“There is no pleasure to me without communication: there is not so much as a sprightly thought comes into my mind that it does not grieve me to have produced alone, and that I have no one to tell it to.”
Michel de Montaigne quotes (French Philosopher and Writer. 1533-1592)
Very recently I responded to a question about great teaching by Joe Kirby (read this excellent blog post) with the answer that explanations, questioning and feedback were the holy trinity of teaching. I have written about questioning and feedback at length, but I have never written about teacher explanations. I thought about why and I considered that part of the problem is that explanations are so integral to everything that we do that we quickly learn our style and then explain away on autopilot pretty much for the rest of our career. I would argue that we need to reflect upon whether we are maximising the effectiveness of our explanations.
Too often we can be distracted in our planning by the tools of learning without giving the required time to the integral act of communicating our subject. When I was an NQT I went as far as scripting my explanations! I am not advocating scripting explanations by any means, it was an act borne of pure fear, but I think it important to maximise the quality of our explanations and give them our time and effort. Looking back, some of those explanations were thoughtful and successful, perhaps more so than some of my current autopilot efforts. We are privileged because we can draw upon a wealth of knowledge gained from cognitive science, as well as our memory of great speakers and great teachers who act as role models for our practice.
These are my top tips try to address different aspects of effective explanations – the what and the how of explanations – the content and the delivery. What is reassuring is that really effective explanations can be deconstructed and be based upon evidence of how memory works, rather than being simply attributed to the power of personality. Great explanations, like all aspects of great teaching, can be repeatedly honed and improved.
Top Ten Tips:
1. ‘Know what the students know’ when planning your explanation: All great teachers have an excellent knowledge of their students. This knowledge is paramount in pitching the explanation just right. Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’ is key here – the explanation should be matched to the audience: not too complex as to be unintelligible to the students, but not too simple or unchallenging so as to bore the students and prove uninteresting. By knowing your students you can adapt your language to draw upon their prior knowledge before activating links to the new knowledge that you wish them to learn.
2. Use patterns of challenging subject specific language repeatedly:
In most explanations there are one or two key words that you want to stick in the minds of students. In my year 10 English class I am currently comparing Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnets’ with ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Subject specific words that litter my explanations repeatedly include rhetorical terms like ‘hyperbole‘ and ‘oxymorons‘. We have explored the etymology of those words, explored examples and repeatedly modelled them in our writing. With regular repetition such key words become the touchstones of effective explanations and we stress these words in our delivery for explicit emphasis.
3. Make explanations simple, but not simpler. Convey a core message: I do not wish to denounce students as attention-deficit weaklings – human nature is inherently programmed to be forgetful – both adults and teenagers. Effective explanations therefore do need to have the power of compressed language. A good proverb, like “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones” has an enduring power. It generates ideas, sparks connections and combines both easily digestible language and memorable imagery – see tip 5. I would argue that most extended explanations can be compressed into such a memorable statement – what acts as the core message of our explanation. Most often this core knowledge is linked inextricably to the language of the lesson objective. A great explanation may use the ‘inverted pyramid‘, used by journalists to prioritise key information by beginning with this core message, or conversely you could use more traditional argument structures to ensure they remember what you want them to remember:
4. Engage their hearts and minds: Daniel Willingham, in his excellent neuroscience book, ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’, outlines that emotional reactions to explanations will make them more memorable, but there are disclaimers too. We should be wary of a ‘style over substance’ performance. I like to use humour and often make jokes, but with explanations if you give a comedy routine they will likely only remember the style and the jokes, forgetting the substance of what you are saying. Getting the balance right between ensuring engagement and imparting knowledge is a delicate process: making students enjoy their learning doesn’t always translate to remembering what you want them to learn.
As most charity advertisements will attest, individual stories that spark empathy and interest prove much more memorable than mass scale problems or abstract concepts. Emotional and personal stories are memorable: I remember very little about GCSE Chemistry except the emotive story of Marie Curie. We need to use examples that hook in their hearts and mind onto the knowledge we want them to remember in the long term. To summarise: use humour carefully; use interesting stories about individuals to engage their empathy (something proven to be a natural physical and emotional response when reading stories); link to their personal interests but ensure you return relentlessly to the core message.
