I’m feeding back to Yr11. They have just completed mock examinations in GCSE English Language and GCSE English Literature.  The process has several aims.  The broader aim is to provide accurate information about where the cohort is at this point in time.  We know what the targets are; we need to know how are they performing in relation to those.  The narrower aim is to ensure that individual students know their strengths and area for development.  They need clear instruction on how to improve.  This is the most important outcome.

Ok, so far so straightforward.  We all know the evidence: formative assessment with lots of feedback, alongside structured opportunities to use that feedback, enhances achievements.  It seems self-evident.  And yet my through my reading and lurking on various threads I’m not convinced that, as teachers of English, we have fully grasped what feedback is (and isn’t).  Even a short spell on Twitter reveals an abundance of methodological and pedagogical approaches towards what (in my mind anyway) has always been simple.  My theory is that the exponential growth of ways in which we provide feedback is probably linked to a collective nervousness about what constitutes outstanding practice.  I’ve certainly seen many examples of feedback strategies that appear to prioritise form over content; image over impact.  But it’s just a theory…

Of the thousands of lessons that I’ve taught and the hundreds I’ve observed, these are the salient points around which I base practice.

Feedback is not advice or guidance; it’s not a judgement.  Feedback is framed by its reference to goals.  In the English examinations this means that comments should relate to the purpose of the piece.  Any comments can only be considered to be feedback if they relate to being on track towards meeting that goal or if the student needs to think about a different strategy in their attempt to meet that goal.

Feedback needs to be clear; it is not feedback if the student has to work out what they think you mean.  Feedback should be tangible and explicit.  It should be evident what the student needs to do to improve because feedback needs to be actionable.  Students should know what they need to do more or less of next time round in order to improve.

Feedback is for the students only.  Feedback is not the place for a teacher to demonstrate their own subject knowledge, or the place to demonstrate that they are meeting their own performance targets. If the student cannot understand it, if it is too technical, if it is confusing, or if there is simply too much of it it becomes counterproductive.

Feedback is timely; the sooner the student gets it the better.  It doesn’t need to be immediate, but the memory of the learning needs to be fresh and clear.  Timely feedback can be sought in a range of places and contexts.  Peer assessment and review can be really useful in this regard if students have been taught what feedback is and isn’t.

Feedback should be ongoing.  This means that there should be plenty of opportunities to make use of it. Highly performing people in all areas of life have the learned ability to very quickly adapt and adjust their performance in light of feedback.  The value of formative assessment is the fact that it precedes summative assessments.  Their is little (if any value) to feedback if there isn’t the subsequent opportunity to make use of it.

Feedback should be consistent; the more accurate it is the better.  This means (particularly at this point in the development of the new specifications) that teams should be standardising, moderating, sharing, discussing, and focusing on how marks are being allocated.  Avoiding the inevitable “we don’t know what these grades mean” should be a priority.  We know what sophisticated reading and writing looks like; that should be the starting point for embedding consistency.

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