Nearly a decade ago I began teaching English (not very well if I remember!). I was a startled rabbit of the most baffled kind. Each morning I would quietly take ‘Rescue Remedy’ in the gents toilets to help conquer my raging nerves, before embarking upon the war of attrition that was every school day as an NQT! University success was a distant memory. I made the usual mistakes, experienced the typical emotional roller coasters, and eventually made my way through it to the other side. Now that I have a leadership role myself, I see that confidence is not just the Rosetta Stone for students to unlock their potential, it is just as important for teachers. Not just new teachers either, confidence waxes and wanes – sometimes when we think we are on the other side we are dragged back in the swim – battered by self doubt!
As a Subject Leader, I have the privilege of experience and the greater self-confidence it typically brings, yet the old ‘imposter syndrome’ never goes away – but, perhaps that is a good thing. I have seen brilliant teachers and trainees wracked by self-doubt, whilst the worst of teachers can be full of conviction in their own superior ability! As a friend, colleague and leader, I suppose it is my job to help guide through that tricky course between two different types of self doubt: one with the attendant drive to keep getting better, and the other self doubt that becomes crippling and destructive for a teacher.
I hesitated in writing any blog posts about confidence, as I didn’t want to betray any professional secrets of colleagues past or present. I discussed this with my brilliant colleague Helen, a young teacher, still fresh from completing her NQT year, who agreed to guest post her personal thoughts. They mirror many of my experiences as a new teacher and it is a refreshingly honest account of why confidence is crucial in teaching:
A few weeks ago my Subject Leader introduced the new personalised coaching ideas which would form the basis of our faculty training time this year. The idea was to focus in on one or two key things that would improve our teaching and work on them in discussion with other members of the faculty– in his words making ‘marginal gains’ to move from good to outstanding. Excellent in theory: I was an NQT last year, I’ve got this reflecting thing down and I have a whole multitude of things to fix! In reality, it was Monday afternoon, Year 10 had been in an entertaining mood and, as such, my reflection on my own practice extended about as far as: ‘What on earth am I doing – it was supposed to be easier this year!’ I survived the session, went home, cried, then composed (although didn’t send) a long and dramatic email to my Subject Leader complaining about the whole situation. So far: so mature. The main thrust of my ramblings concerned the central issue that teaching is wholly personal. And with that it can be potently emotional and even psychological. So a discussion of our areas for development can begin to delve into a whole heap of insecurities which we would often rather keep hidden.
Luckily, I have a very supportive department who spent the next morning soothing my concerns, and a Subject Leader who can generally pick up on my mood within about five seconds of entering my classroom! So, with my Subject Leader, we spent break discussing the roots of my email (which when I showed to him he found hilarious). We came back to the same place we ended up throughout my NQT year. Confidence. Or a lack thereof.
Confidence can sometimes be overlooked in discussions about teaching, but it seems to be absolutely central to everything we do as teachers. Not in a ‘standing up in front of 30 teenagers requires confidence’ way, but in the ‘I need to have a fundamental faith in the decisions we make every day‘ fashion. In my NQT year, the thing I found hardest was not dealing with tricky students (however fun Friday 5 with Year 9 can be!); it wasn’t the piles of marking which seemed to take over my life; but it was the sudden sense of responsibility for my students. There can be debate over how responsible we are for the students in our classes, but as I started my job I seemed to shift from a twenty three year old whose greatest challenge was driving a car and remembering to pay the bills, to having groups of teenagers whose progress in English was pretty much at my door. The Year 11s who needed a C to get into college, and the Year 13s who wanted to get into university, were now mine for a few hours per week and I had to try to get them there. This is an exaggerated way of looking at things and I had an incredible NQT mentor who counselled me down from these hyperbolic heights, but the main thing I had to develop, and will continue to develop, is the confidence that I am making the right decisions and doing the best by my students.
So on an afternoon in October, a discussion of marginal gains collided with a mindset of ‘there are so many things to fix – where do I even start’. I’ve been a perfectionist for much longer than I’ve been a teacher so it’s a tough habit to break. Therefore, it was only once I had admitted this to my Subject Leader – and more importantly to myself – that I could actually get on with the job of coaching and improving. If we fail to recognise this central point then any coaching will be as productive as my initial session – I was there, I was talking, I was listening but I wasn’t making any (to use a buzzword) progress.