5. ‘Paint the picture’ – use analogies, metaphors and images: Cognitive science has proven that analogies and metaphors are crucial to language, thinking and memorising knowledge (see here). Our minds naturally draw upon ‘schemas‘ – a psychology term to define the existing patterns of knowledge we have to help us learn new knowledge. A key way of making new knowledge memorable to to hook it into existing ‘schemas‘. For example, if we were given something to eat we have never eaten before then we would draw upon our prior knowledge – ‘this tastes like chicken!’. They give students helpful templates to build on their prior knowledge and allow them to make educated guesses. When exploring the term ‘oxymoron’ with my English class we drew upon our knowledge of the term ‘moron’, then compared and contrasted this label with the character of Romeo. In Maths, teachers consistently draw upon real world ‘schemas’ to make concepts memorable. By using imagery and metaphors that evoke mental images, students can make mental hooks into what they already know and better organise their new knowledge. In this video Dan Meyer shows how you can use images and known everyday ‘schemas’ such as sport and the act of shooting a basketball to spark questioning, engage students and explain challenging mathematical concepts:
6. Tell compelling stories: Daniel Wllingham describes stories as being “psychologically privileged” in the human mind and memory. As an English teacher this strikes at the heart of what I believe about emotion, memory and learning. Memorable personal stories brings History and facts alive; dry statistics become enlivened when in the context of a story. 64% of students achieving A grades in exams is interesting, but not nearly as memorable as stories of individual students toiling and overcomes tough circumstances to gain an A grade. Our minds make meaning by creating stories. With History we imagine and empathise with particular ‘characters’. Our hearts and minds are captured when a ‘conflict‘ is posed involving characters. Our explanations therefore need to be built like narratives: with characters, conflicts and resolutions. We must avoid meaningless anecdotes of course, as stories should serve to illuminate the core message and not prove a distraction.
7. Make abstract concepts concrete and real: Akin to story making and using effective imagery and analogies to illuminate information, we better remember concrete knowledge rather than abstractions. We are hardwired to do this. From birth, our first words are invariably concrete nouns and verbs to articulate our most basic of needs. Hopefully you have remembered the proverb used in tip 3: “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones“! This is a great example of an abstract idea being made concrete and memorable. We must also avoid using too much abstract language and jargon beyond the patterns of key subject specific language we want students explicitly to remember – see tip 2 – otherwise we risk losing the core message we want students to remember.
Brian Cox, the scientist and television personality (yes – I have noticed he isn’t a teacher and some television personalities have proven to be notoriously bad teachers!) is a great example of someone who makes abstract scientific concepts concrete to good explanatory effect. His explanations illuminates a topic for someone like me who has little sophisticated knowledge of science (the typical student!) in a concrete and memorable way. This short video is a great example of a successful explanation that ticks off many points from my tips with aplomb:
8. Hone your tone: Of course, the delivery of explanations carry a great deal of weight if we are to make them truly memorable. Charisma without content is vacuous, but content without clarity and confidence is less likely to stick in the memory. We need not be performing monkeys, but stressing key words explicitly and using discourse markers with clear emphasis and a tone that conveys enthusiasm will help engage students so they may then listen with intent. We must have undivided attention if students are to process complex new knowledge, therefore our tone must also convey authority. We may have physical positions of authority in the room where students expect you to speak from; we may move about the room to ensure students are actively listening, which requires often a clear and no-nonsense approach. A simple and obvious truth is that a great explanation is worthless if students are not listening to it!
9. Check understanding with targeted questions: One way to secure attention and to make any crucial modifications to our explanations is to ask targeted questions. By having a ‘no hands up’ approach on selected occasions can secure a higher degree of attention. By habitually getting students to comment on what one another has said can better keep all students listening actively (I prefer the ‘ABC Feedback model‘: Agree with; Build upon; Challenge). Questions can close in on the core message, but also open up to interesting analogies and ideas that deepen understanding. When considering an effective explanation a teacher should automatically have questions embedded in that explanation and be ready to flexibly respond to the answers, recasting and redirecting, even repeating the explanation if required.
