Feedback – the mark of success (Part One)

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in May 2018.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here

On a recent family outing my teenage daughter turned to me and, with a pointed finger, ticked off my attire from head to toe: “Barbour scarf, Joules coat, Ralph Lauren jeans, Chelsea boots…”

A wry smile twitched the corners of her mouth: “You’re dressed like me. Are you having some sort of mid-life crisis?”

Her amusement arose from the fact that I’m not what you would call a dedicated follower of fashion. I take pride in my appearance. I have never, for example, left the house in my pyjamas – not even to put the bins out at the klaxon call of a rolling rubbish truck. And I simply do not understand some men’s inclination to wear shorts all year round. Smart and presentable, yes. But a fashionista I am not.

Thankfully, I’m in good company. A lack of sartorial elegance has long been a hallmark of the teaching profession. Watch any classroom-based comedy sketch and it is likely the teacher will be wearing brown corduroy trousers, a cream crepe shirt (creased and coffee stained, naturally), and a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches.

But what we teachers lack in fashion sense, we more than make up for in our propensity towards the latest pedagogical trend – Brain Gym, VAK, Thinking Hats, you name it, we’ve blindly adopted every passing fad.

And now, it seems, it’s the turn of feedback…

The feedback craze

Several seminal works of educational research have espoused the virtues of feedback. First came Black & Wiliam’s Inside the Black Box, then Hattie’s Visible Learning, followed by the Educational Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit. Each posited that feedback was one of the most impactful strategies at a teacher’s disposal, adding eight months of extra progress every year and leading to at least half a GCSE grade’s improvement.

Feedback, it seemed, was the new religion and teachers the world over were told to kneel at its altar.

Soon, Ofsted got in on the act. They began highlighting what they regarded as the effective use of written feedback – particularly in the form of dialogic feedback whereby a teacher and her pupils hold conversations in pupils’ exercise books – in the inspection reports of schools they judged “outstanding”. Many school leaders drew the inference: to be outstanding they must emulate these forms of feedback in their schools.

Dominoes began falling

Next, schools wrote assessment policies that dictated what, when and how marking and feedback should be carried out and teachers up and down the land kissed goodbye to their work/life balance as they were mandated to mark every piece of work in tremendous detail and keep elaborate records of their assessments in order to show evidence of pupil progress. Stationery-sellers were seen high-fiving outside warehouses as they received orders for tonnes of green and purple pens.

Some types of feedback are more equal than others

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that feedback is the new Brain Gym. There is no doubt, whether we take our lead from the evidence or from our own experiences and common sense, that feedback is important.

After all, if pupils don’t know what to improve and how to improve it, then there’s little chance they will improve.

But saying that feedback matters is not the same as saying that all types of feedback are of equal value or that feedback is a panacea or indeed a proxy for good teaching.

In this seven-part series, I will argue that our obsession with feedback has led to unhealthy and unsustainable levels of teacher workload which, in turn, have adversely affected teacher retention.

I will argue that we should be pragmatic, weighing energy versus impact – in other words, we should balance the amount of time and effort a strategy takes a teacher to employ with the academic gains it produces for pupils, investing in those strategies that lead to the biggest impact for the lowest investment of energy.

I will argue that schools should abandon “one-size-fits-all” assessment policies and strike a better balance between consistency and autonomy.

And I will argue that better isn’t always synonymous with more – in fact, feedback is made more effective if we do less of it but do it more strategically. Let’s start by examining the issue of teacher workload…

The beast of burden

In the 2016 report, Eliminating Unnecessary Workload Around Marking, the government-commissioned Workload Review Group said: “Effective marking is an essential part of the education process. At its heart, it is an interaction between teacher and pupil: a way of acknowledging pupils’ work, checking the outcomes and making decisions about what teachers and pupils need to do next, with the primary aim of driving pupil progress. This can often be achieved without extensive written dialogue or comments.”

The report went on to say that the group’s “starting point is that marking – providing written feedback on pupils’ work – has become disproportionately valued by schools and has become unnecessarily burdensome for teachers”.