It was only following an emotional email, a break time discussion, and a few good lessons, that I could get my head around what I needed to do in terms of my own coaching targets. I can only speak as new (ish) teacher, but it’s an easy cycle to get stuck in: lessons go wrong, emotion kicks in, confidence is bashed and the ability to be positive about how to improve can start to slip out the window. Yet, it is this emotional focus which actually makes it one of the trickiest things to combat. My Subject Leader can give me a range of strategies to improve my questioning but, much as it frustrates him, he cannot wave a magic wand and teach me to have faith in the job that I am doing. It is the ultimate part of the job that requires marginal gains – saving those comments from students and colleagues, taking pleasure from the fact that all my Year 13s did get into university and slowly building up self-belief. Building confidence. It is also something that fluctuates continually depending on the class, the day, the topic, or even the weather!
There are endless discussions over how to improve our teaching, but I know that at the centre of my own practice is a more personal battle: the need to be able to step back and reflect, without losing faith in my instincts. It is easy to put on the confident-teacher mask, but to really move forward that confidence needs to run much deeper. The first step to becoming the type of teacher I want to be, is developing the confidence to believe that I can actually be that teacher.
I am very lucky to share my working day with bright stars like Helen, who care so much about what they do, the students they teach, and the colleagues they work with each day. Perhaps the ultimate paradox about confidence is that teachers who lack it are driven to reflect deeply and become much better for it, whereas the teachers who are too full of it end up becoming gorged on their own self-importance and never become truly great teachers. What Helen’s words remind me is that we teachers must keenly remember that we are human – all too human – that we should tend to one another as we aim to do for our students. We should remember that we all want to be better teachers, but that the process is fraught with fears and other attendant doubts. Finally, and most important of all, that we should be kind to one another. Yes, that is the main thing I have learned working as a teacher. Not just with our students, but with our colleagues too – we must be kind.
So let us celebrate then the humble teacher, struggling to get better each day – building their own wall of confidence, so that their students may do the same. And let us be kind to one another.
This year our English and Media faculty are undertaking a coaching programme as part of our constant quest to keep getting better. We are aiming to move, in blunt OFSTED labels, from ‘Good’ to ‘Outstanding’, and coaching is a key process for us to improve together. Our coaching approach has been met with a timely redesign of classrooms. We were lucky enough to have our ugly, ramshackle classrooms redecorated over the Summer – a process we undertook to consciously create a clearer, more spartan space – decluttered and wholly functional – designed for the business of great learning, not a glorified storage room! One small, but key decision, was to multiply the number of whiteboards on the classroom walls to improve pedagogy and to enhance the learning. I wanted to share how this small, relatively inexpensive tool can impact positively upon learning.
I want to explain the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of this small tweak to the learning environment (a small tweak, but one that has already has had a positive impact upon pedagogy). A couple of years ago we decided to move en masse to group tables for each English classroom. This one move had a profoundly significant impact upon our whole pedagogical approach. We valued the impact of cooperative learning; we viewed peers as a positive agent for developing learning; we viewed learning as most often being a social undertaking – so we worked together and applied a standardised group based approach (as we share many classrooms – having a standardised seating approach is eminently practical). There were attendant fears about behaviour being negatively impacted, but we shared ideas and experiences and it has been a very successful change. With our recent classroom redesign we wanted to develop upon the collaborative learning approach, encouraged by the searing design, with the introduction of multiple whiteboards on the walls. We also wanted to decentre (sounds a bit like new age nonsense I admit!) the classroom away from the perennial ‘face the front’ style of classroom. Having the multiple whiteboards allows for a greater degree of flexibility, whereat the teacher can work with smaller groups, or other activities, such as students writing on the different boards simultaneously etc.
We had little actual experience of using multiple whiteboards as a tool. As a department we had never even had more than one interactive whiteboard, alongside the more standard whiteboard for writing in any one classroom. The nearest we had got to multiple whiteboards on the walls were small mini whiteboards, or having a departmental flip chart (we always had one of odd lurking about, but it was never consistently in use). But this year we invested in extra whiteboards to try and develop the collaborative approach; it worked alongside our other new tool for collaborative learning – our investment in twenty four new iPads. We have therefore placed these new tools at the heart of our coaching, with the following two faculty targets (alongside crucial personal coaching targets) so we can support and focus training time upon these areas:
1.iPadagogy: using the iPad to enhance student motivation as well as core pedagogy on a consistent basis. There will be an explicit focus upon using the iPad to improve AFL strategies, providing feedback, classroom discussion and collaborative learning.
