Here’s the final paragraph of Marking is not the same as feedback:
So here’s what I think feedback is: it’s every time we speak to students; it’s walking around the room and not sitting at our desks; it’s reading what they’re writing over their shoulders; it’s pointing out mistakes quickly; it’s modelling and scaffolding (but not too much); it’s creating desirable difficulties and encouraging liminality and provisionality; it’s asking all those bloody questions; it’s telling them (not unkindly!) that they’re wrong and finding out where their misinterpretation stems from; it’s reading their work and NOT writing anything; it’s them highlighting their work prior to handing it in; it’s a rigorous peer-assessment where there are very clear rules, not student interpretations; it’s talking to the whole class about what went well; it’s drafting; it’s having individual conversations during the lesson; it’s having individual conversations whilst on duty; it is also, sometimes, about writing questions; it’s about knowing when to be very specific, when to be encouraging and when to push.
These are some of the many ways in which we might feed back, but what is more important, I think, is the preparation: it’s the timing and manner in which we’ll help students approach their learning both at the start and throughout a topic based on the strengths and weaknesses of prior work; it’s how we use what we read, hear and see to help them move forward; it’s feeding forward and it’s all in the preparation.
The more experienced we become the more we know just what sorts of mistakes students are likely to make. This is a key reason why less experienced teachers often find summative written work so disappointing: they work really hard to create engaging lessons with all sorts of opportunities for students to show how well they can perform but ignore either a subject’s depth or the grit of deployment precisely because it might appear to the casual observer that students aren’t ‘doing’ much.
Now imagine that we, as shiny NQTs, had really understood that learning was invisible. I suspect a good number of us did but were cowed into acting otherwise. Maybe, just maybe, we’d have approached feedback differently. And possibly we’d have gone on to recognise that what students write, whether independently or in response to our questions, is potentially only an indicator of performance.
So if learning can’t be observed then what about feedback? Well, it can, but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything.
Anti-doping authorities try to catch increasingly cunning cheats by checking for the effects of drugs rather than the substance itself. They’ve come under fire because doping is thus difficult to prove: on BBC’s Today programme Sarah Montague suggested that the only sure way to catch a cheat was to witness the action.
But it’s the proof that I take issue with. Too often we’re looking for evidence which is terribly inappropriate. All our WWWs and EBIs might indeed be well-meaning but they create hours of work for very little reward. The evidence we should be looking for is more subtle. It’ll also take more time to find.
More often I’m now creating moments to pause and question in the middle of an essay in order to create liminality. Thinking provisionally slows the whole process down. Alongside discourse markers, key phrases, modelled answers and sparingly-employed scaffolding more nuanced writing is produced due to the greater challenge. The mantras that an essay is never complete and that there’s never a simple answer are well-known in my classes.
I read my students’ work and listen to them. I don’t drown their pages in red pen but I do make my own notes: I reflect and prepare more appropriately each time. I can then feed forward both in terms of shifting my focus towards a particular challenge and shaping the lessons more appropriately.
This is observable but it’ll probably take more than twenty minutes or a book scrutiny to understand.
This post was originally written on staffrm.io.