10. …and repeat: Knowledge stored in the long term memory is most typically information that is revisited, therefore a great explanation must be followed up if we are to maximise its value. The ‘Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve‘ is a nice visual way to remind us that we must give effective explanations, but then revisit the core message with spaced repetition, otherwise there is danger that it will be forgotten:
Great explanations are a foundation stone upon which great teaching is based. There is a complex interplay between our explanations, asking questions and eliciting feedback that if we master we will teach successfully. We should reflect and spend less time on jobs that are extraneous to the core of great teaching, such as creating limited use resources, or focusing upon the tools students use in our planning and get back to the our core practice of explaining, asking questions and giving feedback.
My core message: clear and effective explanations matter!
- Daniel Willingham’s book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?‘ is an outstanding book that grounds effective explanations in scientific evidence.
- Dan and Chip Heath’s book ‘Made To Stick: Why some ideas take hold and other come unstuck’ presents a really helpful bank of examples and a easy method to make your messages memorable.
- Tom Sherrington’s blog post on ‘explanations‘ crosses very similar aspects to my post in with great success (read his brilliant series), complete with great images and examples.
- Here a great #Blogsync with a range of interesting posts in the June entry on Explanations: http://blogsync.edutronic.net/
A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure to present to the staff of my school for just over an hour on teaching and learning. What had preceded this session for teachers was time to evaluate teaching exemplar lessons and grading them using the OFSTED grade criteria. Subject Leaders were concurrently working with the fantastic Zoe Elder on helping develop an outstanding department. My session, in the main hall, was a chance to get staff focusing in on pedagogy, reviewing some good practice, sharing ideas and departmental approaches to oral feedback and questioning.
Why questioning and feedback? Well, they are simply the ‘bread and butter of great teaching’. Whenever I think or write about pedagogy I cannot go too far without thinking about them both. Too often, many teachers are spooked by the likes of OFSTED and attempt to become teachers they are not; using a variety of whizz-bang bells and whistles in an attempt to display rapid progress – often only succeeding in creating rapid chaos! Hopefully my slot was a reminder that good and great teaching is often as traditional as Socrates himself asking challenging questions, all the way back before we had a concept of an education. We should not turn away from a wealth of innovative teaching strategies and approaches, but we should hone in on our bread and butter and make it as good as it can possibly be.
My PPT introduction (see here:Training Day 30.1.13) aimed to be long enough to clarity my point, but not too long as to inspire the proverbial PPT ‘death’! I made it clear I was not trying to teach teachers to suck eggs!
Many of these strategies were nothing new and many teachers in the room could surely teach the socks off students! What I wanted to help do was to connect that existing expertise; to take people back to the basics, the bread and butter, and remember, revalue and refine their core practice. I was little more than a compere for the great teachers in the room who just needed some time to connect ideas and practice.
Teachers were handed these simplified versions of my online blog posts, many ideas were common- place – but hopefully it was useful to revisit and reflect:
After discussion, aiming to exemplify the oral feedback strategies, departments created a gallery of current practice and prospective areas to develop. As a way of exemplifying one of the feedback strategies, the staff conducted a ‘gallery critique‘.
Below are some examples from the departmental gallery critique from the session:
The gallery findings were collated, typed up and then circulated to all staff to allow for departments to follow up appropriately. This document summarised all the good practice already existing in our school, as well as identifying where we could continue to improve. It really was a great culmination to the session and made sure the gallery technique was more than a gimmick and ensured we made the activity into a useful working document. See it here: Questioning and Feedback follow-up 31-01-13
Feedback was positive, although I have realised it is near impossible to differentiate to satisfy an audience of over one hundred! Based on the feedback I would factor in some time for more exemplar questioning, contracting the early discussion time somewhat (although people conversely commented that the discussion time was crucial). I was conscious of giving people time to talk and simply reflect on their practice with colleagues. For me, blogging about my practice, and reading those blogs of others, really helps that reflective thinking process. In the hurly burly of the day job it is important to find some stillness to reflect upon our pedagogy – especially those strategies we sometimes take for granted: such as the bread and butter of questioning and oral feedback.
Marking workload getting on top of you?
Many schools, and departments, have been reflecting about their marking policies ever since OFSTED declared more than a healthy interest in scrutinising books. Progress over time has rightly been identified as more important than single lesson snap shots – of course, that evidence if best found in ongoing student work and the attendant formative assessments. This has combined with greater scrutiny of standards of literacy, particularly writing. I have no problem with this; as you would expect from an English teacher. I think it is of paramount importance to have the highest standards for writing across the curriculum. Unfortunately, it appears that in many schools OFSTED fear has fuelled a misguided obsessed with marking, resulting in draconian whole-school marking policies that are less about learning and more about monitoring teachers. Marking and assessment must be the servant, and not the master, of our pedagogy and our profession.
