About feedback...

When was the last time your school's marking policy was updated?  A school I worked at recently hadn't altered theirs since 2012!  This was probably why it was a) so outdated and heavily focused on secretarial editing, and b) didn't mention feedback anywhere.

It shouldn't be a shock, but it is feedback that improves children's understanding and overall work.  There are countless papers published about this fact; it's pretty much indisputable at this point, so why then do so many school leaders still insist that physical marking is maintained rigorously throughout workbooks?

My post this week is about how to incorporate effective feedback practices into everyday learning.  This will not only give the children the skills they need to improve their work on the fly, but will also reduce the amount of time you spend marking by removing the need to write the same comment over and over.

This is how I do feedback.

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Have clear guidelines for success
Children check work in pairs working as editor and author.
Refuse to mark anything that hasn't first been checked by an editor.
Parallel editing

I was first introduced to parallel editing a few years ago and I haven't stopped using or recommending it.  Like all effective techniques, it takes time to teach it to the children, but the time used establishing the routine is more than made up for in the long run, trust me.

Here's how it works.  First, either buddy-up your children (I used to have learning partners which were assigned randomly every second week but you do you) or be willing to have children travel around your room when they have finished their work.

When two children have finished, the pair up and decide who will be the author and who will be the editor.  They will swap roles, so this step is fairly arbitrary.  The important thing is that the author is the only person with a pen.  They put their open books on top of each other with the author's on top.  

I'll start with the editor's role:

The editor then reads through the work.  If it is a long piece of work, they can choose to read one paragraph (see previous blog posts about this sort of marking).  Acting as an editor, they first check for any obvious mistakes and points them out to the author.

Next, using the success criteria that should have been agreed on before the writing was begun, they check that those elements are present.  If they are only marking one paragraph, not every element will necessarily be there but this is where the dialogue comes in. They get to ask the author if they have included, say, a subordinate clause. 

Finally, as an editor, they have the chance to suggest improvements to word choices, sentence construction, paragraphing or syntax.  This can be their own opinion.  Maybe they don't like a verb choice; they feel that something more specific could have been used.  Maybe they think a sentence is too long; too short; or even superfluous.  They get to say this as a suggestion.

So what does the author do?

The author retains the power (and the pen).  At any time, they can disagree with the editor (in perfect scenarios, this will spark a discussion about what makes a 'good' piece of writing).  Obviously, they will want to correct basic spelling and grammar errors, which are often easily overlooked when self-editing (as many of the posts in this blog will testify!) but when it comes to sentence structure or word choice, therein lies the debate.  And it is wonderful to see pairs of children discussing their work in a very subjective way - suggesting improvements; defending artistic choices; taking risks.

As suggested above, if the piece is longer and only sections are being edited in this way, the author has the chance to point out elements of the success criteria that might not be present.  However, this might also lead them to decide to alter their work so that they are really showing their understanding of the lesson's aim.

To close the session, the author needs to write 'edited by [editor's name].  The reason I say get the author to do this is because they need to be the only one with the pen.  I've tried it with the editor writing that they edited the work, but then they can't resist physically editing the work and that takes the power away from the author.

Then what?

They swap.  I've found that giving themselves a 30-second break is effective, just to reset their brains and take on their new roles.  The most important thing is that the pen is swapped. 

Why can't they just check each other's work?

Because what we're aiming for here is collaborative feedback and improvement.  The work they present to you, the teacher, should be the best that they can produce - there is no point in handing in mediocre work.  It is really difficult to check your own work (your brain autocorrects too much).  Children are all self-obsessed and they like to be in charge (forgive my sweeping statements - you know it's true!).  If they simply swap books, they will always be more interested in what the other person is doing to their work.  By focussing on one book at a time, with one child being the 'star' and one being the 'boss', you satisfy all the egos and end up with great feedback.

Wait, doesn't this take a lot of time?

Yes.  It can.  But it is a learning process.  By that, I mean, obviously the initial teaching of it but also the continued learning when it is established.  This kind of dialectic, didactic learning is so helpful and it is a genuine skill they will take with them through their lives.  This is future-proofing your class!  So it is worth it.  Timetable it in.  

But... I still have to mark it, so...?

Yes, as the teacher you will still have to mark it.  But all the secretarial stuff will have been covered, and 'next steps' will have been suggested and worked on already.  As a teacher, you're pretty much left with quality control.  Especially if you follow my 3-step hand-in procedure...

Step 1:
Child hands in their work
Me: Is this the absolute best you can make it?
If yes,
Me: The work you hand me now is you saying I cannot do any better, this is my absolute best work.  You're positive?
If yes,
Me: You won't get it back once you've handed it in.  That's it.  That's the work I'll grade/judge/mark/base my opinion of you on (delete as appropriate).
If yes, take the book/work.

If no (to any step), give the book back (or throw it on the floor - I have done this; it works well) and say pointedly:

'What are you doing?  Why would you waste my time with anything less than your best work*?  Bring me your best and I will help you make it better.  Anything else is useless to you.'

This might sound harsh, but tone of voice goes a long way to soften it.  Plus, you'll be surprised how quickly children learn to check their work, have other people edit it, go back and re-check it for further improvements... they end up handing in work that they, and you, can truly be proud of.

Obviously, this does not exist in a bubble.  As well as introducing the concept, you will need to model what being a good, effective editor looks like.  Also, I have written this with English written work in mind, but it is just as applicable to maths work, science, art, anything that the children have written and for which there are agreed success criteria.

It's how I got level 6 writers (back in the day).  It's how I get Greater-Depth writers today.  It works.  I promise!

Thanks for reading - I know you're busy!  Also, if you were one of the 6 people who read my ill-fated Cats in the classroom post, a special thank-you.  It clearly wasn't a popular choice of topic!  I have taken that feedback on board.

Have a fantastic weekend, whatever you do. Please don't take any marking home.  If it can't be done in school then there is too much of it.  Get the kids to do some of it (I set up a lunchtime marking club - so useful!).  If you teach younger children, invite some older kids in to mark.  All it takes is a few rules on the board and an answer sheet - that's your maths done.  Honestly, they are so eager to help and be seen as 'grown-up'.  Five kids, six books each.  Have them make three piles when they're done (confident, need help, no clue) and quality check every fifth book.  All maths books marked in one lunchtime!

I'm rambling.  Give yourself a big hug and smile at strangers - see who smiles back.

Carl Headley-Morris

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*If you haven't read or heard (I recommend hearing it here) Taylor Mali's fantastic poem, What Teacher's Make then you absolutely owe it to yourself and your class to check it out.  

@Mr_M_Musings mrmorristeacher@gmail.com