Success criteria: student feedback; peer observations & collaboration; student outcomes; student attainment.
2. ‘Making the Learning Visible’: using the multiple whiteboards to enhance core pedagogy. There will be an explicit focus upon using the whiteboards to enhance guided writing, providing feedback, making learning objectives and key vocabulary clear and classroom discussion.
Success criteria: student feedback; peer observations & collaboration; student outcomes; student attainment.
Now, we didn’t start with the tools to dictate our direction – instead, we identified the assessment for learning strategies and pedagogy we viewed as having greatest impact (as John Hattie states always “Know thy impact”), then we sought the tools to do the job. We have invested time and effort into sharing our experiences and developing our pedagogy. Teachers have been unanimously positive about how this relatively minor tweak has helped to transform many teaching and learning experiences. The following images are one simple example of the boards in use:
1. ‘Main Whiteboard’: Projected images are displayed here (it is not an interactive whiteboard – I found those clumsy tools that were expensive and not very engaging for students) and we annotate when appropriate, using this as the ‘main’ board. Here the task is displayed in a Word file and simply annotated.
2. ‘Second Board’: This board is marginally smaller and on the left hand side of the room. Here the board displays notes made by the students who had chosen the ‘Guardian’ writing task.
3. ‘Third Board’: This board is once more smaller, but on the right hand side of the room. Here the board displays student notes for the ‘York Press’ writing task.
Like the writing task exemplified in these images, the multiple boards provide extra flexibility for ‘making the learning visible’ on a daily basis. The following is a sample list of activities for which the multiple whiteboards have been used as an effective tool so far:
– Guided writing: either teacher led, or written up by students, the secondary board allows for guided writing that can then be left on the board, whilst other activities/notes etc. can be written up on the ‘main’ board
– ‘Competitive’ writing: this fun and competitive activity has proven very fruitful. Students can be pitted against one another, or against the teacher, for writing tasks. Different groups can write up their findings/answers on one board, whilst other groups do the same on the other/s. The very ‘visible’ aspect of the write up is then ideal for subsequent feedback
– Writing up learning objective or key words: the boards provide the opportunity for the teacher to note either the learning objective, the key words for the lesson, or both, and leave them there in a dedicated space. It makes them unobtrusive if you are planning upon showing some media, or working up examples on the ‘main board’ – whilst making them easy to reference in a highly visible way
– Small group work: the boards provide a flexible opportunity for the teacher to work with a specific group of students, who perhaps are struggling to make progress, whilst the rest of the group can work away, without the central ‘front space’ of the classroom drawing everyone in (also, once more, the ‘main’ activities/stimulus etc. can be left on the ‘main whiteboard’ for as long as required)
– ‘Question walls’ and visible feedback: with the extra whiteboards the teacher can flexibly allocate spaces for ongoing formative assessment of progress. As noted in my previous posts, I am a strong advocate of ‘question walls’. Now, a wall display, with a collection of post it notes, does the job brilliantly, but a whiteboard provides a similarly simple tool for a question space (they can be larger and more visible than the typically small post it notes, therefore other students can interact with the questions). The other board can simultaneously be used for feedback/great ideas of various sorts – the options are endless.
For our faculty, these extra tools have helped to positively tweak our pedagogy and provide more flexibility for collaborative learning, as well as more varied direct instruction approaches. It doesn’t have the glamour or endless applications of the iPad, or the interactivity of the (still very expensive) interactive whiteboard – but they are relatively cheap and they work – simply but powerfully. Practically, they do need to be big enough to be useful – but ask yourself – if an extra whiteboard wouldn’t fit on your wall space – is there too much on there in the first place? Is your wall space glorified wall paper, or is it used to really develop learning? We thought long and hard about how the learning environment enhances the pedagogy – we still have displays of outstanding, but we are also using our wall space much more effectively due to the multiple whiteboards (whilst trying not to overly clutter the walls). If you don’t have a bells and whistles new building, this small addition to the learning environment can be a really positive marginal gain. I would highly recommend giving multiple whiteboards a try.
