued’ by peers and the feedback that each piece is given is acted upon in the next draft.  The comments that are given must be kind, specific and helpful.  They must also be instructional and help make the work better.  The teacher usually focuses on one aspect of the work at a time to make the process as beneficial as possible.  The process of critique normally requires a full dedicated lesson and comes in the form of a public critique or gallery critique.  Students need to have the process modelled, and getting students to critique the critique in the early stages helps ensure that they comments they provide to peers are of a high enough standard.

Critique goes beyond typical peer assessment.  It is part of the process.  It very clearly shows students how to give specific feedback that the person receiving it can go away and act upon.  It addresses the "85% of the feedback...." issue identified by Nuthall.  By dedicating a whole lesson and using a drafting process, a culture of feedback develops within the classroom.  The use of drafts also help students see the progress that is being made from 1st draft to final piece.

DIRT time – Acting upon that feedback

First made aware to many teachers by the amazing Jackie Beere, this method gives allocated time to getting students to read their feedback and actually act upon it.

Plan time within lessons or schemes where students act upon the comments and feedback that they receive.  This can come in the form or a starter activity, end of a lesson task or a dedicated lesson during a scheme.  In this time, students revisit feedback that they have been given and have that time to actually act upon it with the help of peers, teachers and resources.

Providing feedback in books can easily be forgotten about or simply not acted upon.  By creating dedicated time in lessons where students have to act upon it, the gap between where they are and where they should be can be closed.

Find and Fix – Getting students to think about their work (A Dylan Wiliam idea)

Place a dot or mark in the margin of a piece of work near where a mistake is. Students have to locate the error independently.

When marking a piece of work, place a symbol, dot or mark in the margin next to where a mistake has taken place.  At the end of the work, explain that there are x number of mistakes.  Don't indicate what these mistakes may be.  Students then have to 'find' and 'fix' them.  You can add a focus to the process.  For example, you could explain that the feedback focus is on SPaG and ask students to find and fix the x number of mistakes in their work.

The process involves students thinking about the work they are doing.  This is ideal for minor issues which can easily be found and fixed.  The method also means that students can quickly amend work themselves.  It is also time efficient for teachers.

Closing the gap lessons – Moving from where you are to where you should be

A dedicated lesson or lessons at the start of a new unit that allow students to ‘tidy up their understanding’ from a previous unit.

This is used in our department a lot.  At the end of a unit we carry out a unit test.  The two lessons after this (and prior to the next unit), students analyse how their understanding (from test results, homework….) and revisit weak topics once more.  Whilst doing this they act upon any feedback that they were given, improve their notes, redraft any work that they underperformed in, create concept maps or revision resources, answer exam questions and so on.  The aim is to then make that topic an area of strength.  Students try and improve at least two weak areas in this time.

Too often we finish a unit and move onto the next without ensuring students are confident in it.  Providing this structured time with well thought out tasks allows students to close the gap from where they were, to where they should have been.  Learning is reinforced and improve.

            An example of a 'Closing the Gap' lesson from English

Burning questions/requests – Can you check this for me?

When students submit a piece of work, they have the opportunity to request a specific part is given closer inspection.

When a piece of work is handed in, the student very clearly highlights on it a part of it that they didn’t quite understand.  This is not related to the task, but instead to the content.  If for instance they are still unsure about the functions of the skeleton during a physiology unit, they simply highlight that section in their work.  The teacher can then mark the other parts using a marking key, and then give specific time to the piece of understanding that the student is struggling with.  This section gets constructive comments and suggestions for moving the learning forward and hopefully ‘close the gap’.

Giving students that sense of ownership and responsibility engages them in the process.  They are highlighting a part of your subject that they are still not quite clear on and requesting some help with moving it forward.  This involvement means that the comments you give will have a higher chance of being acted upon.

Feedback key – Focusing your feedback

A feedback key that all students are familiar with and used when marking pieces of work.

Create a marking key and give students a copy to stick in their books.  The codes on this key could include B.O.D (Benefit of doubt), T.V (Too vague) or double ticks for very well answered pieces.  When marking work, leave the codes throughout the work where needed.  Students then check the codes upon receiving their work back and know what needs work (lack of detail etc).  The code means that students will have to think about what needs improving, and it is this thinking which will help progress learning further.  If they need more clarity over why they have a code they can come and seek further feedback.

