The octagon of excellence

This article was written for SecEd magazine and published in September 2014. You can read the original version here. You can read my other articles for SecEd magazine here. I’ve produced an info graphic version of this article which you can download here.


The most effective way to raise student attainment, according to Ron Berger in his book An Ethic of Excellence, is to create a culture in which every child strives to create his or her very best work every day and has a stake in the collective success or failure of his or her class.

I’ve taken the liberty of translating Berger’s “secret” into eight principles of teaching practice – the cornerstones, if you like, of a successful classroom:

  1. High quality work.
  2. Genuine research.
  3. A real audience.
  4. In-built differentiation.
  5. Collective responsibility.
  6. Class critique.
  7. Modelling success.
  8. Drafting and redrafting.

High-quality work

The first step towards encouraging students to produce high-quality work is to set assignments which inspire and challenge them.

High-quality work should be predicated on the idea that every student succeeds, not just finishes the task but produces work which represents excellence for that student. Though some of the work may be done as homework, the classroom is really the hub of creation, what Berger calls “the workshop”.

Genuine research

Good assignments offer students the opportunity to engage in genuine research not research invented for the classroom. Berger argues that every town and city is full of public records that sit neglected, environmental conditions that no-one is monitoring, businesses and families whose histories have never been explored.

Every community, he says, is full of senior citizens, immigrants, craftspeople, veterans, and survivors of all kinds whose stories have never been told.

In short, opportunities for original statistical research in education are almost endless so why invent an artificial task with no real data, no real purpose, and no real audience – talking of which…

A real audience

In Berger’s classroom, every final draft of work that students complete is produced for an outside audience. He sees his role as teacher as helping his students to get their work ready for the public eye. This means that there is a reason to do the work well, not just because the teachers wants it that way.

Not every piece of work can be of genuine importance, of course, but every piece of work can be displayed, presented, appreciated, and judged. Ensuring work is made public gives students a reason to care.

In-built differentiation

Assignments work best when they are structured in such a way as to make it difficult for students to fall too far behind or fail.

Assignments also work best when they are broken into a set of clear components so that students have to progress through checkpoints to ensure they are keeping up. Students’ progress can be assessed and sustained through the use of class critique sessions.

Good assignments will have in-built flexibility to allow for a range of abilities. In other words, some components will be mandatory and therefore completed by everyone and others will be optional and completed by those ahead of the pace.

As with all extension work, it is important that the optional components do not simply represent more of the same but genuinely extend students’ learning.

Collective responsibility

The overall quality that emerges from the class “workshop” must be a concern for every member of the class – the classroom culture must instil a belief that if any student is failing to succeed at producing work with care, then it is a concern for every student.

There must be a sense of whole-class pride in the quality of learning and in the products in the workshop and there must be a sense of peer pressure for students to keep up with the expected standard.

As above, the assignments should be made public – giving the work a genuine audience – so that anything deemed to be weak reflects badly on everyone. This will drive students to produce their best and to help each other do likewise.

Assignments work best when they have assessment rubrics, checklists if you like, which make clear what is expected of each student at each stage of development. The rubric should spell out exactly what components are required in the assignment, what the timeline for completion is, and on what qualities and dimensions the work will eventually be judged.

These rubrics might be constructed collaboratively with students so they feel a sense of ownership and fully understand what is expected.

Class critique

Assessment, Berger argues, usually has a singular audience and a limited impact: it is for the edification of the author and the goal is to improve the particular piece of work being assessed.

In Berger’s classroom, assessment – what he calls “critique” – has a broader goal. He uses whole-class critique as a primary context for sharing knowledge and skills with the group. For example, the students in Berger’s class collectively critique an individual piece of writing in a guided session in order that Berger can teach the elements of a good essay.

Berger uses two types of critique: gallery critique and in-depth critique.

In gallery critique, the work of every student is displayed on boards or photocopied for all to read. Students start by looking at the work silently before giving comments and the focus is predominantly positive. Students select examples from the gallery that impress them and then discuss why.

Gallery critique is an effective means of peer assessment because, as Berger says: “The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to students but goes on inside students.”