Firstly, I think it is important to understand the OFSTED context, so I can then move beyond it to the more important context: the pedagogy and the learning. In the recent guidance to OFSTED inspectors for judging literacy standards in schools – see here – it relates some specific guidance:
“A basic way of reviewing pupils’ work is to select an extended piece of writing from near the beginning of a pupil’s book (or folder of work). This can then be compared with a piece from the middle and one nearer the end. Is there a discernible difference in length, presentation, sophistication (e.g. paragraphing or length of paragraphs), common errors, use of vocabulary and variation in style? Look at the teacher’s marking. Are the same issues highlighted in the later pieces as in the earlier ones? Has the teacher identified any developing strengths or commented on improvement?
When looking at books from other subjects, it is important to form a view of what it is reasonable to expect. If pupils are writing in a form that would be taught in English, it is reasonable to expect that they would draw on what they have learnt already. This is often the case in primary schools. In secondary schools, there is considerably more variety. Do teachers identify important errors (such as some of those contained in questions about literacy in lessons above). Key subject terms should be spelt correctly. Basic sentence punctuation should be accurate. If it is not and is not identified, how will pupils improve?”
This extract outlines that OFSTED inspectors are guided towards a scrutiny that is selective and one that recognises “variety“, whilst maintaining high expectations of formative feedback. Ultimately, the goal is to successfully recognise written feedback that combines high expectations of literacy and guides students towards making progressive improvement in their writing (reflecting their knowledge and understanding). It is therefore key that we do not overreact with a marking policy that has teachers poring over every written word by students, but instead we need one that recognises the importance of formative written and spoken feedback with a “view to what is reasonable to expect“. We can still maintain the highest of standards, whilst marking reasonably and not to excess. We will maintain the highest of standards not by doing more and more writing assessments, but by slowing down the whole process and getting students actively engaging in drafting and proof reading their writing. We must avoid the tyranny of content coverage at the expense of in depth, quality learning.
A wealth of great research and evidence has lauded the impact of feedback and of assessment for learning strategies for decades. Luminaries such as Dylan Wiliam have guided the way. We must use this valid focus on literacy and high standards of formative assessment as positive leverage to improve our pedagogy and refine our use of assessment for learning strategies. Yes, teachers should give written feedback to a high standard, but we must be reasonable regarding what we can expect is realistic and sustainable for teachers. The answer is a balance of quality, selective formative feedback with well trained peer and self-assessment. If we want great lessons planned and executed consistently then marking must be selective; with a process that builds in reflection time for students – not a roller coaster of internal assessment points, arbitrarily set to give the impression of high standards.
This national context has informed, but not misdirected or narrowed, our redesign of the policy for assessment and marking in our English and Media faculty. We have consciously renamed it our ‘feedback policy’. The relabelling of our policy from ‘marking’ to the broader term ‘feedback’ is more than just window dressing. It is a realignment of priorities currently skewed by a fear of OFSTED. Marking quite obviously presupposes a ‘mark’ on the page; whereas much of our daily pedagogy consists of oral formative feedback. Oral feedback has the unassailable strength of being instantaneous in comparison to the delay of written feedback. Regardless of what teaching and learning activity are being undertaken, oral feedback is integral to learning and progression. We have therefore foregrounded its importance in our feedback policy – placing it on par with written feedback (personally, I think it actually has greater impact on learning). Indeed, our policy is an attempt to unite the two and to enhance our pedagogy, rather than arbitrarily tighten our accountability measures.
