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"I Agree"

Thanks to the current NEU Conference in Liverpool, education has taken centre stage this Easter holiday. The sort of Clash approach to SATs - “Should they stay, or should they go?” - is now driving the media conversation but, to me, there is a more fundamental issue in education – particularly in the primary phase.

That is, the extent to which we are encouraging children to develop an independence in and intrinsic value for their own learning, to the point of leading it themselves.

This isn’t about relegating the teacher to the ‘guide from the side’. Far from it. However, I believe far too many children have education done unto them and there is one element of learning that not only children could and should lead but, in doing so, it also helps hard-working teachers get their lives back

Marking.

In far too many classrooms across the country, marking takes up an inordinate amount of time for colleagues. Despite the evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation’s report from 2016, A Marked Improvement, (see also Alex Quigley’s follow up 2018 blog) highlighting the emphasis should be on feedback, rather than simply marking, the report still highlights that:

‘We are marking too much for too little reward.’

But, there is always another way.

For many years now my approach has been underpinned by the concept of leadership espoused by Lao Tzu:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

I approach marking with a view that it is impossible for me to provide the best marking and feedback for my class by myself – there’s 30 of them but just one of me.

Furthermore, my background in sport tells me that many people achieve their best results through intrinsic rewards. In applying that, I have found that the best results in feedback are achieved when the learners are doing it for themselves.

It starts with my guidance but, in the end, they are setting their own path for development and progress.

Let me outline my approach in the hope that you not only get back your evenings and weekends but also – and more importantly – you’ll have children in your classroom who want to improve and will do with increasingly less input from you.

Getting started:

To join me in my marking Utopia, the following resources are invaluable:

  • Post-Its
  • Highlighter pens
  • Working walls
  • A visualiser (or just gather everyone around if you’re old school)
  • Time

If done well and with purpose, I have found that this entire way of working can be ingrained within a month with a new class – definitely by October half-term. The time spent at the outset will certainly pay dividends across the academic year and save you so much time. More importantly, the children will strive to improve their own work by being properly equipped to do so, through a clear process and with the accompanying language to achieve.

Apart from the above, I have found the following three rules to be of paramount importance:

  1. Your expectations must be modelled – this way of working will be challenging for many children, so they need to know how to do this.
  2. Feedback needs to be simple and concise (see below).
  3. All feedback must be purposeful – ‘nice writing/ colouring’ are trite, inconsequential and of no use whatsoever. Do not allow this.

The Model

I always insist on one positive comment and one comment focused on the next step for improvement (others will use models such as ‘two stars and a wish’ or ‘3+1’ for example). These comments must relate to the success criteria of the lesson or the ones that the pupil has set for themselves or the writing ITAF – all of which provide a framework to help with writing the comments.

The ‘next step’ suggestions are used to help improve future work whereas ‘in-piece' feedback is used to improve the writing in a particular piece of work as the children go along. This model I’m describing is ideally to be used for summative feedback to improve future work but, of course, that does go hand-in-hand with in-piece marking.

I have found that to make the most of this, all peer feedback needs to be collaborative and given through discussion – which also allows me (and my LSA) to circulate and support where needed. I avoid the simple, “Swap books with a partner” approach. For me, the best results are achieved by both children looking at the one book. In this way, one child will discuss their comments with the person whose work it is before swapping books. To ensure complete focus and prevent distraction from the task of feeding back, I always have the children place one book on top of another until the feedback is complete.

The Language

I will have ensured that I have used the right language in my teaching and feedback throughout the early stages of the process. What’s more, when engaging the learners in the process at the beginning, I will have modelled this on the IWB – where children learn to recognise the phrases they’ve already heard plenty of times. If necessary, I may have complete sentences for some children to copy and I have found that some may need prompting into which one to use at the outset. But they soon grow in confidence. This early scaffolding is vital when implementing it with children who have never worked in this way before.

Here are some examples of the language we use:

  1. Positive Feedback

 Example comment openers are:

  • ‘I really liked how you…..”
  • ‘You really focused on…’
  • ‘Your effort on… was…’
  • ‘I can see how you worked on… from last time.’
  • ‘Well done for…’

I’m sure you can think of plenty of others but, ultimately, it’s all about commendation.

  1. Improvement Feedback

This is written next to a small hand-drawn ‘Next Steps’ staircase:

  • ‘Next time try to…’
  • ‘Did you consider…?’
  • ‘Instead of x could you try y?’
  • ‘What about…?’
  • ‘How does…?’

The Process

I believe in this process wholeheartedly so I always start it with the children immediately. That means on transition day or even during an interview lesson. My aim here is to get the children used to recognising themselves as learners and every little thing counts such as using green and pink for both Post-Its and for the highlighter pens I might use in my feedback to them - green = good; pink = think. It’s all designed to move them forward in preparation for leading their own learning.

