In a world where big voices dominate, we believe even small voices can sound loud when they are saying the right things. We are two history teachers and school leaders determined to fake it until we make it. We hope to inspire introverts to realise their impact and be the best versions of ourselves. A bit of History, reading, CPD and pedagogy. All views our own.
One of the biggest challenges for a Teaching and Learning lead, especially in a school which needs to rapidly improve, is treading the fine line of ensuring all staff have the foundational professional learning to ensure the quality of Teaching and Learning is good, but also to ensure that CPD is bespoke. I feel it’s important to have a balance of the CPD that all should receive, whilst ensuring that staff have autonomy and can work on the areas of professional development which they personally would like to improve in. To ensure this happens consistently, we have developed a Disciplined Inquiry programme for all staff to improve in one area of practice which has been identified as a development need (based on the ideas outlined by John Tomsett and Jonny Uttley in Putting Staff First).
Over the past year or so I have been considering the best ways to make this happen effectively and making sure access to resources is organised well for staff. I have also been thinking about how best to support our subject leads who need to access to high quality resources and CPD to further develop their teams. Since I took over the role of Teaching and Learning lead, I have started a Teaching and Learning weekly email, including a blog of the week. I have vastly improved the provisions in our staff CPD library and I have also developed a half termly Teaching and Learning newsletter which includes a podcast/book of the half term. We have also bought into the Walkthrus package, which has been fantastic at helping us structure our Teacher Learning Communities. I have become conscious though, that this means teachers and leaders trawling back through emails, and logistically, it isn’t always easy for staff to find the best CPD which they need in a timely manner. On Twitter one night I was blown away by the work of Claire Hill and the amazing CPD area which she had set up to share Walkthrus materials, using Google classroom in her school. I thought this was a really good way of organising access to resources for everyone and so started to create the professional development clasroom all our staff are invited to and you can see here.
In creating the classroom, I first created topic areas. I used the main areas from Walkthrus, as that is our main CPD resource in school, then added others which I thought should sit separately, such as EAL, Safeguarding and remote learning. I started with the Walkthrus materials, which really are brilliant. There is a video resource and slideshow for each topic area, plus workbook reflections. I then explored the best CPD channels I knew of such as the researchEd youtube channel, Tom Sherrington’s Kitchen pedagogy series, Rosenshine masterclass material, podcasts such as Naylor’s Natter and Becoming Educated, Seneca teacher courses and of course all of our own internal CPD. We have also bought into Bluesky learning, which provides video resources with tasks and reflections so these were all linked on the classroom in the topic areas.
The hope for this area is that individuals will access it for their own personal development first and foremost. Any CPD undertaken can be reflected and evaluated in Blue sky, which we use for professional development and Performance management, or in staff own personal records. Some of the resources, such as Walkthrus, also contain their own workbook reflections which staff can of course use. I hope that a member of staff studying an element of retrieval practice for their Disciplined Inquiry for example, will quickly and easily be able to find relevant reading, videos and current research which is well explained and accessible. I hope that leaders and coaches will also be able to use the classroom to help drive improvement in their areas of responsibility. The Head of Geography for example, might notice a need for more work on scaffolding with her team, and be able to choose a suitable video to focus on as part of her next department meeting followed by a discussion and sharing of ideas. An NQT mentor might want her NQT to spend some more time exploring assessment and so set the Seneca course for him, and plan to meet up in a couple of week’s time to explore his findings. Ultimately, I hope having an area like this means CPD will be happening in a more consistent way, using the best research and practice that exists and help with my aim of making CPD more bespoke for staff.
Obviously the professional development area is still in it’s infancy in terms of it’s use and will be continually developed, but I hope this explains the rationale for it, and the practical process I went through whilst creating it, in case it is beneficial to anyone else in the same position.
2020 has been a year filled with uncertainty, fear and worry. However, for me, it has also been a year filled with far off continents, tales of humanity from centuries ago, the depths of grief and the passion of new love. At the beginning of the year I set myself a challenge to read 52 books. Then covid and lockdown happened, and the lack of a commute plus much more time at home meant I read more and more, until today, when I finished the last page of my hundredth book. The books I’ve read have taught me so much and made me feel every possible emotion, from absolute joy to deepest sorrow. Some of the books I’ve read will stay with me forever.
A while back I shared a thread on Twitter to one of my most-asked questions: How do you read so much? I wrote about reading once before here and how until a couple of years ago had lost my way with reading. Now, I cannot imagine not having a book on the go, and I have so much I want to read! There are a few practical things I have done to make reading fit more into my life that I thought it might be helpful to share.
Peps Mccrea in his book Motivated Teaching writes about routines being a huge motivator. Reading has now become routine for me. I make myself read every day, usually just before I go to sleep, even if it’s just one page. It’s amazing how quickly this has become a habit and what I’ve found is that once I’ve made that initial action of picking up the book to read, I find myself quickly getting immersed! It’s also become routine to always carry a book with me. If I’m queuing for the supermarket, or waiting to pick the kids up and have 5 minutes break I will try and use those times to read rather than scrolling through my phone. Practically, I honestly believe not having a TV in our bedroom really helps me read more too!
Secondly, I try and vary the books I am reading. I’m not one of those people that can have multiple books on the go at once, so I try and vary my reads between history books, education books and fiction and I think this helps keep me motivated.
Quite simply, I really want to read! I believe in the power of books in transforming us and shaping us. When I look back over the books of my childhood or books I’ve read and learnt from, books that have got me through challenging times or books that have been a much-needed escape route they have fundamentally changed me. I love learning and focusing on knowing more and experiencing more and books allow me to do that. I also strongly believe in the importance of reading in my family and I want my son and daughter to grow up seeing me reading around the house. At the moment they both absolutely love books too and I want it to stay that way as long as possible!
Don’t be afraid to give up on a book you’re not enjoying. This year I’ve given myself permission not to finish a book that I’m struggling with – life is just too short! Ironically, having given myself this permission, I think I’ve only done it once or twice this year but I know in the past this would have caused my reading to stall if I wasn’t gripped or enjoying a read.
Lastly, I’ve kept a record of all the books read this year. I try and use Goodreads as much as I can and it’s great to look over books I’ve read and remember how they made me feel. I share quite a lot on social media too. I know I love seeing book recommendations from others and so many of my reads this year have come from recommendations on Twitter, so I hope people don’t mind me sharing when I find a book that I’ve loved or learnt from.
I didn’t want to do a top 3 from my 100 books or anything like that, because I think it’s unfair to pit my reads against each other, but I can’t finish this blogpost without writing about the book I’ve read this year that I’ve loved the most. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is the story of two sisters: one sold into slavery and the other a slave trader’s wife. I was gripped from the first chapter. It is incredibly moving and epic, as the story continues through generations. It is so intelligently written and so interesting that I absolutely couldn’t put it down. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend that 2021 becomes the year you do!
And so for 2021! I’m sure I won’t manage 100 books again- 2020 was quite unique in allowing me so much time and opportunity to read. However, I’m going to aim for my 52 again – I need to clear the bulging bookcase of a huge stack before too long!
Thanks for all the support in 2020 and I hope Christmas brings you a good book or two to enjoy!
Over the last term, I have been really thinking about how to make my retrieval practice more focused and relevant in addressing gaps in knowledge and tackling misconceptions. Retrieval practice is now an embedded part of my lesson routine, but I felt there was more I could do to make it meaningful. I really believe it it important, as Tom Sherrington says, to “vary the diet”, but after reading this study from Argawal et al, it is clear that there is evidence that the best conditions in order to prepare for a higher order seem to be factual quizzing followed by a higher order quiz, and therefore retrieval should have varying complexity too. What I’ve found is this is far from easy to do. It’s easy to generate 10 factual recall questions, much less easy to design a multiple choice question which really challenges students thinking and tackles misconceptions head on. This aligns with much of how my teaching has changed over the last few years moving to a teach to the top approach, as outlined by Tom Sherrington and Mary Myatt amongst others. Myatt says: “We have a tendency to make things too easy for many of our pupils. Why? It is partly because we don’t want to overwhelm them. Yet pupils are saying that they relish the challenge of demanding work: work that makes them think; work that means they know more and can do more.” (Back on Track) In consequence, I have been trying to implement some different retrieval strategies, some of which I have shared on twitter, and thought it might be helpful to collate them all here, explaining my rationale and how it worked in practice.
