The problem

I started teaching in 2010. My early career was characterised by an avalanche of initiatives – ideas that teachers were expected to put into practice that would transform the educational experiences of children. There was no culture of professional curiosity and sadly, little in the way of using research to ask one’s self the hard questions about efficacy. The problem was that teachers were all too busy trying to implement the latest initiative to outwardly question the efficacy of what we were doing, or, even to check if everyone else was having the same doubts.

Thankfully, research increasingly found its place in education and many of these initiatives were disposed of to the relief of class teachers up and down the country. But, one continues to persist. Written marking in books may have moved on in most schools from policies of double marking every piece of work, using an army of different colours, for marking, responding and responding to the response! For some reason though, school leaders still seem reluctant to thoroughly engage with what the research tells us about feedback and build policies that reflect this.

Teachers are still spending post-lesson time thinking hard about how to re-word what the learners have done well. They are still spending vast amounts of time communicating their feedback to every child one at a time through a written message. They are also spending significant amounts of time trying to think of ways to explain how to improve and provide an accompanying example for each individual pupil. And, is anyone checking to see how accurately these feedback messages are landing with the recipients? I’m not so sure. The problem is our obsession with evidencing good practice. We know that feedback is effective and so we twist how we give that feedback to fulfill the purpose of being evidenced to an observer. The price we are paying for this is directing teacher thinking time to places where it has little to no impact on pupil understanding.

The theory

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) published an excellent report on feedback in 2021. In it, they explained that effective feedback has, on average, an effect of six months additional progress. They state that ‘effective feedback practices include work to understand specific gaps in learning that need to be addressed and how the teacher wants the pupil to progress.’ The importance of this sentence is that it tells us something about how teachers should be spending their thinking time and that perhaps it should look something like this:

While almost all school leaders would agree with this, what often happens is something like this:

Clearly, the above risks diluting the essence of what feedback should be about. The EEF report also states that good written feedback has an average of five months additional progress in comparison to verbal feedback, which has seven.

The solution in practice

We have to be brave enough to remove the aspects that are not having the greatest (or any) impact on pupil understanding. In the case of feedback, it is the activities highlighted in orange above. The reason this requires bravery from leaders is that this is a removal of the *evidenced* parts of the process.

There is a middle ground.

Birkbeck Primary School uses a marking booklet, (heavily influenced by the work of Andrew Percival). Each page is split into three parts – one for the names of pupils who have examples of excellence in that lesson. One section for the names of any children who need complete re-teaching and one section for the misconceptions identified while looking through children’s books. This eliminates time the teacher needs to spend thinking about how to communicate any of the feedback in writing and allows re-investment in considering how to address misconceptions, which makes the feedback more effective at improving understanding.

Teachers then begin the next lesson with a whole class feedback session where the excellent examples are unpicked and the common misconceptions are addressed together with modelling, explanation and checking for understanding. Children who need complete re-teaching have this first thing the following morning in a small group.

The impact

The implementation of the marking booklet has been transformational for how productive teachers feel their time is being spent. They are able to talk about specific misconceptions and how they are addressing them. Pupils have their understanding addressed before they have the chance to fall behind and leaders still have their evidence of teachers assessing understanding. Since the introduction of the marking booklet, the school’s outcomes have improved no end and are now within the top 1% of the country for reading, writing and maths combined (KS2 SAT results).

The principle of highly effective feedback is indisputably worthwhile and by taking a focused view of implementing the theory, we can avoid wasted teacher time and a misapplication of the principle itself.

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