“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning.” – Albert Einstein
Questioning is the very cornerstone of philosophy and education, ever since Socrates ( in our Western tradition) decided to annoy pretty much everyone by critiquing and harrying people with questions – it has been central to our development of thinking and our capacity to learn. Indeed, it is so integral to all that we do that it is often overlooked when developing pedagogy – but it as crucial to teaching as air is to breathing. We must ask: do we need to give questioning the thought and planning time something so essential to learning obviously deserves? Do we need to consciously teach students to ask good questions and not just answer them? How do we create a ‘culture of inquiry’ in our classroom that open minds and provokes truly independent thought?
Most research indicates that as much as 80% of classroom questioning is based on low order, factual recall questions. What we must do is put questioning back to the core of our pedagogy and planning – we need to create is a climate of enquiry and engagement in high quality, high order questioning if formative progress is to be identified effectively. We need to carefully formulate questions with precision, as well as targeting the right questions with the right students. One key issue is that we teach in a ‘answer focused culture’ – students await to be spoon fed answers; they await the secrets to an exam that is typically closed to any breadth of thinking (many of our exams are awful – the English Literature AS level exam appears to have reduced the greatest literature known to man down to a reductive shopping list!). The entire system we work within appears to reinforce a close-minded ‘answers culture’; inquisitiveness, time to explore and think are rail-roaded into a one track exam system. Controlled assessment after controlled assessment – judgement after stultifying judgement. Yet, we can change the system from the inside: we can make our schools and classrooms a world within a world – one where we maximise creativity by encouraging the asking of good, thoughtful questions; one where we crucially foster a culture of enquiry. In a culture of enquiry, questions are no longer the domain of the ignorant; a tool to trip up the teacher – they become dynamic – more about critical involvement, stretching knowledge and enriching understanding.
Effective questioning is key because it makes the thinking visible: it identifies prior knowledge; reasoning ability and the specific degree of student understanding – therefore it is the ultimate guide for formative progress. It allows for flexible adaptations in the learning and the righting of misconceptions – it can be the key #marginalgain in any given lesson in terms of time, but it is often the key hinge point between students making progress. My top ten list is roughly organised by transitions within a lesson: beginning with 1 to 4 being questioning that initiates the learning process; 5 and 7 being core questioning techniques to develop the learning; and finally 8 to 10 being questioning strategies that are evaluative in nature:
1. Key Questions as Learning Objectives: what better way to foster a culture of inquiry than to spark the whole shooting match off with a big question that gets students thinking critically about what they are going to learn? By asking a big question you can initiate thinking and group discussion that immediate engages students in their prospective learning. By framing it as a question, it can raise motivation, as students feel like they have invested choice in their learning – and by getting students to subsequently formulate the learning objective they really begin to think about the nuances of what they are to learn and why.
2. ‘If this is the answer…what is the question?’
Taken from ‘Mock the Week’, this simple little technique sparks the inquisitiveness within students – just by quickly reversing the standard question and answer dichotomy it can deepen their thinking. It could be a relatively closed answer, like ‘3.14159265359’ (the numerical value of pi); or something more open and abstract, like ‘religion’ (a potential powder-keg that one!). They can be given the idea by showing a short clip of ‘Mock the Week from’ on YouTube – but I would advise you to vet the video carefully first!
3. Thunks – These little gems are great to initiate deeper thinking, with seemingly simple questions opening up a complex array of higher order thinking. Thunks, such as: “If I ask if I can steal your pen and you say yes, is that stealing?” Or “Can I ever step on the same beach twice?” are great fun and thoughtful starters. These clever questions (see Ian Gilbert’s excellent ‘Little a book of Thunks‘ or the website: http://www.thunks.co.uk/ ) can simply be used to spark thinking or dialogue, or they can be more targeted towards the topic or subject at hand. As the students become familiar with thunking (they really enjoy it in my experience) they can begin to formulate their own thunks – a great way to get them to think about higher order, open questioning.