There are a number of reasons for this, the report explained, including the impact of government policy and what has been promoted by Ofsted, as well as decisions taken by school leaders and teachers. This is not to say that all marking should be eliminated, they accepted, but that it must be proportionate.

In short, the group argued that quantity should not be confused with quality: “The quality of the feedback, however given, will be seen in how a pupil is able to tackle subsequent work.”

The group recommended that all marking should be meaningful, manageable and motivating.

In practice, this means that there can be no one-size-fits-all approach. Rather, a balance must be struck between ensuring consistency and equality of opportunity for all pupils in every curriculum subject, and trusting teachers to focus on what they know is in the best interests of their pupils in their context.

Health warnings

The government’s Workload Challenge (2015) teacher workload survey found that 53 per cent of respondents thought that while marking pupils’ work was necessary and productive, the excessive nature, depth and frequency of marking was burdensome.

In 2015, a NUT and YouGov survey found that more than half of teachers were considering leaving the profession, with 61 per cent citing “volume of workload” as the main cause of their disquiet.

A recent Secret Teacher article in the Guardian sought to put some meat on the bones of this debate. The anonymous diarist explained with painful honesty how his school’s insistence that he engage in detailed dialogic marking and mark set after set of mock exam papers was endangering his mental and physical health.

Dialogic feedback

Dialogic marking, sometimes called triple marking, is – as I said above – the practice whereby teachers provide written feedback to pupils and pupils are expected to respond in writing to the guidance which, in turn, is then verified by the teacher.

Sometimes pupils use different colour pens to indicate the nature of their response with terms like “green for growth” and “the purple zone” becoming increasingly commonplace. So why has dialogic feedback become so popular?

There is, to my knowledge, no government or Ofsted guidance or policy making dialogic feedback a requirement or even an expectation of schools. Although Ofsted did name-check dialogic marking in some of its reports, the inspectorate has since published a handy myth-buster making clear that it does not expect to see a particular frequency or quantity of work in pupils’ books or folders (recognising that the amount of work in books and folders will depend on the subject being studied and the age and ability of the pupils), and that it does not expect to see any specific frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback.

Ofsted inspectors have been explicitly told that they are not to comment on marking and feedback in their inspection reports – because the evidence of what works best is as yet inconclusive – beyond stating whether or not what they see corresponds with the school’s own assessment policy.

The Teachers’ Standards, meanwhile, say only that teachers should “give pupils regular feedback, both orally and through accurate marking, and encourage pupils to respond to the feedback”. This is a vague statement which can be interpreted in myriad ways, not necessarily through detailed, dialogic marking.

Who are we marking for?

Some schools I’ve visited insist on dialogic feedback because it provides a tangible source of evidence for their quality assurance and performance management processes. In other words, it serves a managerial purpose rather than an academic one. However, in so doing, written feedback becomes a poor proxy for good teaching and is reduced from a pupil-led strategy to a box-ticking exercise.

As well as dialogic feedback, teacher workload has been unnecessarily impacted by some schools’ insistence that verbal feedback is recorded in books, for example with a stamp. If we insist on such an approach, we need to ask who are we doing it for? Is it a means of control exerted on teachers by senior leaders – another box-ticking exercise to ensure teachers are towing the line – or is it for parents to prove their child is being taught well?

I can see no benefit for the pupil who already knows they have been given verbal feedback because they were in receipt of it. If it is for control purposes then school leaders need to ask why they do not trust their teachers and what can be done to remedy that situation. If it is for parents, then school leaders need to communicate their assessment policy more effectively and have bold conversations about what’s in the best interests of pupils.

As with any questionable teaching strategy, I always recommend we ask ourselves what impact it would have on our pupils if we suddenly stopped doing it. Would pupils notice? Would they make less progress as a result? I suspect not, thus proving it is a misuse of teachers’ time for very little, if any, impact.

In fact, as with many of these time-consuming approaches to assessment, it can actually have an adverse impact because it leaves teachers tired and diverts their time and attention away from an alternative strategy that is more worthwhile and impactful.

So if dialogic feedback and verbal feedback stamps do not pass the “energy versus impact” test, what does? How can we ensure marking and feedback are made meaningful, manageable and motivating? We will explore this in the second part of this series.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley



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