I’ve started using much more retrieval practice based on The Writing Revolution. Reading The Writing Revolution has undoubtedly changed my practice. I’ve reflected a lot on how I have been telling students to run by writing paragraphs and even essays in Year 7, before establishing the right conditions to walk; looking at sentence structure and word choice. You can read my post about my thoughts here, and I have therefore tried to implement some of the suggestions as retrieval practice. Because, but so, scrambled sentences, fragments, If this is the answer, subordinating conjunctions and appositives are all activities which could be used for retrieval, and which test knowledge but also really get students to think hard about vocabulary and sentence formation.
The example above of but, because, so worked really well with my GCSE classes after a lesson on medieval surgery. If you want to read more about this technique, Kristian Shanks has written an excellent blog here and Greg Thornton has a brilliant how to guide here.
Scrambled sentences is another strategy which has has worked well, although this has been a process! The first time I used it with no prompts and it was just too hard, so I’ve started to bold and highlight the first and last words in the sentence, I’ve often modelled the first one and have then discussed with the class what words might go next logically, and over time this has helped. I also think that keeping the sentences short in the first instance works well! As with all good scaffolding, I hope to remove this hints the more practised the students become.
Below is an example of fragments used for retrieval, which has also worked really well, really challenging students to use their knowledge in a productive way.
And finally from the Writing Revolution, I’ve tried subordinating conjunctions such as those above, which students surprisingly said they really enjoyed the challenge of.
2. Another related retrieval practice idea I have tried, is that of asking students to think hard about misconceptions in their studies. This is a great thought process to got through as a teacher, particularly after an assessment or the reading of books before whole-class feedback. This definitely got my students thinking and provoked a really good discussion. In the right column, I asked them to back their thoughts up with evidence, so for number one, the fact that monasteries were actually quite clean, with filtering of water, lavatoriums and an emphasis on good hygiene, as well as mentioning events such as the 1388 Statute of Cambridge where Parliament made efforts to get people to clean up the streets or face a £20 fine, would all challenge this statement. This is also a retrieval exercise which I think works well alongside, think, pair, share and encourages elaborative interrogation.
3. Finally, I’ve been making more use of multiple choice in my retrieval practice. Again this takes quite a lot more thought about possible misconceptions, but has produced some really good discussion. The first set I tried were pretty standard but I really use this as a basis for elaborative questioning. For example, when we go through the fact that Q1’s answer is c, I will then go on to ask what a and b would be, what they have in common and why it might be easy to get them all mixed up.
However, after seeing Blake Harvard’s blog about maximising the effectiveness of multiple choice questions, I decided to have a go at, as he suggests, making more use of the wrong answers, and focusing on just one misconception. I thought this was a powerful idea. It is however, definitely an exercise I recommend you working through yourself first, as when I tried it initially, I realised it couldn’t work the way I had set it up so had to edit it! I picked a common misconception by students in the medicine topic, which is understanding the different impact Pasteur and Koch made to medicine in relation to germ theory and created a multiple choice question based on that. The first stage is for students to students to choose the correct answer, then they have to provide a memory aid, for example a simple sketch to help them remember the correct answer. Then I asked the students to write the letters of the incorrect answers down the side and have a go at a related question about each of the incorrect answers. Again, Blake’s blog gives some great suggestions here which I just adapted to make work for this example. Students then had a go at these, and an example is below. I then showed my answers and modelled how I had thought through them and we discussed what other possible answers might look like. Just concentrating on one key misconception in this way actually allowed the students to do some really challenging thinking and utilised the wrong answers in a multiple choice question effectively. Another example is also below.
All of these strategies are very much a work in progress and probably could be refined. I would also very much say there is a place for pure factual recall; I do a weekly factual quiz based on homework retrieval grids for example. However, trialling these strategies has shown me there is something very powerful about the more challenging examples of retrieval and the interrogative process which happens afterwards in discussion. I will continue to use and share examples like this I create if people find it useful.
Last year I read one of the best books I’ve ever read on Leadership: Mary Myatt’s High Challenge, Low Threat. I took so much away from this book and knew other leaders in my Academy would benefit from the rich advice it holds, and so this year, as part of our Curriculum Middle Leader Development, we are working our way through the book. Before each session, Middle Leaders read up to a specified page and we then have a discussion based on some questions given in advance. In the last session we had a really good conversation based on the first section and particularly the part: “Humans first, professionals second”, and related it to giving feedback to staff on their practice as part of Quality Assurance processes. Some leaders raised concern about using phrases like “less effective” when discussing elements of practice with their teams and this led to a really good analysis of the kind of culture and environment of continual improvement needed in order for this sort of conversation to take place successfully. How can we ensure as leaders we help our staff develop and give effective guidance from our lesson drop-ins, or what we see in books? How can we make sure that our staff see CPD as the essential we do, and that they all seek improvement? How can we effectively do the ground work to have what can sometimes be difficult conversations with staff? Mary Myatt’s book gives some excellent foundations related to this which we were then able to explore and use in this context and I thought it was worth sharing some key takeaways which had the most impact.
Firstly, as Myatt says in the title of this section, we need to ensure we have an expectation that staff are humans first. You cannot expect to have a conversation about improving someone’s practice if you have not taken the time to get to know your team, show genuine interest in them as people and have built a solid relationship. This is a time investment, but is so worth it. Do you know your staff? Do you show you genuinely care about them and their interests or family? Do you regularly ask for feedback yourself and have opportunities for 1:1 chats? Do they know that they matter to you? It’s from a foundation of warmth and attentiveness that conversations about improving practice will flourish most. Myatt sums up the knock on effect this has: “What happens is that there is a “bank balance” of goodwill. And it means that when it needs to be drawn on for tough conversations (and there are always tough conversations) the underlining message is that “You’re ok, but this aspect of your work needs addressing.” That doesn’t mean we need to be or should be best friends with all our colleagues, but does mean equally our relationship is not robotic or without care.
This leads on to the second key takeaway: Leaders giving feedback are saying the practice could be more effective, not the person. It’s not personal and no judgement is being made of the teacher themselves. We are all always developing and in order for staff to do this effectively, there needs to be a trusting relationship built up so that staff know any feedback is with the right aim of achieving better outcomes for students, and that staff at all stages of their career can become better. Again, this is about a foundation of the right culture, hence why I include it as part of our whole Academy Teaching and Learning vision – we can all improve and should be striving to make those improvements. Once staff buy in to this and see there is no recrimination or black mark against their name but only support and guidance, then real incremental improvements can take place. Developing becomes exciting; a challenge rather than a stick to beat staff with. As the book suggests, the best learning comes from these “High challenge, low threat” situations; The work, not you.
Thirdly, Myatt recommends Kim Scott’s book Radical Candor, and the subtle difference between the words guidance and feedback. Scott encourages us to talk about guidance, and says this is usually far more welcoming to us than feedback. I’ve since gone on to read Radical Candor and in this book Scott argues that people do want to be held accountable for their work but some ways of doing this are more effective. We naturally want and need to be guided to be the best we can be at our jobs, and so as leaders we need to not shy away from these conversations: “Guidance is often called feedback. People dread feedback. They dread getting it, both the praise, which can feel patronising, and especially the criticism. They dread giving it. What if the person gets defensive? Starts to yell? Threatens to sue? Bursts into tears? What if the person refuses to understand the criticism, or can’t figure out what to do about the problem? What if there is no simple way to fix the problem?….All these questions loom so large that people often forget they need to solicit guidance from others and encourage it between them.” Honesty, if built on the foundations mentioned earlier, can be so powerful at helping us move from novice to expert. I mentioned in my last blog post on 360 feedback, that the responses from my colleagues really helped crystalize my thinking about what my priorities needed to be as a leader. They helped identify my blind spots, areas I needed to work on that I was either oblivious to, or were not as high on my agenda. Because my colleague’s responses were built on firm and honest relationships, this guidance mattered to me and I welcomed their suggestions. Additionally, if we do not have these conversations, we risk modelling low expectations ourselves. In Radical Candour Kim Scott writes about a situation with “Bob” where this happened. By not giving Bob honest feedback on poor performance, Bob did not realise he was making mistakes and a culture was built where there was no honesty: “..I’d failed to create a culture in which Bob’s peers would naturally warn him when he was going off the rails. The team’s cohesion was cracking, and it showed in our results. Lack of praise and criticism had absolutely disastrous effects on the team and on our outcomes.” Steve Jobs famously said: “The most important thing I think you can do for somebody who’s really good and who’s really being counted on is to point out to them…when their work isn’t good enough. And to do it very clearly and to articulate why…and to get them back on track.” As leaders these conversations matter, and as long as they are built on the foundations described earlier, then people generally would rather know, have the opportunity to, and the guidance about how, to improve.