4. ‘Just One More Question…’ (said in the style of Columbo!): Given any topic or subject, they have to work collaboratively in groups to create an array of quality questions. They can then be given a series of challenging question stems to broaden their range of questions, using the following: What if…?; Suppose we knew…?; What would change if…? Suppose we knew…? If they write the questions on post it notes then they can be collated and saved – with the teacher returning to them further thrown the learning line. As the topic develops students can add ‘just one more question’, as well as answering the initial questions as their understanding grows. By following this method you can continue to foster the crucial culture of inquiry in the classroom – encouraging questions as a matter of course. Generating a range of such questions is a great way to initiate a topic, as it helps highlight miscomprehension immediately; it can foster collaboration and it can give the teacher precise and immediate formative feedback to shape their subsequent planning for the topic.
5. Socratic questioning and Socratic Circles – The old dog really can teach us new tricks! Socrates himself believed that questioning was at the root of all learning – and it is hard to disagree. The six steps of Socratic questioning creates a critical atmosphere that probes thinking and once more gets the students questioning in a structured way. There are six main categories:
Q1. Get your students to clarify their thinking, for instance: “Why do you say that?” ….“Could you explain that further?”
Q2. Challenging students about assumptions, for instance: “Is this always the case? Why do you think that this assumption holds here?”
Q3. Evidence as a basis for argument, questions such as: “Why do you say that?” or “Is there reason to doubt this evidence?”
Q4. Viewpoints and perspectives, this challenges the students to investigate other ways of looking at the same issue, for example: “What is the counter argument for…?” or Can/did anyone see this another way?”
Q5. Implications and consequences, given that actions have consequences, this is an area ripe for questioning, for instance: “But if that happened, what else would result?” or “How does… affect ….?” By investigating this, students may analyse more carefully before jumping to an opinion
Q6. Question the question, just when students think they have a valid answer this is where you can tip them back into the pit: “Why do you think I asked that question?” or “Why was that question important?”
I like to exemplify the probing nature of Socratic questioning with the attack dog of relentless questions – Jeremy Paxman – and his logical stripping down of Michael Howard!
I am thankful to @dailydenouement for the following document that presents a really clear set of instructions to document the Socratic circles strategy:
This approach is a fantastic way to structure dialogue and to involve all students in exploring and developing their arguments. It creates a variety of roles and stimulates collaborative thinking and learning. Once more, it is another way to get students to reflect upon the very quality of the questions and not just the answers, with the critique of students from the outer circle.
6. Pose-pause-bounce-pounce – This is a brilliantly simple but very important strategy. The thinking time at the ‘pause’ point is crucial – there is a great deal of evidence about how the quality of responses, and the confidence levels of students, is raised by even a short amount of thinking time. The ‘bounce’ is also crucial in that, once again, students are expected to constructively build upon the ideas of one another, which gives the teacher the crucial formative assessment information required. I will hand you over to Dylan William and his excellent explanation of the strategy and the importance of quality questioning:
7. Hinge point questions – This simple but effective question approach does what it says on the tin, but in terms of progress, planning using hinge point questions can be pivotal for formative assessment. These questions really are crucial to identifying formative progress. These can be relatively closed questions, such as in this History exemplar question:
In which year did World War Two begin?
This allows for a very swift hinge point diagnosis of student progress. But, you can deepen the thinking by asking a ‘Why’ question about the origins of World War Two. You can ask students to orally explain their rationale, or you can add further complexity by having two ‘right’ answers to a question. Regardless of the strategy, again the precision of the question is key to the answer, and the subsequent direction of the learning. Too often teachers plough on regardless to meet the demands of their brilliant lesson plan, when all the formative assessment shouts at them (sometimes literally!) to move in another direction. We should not be frightened by going back steps to consolidate the learning – repetition is at the heart of acquiring knowledge – and without knowledge, skills become meaningless. Like the Green Cross Code tells us, we need to ‘stop, look and listen’ to the quality of the question, and the quality of the answer, before we go anywhere.
