I’ve written before about the error of thinking of marking and feedback as synonymous. Too often the focus is on the former – perhaps because it’s far easier to measure than the latter.
I’ve written too, about all the hidden feedback that goes on in classrooms. But increasingly I’m coming to think that the focus on marking is not only struggling to have impact; I think it might actually be hindering good feedback.
I think it’s always worth remembering some key overlooked points about feedback from the Sutton Trust/EEF toolkit. The first appears in the “What should I consider?” box on the website, where it states that to be effective, feedback should:
be given sparingly so that it is meaningful
I think it’s important to contrast that with the many policies that require feedback for pupils on every piece of work.
The second, I think, is more significant, and it appears in the first line of the webpage about feedback:
Feedback is information given to the learner and/or the teacher about the learner’s performance relative to learning goals.
The highlighting here is mine, because I think too often we overlook this part. Feedback is not a one-way process; some of the most useful feedback about learners’ performance is provided to the teacher.
Every time we pick up a book and look at a piece of work, we can draw huge inferences about what that child is capable of, what they’re struggling with, what help they might need, or where there might be room for challenge. In fact, I’d argue that the most powerful and valuable feedback occurs in the first few moments of looking at a piece of work. Every moment spent thereafter on combing though, adding red pen, or forming detailed comments, is likely to produce a diminishing return.
Of course, that’s not to say that we should never do it. But we ought to be aware of the cost.
I think that sometimes the focus on the marking is actually preventing good feedback. We are so preoccupied with ensuring that the correct colour highlighter is used, or the learning objective is ticked, or thinking up a comment to ensure that everyone is occupied in ‘DIRT’ time, that we sometimes miss the most important things that would re-shape our own teaching.
Sometimes, the most important feedback from 30 books is that you need to start again. Writing advice doesn’t help; annotating doesn’t make it any better. The feedback needs to lead to actions on the part of the teacher.
As it is, I’d argue that a good proportion of DIRT-type activities – at least at primary level – are busy work. If learning were as simple as telling someone what to do, and then they automatically learned it, then we’d have given up on teacher training years ago.
What if we just changed our feedback policies to say that every piece of work should be seen by a teacher? What if feedback to the teacher was as important as writing comments to the pupils? What if we saved written comments so that we were giving feedback sparingly using specific, accurate and clear guidance once a fortnight? And what if we used the feedback that we gained from looking at work to tailor teaching?
I know what you’re thinking: “It’s all very well saying this, but what about Ofsted?”. And I agree. That’s the real barrier. Because as I’ve said before, it’s the evidencing that’s the problem, not the evidence. And I know that as a deputy of a school currently graded as RI, it would be all but impossible to persuade my colleagues of such a radical departure; I don’t think I could even persuade myself. Because the ogre remains all powerful.
Some schools have gone some way towards this model, through use of things like coloured dot marking. I’ve only seen this is secondary schools so far, but perhaps there are some brave primaries somewhere doing clever things?
But the point remains, that whatever the next Ofsted inspector who walks into your school might think, there’s an important issue here that we ought to be addressing:
Might marking actually be stopping us from making the most of the power of feedback?