Myatt also makes an important point about making the assumption that staff are trying their best and that we as observers often don’t see the full story. She models an example which ensures the conversation with feedback is actually a productive one: “I noticed that not everyone was on task. Did the same appear to you too? Why do you think that was?” This “I noticed” conversation is so powerful because it is a discussion rather than a top down “you need to work on this.” It allows for the teacher to share their version of the lesson or the events and for an open conversation about how more on task behaviour could be encouraged, whether that be through scaffolding or high expectations for example. It’s honest, specific and helpful but it’s a two-way conversation, where the member of staff has an investment in the guidance.
Another aspect which Myatt emphasises which was really resonated with me was about the fact that because we are human, mistakes will happen. Our staff need to know we expect them to make mistakes, take a wrong turn, to have a lesson we know just didn’t go well. Goodness knows, I make these mistakes all the time. And therefore, as leaders we not only have to tell them that they should take risks and that that will go wrong sometimes, we have to show them, to model failure. As someone who has written about failure before here, this was music to my ears! “The key message is that we are all in this together; no one starts off perfect and gets it right first time. We have all made mistakes and that’s ok as long as you learn from them. And we have all taught a terrible lesson and learned to live the tale.” How much more are our staff likely to want to develop and improve if they know the culture is one that we all can and need to improve, that our leaders trust in our potential, and that if we hit a bump in the road on the way, that’s ok? One of my favourite quotes about mistakes says: “Show me a person who doesn’t make mistakes and I’ll show you a person who doesn’t do anything.” Failure is something which unites us as humans. As a leader, don’t be afraid to show your mistakes. Staff need to see that we don’t expect perfection, we are all on a path of continual improvement.
Lastly, and importantly, we need to ensure that our staff are not left floundering on their own trying to develop. We need to be specific in our guidance, and make sure that staff know this is a process, not a quick fix, or a plaster over a problem. Firstly we can do this by using really specific and incremental guidance. As an Academy we have bought into the Walkthrus package and I’d argue this is one of the aspects it does best. It gives a common language for step by step improvement. Secondly, Myatt advocates the use of “Would you like me to come back and see how things are going?” and I think this continues to build the sort of culture where staff feel they are not on their own, that teaching is complicated, and that leaders are there to support and guide, not measure. That’s not to say leaders shouldn’t hold to account when needed, but holding to account when the culture described above is present, is a world away from the humiliating de-personalised judgements that are unfortunately made of staff in some schools: “This is light years away from top down leadership: pointing out of errors which make an individual feel diminished, got at, and that it isn’t worth trying.” Kim Scott says: “…there are few more things more damaging to building a trusting relationship with another person than unilateral authority or a sense of superiority. The way you treat people determines their best effort, a perfunctory effort, or an effort to sabotage you. When you treat people like cogs in a machine, you’ll get no more than you demand, and you create an incentive to break the machine.”
High challenge Low Threat is just superb. We’re only up to page 32 as a team, and there have been so many lessons applicable to our context and to our journey as leaders. Her advice is so grounded, relevant and has provoked so many useful conversations already that I know it will be fundamental to our development over the next few months. I highly recommend it to current or future leaders – I know it will be a book that stays with me for a very long time, and there may very well be a part 2 to this blog post!
I would also highly recommend Radical Condor – one of the best books on leadership I’ve ever read, with really practical advice.
360 feedback is a key component of the leadership course I have recently taken part in, both at the beginning and end. 360 feedback is a process where feedback on an individual is given by colleagues; line managers, people they line manage and people they may work closely beside, anonymously, in order to assess an individuals strengths and areas for development. Alongside this, the individual is often asked to rate themselves in very similar questions. (We did ours through Leadership Matters). Conclusions can then be drawn about areas where the individual might perceive they are more competent than their colleagues think they are, or the individual might be underselling themselves, and actually their colleagues may rate them higher than they rate themselves.
I think Andy Buck sums the reasons for doing a 360 like this really well when he says: “Leadership starts with you. Your understanding of yourself: the way you tend to behave in certain situations, what you enjoy and are good at and those areas you should probably focus on if you want to improve your effectiveness. But you also need to take the time to properly understand your situation: the people and the context you find yourself in. Taken together, an understanding of self and situation should enable you to decide what actions you need to prioritise and the best approach to take in implementing them. If you get this right you will create a productive culture and climate that combine to release discretionary effort from those you lead which will lead to you achieving the pupil outcomes you aspire to.”
I’ll be honest though, I was extremely nervous about this process and although I knew I passionately wanted to improve as a leader, and I wanted to get the most out of this course as I could, I was anxious about what would be said. The questions surveys like this ask are those which I believe we wouldn’t naturally seek answers to. How am I doing? How can I improve? What can I get better at? What can I do to make us work more efficiently as a team? I undoubtedly felt trepidation about hearing about areas where I needed to improve and where I needed to hone my leadership skills. I am fairly typical, I believe, in that no matter what positives in feedback I receive, I of course am naturally drawn to anything negative or areas where colleagues felt my performance could be better. My standards for myself are high, and I did not want to feel I was letting anyone down. However, if I did not hear about these areas, how could I seek to improve? I would be wanting to become a better leader with no map to guide me, no way to know if I was working on the right things. There is a lesson here in positive uncomfortableness too, and pushing yourself outside what feels natural. In the same way we ask students to get outside their comfort zone in order to challenge them and help them learn, we have to be prepared to take the same position ourselves so we can learn as leaders. Not all of leadership comes naturally, and while there are some parts of the role I see as straightforward, other parts are difficult and take work and commitment, and if I’m honest I’m not sure I’ll ever get completely right. As Mary Myatt says so eloquently, we are; “Human beings first, professionals second.” We are human, we will make mistakes and as leaders we are always learning. Consequently, I bit the bullet and was careful to choose a range of colleagues who I knew would give me honest feedback.
What I found was that in the most part, my colleagues did recognise the elements of my practice which I also found were strengths – anyone who knows me knows I am good at meeting deadlines for example. There’s no doubt it was lovely to receive praise in some areas, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that. There were also areas where I knew I could improve. I’m open and honest about the fact that I know sometimes my passion for Teaching and Learning can overwhelm the need to take a step back and see the bigger picture. What I also found though, was that I did have some blind spots. There were areas where colleagues said I needed to work a bit harder at, where perhaps I had got complacent, or even areas where I had subconsciously decided something was less important, and yet colleagues felt it was something I did need to improve on. One such weaker area was asking for feedback on performance, which maybe is not surprising given what I have said earlier! What the process and the feedback did though, was make me focus and gave me a starting point. It increased my self-awareness and made me create some actions so that I could show improvements in these areas. It also made me really think about people’s perception of me, and hone in on refining my behaviours to be more like the leader I had aspirations to be. I made a point for example when introducing or changing something related to Teaching and Learning of forcing myself to think more about the effects on other areas of the Academy, and whether this really was a priority at the moment. I also tried to ask for more feedback throughout the year, using line management time to ask questions such as “What else can I do or take off you to support you?” for example.
I’ve recently completed the 360 again, about 15 months later. Again, the process created nervousness, but this time I was much better prepared about what would be revealed. What it showed, pleasingly, was that progress had been made. My strengths were, unsurprisingly, still my strengths, but the areas for improvement were rated higher than they had been in the previous process. Again, there were some areas where I still have work to do, but the comments from my colleagues were a massive boost that I am on the right track.
What I’ve learnt from this process, and the course as a whole, is that there is no shame in being told you can improve in some areas, and that actually forcing yourself to listen to feedback like this is humbling, and makes you a better leader in the long run. I’ve also learnt that a 360 like this is a process, it’s not a one off event which I can now tick off. Feedback should be part of our daily conversations if we want to get better. If I want to be a good leader, and I really really do, then I have to make the time commitment and also swallow my pride a little to ask for regular feedback from others. Ignorance is not bliss on this occasion; too often we plough ahead with our own agendas without thinking about what will really make us, and therefore our organisations better. In my opinion, a 360 like this is really worth the investment.
