I recently had a discussion about formative feedback. Out of all the teaching strategies of the past forty years, AfL is the one that all teachers seem to agree upon. However, recording AfL, and student responses to it, requires some expert practice beyond that recommended by the DfES et al.

Here are some of my questions and responses:

Prompt: Making criteria explicit is possible and useful for all students.

Response: So, if the criteria is to learn the first line of a song (just for example), and a kid only manages half that, have they failed? Do we berate them for not fulfilling the criteria, or should be celebrate what they have achieved? And what about the kid who finishes the whole song? – Do they get any extra credit?

Similarly, if the criteria is to compose a song influenced by jazz, but a kid does a song influenced by reggae instead, have they failed? What if the song is really good?

My main contention that led to my OP is that, in talking to some teachers, it seems that their teaching style is ‘just do stuff’. This is said as if that, and force of personality, is enough. In the 1970s, that probably was. A symptom of this, I think, is a 0% record of formative feedback. This lack of recorded formative feedback is also due to the huge numbers of students a music teacher teaches. I believe that criteria-based planning (via personalised rubrics) can help a teacher to offer incisive and expert feedback easily (while still giving the teacher a life outside teaching!)

When I use criteria-based planning, I do so to take into account that each class, and each student, is different. The criteria for the best performance will reflect the very best that that class can produce for that task (which might be middling for another class). This often reflects attitude as well as aptitude. Such criteria is based on a scale of 4, and I have written about it elsewhere for anyone interested.

Criteria-based planning (rather than content-based planning) has benefits beyond giving NC levels and criteria. If a student achieves in a task against certain criteria by a rubric that the teacher has created for that specific class (knowing, for example, that in the above task some students might only achieve one line, if that, while others will complete the entire song and beyond) then appropriate feedback on how to achieve can be given. How the student is able respond to that feedback is still a quantum leap forward, though.

Of course, the student might achieve in areas outside the criteria for that task: the teacher should acknowledge and enjoy that too. Alternatively, the student might make such links themselves. But learning in school (or in any academic environment) isn’t about just doing stuff and seeing what happens. At least not in every lesson!

Prompt: We should record how expert feedback from the teacher has helped them improved

Response: Are such things always easy to articulate? What is gained by doing so?

As you say, much feedback in all classrooms, especially in practical subjects, is often verbal. Since it relies upon the 1000s of hours of teaching, and a ‘sense’ of where the difficulties may be, such feedback makes a classroom teachers far more effective than computerised instruction or YouTube modelling. Such feedback is, according to Geoff Petty’s metastudies and anywhere you care to read, amongst the top 3 techniques for improving learning. It also signposts learning for students and makes them feel that they are doing more than just doing stuff.

One point of such feedback is that students have the experience of being able to articulate how they can improve (even if they can’t do so). There are, of course, some students who can improve through just observing modelling and talking about it. See later for futher comment on this.

Prompt: surely there is some way of evidencing how teacher intervention can be directly linked to pupil improvement?

Response: What if the pupil improves of their own accord? – What if they figure something out themselves, or keep practising something until they perfect it?

What of the kids who refuse to take part? Is that the teacher’s fault? Should the teacher be chastised because the kids are uncooperative?

And what if the teacher is constantly giving out good advice but the kid is ignoring it?

What if the teacher is obsessed with correcting “parallel fifths” when the kid just wants to compose a basic pop song?

Great comments about balancing formative assessment and criteria-based planning with the need to actually stimulate and inspiring young people. Much progress in classrooms, and in life in general, is hostistic and by osmosis. That isn’t a problem. But are there aspects of learning music in which a teacher can expect to be able to intervene expertly to aid progress for all students? Even those who are gifted and talened can be made conscious of how they could improve, even if they are constantly improving through sheer practice and osmosis (which are powerful in themselves).

In regards to the effectiveness of feedback to students who are disenfranchised or just plain unresponsive: I say it is up to the teacher to use every tool at their disposal to aid improvement (or even just engagement). I’m not entirely naive though – I’ve taught inner-city and know that there is an influential minority of students who require more than pedagogy to teach. To those teachers I would say avoid teaching the course, and teach to engage (and expect to be at a place for years to see any meaningful response). However, nothing motivates as much as achievement, and if a student can articulate their achievement (or at least understand why/how they’ve achieved) then they are able to place their own value on that achievement (which might be more powerful than any praise you can give).

Prompt: Therefore, the student can record feedback and their response to aid achievement. 