Our feedback policy can be found here: 2013 English and Media Faculty Feedback policy
We mark students’ summative work using a separate portfolio approach, with five major end assessments, each supported by a formative mini-task:
Crucially, we have adapted our feedback policy to serve our students and to help them improve, not to tick the OFSTED box; however, by creating a system that records oral feedback more systematically in the students’ books we have managed to meet both requirements. Our approach to feedback is precisely selective and measured. We are also aiming to use assessment and feedback as the servant, not master of our pedagogy. We are using ‘Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time’ (the label borrowed from the outstanding Jackie Breere), as a continuous formative process within lesson time to raise standards of literacy through a targeted and smart use of peer and self-assessment, combined with skilled oral feedback:
Teachers take the opportunities during lesson to monitor and formatively guide their writing, using our stamp system and getting students to record our comments to identify issues and to set targets. We are not carting home bags of books on a weekly basis, on top of our already thorough and rigorous marking regime, that see students take a little more than cursory glance at, or struggle to find value in even when given time. The oral feedback becomes the written feedback and students are engaged actively in the process. Students also undertake the standard proof reading exercises, of their own writing and of their peers, using highlighters, but in a systematic and highly consistent way. We are building good habits for students, whilst maximising lesson time. When students are writing, or undertaking other activities, teachers can be constantly having dialogues about their work and how they can best improve.
Here are some examples of using our stamp system simply and effectively during classwork, whilst the students are completing their writing so they can improve instantaneously (well, we hope they improve!):
We view that dialogue as so important that we now have ‘one-to-one weeks’ in each term when we undertake ‘dedicated improvement and reflection time‘ (we must remember that students often struggle with written feedback alone, therefore finding time to discuss their progress is typically more effective – as well as being more effective in terms of teacher workload). They are once more guided through peer proof reading and self-regulating strategies (with some valuable extended reading time), whilst the teacher has a crucial conversation about their progress. In those often five minute conversations we can identify issues and/or targets, as well as reviewing their preparatory book work and their portfolio of finished work. The most important part of ‘dedicated improvement and reflection time’ (DIRT) is the time given to students. They need time to reflect on feedback; to analyse and grasp their targets and to ask questions to illuminate how they can progress further. By doing less writing in this manner we will work slower, but ultimately standards will likely be higher.
I would reiterate that OFSTED’s focus upon the evidence of written marking has made us reflect upon the efficacy of our practice and attempt to improve it, but we have not forgotten that assessment and marking – rebranded more holistically as feedback – should be the servant of the classroom teacher, not our master. Its very function is to support students – it should not be used as a stick to beat teachers. My key messages about the current ‘marking’ focus for me are as follows:
- We should remember that oral feedback is as valuable as written feedback and we should shape our pedagogy with that in mind – closing the gap between the two. The gap should also be closed between the teacher giving feedback, both orally and in the written form, and students self-assessing their own writing and peers giving effective feedback;
– We should remember that peer and self-assessment done well takes careful training and scaffolding, but we must not ignore decades of research about the impact of AFL, taking the retrograde step of relying solely on written teacher feedback;
– We should undertake written feedback that is selective, targeted and uses precise language;
– We should dedicate more than adequate time for students to act upon feedback;
– We should devote time to engage in dialogue with students to ensure they understand what they need to do to improve.
A great post by Tom Sherrington, with useful strategies to ‘close the marking gap': http://headguruteacher.com/2012/06/17/264/
Useful OFSTED case study: http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/good-practice-resource-making-marking-matter
The original research about AFL that is still required reading for teachers: Inside the Black Box’, by Black and Wiliam – https://www.measuredprogress.org/documents/10157/15653/InsideBlackBox.pdf
Just over half a year ago I decided to begin a blog, in unison with a new Twitter account, with both very much representing my professional self. I have been surprised and delighted by the breadth and scale of the audience for some of my posts and the blog has provided me with a place to reflect upon my practice and record my reading and ideas – put simply, it has made me a better teacher. Many of them are my attempt to record my teaching strategies, and the many I have sourced from others, so that I remember them…and remember to use them! I am very grateful for all the other teachers, bloggers and authors whose great ideas are effectively responsible for my blog (I am intent on creating a list of the inspirational blogs of others others in 2012 very soon too). Here is my list based on the number number of views:
Perhaps my personal favourite. I love literature and I love teaching and seeing students learn and develop – this post articulates what I see as the most important aspect of my job as an English teacher: communicating the greatest of what has been written and spoken and helping students develop emotionally. It is not something measured, but something valued beyond measure: how tragedy and literature can provide strength and resilience in the face of tragedy and loss.
In the last year we have been undertaking an iPad project, with real success. I have have seen so many motivated students working collaboratively with iPads, whilst seeing my colleagues pushing the boundaries of their practice and knowledge in a powerfully positive way. This article articulates some of my research into why the iPad was the right tool to leverage better pedagogy in our faculty.