This quote by Doc Rivers, the American professional basketball coach, is really powerful and sums my feelings up well: ““Average players want to be left alone. Good players want to be coached. Great players want to be told the truth.” I want to have the courage to be told the truth by those I work with so that I can be a great leader, not a good one or even an average one.
Since reading The Writing Revolution and blogging about it, I have been thinking a lot about vocabulary in the classroom, and getting students to really think about the words they choose as a focus for improving the quality of writing. This is especially true in the essay questions required by exam boards such as the 16 mark question in AQA GCSE History, like this from 2019 Paper 1: “The main cause of tension between the Superpowers during the 1960s was the Cuban Missile Crisis. How far do you agree with this statement? Explain your answer.”
There are several issues which can arise when students are attempting this question outside the range of knowledge needed to answer it effectively. One of the main ones, is that it requires students to have a clear line of argument. What I have found when marking these answers is that it is easy for students to “flip flop” about, either starting out by saying one factor is important and changing their mind by the conclusion, or starting paragraphs with simple sentences such as “I think x factor was the most important reason because…” “However, I also think y factor was important because…” The Examiners report repeatedly emphasises that for students to get into Levels 3 and 4, students arguments should be more complex than this. The Level 3 descriptor says “Answer demonstrates a developed, sustained line of reasoning which has coherence and logical structure” and the Level 4 descriptor says “Answer demonstrates a complex, sustained line of reasoning which has a sharply-focused coherence and logical structure that is fully substantiated.” This is reinforced in the Examiner’s report – The 2018 report for example says “The strongest answers at this level were effective because there was a clear line of argument that introduced other distinct factors…”
In recent months, one word which has undoubtedly improved the quality of the essay questions I receive, is the word Admittedly, brought to my attention by my fantastic Head of History Lisa Kelly. The Collins dictionary says “You use admittedly when you are saying something which weakens the importance or force of your statement.” Using this one word has forced my students to think about the whole structure of their essays. All students have to use it (or a similar word/phrase such as undeniably, certainly, it must be said) at some point in the essay. If students agree with the stated factor in the question, they could then start their second paragraph with “Admittedly, factor z also contributed…” If students disagree with the stated factor they could start their first paragraph with “Admittedly factor z did have an impact on….” and then their second paragraph would go on to say “However, x factor made a more considerable impact on….” I have then added other connectives which students could use to start their other paragraphs, and modelled how to show how the rest of the essay would look, maintaining an argument through to the conclusion. Somehow, just the use of this one word has helped my students to see the flow of their essay and be able to plan a more cohesive approach. As always, my approach is to model repeatedly, using an I do, we do, you do approach, gradually removing any scaffolds.
Admittedly, using admittedly hasn’t meant that overnight my students are all handing in Level 4 16 mark essays, but thinking about quick wins like this has undoubtedly improved the quality of the writing I am seeing. It’s a format which is simple for them to learn and forces them to step back and think about the argument in the question, rather than abruptly changing tack during an essay, and hopefully will secure them higher marks in their exam.
There is something really nice about a new year. Much like the pleasure in opening a new notebook, it represents the chance to try something new, determine ourselves to not repeat our mistakes of the past, to tweak our practice, change anything we need to change, and set some goals about what we will do or achieve.
“The beginning of the year offers a fresh start and a clean slate,” according to Nona Jordan, a coach who helps female entrepreneurs improve their business. Many of us are also motivated by the idea of bettering ourselves. “Most of us have a natural bent toward self-improvement,” said John Duffy, Ph.D, clinical psychologist and author. The arbitrary date of New Year “gives us time and a goal date to prepare for the change, to fire up for the shifts we plan to make.”
Teachers are unique, in that we have an opportunity to do this twice a year instead of just the usual 1st January, and I for one love it. I’ve always been a goal-setter (though not necessarily ambitious). I find reflecting on past achievements or failures important, and I love setting myself a goal or challenge. At the beginning of the year, I decided to take this one step further and purchased a journal to allow me to reflect and check in on my goals throughout the year (see below). I love the fact I have to think about parts of the week I am grateful for, my highlights and things I struggled with, but it also forces me to think how I might have achieved something this week which puts me another step closer to achieving my goals for the year. I also love the focus on kindness to others and there have been weeks where this has been really easy and weeks where I’ve realised I’ve not looked much beyond my little bubble, so it has been a good reminder to look up.
In lockdown, making goals really helped me focus and get some structure at a time when life was pretty unstructured, and helped me deal with the mental turmoil of not knowing what was around the corner (I set myself goals such as 100k steps a week, reading at least 5 books a month, baking once a week etc.) I also think these goals give me a chance to prioritise myself and think about what I want for me, when life can easily be swamped by the pressures of work, family and the sorts of things we all go through and may not speak about publicly. Therefore, September for me represents the chance to plan for the year ahead, to start afresh, and to set professional and private goals for the months to come. Whilst New Year’s resolutions don’t typically have a high success rate, I still think they are useful, particularly if you are careful not to set unrealistic goals. The author and speaker Bill Copeland said “The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score” and I would agree with this. Perhaps this is because of my personality – I like to tick things off a list and get to the end of the day feeling a sense of achievement, but also goals help me prioritise and give me a sense of purpose. I do try and keep any goals manageable and I think the SMARTi acronym for targets is a good one here. In my first week back at school for example, I knew I would not be able to maintain the previous step rate of the holidays so reduced them whilst still maintaining an aspirational goal.
So, in the past few days, I’ve been thinking about my goals as a leader, teacher and more personally, and I thought it might be helpful for me to share some here.
Leadership – Writing our Academy Development plan recently, I was reminded of the sheer size and privilege of the job I do and this at times can seem overwhelming. I believe passionately in continuous improvement and this can mean that at times I get impatient and want to see change immediately. There’s a sense of frustration in my role sometimes about planning and leading CPD then wanting, and perhaps expecting to see immediate change, perhaps in the same vein as a teacher; “I’ve taught you it, why don’t you know it?”. So this year, I’m going to make a conscious effort firstly to revisit, in the same way we use continual retrieval with students. Hence for example, we asked every single member of teaching staff to watch 3 short videos showing our CPD from last year and complete a simple google form explaining the key learning points. Obviously videoing these occurred because of our current restrictions around members of staff in the same room, but actually this has an immense advantage in staff could access this at their own convenience, and it maintains a permanent record, should any member of staff, perhaps in a coaching situation, need to revisit any of the material. My ambition is that all staff know that last year’s CPD isn’t over, and avoiding as one teacher I spoke to described it “lurching from one idea to the next without an overall long-term plan.” I want our staff to know there isn’t a throw-away culture in our CPD where we just move on to something different year on year. CPD is exactly that; continuous, so we haven’t “done” Literacy just because we had a major whole school focus on that last year. Our work around Literacy needs refreshed and then embedded continually so we can ensure consistency and make sure it becomes part of our daily practice. When I plan our CPD, we may focus on slightly different aspects each year, but there are long term areas which we will continue to work on year on year. We will never be “done”.
Secondly, I’m going to try and not be as impatient to see change. Real sustained change takes time. Staff need time to reflect personally, staff teams need time to discuss how strategies apply to their subject, and leaders need time to form coherent plans themselves for embedding within areas. David Weston, chief executive of the TDT writes “A common issue we find in schools is of leaders introducing all sorts of well-meaning professional development activities, but their staff feel unable to take advantage of these opportunities. In the worst cases they may even resent them. The most common causes for this discord relate to workload: staff feel they do not have the time to commit to new opportunities, no matter how potentially powerful.” Therefore we as a leadership team need to ensure that meeting times are really focused on pedagogy not admin and that any whole school CPD is always followed by reflection time in teams, then followed up in line-management meetings. I believe good CPD will be continually revisited and reflected upon and tweaked. I was struck by a message in Tom Bennett’s book on behaviour Running the Room about “making it easy for kids to behave” and it struck me it is the same in leadership of CPD. My job is to set the culture where staff want to improve because they see CPD as relevant and they have the time to embed the strategies needed for improvement, and therefore my goal is to be more patient and more proactive about setting the right environment for professional learning.
