First do no harm.

hippocrates

It is really hard to picture a lesson in which there isn’t any feedback. Just try. No questioning to see if children understand before moving on. No scanning the room to see if everyone is paying attention. No walking between desks to see if everyone is on the right question and has made a good start. No watching faces for signs of bafflement or indifference. No stopping to redo something as a class when it becomes clear lots of children are lost. No showing pupils a model answer before or after they’ve completed their own. No crouching down quickly next to a child to whisper a short correction. The closest I can get is the “anyone, anyone” economics teacher from Ferris Bueller’s school.

Feedback is a component of teaching. Not the butter on the bread, but the bread itself. Without feedback whatever we are doing, we aren’t teaching.

Systemically we seem to have a problem understanding this. Perhaps because of an overly simplistic interpretation of Hattie’s work and perhaps because of insidious accountability audit culture we’ve decoupled feedback from teaching, and often treat them as if they were different things that can be measured separately.

For a while feedback became a synonym for marking. Feedback was good, the more of it the better. This meant marking was good, so the more of this the better too. A storm of green pens, highlighters and stick in sheets fetishised the form and we lost sight of what all of it was for. The emergence of helpful research which showed written marking had no discernible impact on pupil learning, and Ofsted’s laudable endorsement of this research, prompted by Alex Ford, has helped matters but triple-marking and other onerous time consuming policies stagger on. With the evidence so clearly stacked against them, and in the midst of a recruitment and retention crisis at least partially due to workload why is this?

Firstly, I think, we are still struggling to shake off an audit culture in which compliance to a policy set by a school’s SLT is regarded as evidence of strong leadership, with some afraid to let go of their vice-like grips on the reins, perhaps out of a prideful fear of admitting they may have got things wrong in the past. Ofsted hasn’t helped, so often the tail that wags the dog, with a major focus of its most recent frameworks seemingly being how consistently teachers adhere to a school’s policy regardless of efficacy. This may go some way to explaining why some schools are so obsessed with everyone doing the same thing, but doesn’t explain why their leaders would interpret this to mean that teachers should very visibly mark, in depth, all the work produced by their pupils.

The most important reason for this is an ill-judged obsession with ‘visible learning’. For whatever reason, some of us have come to believe that a pupil’s work should be a map or download of their brain, or a sort of livestream of the lesson itself. If pupils have received feedback then there must be evidence of this, because this proves it happened. If there isn’t evidence of it, then it didn’t happen. Sadly, this sort of thinking, as I wrote about here, is even infecting the verbal feedback movement, which is becoming muddied and corrupted by standardised forms and other generic formats.

All of this is nonsense.

Learning is invisible. Regardless of how many times a pupil has redrafted a paragraph, or corrected a spelling mistake in green pen, or written down a ‘target’, it is impossible to know if they have really improved or just mechanistically and slavishly followed the directions of a teacher working through the ‘non negotiables’ of their school’s policy. If we define learning as ‘a change in long term memory’, as Ofsted is now doing, then we probably can’t judge whether or not they have really got better until long after the lesson or sequence of lessons in which they received the feedback, and even then we still would not be able to pin down any improvement a pupil made to it given all the other factors (e. g a supportive, educated family) that may have had an impact too.

An even more serious effect of prescriptive policies, however onerous or not, is that they force teachers into believing this written feedback is a separate and more important thing than other types. If we conduct quality assurance on books, folders and tests as if these existed as separate to day-to-day teaching we imply that all the other things mentioned in my first paragraph aren’t as valuable, and lead teachers away from focusing on them. When marking policies are very time consuming we exhaust teachers and may make them worse at these things even if they understand just how important they are. Finally, we should be humble and accept that, certainly outside our own subject specialisms, we are unlikely to be able to judge whether or not a pupil is getting better as a result of feedback, or indeed whether or not they are getting better at all.

Audit culture has also had wider unintended and unforeseen consequences. When teachers are told how to teach or give feedback, they are effectively absolved of the responsibility of working out whether their practice is effective or not. Their job becomes to simply follow the rules. In such contexts their feedback is very unlikely to be as good as it could be because they are responding primarily to top-down edicts and not the needs of their classes and individual pupils. If a teachers’ job is to mark books twice a week, and they do, then they have done their job regardless or not of whether the feedback was appropriate or effective. For schools still hanging on to performance related pay, it may also be worth considering how fair this is if they have limited the freedom of their teachers. Accountability without autonomy can only be defended if those who set tight policies can prove, beyond all doubt, that the methods they insist on are effective. This is impossible.

At the root of all this is the understandable but erroneous desire to know things with a degree of certainty we just can’t. The only way we could really know, with any degree of confidence, whether or the teachers in our schools are really all giving effective feedback would be to replicate Graham Nuthall’s methods and kit out every classroom with cameras and microphones. We’d then need to employ a team of subject experts to carefully watch all the videos and listen to all the recordings before cross-referencing them with the test scripts pupils did months or even years after the initial teaching. This, for a thousand and one reasons is impossible, and even if it were we still wouldn’t really know whether pupils had learned what they had because of the feedback they got or because of a something else that happened outside their classroom that we are completely unaware of. We can’t be sure, and just shouting “I know whether good feedback is taking place” louder and louder won’t help win any reasoned arguments.

This, for school leaders, may seem depressing. But it is only depressing if we assume that teachers are incompetent, remain incompetent without rigid rules and don’t want their pupils to get better. As Mark Enser has so often pointed out (and, I believe, has a book out soon that I hope will make the point even clearer), when schools create cultures in which working to continually improve is a key component of professionalism, teachers placed in charge of their own development generally, with the right training, support, agency and respect, will eventually arrive at effective methods that work in their own context.

This is not to say there are no bad apples. There are some lazy teachers just as there are lazy and careless people in all walks of life. But the solution to this is not to introduce policies designed primarily to make feedback visible to an external observer. Lazy teachers will pay the loosest lip service they can get away with while the conscientious and talented will find themselves hamstrung.

We could do worse than take instruction from the Hippocratic Oath; first do no harm. The purpose of this Oath, created a time in which medical science was in its infancy, was sensible. If you aren’t sure what you think is right, then the first thing you should be sure of is that what you do doesn’t hurt anyone. It doesn’t make any sense to direct teachers in schools to follow tight, prescriptive marking policies if you aren’t certain (and you can’t be) that they actually accelerate learning, especially if you do know they have negative effects on things like classroom practice or the workload of your staff. Much better is to have a loose policy that says something like ‘Feedback takes many forms. Here are some. You may see some, all or none of these if you visit our school. The only thing we can guarantee is you will see feedback.”

As scary as it may seem, at some point you have to trust teachers. The danger of not doing so is cargo cultism, oppressive accountability, exhausted, resentful staff and pupils who learn no more than if you’d had no policy at all.

Please. First do no harm.

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