The article is about the simple tweaking of core pedagogy and practice to make that all important shift to better teaching. The best part of the blog is the end set of links – a clear indication of how my blogs are most often simply a synthesis of other great blogs and the ideas of superb practitioners. Standing on the shoulders of giants indeed!
This post, once more, is reliant upon the great ideas of others. The marginal gains wheel, devised by @liplash_mason, was incredibly popular. I used it with my Y10 GCSE class with pleasing success twice in preparation for controlled assessments. Student feedback was vey positive. This post led to a more general introduction in the Guardian Teacher Network, which was a real pleasure to write, giving me a chance to celebrate the genesis of the idea with @fullonlearning and @macn_1.
Does what it says on the tin really. At some point in 2013 I will produce a ‘Top Ten Reads’ to encompass some great books I have read since collating this list. This list would easily stand the test of time, as I would still have these five featuring in any future list. Gems one and all.
This post was my attempt to combine some of my key thoughts and ideas about being a great teacher – particularly having had the pleasure to watch quite a few in action. In my biased view, there is still no more important vocation, so this post is my humble attempt at contributing to a long standing discourse.
My first top ten post and an attempt to collate many ideas and strategies that I believe to have had the greatest positive impact upon my teaching. I happen to believe that clear explanations, great questioning and effective formative feedback is the holy trinity of outstanding teaching, so this post is very important to me in that regard.
This letter was a real trigger for my blog developing and extending to a wider audience. It was also the first time I had a post reach four figures in one day. I think my frustration and anger at the shape of Gove’s educational proposals and the feckless opposition to his deconstruction of state education touched a nerve with many. I didn’t receive any reply to my many emails and communication, but I felt my response served some purpose, however insignificant. Secretly, I hope Twigg read this letter, but I doubt it very much. I hope he is reading much about education, from those with more experience and wisdom than I, because he needs to get a hold of his brief and make a positive alternative to Gove’s corrosive marketisation of education. I remain sceptical.
One of my most recent posts and very popular (particularly in America it seems!). I have become a huge cheerleader for post it notes in the last year. It chimes with my belief in ‘making the learning visible’ and they provide the most simple and cost effective tool for teaching and learning. I think you sense my enthusiasm running thought the post! And no, I don’t possess shares in post it note companies!
My most popular post by a country mile and happily so. I am not quite sure why this post was so popular above all others, but perhaps it is because the strategies are so universal and cross curricular in nature. I think all teachers know that questioning is at the fulcrum of good teaching and learning and it was ever thus. In my decade of experience I think I am just becoming an much better in asking great questioning and I think I am getting better with creating a culture of enquiry. I’m definitely still learning and asking questions!
Much more work to do next year, with many more attendant posts I am sure. I would heartily recommend any teacher to start a blog in 2013. It would be a resolution to fire new resolution into your teaching!
People who have read my #marginalgains blog posts will know I am going over old ground here – intentionally so – as I am looking to dig deeper towards the key marginal gains that have the biggest impact on learning. For me, formative oral feedback and questioning are the two key ‘hinge point marginal gains’ that make for great teaching and learning. My previous #marginalgains blog identified new teaching strategies for these tow key area ad pedagogy, but here I wanted to use this blog to reflect on what I view as the most high impact formative oral feedback strategies that I have been using in my everyday practice. I want to use my list as a reminder, each time I plan lessons, of the key strategies to use – as it is too easy to forget and slip into autopilot planning, forgetting even our most effective of strategies.
In the latest OFSTED guidance, they have clearly stated that lesson planning should not be inflexible, that teachers should react to the progress, or the lack thereof, of their students. This is heartening recognition of what we have known all along – and that is that teaching and learning are contingent activities. Learning is often problematic, changeable, non-linear, beset by a host of unique factors that cannot be exactly replicated (but with experience we can determine common patterns). We must therefore be constantly tracking the evidence of learning with as much precision and skill as we can. That is why effective teaching hinges absolutely on oral formative feedback and questioning on a lesson by lesson basis. It appears to me that the greatest benefit of experience that I observe in excellent teachers is the recognition of how and when to elicit feedback, with the nuanced understanding of what questions to ask, how and when. I have drawn upon this wealth of experience for my top ten – indeed it is my inept stumbling near the shoulders of giants that is responsible for the whole lot!