Teaching – As a teacher this year, my biggest goal is around teach to the top and making better use of scaffolding techniques. As a school we are now pursuing much more mixed-ability teaching, and all my groups truly have a huge mix of prior attainment. I wrote a little about our strategy here and so as a class teacher I want to do more to implement scaffolding techniques like live modelling and an I, we, you approach (see Andy Tharby’s excellent blog here and Greg Thornton’s brilliant blog here) I want to have the highest expectations of all my students. Tom Sherrington’s blog is my go-to on this, and as I was re-reading this at the start of the year, one aspect which really stood out for me was regarding “exemplars of excellence”. Sherrington says: “One of the key messages from the Austin’s Butterfly story from Ron Berger, is that, too often, we settle for less than students are capable of. Another is that students themselves don’t know what might be possible and so they pitch too low.” Although model answers have been part of my teaching arsenal for some time, I still think I need to make it more regular practice in my lessons to model, whether live or pre-planned, what excellence looks like. Do I really show pupils the length and depth a good answer should have, how a sentence should be structured or how to insert a quote in a meaningful way? As Sherrington adds “Don’t hit and hope…. show them first.”
Personal – In my last conversation with my leadership coach, we spoke about being present, something I admit I am not very good at. You’ll often catch me multi-tasking, thinking about the next job which needs completed or planning ahead for the next thing I need to do, and as my husband will attest to, I’m just not very good at stopping and enjoying the moment! I would like to try and slow down a bit this year, and enjoy the ordinary moments of each day, without always being in a rush to get something done. I want to try and make a concerted effort to focus on one thing at a time, not emailing whilst dishing up dinner or writing down notes for a lesson in the moments waiting for a TV programme to start. I was also listening to an old How to fail podcast with Elizabeth Day interviewing the writer and philosopher Alain De Botton recently, and he said something which has stayed with me since about “seeing the amazingness in the every day.” I want to slow down and be more grateful for the many, many things I have in my life which bring me joy. De Botton compares it to the feeling of recovering after a bad illness and noticing the small things in the world with a new perspective. This is not easy, but one strategy I’ve found recently which has been helpful, came from the psychotherapist Anna Mathur who suggested re-framing “I have to” as “I get to” applying to anything from doing the washing (I have a washing machine, a family to do the washing for etc), to sitting in traffic on the way to work (I get to drive, own a car, have a job etc). It may sound trite, but it really does help me in the moments when I feel tense or overwhelmed.
I truly believe goals give us purpose and a road map for our time, and can act as a brilliant motivator. The aim of this blog has really been two-fold. Writing this has helped me crystallise in my head exactly what I want to achieve this year, but I also hope it prompts you to think about your own goals. I’d love to hear about what yours may be, so please share if you have got this far, and very best wishes for the year ahead!
One thing I was reminded of on my senior leadership training course this year by Nick Lowry, is that when you want to introduce a new policy or change in school, you must always start with the why. If you want buy in and staff to amend their practice, you have to communicate clearly why this change is needed. When we launched a whole school no written feedback policy, the first thing I made sure I did was to communicate why there would be a change in policy, and that this was not a gimmick or an idea which would be launched then forgotten about. This was a change in policy steeped in research which we believed would make a positive impact on the progress of all our pupils in the long term. Like any large group, the staff at my Academy are not homogeneous – some enjoyed marking, some believed it made them a better teacher, and some did not understand how a policy such as the one being introduced could possibly work. We therefore made feedback the main focus of a whole school inset day towards the end of the academic year and spent time discussing the huge benefits of feedback, whilst acknowledging the drawbacks of the beast that written marking had become. I shared our findings that we as teachers had lost sight of who we were giving feedback for (a policy rather than to improve learning), the worry that time marking was preventing thorough planning and the burden on workload. As all CPD at my Academy, this was related directly to research, and we followed up by discussion where the issues in the current system were acknowledged, then we shared the new policy and the key headlines about how it would work, based on conversations with the trial team. We shared expectations for most lessons containing some sort of red pen feedback, and what there was no longer an expectation for (written feedback, evidencing verbal feedback). Importantly, at this point I then also shared some misconceptions and what the new policy would not mean (not looking at books, no one else ever looking at teachers books – something I will explore later, or teachers not being allowed to grade), followed by what it did mean. I shared our expectations that the new policy would mean:
Trust put in staff as professionals to judge how and when to feedback.
Working in different ways – more time invested in planning bespoke lessons with a variety of feedback methods
More in-lesson feedback – verbal, use of visualizer, modelling, highlighting success criteria etc.
Books are checked quickly and common strengths, mistakes and misconceptions are dealt with quickly at the beginning of the next lesson.
Continued work scrutiny conversations and discussion of feedback and progress in books (this happens openly with the teacher – no books are removed and taken away to be looked at without the teacher).
I then spent time outlining each of the 4 methods of feedback explored in the previous blog post. However, we wanted staff to get a feel for what this would actually look like in the classroom and so with the whole trial team involved, we used a carousel system to showcase some of the methods we had found most useful, including various whole class feedback sheets, examples of model answer critique and examples of live feedback. We shared pupils’ books, and used Iris to show staff the techniques in practice, with lots of time for questions. Of course this could only be an overview, and so all these areas have been reinforced since, but it gave staff a flavour and gave them time to start thinking about how their practice might change. We also shared a presentation of generic proformas staff could use if they wished to to guard against any potential unease about where to start. We ended the whole staff session by outlining the part of the policy with clear teacher expectations with the bottom line being to plan for integration of some form of feedback into most lessons. We asked staff to focus on modelling and whole class feedback primarily, to deep mark summative assessments with a % and grade if applicable, followed by whole class or individual feedback and re-teaching where needed using QLA, to ensure red pen improvement by pupils is visible and regular in books. In addition, we told staff they needed to follow departmental guidelines for frequency of whole class/deep feedback and therefore, we ended the day by giving teams time to discuss the changes and devise a subject specific version of the whole school policy. This, I believe, is vital. A feedback policy in English will not, and should not look the same as a feedback policy in Design Technology and so it’s important that middle leaders had ownership of the expectations of their subject, which I then moderated to ensure parity. The fact that all staff had a say in these discussions was also an important step in ensuring the new policy had buy in. I also provided lots and lots of further reading, which I asked staff to read and discuss in future subject meetings. It was really valuable to have a member of staff from the trial in each team, as this meant they could answer many of the inevitable questions, and each were asked to share subject specific presentations and a folder of resources they had used over the past year. Again, there was also a time to look at books and discuss feedback in a subject specific way. Staff left the day with a target to try one idea in a future lesson, and this was revisited and discussed in a later department meeting.
One of the inevitable questions with introducing a policy such as this one, is what Quality Assurance will look like. Staff were historically very used to knowing what expectations there were of marking e.g. triple impact marking twice a half term. The new policy, whilst there are some subject specific frequency expectations of whole class feedback, leaves a lot of these decisions up to the class teacher, who will decide at what point feedback would be most beneficial for the class, rather than when a policy or a work scrutiny dictates. But what this means, is that QA becomes far more productive and asks the questions which really matter. We had already moved away from a work scrutiny where books are scrutinised by subject leaders behind closed doors to honest and frank joint conversations between class teachers and subject leaders and this had been really welcomed by staff. This was reinforced by the new feedback policy. I carried out some training with subject leads where we discussed the main questions which should form this discussion, and together we devised a list which could be used. (This is not a checklist – It may be that only 2 or 3 questions are needed in a particular conversation and there is absolutely no grading). Questions subject leaders could ask related to feedback included:
What methods of feedback do you use to help pupils improve their work? Are all engaging with this? Can you see improvements in the work?
Is there evidence of modelling? Has this made an impact on future work?
How is literacy being fed back on and developed?
What are the next steps to improve progress for this class?
Obviously any policy such as this needs to be revisited frequently and there has been much training this year building on the initial launch. The main thrust of our CPD this year has been developed through Teacher Learner Community (TLC) sessions held monthly in cross subject small groups. The first term concentrated solely on feedback. Each session is wholly research based, and always starts with a discussion on pre-reading followed by sharing of ideas trialled since the last session (increasingly using Iris technology). Research shared is always followed by practical strategies, and time given for discussion about application in different subject specific contexts. The first session we concentrated on the use of visualisers and their value in live modelling and live feedback, as these had been purchased for each classroom over the summer. The second session we discussed methods of whole class feedback. Initially we decided that there would be no common proforma for this (as outlined in the last post). As the year has progressed and more QA has been carried out, it has become clear that this is the area we most need to develop and that there is some inconsistency in practice. This will be a definite area for development once we are back in school, and while we will still do not insist on one particular format, we will be helping staff by providing generic formats which can be used, and giving more guidance about expectations. The third session was on myth busting and answering queries from staff. We had more time for discussion in this session about aspects such as: How do I still ensure I praise pupils whilst using whole class feedback? How should practical subjects evidence feedback? How can I ensure literacy is a major focus in whole class feedback? Do I need to photocopy and stick my whole class feedback sheet in books? With many of these questions we kept coming back to the rationale behind the changes to the policy. Feedback needs to be manageable, frequent, effective and purposeful. For example, for us, teachers being made to photocopy and stick in WCH sheets did not feel in keeping with the policy. (As I said in my last post, if you’d like more information or any of these CPD resources, please feel free to contact me.)