8. Question continuum – The continuum involves the students first devising questions, in pairs or groups, on any given topic or idea. Then the continuum is created very visibly, either on the whiteboard, or more semi-permanently on a display board (great to resume the strategy in future lessons) – with student questions being on post it notes for added flexibility. The horizontal axis would represent the ‘Interest Level’ generated by each question – that is how likely the question is to inspire new thinking and new possibilities, and simply the interest level it generates from the group. Then the vertical axis could be flexible in a variety of ways, should you wish to include a vertical axis. The vertical axis could represent ‘Complexity‘ (from ‘closed factual questions’ to ‘open, conceptual questions’) – that is how far the question would deepen their understanding and generate complex thinking. Students could feedback their opinions, shaped by the teacher, to identify the best questions – which then could be the subject of further exploration. Having the questions very visible means you can also flexibly rearrange, such as selecting the ‘best’ nine questions and creating a new ‘diamond nine’ formation. As you can see, the possibilities are endless.
9. Questioning monitor: Once more, this technique constructively involves students in the evaluation and reflection of the questioning process – fostering my now well worn refrain of creating a culture of enquiry. A monitor, or a pair of monitors, would be given the responsibility to track and monitor the frequency of questions: teacher and student – open or closed: factual or conceptual. You can have them monitor for a given task, or relate more cumulative research by undertaking the monitoring over a week or two of lessons. By exploring the evidence you are signalling to the students that you value evidence, and you are diagnosing the quality of your questioning, and that of the students. You will then have the evidence to know whether you really do have a culture of enquiry – and if not, it illuminates some of the steps you need to take to develop one. The activity sends very powerful messages to students about how highly your value quality questioning.
10. The Question Wall (a design upgrade for a well-used technique) Many educationalists have put forward sound reasons for using a question wall, or a learning wall. The ‘Question Continuum’ clearly overlaps with regards to pedagogy with a question wall, so I would be wary of trying both concurrently with groups, as it could potentially confuse them. The ‘Question Wall’ in this instance is a working space for students to communicate questions about their learning. By giving students post it notes and asking them to commit questions to writing typically eliminates those questions that reflect a sense of ‘learnt helplessness’ – the ‘how does you spell such and such’, when they have a dictionary on their table; or, ‘what do we have to do’, in response to your lengthy and erudite explanation you have only just imparted! The question wall helps foster independence and, once more, makes the students think a little more about their questions. To add a level of nuance to the wall, consider creating simple quadrants with simple labels: students can be advised that closed questions are placed on the left of the wall, whereas more open questions are placed progressively to the right hand side. A vertical axis could indicate the timer he student would expect was needed for explanation: placing questions that need a high degree of support, and therefore time, higher up the wall than those shorter, typically more closed questions. This simple visual representation of their questions allows the teacher to make a quick visual judgement about what questions they have time to address, or may want to prioritise. It helpfully indicates the level of ‘stuckness’ of the student, which is important feedback.
*Note: You may have noticed that the vast majority of these techniques require, or could benefit from, the use of post it notes. I am a supreme convert of the humble post it! We have just invested in stacks of the larger post its (they are broader than the usual) to ensure they work more effectively as tools for the above strategies and more.
Schools across the world are taking the basics of questioning and learning and making outstanding progress happen, with high order critical at the heart of learning. Other countries, like China, are hunting down education systems that foster a ‘culture of inquiry’ so that they can create their own system that helps create creative and critical thinkers. With this pursuit in mind, I found this interesting case study about project based learning in schools in Jerusalem, with their ‘Communities of Thinking’. There are some great questions to be found here at the root of some really interesting pedagogy:
This post is a little heavy on the theory that underpins questioning, but it is part of my thinking for a prospective post about a list of ‘top ten questioning strategies’ that I am currently planning. Looking into the theory and research about questioning just confirms my uneasiness with the dominance of Bloom’s taxonomy as a structure for questioning (and indeed learning objectives) – see Fig 1.
At the root of my issue with Bloom is that I think the hierarchy proposed by Bloom is too often taken rigidly as a step ladder towards higher order understanding, when in actual fact learning isn’t simply as linear and hierarchical as the taxonomy would imply. There are a legion of question stem documents littering the web, as well as educational writing based on Bloom’s taxonomy – I suppose they do no harm, but they should be dealt with critically at the very least.
I much prefer Christenbury and Kelly’s model of the ‘Questioning Circle’ to evaluate and move towards classifying questioning, as it is more flexible and therefore more suitable to the contingent nature of learning – see Fig 2.
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.