Whole Class Feedback: A Winner All Round

Hoop jumpingWhole class feedback can be seen as a lazy option. Surely teachers are just avoiding the necessary work of giving individual feedback because they want to have more free time? But this view ignores the important point about opportunity cost, which must always be considered. Time spent on writing individual feedback in exercise books is time not spent on improving resources, or developing subject knowledge. Individualised feedback is enormously time-consuming and of doubtful benefit. In comparison, improving teaching materials will certainly benefit large numbers of pupils, and will continue to do so time and again, as the resources are used year after year.

This view also ignores the personal cost of excessively time-consuming practices which are of doubtful benefit. Teachers have families and friends. They cannot work every hour of the day and night; nor should they. If we want teaching to be a sustainable and an attractive profession, we must consider the work-life balance of staff.

At Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, we have introduced a school wide policy on whole-class feedback. As with everything at GYCA, we are aiming for consistency across the school, so that pupils know exactly what to expect. We are are also aiming, as always, for the maximum learning return on time invested.

As a school we require teachers to read all of their pupils’ books regularly and to make notes, for their own use, in a shared Google spreadsheet which can be accessed by their department and by the senior leadership team. The spreadsheet contains columns for notes which pertain to feedback to be given directly to the class as a result of reading the books, but the more important column is where teachers note feedback for themselves. What are they going to do differently based upon what they have seen in the books? What are they going to teach differently? What are they going to lay greater emphasis upon, or less? Which common misconceptions are they going to address, and how?

The most important feedback from reading pupil work is not to the pupil but to the teacher. The greatest impact will be had if the teacher reflects on how to improve their teaching based on what they have read. For example, when I read the year ten English literature exams at the end of last year, I noticed that the pupils did not have a clear enough concept of setting. Therefore I updated all of our GCSE literature study guides to include a setting section, to make this more explicit for them. I am also making a point of mentioning the term more often in my teaching of literature, and guiding pupils to write analysis based around aspects of setting in, for example, the Victorian London of Jekyll and Hyde.

At GYCA, teachers have the time and space to reflect on their teaching and respond to what they are seeing in the books. They’ll be doing this in class, as well, as they look over shoulders during writing tasks, which are always done in silence, but the regular look through the whole class sets of books gives a particularly powerful opportunity to reflect on their teaching and how to improve it.

Another huge benefit of our light-touch approach to feedback is that teachers no longer need to be afraid of pupils writing lots and lots and lots. I’m sure many teachers reading this have had a sinking feeling as they watched their classes of thirty-two filling up the pages, and they pictured the piles of books which they would have to fill with extensive, personalised, multicoloured feedback as a result. In contrast, teachers at GYCA are liberated to get pupils to do lots of writing, and they know that they will be able to read it and discuss it without the burden of time-consuming processes imposed on them from above.

It’s a winner all round: lots of writing in silence, lots of guidance before and during that writing, lots of time to produce ever-better resources, and a reasonable work-life balance. That’s why we’re committed to whole-class feedback at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy.

(Image from Wikimedia)

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10 thoughts on “Whole Class Feedback: A Winner All Round

  1. When I first came to England in 1972, I first heard the phrase ‘blotting one’s copybook’, and I just assumed it was an obscure figure of speech. At that time (and quite possibly to this date), American schools didn’t have an equivalent, and written work had far less emphasis. In academic subjects, we were usually given a short quiz or test every week, but even in English it was unusual to be expected to write more than a paragraph or two. In 11th or 12th Grade, we might have to write a thousand-word essay at some point, but it was more or less assumed that you were either good at writing or you weren’t. SPaG was the only formal instruction anyone got. Everyone assumed that minority students seldom had the oral language skills needed to write a reasonably grammatical sentence in standard English, so using essays to evaluate academic achievement would unfairly penalise them. Hence, the College Boards–the only school-leaving test we had–were entirely multiple-choice.

    Two of my lecturers at the U of Michigan had taught in English grammar schools, and they both agreed that although the general standard of writing was better in England, it also tended to be more formulaic. They both agreed that they found more exceptionally good writing in the US. However, we have a very serious problem in terms of teaching children to write: relatively few teachers are good writers themselves.

    I expect there’s no power on earth that could save our children from being required to churn out reams of incoherent and all-but unreadable prose in a variety of genre, but we really ought to think about opportunity cost. Obviously, I approve entirely of whole-class feedback, but AfL was introduced because too many teachers were wildly optimistic as to how much of their lessons had actually been learned. For my money, you can’t beat what our teachers did all those years ago: they just gave us weekly tests. They weren’t at all stressful–all you had to do was stay awake in class, read the texts, and you’d invariably get most or all the questions right. These days, cognitive scientists have a fancy word for it–the ‘forward effect’, meaning that tests improve learning of material yet to be studied. It’s a rather simple way of inducing ‘metacognitive monitoring’. Even better, they reduce teachers’ workloads enormously and provide objective proof of learning, while at the same time providing good evidence of weaknesses in teaching.

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    • We have both at Charter: regular tests and closely guided writing. It has to be closely guided. When it is, the quality of work is much more consistent, and pupils can actually learn from their writing, because they’re not experiencing cognitive overload.

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      • This is reasonably close to the only thing I’ve ever employed whilst teaching spelling to SEN pupils. I used masses of sentence dictation exercises which provided models of correctly-formed sentences, often with prepositional phrases or subordinate clauses. Recalling the words in a sentence obviously adds to cognitive load, but not as much as struggling to decide what words to use and keeping one’s train of thought on track. Of course, the sentences also were used for massed and distributed reinforcement of spelling patterns. This was developed when I decided I could write something similar to SRA Spelling Mastery–which we’d used for many years–but aimed more specifically at SEN.

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  2. I have some of the concerns you expressed: don’t pupils need and deserve individual feedback in order to improve? At the same time, after writing the same comment for the seventeenth time, it’s clear to me that maybe it isn’t the best use of my time!
    This year I’ve agreed with my line manager to explore whole class feedback as a developmental objective. The proof of the pudding will be, of course, do pupils make better progress in their learning?

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      • That’s true, I’m planning how to build feedback in steps across the scheme of work. I’m looking at Y8 computing: I teach three mixed ability classes so I’m basing the class feedback on the analysis of work across the three groups.

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  3. Pingback: Whole Class Marking: A justification – KBA Teaching and Learning

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