In nearly all of these examples the feedback includes all three parties possible in the class: the learner, peers and the teacher. I dispute the idea of peer feedback as an undertaking exclusive of the teacher – we are always there steering the feedback, establishing ground rules and success criteria, modifying and adjusting the feedback of peers – that is why we are the paid experts! Therefore I do not differentiate between ‘teacher led’ or ‘peer’ feedback in my list.
My Oral feedback Top Ten
‘Making the Learning Visible’ – Oral Feedback on Worked Examples:
This heading captures a variety of methods and tools to essentially do the same thing – showing student work in the midst of the process. Whether it be through an iPad and Apple TV; a Visualiser; a video camera or still camera, or more simply pinning ongoing work up onto the wall or a display; making the work ‘visual’ is a powerful tool for assessment for learning. For one, it raises levels of pride, giving students a keener sense of purpose, and it often instills a healthy competitive edge to the learning. It is also evident that most successful students have an innate sense of what ‘good work’ looks like, but many students simply don’t have this degree of self-efficacy. Making visible exemplar work, and breaking down its component parts, is a simple and powerful way to modify the learning of each student – helping to enhance what Ron Berger described as the crucial assessment going on “inside students”. Having used an iPad this year, I have repeatedly photographed student work, put it into the ExplainEverything app and immediately annotated through the projector, whilst giving formative feedback. Students are more then willing to get involved (a handy benefit is that good work can be saved and shared through the iPad), given clear modelling and parameters for effective feedback. Student feedback regarding this approach is highly positive.
Ostensibly, the strategy is a writing task – but it is the ongoing oral feedback at the heart of this strategy that is essential in establishing where the learners are and where they are going with their learning. This is one of those activities that teachers often shy away from, perhaps through a sense of fear of making a mistake in their writing, or not having absolute control of behaviour whilst undertaking the writing (a neat trick is to select a student to scribe the guided writing to allow you to freely roam the room; or going one step further and having an object passed around, like a conch(!), for which students need to hold to contribute). Working effectively, it can harmonise a symphony of understanding. Given any topic the teacher can begin with a prompt to the writing to oil the wheels, before students are asked to contribute subsequent ideas and sentences. As an English teacher, I love getting embroiled in debate about the semantic meaning of one individual word choice over another! Once more, it has the attendant benefit of modelling excellence in a very collaborative and fulfilling fashion.
Peer Response Partners (or ‘think-pair-share’):
This style of peer feedback is well trodden and nothing new, but it is worth reflecting that it is the aggregation of understanding provided by learning in groups which provides the positive impact inherent in collaborative learning. Some people complain about the aggregation of misunderstanding that can occur in group work; however, that ‘failure’ isn’t necessarily negative at all, for it gives the teacher the chance to modify the misapprehensions in whole class feedback, indeed, it opens up new avenues of learning – coming back to the contingent nature of learning! The ‘think-pair-share’ approach has been elaborated upon better than I could possibly explain – so here is a useful blog on the activity and its importance from @headguruteacher:
I would add that it is crucial that success criteria is shared with students and that they have a rigorous structure for feedback – whether it be a ‘Two Stars and a Wish’ approach, or something similar. Ideally, it follows from some quality modelling, as exemplified in points 1 and 2 of my list.
Once more, it is Ron Berger I have to thank for this. Put simply, it is a systematic approach to peer feedback that is structured, clearly and positively, depersonalising the feedback, whilst honing in upon the steps required to improve towards excellence. A fuller explanation can be found here by the venerable @DKMead: http://pedagogicalpurposes.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/by-josie-and-emily.html
and here, by the man himself:
One-to-one Teacher Feedback:
This is as old school as ancient Athens I know! Yet, in the hurly burly of thirty GCSE students rumbling along in unison, the prospect of one-to-one feedback appears slim to non-existent far too often. Yet, we all know the power of the swiftest of one-to-one oral interventions. Too often our elegant written commentaries are ignored or simply misunderstood. We need to talk it through. With our KS3 groupings in our English and Media Faculty we have allocated one-to-one weeks for each class each term. We are going to ensure students work with peers collaboratively ‘marking’ prep books for SPaG in their preparatory writing, before undertaking independent reading and writing challenges. Every student will spend five minutes with their teacher reflecting upon their progress, targets and their finished, or ongoing, work. At GCSE, you may find that mock feedback would be doubly useful given an oral one-to-one to supplement a written commentary. How about setting up a small group task where students devise their own exam questions and answers – a higher order thinking task that requires some scaffolding support, but which is a tried and tested success – whilst undertaking that crucial one-to-one feedback.