What then are our next steps? Obviously the current situation in schools has meant our CPD around feedback has been somewhat interrupted. It means that we will need to ensure we go back and revisit the policy, continuing to consolidate and embed the methods of feedback. We plan to do some work whole school using pupil books to flag concerns around the disparity between subjects in the amount of feedback being seen and to discuss tightening up subject feedback policies. As I mentioned, we also want to focus on whole class feedback and ensuring this is consistent, both across and within subjects.
However, it is clear that the change in policy has had a very positive impact for staff across the school, and hopefully ultimately for pupil progress. I thought I’d finish this post with some accounts from staff who have experienced the change in policy. I hope that if you are a school leader and still using an onerous written feedback policy, that their words might challenge you, and I also hope they explain better than I could, why a policy like ours is a move in the right direction.
Brad Williams History Teacher
“I don’t exaggerate this point when I say that no written feedback has revolutionised my teaching practice. It has literally changed the way I do things in the classroom from marking to planning, and it has redressed the teacher-pupil working relationship. What I mean by this is that feedback is not something I have to commit two hours of my time to doing anymore, but it is something that pupils have to invest more of their time in, in order for it to be effective. My pupils have developed a deeper understanding of History through this feedback, whether it be in the content or in the methodology of essay writing, and the results are there for all to see in the quality of their written work in books and assessments. As well as this, I feel I am able to target pupils who need more support more easily and am able to develop strategies quickly to address any misconceptions or problems they are having in their work. In addition to the obvious benefits in the classroom, I have found the no written feedback has aided immensely with my personal wellbeing. A year ago, I felt trapped. I felt I didn’t have time to create effective lessons which then meant I would open myself up to scrutiny about my work (mostly from myself) and my mental wellbeing took a major hit. Now I’m not saying that no written feedback is the sole contributor to my mental health being better, but it has certainly given me time back that I once thought was lost to nothing but ‘tick and flick’. It certainly is something that as a school is a work in progress, but I can safely say that no written feedback is undoubtedly the way forward both for the teacher and the pupils to ensure effective progress for all. “
Chelsey Wallwork English teacher
“When Rachel first spoke to the staff body about Feedback taking the place of Marking, there was a small part of me that instantly jumped into thinking that this was another year and another teaching gimmick. However, knowing Rachel’s passion for research and drive to improve teaching through practical, reliable and researched methods, I dived headfirst into the new Feedback Policy with trust and optimism.
And I’m so glad I did.
Feedback has transformed my classroom practice; the way I deliver the improvements to pupils; and dramatically changed my work life balance. Marking for me had been a necessary evil, and I often found it repetitive and simply a box to tick with little benefit to staff or pupils. It was time consuming, and rarely did I see improvements from the pupils that made me feel that the Sunday stint I had endured to mark the books was purposeful. At times, marking in the traditional sense had even make me resent teaching and I couldn’t understand who it was for. It wasn’t for the pupils, it didn’t enhance my practice, and I could see no improvements in the data as a result of my marking.
Feedback, on the other hand, is purposeful. It allows for the re-teaching of misconceptions either instantly in the lesson or in the following lesson. Misconceptions are not given the chance to fester. Under the new Feedback Policy targets can be given in a range of ways and this brings an excitement into the classroom and a freedom that has been stifled within teaching in recent years. By giving teachers the autonomy to not have to write in individual exercise books, and decide their own way to deliver feedback, it gives staff the feeling that they are trusted to be professional and this, is liberating.
While it is still essential for the pupils work to be read frequently, removing the expectation of staff to write a generic and hollow comment at the end of each pupils’ piece of work, allows the teacher more time to read the work and encourages the teacher to gain a passion for digesting the pupils words imagining the creative, beneficial and tailored ways that we can now communicate improvements to the pupils and show them how to progress. Dialogue between the teacher and their pupils has become lively and exaggerated, encouraging a hunger to progress from the pupils that flat ink on white page does not have the ability to conjure.
Live, in-class, feedback encourages the teacher to proactively and enthusiastically move about the classroom and this has allowed for the cultivation of positive relationships, greater understanding of pupils ability, and the individual ways that pupils work. The time saved not having to comment in books has opened up time for improved planning, research and reading. The time has led to better prepared teachers, which will lead to better prepared pupils and more successful outcomes.
Feedback is successful because, unlike marking, it is diverse and flexible and allows targets to be set for pupils in unique and inspired ways and therefore, pupils too are enthusiastic to engage, long-gone are the reluctant pupils who can’t be bothered to comment on the teacher’s marking or the pupils who have become lost in the rainbow of pen colour: pink for peer, green for growth!
Instead, Feedback has created healthy discussion between staff and between staff and pupils about how to generate progress; ignited teacher passions that have been stifled or dormant; and created resilient pupils who see feedback as constructive and necessary.
Feedback is a knight in shining armour.”
Jordan Simmons PE teacher
“No written feedback has had a massive impact on my teaching because more than anything it gave pupils ownership of their work and ownership of corrections. It stopped a spoon fed culture. Pupils became more confident in writing answers because they understood feedback would be given and then they could make corrections – as opposed to me as the teacher marking the work and them not fully understanding where they had gone wrong.”
Amy Lloyd Geography Teacher
“To me no written feedback feels positive for both myself and the students. It doesn’t feel relentless in the way that traditional marking did, I believe this is down to having the freedom and trust as a professional to choose a strategy which suits each class best for a particular piece of work. Front end feedback has meant I spend time talking to students about how to structure their work, how and where to include examples, I used to feel that showing an example of how to write an answer was ‘cheating’ for the students, but now I truly see they value and the work I receive from students is of a much higher standard. Instead of asking students to ‘include examples’ I can check if the examples they have used are accurate and can then pick out misconceptions, I don’t correct these straight away, I ask the class to work on it first.
For whole class feedback I was worried at first that students would know how to read their work and spot errors, I use highlighters and sometimes numbers so that students can see which particular point, example or sentence requires more thought. My experience of this is that we are encouraging students to engage in the feedback, they have to re-read their work, use their lessons notes and actually have learning conversations with their peers as well as me.
Overall feedback has revolutionised teaching for me, I spend time assessing books but it doesn’t feel like the relentless task that it once did. I now find enjoyment in reading the work that students complete and feel empowered to provide feedback in a way that suits the group of students to promote better outcomes. I do still do some traditional marking when I feel it will add value for example if students have been guided to answer a particular type of question through scaffolds , WABBOLs and WAGGOLs and then complete work independently. I feel the relationship I have with students in my classes is better as I spend time talking to them about their work and spend more time questioning their answers to help them to improve, students see completing feedback as a valuable task and enjoy making improvements to their work before they move on.
I find the only drawback with feedback is that I have very much found my ‘comfort zone’ but this is something I am aware of. One of the most useful tools is the shared ppt of feedback strategies which was developed by the trial team. I visit this when I need to refresh my practice.”