Berger sets out three rules for gallery critique. Feedback should be:

  1. Kind.
  2. Specific.
  3. Helpful.

He also shares some useful guidelines:

  • Begin with the author/designer of the work explaining his/her ideas and goals, and explaining what aspects of the work he/she is seeking help with.
  • Critique the work not the person.
  • Begin with something positive then move on to constructive criticism.
  • Use “I” statements wherever possible (e.g. “I’m confused by this…” rather than “This makes no sense”).
  • Use questions wherever possible (e.g. “Have you considered…” rather than “You need to…”).
  • The rules should always be obeyed, Berger argues; the guidelines should usually – but not always – apply.

In-depth critique, meanwhile, involves looking at the work of a single student or group and carrying out a thorough critique of it as a class. This allows the teacher to teach the vocabulary and concepts of the discipline being studied.

In both models, Berger says that it is important to differentiate between critiquing for specific content qualities and critiquing for conventions. It is also important to focus on vocabulary-building – avoiding general comments like “it’s good” or “it’s bad”; instead commenting forensically on the work.

Both models of critique are a great way of delivering the five key aspects of formative assessment as defined by Professor Dylan Wiliam in Excellence in Assessment:

  1. Clarifying and understanding learning intentions and success criteria.
  2. Engineering effective classroom discussions, questions and tasks that elicit evidence of learning.
  3. Providing feedback that moves students forward.
  4. Activating students as instructional resources for each other.
  5. Activating students as owners of their own learning.

Modelling success

Berger says he wants his students to carry around pictures in their heads of quality work. It is not enough, he argues, to make a list, a rubric, of what makes a good essay or a good science experiment.

It is not enough to read a great piece of literature and analyse the writing, or to look at the work of a great scientist. If we want our students to write a strong essay, to design a strong experiment, we need to show them what a great essay or experiment looks like. We need to admire models, find inspiration in them, and analyse their strengths and weaknesses. In short, we need to work out what makes it strong.

Berger spends his life collecting good work. Most of it comes from his students, but he also gathers work from other classrooms.

When his students begin a new project, Berger displays good work and, together with his students, he admires, critiques and analyses it. The models then stay on display so that students can return to them again and again to weigh their efforts against strong work from the past.

Berger shares models of final work as well as models of earlier drafts so that students can see the creation and refinement process. To avoid copying, Berger keeps a range of good work for any given topic so students don’t think there is a single correct response.

Drafting and redrafting

Berger argues that schools need to move away from the idea that having to do a second draft of a piece of work means you have blown the first one. Would you ever put on a play without rehearsals? he asks. Or give a concert without practising first? How much editing goes into every book we read?

Students in Berger’s class take pride in their dedication to drafts, bragging that they did 13 drafts of a piece of work. Students know from the outset that quality means rethinking, reworking, and polishing. Students need to feel that they will be celebrated, not ridiculed, for going back to the drawing board.

Berger sets the minimum number of drafts at four. When they undertake a design project, every student must have at least one rough sketch on regular paper, one expanded draft on large art paper, one scale drawing on large graph paper, and a final draft on professional vellum.


In conclusion, if we are to develop an ethic of excellence in our own classrooms, we should:

  • Set assignments which inspire and challenge our students, and which are predicated on the idea of every student succeeding.
  • Set assignments which involve genuine research.
  • Set assignments which have in-built flexibility to allow for a range of abilities, and are broken into clear components.
  • Set assignments which make clear what is expected of each student at each stage of development and which spells out what qualities and dimensions on which the work will eventually be judged.
  • Develop a sense of whole-class pride in the quality of learning and a sense of peer pressure for students to keep up with the expected standard.
  • Ensure that, once finished, assignments are made public – providing a genuine audience.
  • Ensure that assessments – such as gallery critique – are used as a primary context for sharing knowledge and skills.
  • Teach students to give constructive feedback that is kind, helpful and specific, and that avoids general comments like “it’s good” or “it’s bad”.
  • Provide students with exemplars that show them what a great essay or experiment looks like, and which they can analyse in order to decide what makes them strong
  • Instil the belief that quality means rethinking, reworking, and polishing so that students feel celebrated, not ridiculed, for going back to the drawing board.

Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley



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