Response: Such an initiative inevitably leads to wishy-washy comments with the kids just saying what they think people want to hear. Pointless.

True point. A lack of rigour is always risked when students (aka teenagers) respond to feedback. I have seen comments from teachers, as well as pupils, that are wishy-washy. This is something I have been guilty of myself: hence my focus on criteria-based planning. Such wishy-washiness is especially risky if the teacher is giving formative feedback simply because they have been told to (!). This is particularly the case when the teacher isn’t marking for a specific criteria prepared for that specific class (taking into account all the factors of the class, and their expert experience).

Students can’t skilfully respond to formative feedback by osmosis: they need specific training (and, I think, with such practice used across the whole-school). In fact, if such students merely articulate their responses (which is more than what is happening right now in some classrooms) and cannot put them into practice, then the teacher’s effort is wasted. I can understand entirely why teachers feel that recording formative feedback is a bunk job.

Saying all that, I feel that if a student can articulate even once or twice a half-term where or how they could improve, and is conscious of how they have acted upon it, then they will progress better than the student who improves by osmosis. They will be somewhat empowered, and not in the way that means that students think they are making the final decision on how to recruit new teachers!

Prompt: This improves a specific aspect of their learning.

Response: As I said before, this is the absurd notion that “learning” is about a series of discrete achievements rather than a continuous process. There is more to “learning” than merely acquiring knowledge. Most of it happens transparently around us without anyone even noticing.

Agreed! Sometimes students need to ‘get worse’ as they experiment and incorporate different aspects of their learning into what they can do already. However, the best teachers I’ve had (and know now) were able to intervene to make me aware of some points where I could improve. Their interventions were relevant, timely and personal. The so-so teachers just did stuff, and the students improved as they (or did not, as the case might be).

Prompt: I would hope that only 25% of work receives recorded formative feedback from the teacher

Response: Is 24% too little and 26% too much?

Why do these things have to be so specific? Why not simply let teachers judge for themselves what is appropriate and what is not, which will of course depend on many different factors.

You are right that 25% should only be seen as a ball-park figure. It intends to suggest that formative feedback (as recommended by the Black Report) should be rigorous, focussed and frequent (but not for all work). It certainly should be higher than 0%! I would love to see if a teacher could show me how music can mark formatively in a way that would inspire others to do the same. Five years ago I saw some practice in a genuinely quality school in my LEA that involved criteria-based student-responses and recording via audio (with the teacher giving verbal feedback). They were brilliant. They also marked books, too, although this was again criteria-based rather than flimsy comments like ‘I played more notes’.

Prompt: How is moderation possible in, say, music (especially when there is 1-2 teachers in the department)?

Why is it necessary? What does it achieve?

Are all teachers the same? Are all kids the same? – Should they be?

I have never heard this question asked about moderation, and I am surprised by that. I guess in English, a teacher is always judging a final piece holistically, and having to give different weightings to different factors (style and content) to give a final grade. I think moderation is important because there is continual pressure for students to achieve levels and grade in order to ‘prove’ that students are progressing. While this is somewhat antithetical to any artist (of which I consider great teachers to be artists!) it exists. That pressure can cause teachers to just give the grades needed to show progress regardless of whether the students have achieved that level of progress, or not.

Without trying to track improvement, there is a risk that students will be given the grades they need whether they have acquired the skills to justify those grades. Even with tracking improvement, there is a risk that teachers will doctor grades so the school doesn’t drop down the league tables, and recruitment doesn’t drop, and that funds won’t be lost, and that jobs won’t be threatened. According to AQA et al., everyone is doing it.

However, although that might the rationale behind moderation, that isn’t the main benefit from doing it. Moderation compels teachers to reflect on how they might find points of judging where a student might have improved, or not. That isn’t to say all aspects of all subjects can and should be measured. Clearly they can’t. I don’t think they should. A student of mine recent asked me to correct the spelling of a poem about a recent family tragedy. Should I judge that poem on that? That isn’t its purpose. But I have seen teachers happy to just ‘do stuff’ with students without any insight as to why they are doing it. Needless to say, they are pretty defensive about any discussion about it: I wish they would ask the above questions instead.

And I have, rightly or wrongly, made a link between 0% recording of formative feedback with the teaching style of ‘just doing stuff.’

I’m not saying, of course, that teachers need to record their complex rationale for each lesson. The best teachers (apparently) don’t. I just expect that teachers should have a thorough idea of what they might expect from their pupils each lesson (from which the students should still be able to produce beyond or outside expectations).