Right from my NQT days I was that teacher that always marked. I felt a sense of pride that I was a “good teacher” because my books were always marked up to date. We used a typical triple impact marking system and I worked incredibly hard, not just to make sure that my books were marked up to date and that the pupils completed a follow up activity which I then marked and sometimes gave feedback on and ……you get the idea – (I heard Michael Chiles sum this up brilliantly as the marking mayhem). I rarely thought about the impact it was having on pupils and just presumed it was what you had to do to be successful as a teacher and to ensure the pupils made progress. And over the years my good results seemed to confirm this. The unbearable workload at times just seemed part and parcel of the job. Of course I had the usual issues of writing the same comments multiple times, of pupils not responding, pupils still repeating the same mistakes and of course the weekend guilt of sets of books sitting in the car knowing I needed to mark them before school on Monday. About 2 years ago I started investigating schools who were making the leap of exploring whole class feedback rather than traditional marking, partly because I was becoming more interested in evidence based teaching and partly at the encouragement of my then headteacher, who I think was interested in the wellbeing aspects of such policies. I read the EEF report A marked improvement and the subsequent Independent Teacher Workload Review Group’s Eliminating Unnecessary Workload around Marking. I also read The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers about the Michaela school in London and was utterly blown away by their approaches to teaching, and in particular marking. Jo Facer’s chapter “Marking is futile” challenged me in a way I had not been challenged before. Was there really a point to the countless hours I was spending giving written feedback? Was there possibly another way? Since then multiple books, articles and blogs have convinced me that this is the right direction for schools to move in for all sorts of reasons, from the obvious benefits to wellbeing and the removal of that guilty feeling I mentioned above, to the more obvious benefits in progress for pupils. There are too many of these books and blogs to mention here but I recommend the work of Sarah Larsen, Victoria Hewitt, Kat Howard and Mark Enser, Greg Thornton and Jo Facer’s Simplicity Rules if you’re interested in reading more. This pair of blog posts is not to explain that research or justify a change in policy but my attempt to explain how I, alongside my SLT team implemented a ‘no expectation of written feedback policy’ at my Academy. I’ve been encouraged to share as over the past few months it has become clear to me that Twitter is a bubble, and there are still many many schools employing ridiculous marking policies with multiple coloured pens or writing verbal feedback or just spending hours creating long comments multiple times, which pupils often can’t or won’t read. The policy, and it’s implementation are not perfect and I will outline the mistakes or wrong directions we took as I always aim to be honest and those bumps in the road are for me, an important part of the process. I am not sharing this to say you must implement a policy like this in this way, or to say this is the only way to improve practice around marking, more a record of our journey for anyone that’s interested. I am also sharing this because I know many schools will be investigating more about no written feedback approaches, given the current situation with Covid-19. Obviously, this changes some of the advice I would give below which was written before the summer, but it is hopefully still relevant!
The first thing that I would recommend if you are looking at implementing a change in policy like this, is to go and see it being done first hand. I was lucky enough to go and visit a high school not too far away and they were generous with their time and resources. I must wholeheartedly thank Tarporley High School for this, and their ideas definitely helped me form an opinion of the direction I wanted the Academy to move in. I was able to see first hand in lessons the different techniques teachers used and it was abundantly clear that the policy was working. (They were part of a government research project and randomized trial).
The second tip I would give is to take your time. I knew there was no point rushing in to a change in policy of such magnitude like this, so requested time and staff to run a whole school trial. I asked for volunteers, one from each department or faculty in school to be part of a team who trialled a “no expectation for written feedback” policy. Staff were not told they could not mark, but we explored together different strategies for feeding back without writing comments. We used the ideas gained from Tarporley as a starting point and over the year added our own. We met at least monthly, brought books to every session and spent time sharing techniques we had used and the effect they had on pupils. The main strategies we found we were using repeatedly were; Whole class feedback, whole class questioning, sample feedback and modelling/use of success criteria, so we decided to make these our pillars of the policy. All improvements for any of these methods were completed by pupils in a different colour pen. We chose red, and all staff have a box of these used by pupils every single lesson. This makes any improvement highly visible, for us but also for the pupils. It means that feedback becomes more metacognitive, it forces pupils to reflect on the feedback and choose how best to improve their work. It’s important that circulation during any time for improvement is given to allow the teacher to speak to some pupils individually and to answer any questions. The four strategies in more detail are:
Whole class feedback – essentially taking all the books in, having a read of a specified piece of work and making notes to feedback to the class to help them redraft or improve it. Now you can download versions of these sheets ready made or even buy pads, but actually this works just as well with a blank piece of paper. I tend to note down the names of pupils whose work stands out, pupils who have misunderstood the work completely who have not done it, where I need to have an individual word, misconceptions, SPAG errors and aspects of the task the class has done well. I might even at this stage just concentrate on great phrases or sentences and highlight these and I usually find myself still circling spelling mistakes or writing the odd word. I can then ask the next lesson, why is this phrase or word highlighted? – let’s discuss what a good opening sentence looks like etc. I then talk the class through this feedback the next lesson. This might involve me re-teaching something or addressing a key misconception. Frequently, I also use a model answer at this point or one of the pupils own work to do this. It might even involve me changing my scheme of work, or amending the planned lesson to make sure a concept was definitely embedded before we moved on. This whole process is usually far quicker than writing multiple comments on work, even with the time spent replanning, but the time feels productive and meaningful.
Whole class questioning or register feedback – obviously this is something used frequently in lessons anyway, but this just formalises it. One example is to set homework on something like researching and learning vocabulary definitions – I might then call on each member of the class individually to give me a definition, or a spelling or synonym. Pupils can be adding to their lists or tweaking their responses based on what they hear from their peers.
Sample feedback – this might involve taking in just 4 or 5 books at the end of the lesson to complete a process similar to (a). It might also involve live feedback during the lesson. The way I use this frequently, is to ensure pupils have time for independent work, and make sure I circulate, reading work and giving verbal feedback. If I notice several pupils with a misconception or making a similar error, I will stop the class to give immediate feedback which pupils are then given time to act on. Now we all have visualisers, this process has become much more effective. I can select a book and we can discuss as a class what has been done well, or what mistake has been made and how we can fix this. This kind of culture where pupils are comfortable with discussions like this does take time to build, but can have an incredible effect on progress.
Modelling/success criteria – again something we used to do all the time, but we recognise this now as a critical part of the feedback process. Pupils will regularly spend time critiquing, marking and ranking model answers, highlighting where success criteria have been used and then applying that knowledge to their work. We also spent time improving deliberately poor answers. I’m also a huge fan of the “I do, we do, you do” approach and this is something we are trying to implement whole school. (See the brilliant @MrThorntonteach for more of this. There are also some examples in my google drive.)
As a trial group, we were rigorous in these meetings and challenged each other about the impact we were making on all pupils – were lower prior attainers, or pupils with an SEN accessing our feedback? Were we feeding back enough? What difference was it making to our planning? It was very clear to see early on that already the policy was having an impact on wellbeing. The team were not necessarily spending less time working but the immense marking pressure was off. There was no longer the guilt of needing to mark books because a policy dictated or a work scrutiny was coming up. The team felt they were treated more as professionals, able to decide when and how they should give feedback to pupils on work, and what the next steps would be. Ironically, they felt that feedback was becoming more frequent, since it had become a speedier process.
Below is a summary of the main things we learnt at the end of the first year:
Although it’s obviously extremely difficult to measure, having no written feedback in books made no difference to pupils’ performance and in many cases, progress improved. Pupil feedback in discussions was good overall and has been since in every questionnaire or sample session held. Pupils like their errors being pointed out as a class rather than having to read my handwriting or trying to figure out what I meant. They liked the fact feedback could be more frequent as it took considerably less time for teachers to do, and they liked the time to redraft and improve work with the help of more model answer critique. Pupils frequently tell me that they understand where they have gone wrong and how to improve more than they did under the old policy. There will always be pupils that like the individual comments in books, but many responded well once they could see the difference in how their work improved. In addition, verbal praise was really important for these pupils. Not writing comments in books doesn’t mean you can’t still circulate and give 1:1 praise or encouragement.
We definitely wanted this to be a whole school policy – we took a proposal to SLT and governors which was thankfully approved. All members of the trial team felt their wellbeing had improved and some were somewhat evangelical about the difference it was making to their teaching (see the next post for more of this!) As the year went on, I was approached by more and more of the staff team who wanted to get involved and many teachers trialled some of the strategies long before it was shared with everyone.
Visualisers were an essential item if we were going to make this work when we launched the policy whole school. Visualisers make feedback far more effective, especially for the live marking and live modelling I outlined above. I’m pleased to say we were able to purchase one for every classroom, which has made a huge difference this year.
It’s important to vary your feedback strategies. We found that pupils responded much better when we varied between whole class feedback, live feedback, questioning and modelling.