This makes marking quicker on you as a teacher.  Also as Dylan Wiliam says, feedback should provoke thought.  This method highlights to the student areas where knowledge is competent, and areas where knowledge is lacking.  Students work out where the error is and can correct it.  The key is quick to use and provides you with time to actually write constructive comments where a student needs it most, rather than having to scribble all over a piece of work.  Less is more.

Feedback homework – DIRT time at home

Students collect a 'homework task' that is specific to a common misconception they have demonstrated in a piece of work.  

Although feedback should be specific to that individual, there are times when a few different common errors throughout the class have taken place.  For the first part of the homework, students have to act on feedback that was personalised and specific to them.  For the second part, students also have to collect a 'feedback homework' task sheet from you.  Each task is different and relates to one of the common errors demonstrated in the pieces of work.  Students simply pick up the relevant task in relation to their feedback.

As well as specific feedback for every child, there are also some common mistakes that come up.  This encourages students to work on this feedback task at home, addressing the error/gap and improving the work that they submitted.  It is also efficient for the teacher.

Feedback questions – Doing something with your comments?

A Dylan Wiliam idea - Give students questions as feedback to tackle misconceptions.

Read through students work and place numbers against misconceptions.  The number links to questions posed by the teacher at the end of the piece of work.  Students have to respond to the questions and demonstrate that they have understood the information.

By asking questions students have to think about the error that they made.  By using questions students have to engage with the feedback and act upon it.

Triple impact marking – You, me, you

Provide feedback to students.  They then provide feedback back to your comments.  You provide feedback again.

Read students work and provide feedback where necessary.  Students then read the comments, react to them by writing their own comment and course of action (how they will improve).  They then improve and you then feedback on the work again, seeing if they have undertaken the steps they had identified.

Engages in a dialogue of feedback where the students must act upon your comments, and plan steps to improve.

Feedforward as a starting point – Using feedback as in future learning 

Use previous feedback/feedforward as starting target for new work.

Very obvious but actively get students to write their previous feedforward targets on new work.  Students therefore have the deficit from the last piece of work visible and in their mind when working on their new piece.

Students can easily forget or ignore feedback.  The same mistakes seem to keep creeping up again and again, making you wonder whether they have read the comments at all.  By having them as the starting point of the next piece, it is a clear criteria for which students work towards in their new piece.

Using grades/data – Using summative assessment and quantitative data effectively

Using grades, test data and scores with students as a form of feedback to help close the gap.

Break down a piece of work, coursework or test.  Display the separate components of the work in the form of a spreadsheet on the board and get students to pick the areas that they have answered poorly and they must act upon those areas.  Combine it with a 'Closing the gap' lesson or DIRT time to make it have more impact.  Use mark schemes to support where necessary.

Giving grades or test scores can be detrimental to feedback.  Going through an exam paper question by question can be quite laborious.  This method gives students an overview of each question and each sub section of it in one quick image.  Topics are colour co-ordinated so spotting patterns in weaknesses is easy to do.  With a break down of the marks, students can also see how far away they were from achieving the correct response.  Promotes responsibility and ownership as students identify areas themselves.

Modelling and examples – Showing what to aim for

When providing feedback, use a model or example of excellence to help students reference what they need to be doing.

When you are going over the main misconceptions (or even positives) of a piece of work or learning, use a model or example of excellence with the students.  This helps them understand and visualise what quality their work should be aiming for.

Students find that they have great feedback from teachers but they can't translate that into a mental image of what their work/learning should be.  Showing an example helps scaffold what the next steps actually look like and are more likely to get students to act upon the feedback.

Now these methods should be adapted and tweaked to suit the needs of your students.  Ultimately though, they encourage feedback to be acted upon, and hit many of the concerns and issues with the teacher approaches, students perceptions and pitfalls in methods I have identified.  If you haven't done so already, I would really encourage you to read my previous post to understand the student and teacher factors in this process.  So, knowing all of this now, can we be that little bit better at providing feedback methods that stick?

This is being submitted as part of Octobers #blogsync. Read the other entries here:


My previous feedback posts:

Creating a culture of critique - My favorite method of providing feedback (also full of links)

My #TLT13 and ResearchEd presentation on making feedback stick

My #TMSoton Making Feedback Stick presentation

Some excellent articles from numerous bloggers on Feedback collated via Edssential

Some excellent articles from numerous bloggers on Marking collated via Edssential