Knowledge, Skills and Whole Class Feedback

There can’t be many ideas or initiatives that have saved more teachers more time than whole class feedback. Whether using a specific pro-forma, or taking notes on the closest available piece of scrap paper, focussing on actually reading a set of exercise books and identifying misconceptions rather than writing lots of formative comments relieves much of the burden associated with marking.

I remember reading about this approach on Jo Facer’s excellent blog ‘Giving Feedback the Michaela way’, and subsequently on great blogs by Rebecca Foster and Susan Strachan. For the uninitiated please browse through these great posts.

Now, with any seemingly ‘new’ idea, there will be scores of folk who have always marked  in this way, perhaps because it has always seemed to them like good ole’ fashion common sense. But, for many others, the struggle of having to ‘evidence’ written feedback or, dare I say it, Triple-Impact-Marking,  have perhaps halted the march of progress.

Fortunately for me, whole class feedback is a perfectly acceptable mode of feedback in my school and our SLT have made it abundantly clear that feedback does not equal red pen in books. So, I’ve been happily whole-class-feedbacking for  months. A few weeks ago, however, I noticed something a little bit concerning.

I’d just whole-class-marked a set of year 7 short literature essays and a set of year 11 poetry essays in the same week and was planning my feedback lessons. Glancing down at the feedback sheets I had knocked up for these lessons, it struck me that there was virtually no difference in the type of advice I was giving to each class. Here are three of the targets which appeared on both sheets:

  1. ‘Write a clear topic sentence to express your idea’
  2. ‘Zoom in and explore the effects of individual words’
  3. ‘Zoom out to explore the writer’s intentions’.

I’m not sure that I was giving necessarily bad advice, or that the students wouldn’t be able to use the advice to make some improvements. But there simply has to be a problem if in five years of education students are repeatedly receiving the same written advice or targets.

My recent reading of Daisy Christodolou’s ‘Seven Myths about Education‘ has helped me grapple with this troubling problem. I think, through my approach to whole class marking I was guilty of Myth 5 and the idea that we should teach ‘transferable skills’. As Christodoulou explains, giving generic tips on ‘analysis’ may not mean that students become better analysers. Analysis is perhaps only teachable in reference to the specific object or text which is the focus of that analysis.

Subsequently, I’ve been trying to adapt my whole class feedback based on the style and substance of the actual tasks we’ve been attempting, focussing on the specific knowledge needed to fully understand texts, rather than generic targets based on the skill of analysing.

Here is an example of how I’ve used this in class, after my year 11 class had completed an AQA Question four from language paper one, based on Steinbeck’s The Pearl [1] 

There a several notes about the expected style for this evaluation task such as the correct way to refer to an author as well as some useful, expressive vocabulary taken from some of my students’ work.

In the main knowledge section, I am trying to present back the knowledge of the text that students might demonstrate to do this task really well. Again, these are taken from examples of student work, with a couple of key ideas students may have missed or only partially dealt with.

Students then have time to read their own work, engage with the feedback and try and identify:

  1. Stylist points that they need to develop
  2. Elements of the task and text that they have demonstrated clear knowledge of.
  3. Elements  of the task and text they have not fully explained or not fully understood.

By engaging, questioning, and exploring the knowledge associated with actual task, I hope that my students editing and or redrafting can incorporate some of this knowledge.

This works especially well with certain words that require a great deal of knowledge or cultural capital. In this question on The Pearl, a greedy, wealthy, racist doctor refuses to help a local man whose child had been bitten by a scorpian. Students were asked to write about sympathy, which could be related to the behaviour and lifestyle of the villainous doctor. One of the quotations we discussed in class, which most students explored, was:

his dressing gown of red watered silk that had come from Paris

Of course, not all students dealt with it successfully in their answers. Would asking them to go back and ‘zoom in on individual words’ help? A little, perhaps. My instinct is that it is more useful asking different sorts of questions, which focus more on the substance of the actual task, such as:

  • Have you shown that you understand Paris is a city associated with glamour, elegance and wealth?
  • Have you shown an understanding that silk is an expensive material, linked to privilege and decadence?

Because analysis, and indeed reading in general, is so tightly tied to this web of background knowledge, I think feedback should take account of this.

One perhaps counter intuitive point is the fact that English Language exams rely on students having to ‘analyse’ and ‘evaluate’ texts which they have never read before. Surely, therefore, we need to focus our feedback on these skills?

In Making Every Lesson Count, this is what Andy Tharby calls the ‘As the crow flies error.’ In his own words:

English teachers often make a beeline to teaching generic reading skills before exposing background knowledge they need to employ these skills. [2]

This is the ‘As the crow flies’ error because although it may seem a more direct way to get students to analyse better, it ignores the importance of domain knowledge. And without this domain knowledge, students simply won’t be able analyse or evaluate well.

If I want my feedback to support students to hone their analysis and evaluation skills, focussing my feedback on knowledge rather than purely skills may be more beneficial. So, whilst I’ll still be embracing the wonderful time saving advantages of whole class feedback, I’ll be using this tool with a clear focus on text specific knowledge.



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