Here’s a list of ways that I develop this, starting at transition/induction day and moving to half-term in October, by which time everyone is doing this:

  • What are your strengths/areas for development as a learner? Post-It display.
  • Give three people positive feedback about themselves as a learner. Post-Its again, but with names on.
  • Piece of work – use the two-comment model. Get children to feedback on the comments they have received. Do they agree? What was missed?
  • Piece of work – use the two-comment model. Use a visualiser to display the work and the comments and get class feedback on both.
  • Piece of work (needs to be with a fairly confident/assured learner or as a modelled piece), use a visualiser to show it and everyone writes two comments. This is then part of the working wall for children to refer to.
  • Class feedback, using the visualiser to highlight numerous pieces of work. These can be volunteered, selected, from one particular tables or even the whole class, using the script for feedback.
  • ‘Take one sentence’ - children highlight (usually in yellow/orange) a sentence that they think their partner can improve, based on their feedback. The child then works on it, with their partner’s support.
  • Editing flaps - children take a section/paragraph of their writing and rewrite it with improvements, on paper, which is then stuck as a flap over the original. The added bonus here is that this also fits with writing moderation for SATs – though I prefer it for the fact it prevents the daunting prospect of having to edit an entire piece of writing for a child!

This process is used for all types of work across the curriculum - written, presentations, maths, art, drama, sport - and the format gives the children the language to use, especially for those more reluctant in speaking publicly. In fact, using Post-Its throughout the year is a useful visual tool, especially in art where the comments can be located in the respective area of the piece and not ruin it, or attached to pottery, sewing, model and the likes. I’ve also found that immersing children in this approach across the curriculum – not just for literacy – helps them all become more confident in providing effective feedback to their peers. It also means that in performance subjects the role of the audience is as important as that of the performer.

Tips

Here are a few pointers to reinforce - and then go beyond – what I have described and that I have found useful over time:

  1. Model everything at the start.
  2. Provide the children with the language and remember, you can start with complete sentences that they could choose to use if necessary.
  3. Don’t presume your AG&T will be naturals at this and that your SEND children will need the most support. You may be surprised!
  4. Show the children you value this approach by giving them time. Working to a self-imposed deadline may be counterproductive and, some children will take time to complete the comments.
  5. Never let poor feedback go unchallenged/unedited and ensure the children feel confident in doing this too.
  6. Make sure children work with a variety of partners – I use ‘base seats’ with designated learning partners, but also incorporate random pairings, learner-chosen pairs, ‘ruled’ pairs e.g. someone - you’ve not worked with/of the opposite gender/not on your table/ etc.

Leading their own learning

At the outset of this piece I stated that the ambition was for children to develop as independent learners and to have the intrinsic desire for self-improvement. Therefore, by ensuring that the children use this same model for their own work they will indeed be able to find independence and start finding their own ways forward, setting their own learning targets, based on their own work as well as any external criteria you require.

In my experience, children can find this independence the trickiest part, particularly (as with other elements of the process) if they have not experienced real self-evaluation and target setting previously. For this reason I would advise against rushing into it, even just through enthusiasm and in the belief ‘they’re doing really well’. It is for this reason that the need to work with plenty of others first to develop their security and confidence in the process is of paramount importance and should take the first month or so of the Autumn Term.

Finally

Depending on your school’s marking policy, this will make your life so much simpler. Most of my marking now boils down to writing ‘I agree’ (Note to self – get a stamp made!) when I review what the children have identified for themselves. However, I also recognise that some colleagues work in schools where triple marking is expected, as is the writing down of verbal feedback.

To you I suggest passing this blog and the reading linked to it to your SLT or going to visit the school of my fellow Independent Thinking Associate Julie Rees where results have soared since, as with us, written marking was eliminated.

Furthermore, this way of working means that the children are able to set their own targets/success criteria/learning outcomes for work – again saving me a job for example when they highlight the words they are unsure of when it comes to spelling.

One last point. Everything here is allied to, but not driven by, the KS2 TAFs. I first used this process when I was a Year 4 teacher, having used similar processes whilst teaching in secondary. I was convinced it could work with younger children and set out to prove it and I have colleagues now using it with KS1 children, with the necessary tweaks for their respective ages.

Everybody wins when you adopt this approach and take the time to embed it well – you get your life back and the children genuinely want to learn and improve in their learning for themselves.

Mark Creasy is a primary school teacher (who also taught in secondary schools) and an Independent Thinking Associate. He is the author of Unhomework, showing how you can get children to learn outside of the classroom, but not by doing things the way you’ve always done them. Buy it from the Independent Thinking Press website with 20% off and free UK p+p by using the code ‘ITL20’ at the checkout. [ITL]

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