A lively debate can ensue from this kinaesthetic strategy. Select topic sentences that convey a clear opinion and then use both sides of the room as an opinion continuum, from ‘Strongly Agree’ to ‘Strongly Disagree’. This is an ideal task at the beginning of a topic, to determine their understanding, or at the end – perhaps it is a good way to book end learning to identify changing opinions after a topic has been studied. Students must orally feedback their opinions, justifying their ideas with evidence, building upon or challenging feedback from other students. The feedback can be made visible by a student scribing the continuum on the board in note form (photograph it and save it for later, or use it for ideas for a subsequent written activity).
The Secret Teacher – ‘The Power of the Post It’:
I must commend Zoe Elder aka @fullonlearning for ideas related to the humble post-it note, found in her luminous book ‘Full On Learning’. I have embedded these techniques with real success and with real ease – even though their aim is moving slightly away from oral feedback as such. Firstly, the ‘secret teacher’ aspect comes in when you have students work independently, for example, on a piece of writing (for me it was students working on Recreative writing in preparation for a controlled assessment). Students were asked to note any questions on a post it and place it on the ‘questions wall’, as they worked away. This small step was helpful in eliminating those helpless and distracting questions, like ‘How do I spell such and such…’, when a dictionary is in a box in front of them! The freedom from answering these questions meant my teaching assistant and I could go around quickly giving feedback with limited interference, whilst casting surreptitious glances upon the work students were doing. Rather than interrupt the flow of the whole group by stopping to talk with individuals (students, like adults, are inherently nosy!), we simply made a note on a post it and placed it on the desk of the student – from a simple ‘Proof read your punctuation’ to ‘Should you develop your scene direction further?’ These little nudges actually moved away from the notion of oral feedback explicitly, but the nudge and modify approach is exactly in tune with the notion of oral formative feedback. In reality, you cannot simply use the post it notes without some verbal feedback at times, but that feedback becomes very precise and concise. The hum of learning when this strategy goes well really is a pleasure to behold.
This simply strategy relates to the method of questioning to elicit oral feedback. The ‘Teacher-student-student…’ approach explicitly rejects the ‘tennis style’ teacher led questioning, to instead encourage students to feedback upon the ideas of one another – bouncing ideas around the room like a basketball team (without the heavy ball obviously!). It is a timely reminder to ensure students still own their learning, building upon the ideas of one another.
Closely related to the previous point is the very simple model for students to respond to one another – A = Agree with… B = Build upon… C = Challenge. When students know this structure it is a finely tuned short-hand for effective collaborative learning that enriches the quality of feedback. The teacher is the ultimate guide, but students can develop their thinking more independently. This style does work better with a meaty topic where students are grappling with an argument, or questions, that requires higher order thinking. It also helps if students are given notice that they will respond, as it ensures they listen ever more keenly.
‘Learning Spies’ Feedback:
Taken from the eponymous @LearningSpy himself, David Didau, this strategy works great for group work where you want students to remain on task purposefully throughout the lesson. It is a great way to celebrate and feedback upon positive learning, making explicit what good learning looks like, sounds like and feels like. I used this strategy a lot in the last couple of years with eager Year 7s, who were energised by the opportunity to seize some teacherly control! By making explicit before the task what behaviours you expect of good group work, the two ‘spies’ (I found a gender and ability mix for the pairing worked well), would note each group at work; making notes about skilful contributions, good leadership, levels of engagement and active listening. At the end of the lesson, they would feedback with real skill about the learning habits displayed by the group, identifying the best insights and behaviours on show. Try it with one of your most ‘challenging’ students – we all know the type – it really gets them reflecting and can be very powerful way to get your group learning about how to learn. Admittedly, it isn’t something I would use daily, but with complex group work of some extended length, it is a great strategy. The excellent @davidfawcett27 has produced his own spin on the idea:
I particularly like the recording of evidence idea from the blog – with the iPad learning spies could photograph or film exemplary learning – an incredibly powerful strategy that gets students really focused reflecting upon their learning.