Communication with parents and pupils was important. At the beginning of the trial we wrote to all parents to explain the rationale and the process. I held assemblies with each year group to explain the changes to what their books would look like, and the responsibility they had themselves to improve their learning. I set up an email address where parents could express comments or concerns so the lines of communication were kept open, and I held regular sessions with pupils to look at their books and talk to them about their experiences with the policy. We also found that it was important to regularly tell pupils that their work was being looked at, despite the lack of comments in books. I will still often explicitly say to a class as I feedback “I’ve had a read of your books and this is what I found…” Parental feedback has been very favourable on the whole, the important thing is to share expectations so that parents know not to look for multiple comments by teachers. Sharing example exercise books is one way of doing this and we have maintained this since, through parents forums.
We knew that selling the policy change to staff would be the easy part. The hard part is ensuring we stay consistent, that feedback is thorough and that pupils make the necessary improvement in learning based on that feedback. In the next blog post, I’ll share how the trial was launched whole school, and the next steps. If you would like access to any of the material I have mentioned as part of this post, please feel free to get in touch.
For further reading on the rationale and some further fantastic strategies, I highly recommend the new book by Michael Chiles The Craft of Assessment which has an excellent chapter on feedback and feedforward, encapsulating the principles and thought process behind this strategy.
Like a lot of other teachers on Twitter, I was totally inspired by the blog Kristian Shanks wrote on his reading of first part of The Writing Revolution by Judith C. Hochman and Natalie Wexler. I had heard of the book but naiively presumed that it had little to help me in my teaching of History. How wrong I was! Kristian’s explanation of what the book had made him reflect on was really thought-provoking, and I immediately ordered the book. (You can read his excellent blog here). The book really is incredible. I’ve done a lot of work alongside my Academy lead for Literacy on embedding the teaching of vocabulary and Disciplinary Reading, but I’m not afraid to admit, have barely thought about the explicit teaching of writing. This book has completely challenged me, and made me reflect on some of the mistakes I’ve made in my years of teaching, which I will expand on below. Writing is a skill that a lot of pupils struggle with. Even pupils who find reading easy may find writing difficult. This is something I’m struggling with at home with my own son. He is an above-average reader and can power through a Sea Quest book in a day, but trying to get him to write is torturous on occasions! Hochman and Wexler write: “Many students who are good readers struggle when it comes to writing. Unlike reading, writing involved seciding what to say, which words to use, how to spell them, perhaps how to form the letters, and what order to place the words in – and that’s just at sentence level.”
Safe to say therefore, that I highly recommend this book. What it’s made me realise, is that just as teaching reading skills is, I believe, the responsibility of every teacher, so must the teaching of writing. Whilst I believe any teacher who implements these strategies would no doubt have a positive impact, Hochman and Wexler explain clearly that in order for The Writing Revolution to be really transformative, it needs to be part of a bigger plan than just one teacher working in silo. The guide is so practical and easy to understand, yet filled with gems of advice on every page, taking the reader from sentence formation, through to paragraphs and then multi-paragraph pieces of extended writing. At the back are brilliant templates that can be used with the strategies in the book. I cannot see how a teacher could read this book and fail to see several strategies which they could immediately implement (an with very little planning) to strengthen their teaching of writing, which surely can only have a positive effect on outcomes. Below are outlined just some of the main reflections I had and suggestions of aspects I will be changing in my own practice. However, there are many more which I could have written about!
My first reflection on reading the book was that I have been far too quick in my teaching to jump straight into writing essays with pupils, and failing to see that the writing process needs broken down. Hochman and Wexler take you through a masterclass in sentence structure and techniques such as fragments, because, but, so and using appositives, to help students learn how to form really good sentences. Writing a whole piece of extended writing needs building blocks first, a foundation of well-crafted sentences in order to sustain a quality piece of extended writing. This is something I will definitely be using in my teaching from now on and I know Kristian has some superb examples of how he has already embedded it into some of his.
My second reflection is that writing is driven by the content of the curriculum. Hochman and Wexler make clear that to maximise the benefits of writing instruction, students should practice on topic embedded in content, giving even stronger evidence that teachers in subjects like mine should be teaching writing in the surroundings of a challenging History curriculum. In addition, students should have a good knowledge base before we get them to write: “You can’t write well about something you don’t know well” Hochman and Wexler write. But, the actual process of writing about a piece of knowledge also deepens their understanding and helps embed it in their long-term memory. I need to make sure I don’t ask students to write too quickly in the gathering of knowledge, but also fremember that writing is important in the cementing of knowledge in memory. (Hochman and Wexler also give evidence that this should be done on pen and paper rather than on an electronic device.)
Hochman and Wexler make it very clear that all the strategies in the book should be modelled first, and also consolidated with verbal practise. Modelling is something I have been working on a lot and is now standard practise for me, often using my visualiser. However, I have reflected about the verbal aspect and realised this is something I don’t do enough of. When helping pupils form an exam answer for example, do I get them to practise verbally first? This is something I will be working more on in September.
I was really struck by the section of the book on note-taking. Note taking is something I must have been taught at some point, I think looking back perhaps when I started my A-levels. Why don’t we teach students how to take quick, effective notes earlier? I know it’s something I still use all the time, and find really helpful. As with every section, the book shows the power of each strategy. In this case note-taking not only boosts comprehension, but it helps students draft, and enables the absorption and retention of information: “Converting text or speech to notes is one of the most valuable skills you can teach your students…It’s a way of forcing students to process and understand what they’ve read, heard and learned.” Hochman and Wexler therefore devote a whole section of the book to note-taking, with some helpful abbreviations students can learn, such as upwards arrows meaning something is increasing. I can see this being really helpful for students when summarising articles, or taking notes from a video or podcast perhaps, especially when used with Cornell notes, which is a technique I have started using in the last few months. As with every section, there are practical tips to guide you. For example Hochman and Wexler advise using a pen or pencil to underline phrases rather than a highlighter, understanding the point that students have a tendency to highlight too much, plus it makes it harder to annotate as students have to keep swapping between pens.
Hochman and Wexler also emphasise the important skill of summarising, again something I have been guilty of assuming students would just know how to do. They made me realise how often I do it without thinking and ask students to do the same, without specific guidance about why or how they should do it. Again, they empahasise how powerful this skill is, not least in boosting reading comprehension: “In studies of students in grades 3 to 12, researchers found that writing summaries about a text had a consistently positive effect on comprehension…Writing summaries worked better than simply having students read a text multiple times, read and study it, or receive instruction in reading skills.” Hochman and Wexler take the reader through practical ways of implementing this, such as getting students to ask who, what, when, where, why and how questions, leading to a summary sentence. This is something I will definitely be implementing in my classroom.
The final reflection I wanted to write about was the focus on introductions and conclusions in The Writing Revolution. Again, this is something I have just made presumptions that students must already know how to do, and yet if I’m honest I have read many very poor conclusions that are just a regurgitation of the main body of the essay, or inrroductions which start “In this essay I will..” Whilst many of the GCSE questions don’t require an introduction, it is often required at A-level and is a good habit for students to get into, and so I think useful at Key Stage Three as well. Hoffman and Wexler first introduce the idea of a thesis statement; “a statement which conveys the main theme of the entire composition” A thesis statement could be a number of different things, from a personal judgement to an argument or an interpretation. This thesis statement is crucial as it will help form part of the introduction and conclusion. I found this, alongside the set guide for conclusions and introductions which they explain, really interesting, and could help guard against the poor examples I mention above.
As I said, this is just a snapshot of some of the aspects I took away from my reading of this book. I would highly recommend it to teachers of any subject, particularly those where there is an element of extended writing. I sat immediately pondering how I could use each strategy and share what I’d read, so I created a bit of a CPD/template guide which I hope to cascade, perhaps starting the the Humanities faculty. A copy is here if you would find it useful.
Most of all, this book has filled me with a passion for my students to write better, and the realisation that my job title of History teacher does not exclude me from teaching this, in fact it implores me to do this explicitly in order to improve comprehension and knowledge in my subject. I don’t want my students to complain when I ask them to copmplete a longer piece of writing, but be excited about the opportunity to express their knowledge and ideas. As Doug Lemov says in the book’s introduction: “Successful writing gives its practitioner the mystery and satisfaction of constant invention and construction.” I truly believe implementing the strategies in The Writing Revolution will ensure my students can write more competently, easily and in a deeper way, which surely can only secure better outcomes, as well as enjoyment.
As well as Kristian’s blog, I know several other teachers on Twitter are masterfully implementing some of the TWR strategies – I highly recommend you have a look at the work of the incredible Greg Thornton and the brilliant Tom Pattison, both of whom have been a huge support to me over the past few months and are producing some fantastic resources.