Zero Written Feedback: a trial

FACT: Many schools still have blanket marking and feedback policies which dictate frequency and form of marking, e.g. one mark every four lessons, with a comment on progress and two DIRT tasks (just an example)

OPINION: One-size-fits-all policies prevent us from doing what matters most for students in each subject. Academic subjects are distinct disciplines which need different treatment; excellent feedback in music is very different to great feedback in maths.

FACT: It can take anything from 2-4 hours to mark a full set of exercise books in English, depending on class size, level and marking policy requirements. If we take an average of 3 hours per set (6 minutes per book in a set of 30), and six classes for a full time main-scale English teacher, that’s 18 hours of marking per week. That’s before we even begin to complete data, pastoral and admin tasks, planning or subject knowledge development.

OPINION: Most written feedback has impact, but that impact is NOT commensurate with the sheer amount of time teachers invest in the act of marking. Students can make the same or better progress if teachers STOP giving written feedback and, instead, invest their time in better planning and subject knowledge development.

The trial…

For the past few months, some colleagues and I have been engaged in a trial which has fundamentally altered my teaching practice. The trial will broaden and continue into this new academic year, but the findings so far have already changed what I thought I knew from my previous ten years in the classroom.

Our context and rationale

A couple of years ago, our school got to a point where staff were marking really well and lots of good feedback practice was meaningfully embedded. In Spring 2018, we decided that the next step was to scrap the whole school marking policy and allow subject leaders and their teams to come up with policies which were better suited to their areas and the specific requirements of their subjects. Subject leaders drafted their policies and then pitched them to the senior team to be approved. Policies ranged from quite traditional feedback cycles with tweaks, to more unusual things like skills codes in Art, and verbal and video feedback in Music. The policies have been running for a full year, and staff have been really positive about the change – they have said it’s improved the quality of their feedback, and they feel they have more ownership over their work.

In January 2019 I broke my right arm. I don’t deserve any sympathy – I did it playing American Football…

I couldn’t give any written feedback for two months and, while I tried lots of things like stickers and codes for a while, even the act of opening books and turning pages was quite difficult. I spent two months giving verbal feedback only, live during lessons on a regular cycle. I was shocked and pleased to see that my students still completed work to a high standard throughout our topics, and achieved marks in their assessments which were as good or better than I had expected.

Over Easter, I read ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way.’ Jo Facer’s chapter, ‘Marking is Futile’, really opened my eyes to how incredibly simple feedback could actually be. Lots of other people have also written about this, including a recent blog from Sarah Larsen. Along with some really talented colleagues, I designed the following trial. We call it the ‘diagnostic cycle’, because the focus is on teachers observing student work and diagnosing what they need.

Step 1: Baseline

Students complete a baseline assessment at the start of a unit. This is something we always do anyway, and it doesn’t have to be a formal assessment. It could just be a piece of extended writing or a set of questions which will help you to understand where students are at the start.

The teacher reads through all the assessments. They do not write anything on student work whatsoever. Instead, they make notes of common errors, gaps in knowledge, SPAG weaknesses and students who might need specific help. These are rough notes to help the teacher, not something to beat people with. It takes me approximately 30 minutes to read a full class of assessments and make notes.

This is an example of the proforma I created for this purpose, but staff have been free to use any format they like.

Step 2: Planning

Based on these notes, the teacher can then look at how their scheme of work needs to be adapted for their students. For example, I discovered from my observations that my students had very poor knowledge of the basic Medieval history timeline, so I added some key instruction and consolidation activities for this in subsequent lessons. I also realised that many of them did have good prior knowledge of some of the key texts we were going to look at, so I was able to take out some of the more basic parts of the scheme of work and make things more challenging. This is absolutely critical, because it ensures that what you are teaching is appropriate for the young people in front of you.

Step 3: Feedback

Turn your notes on common errors into a whole class feedback sheet. Here’s an example of one of mine, but these can have any combination of details on them depending on what you feel are the most important areas to focus on.

This whole class feedback sheet included key spelling, grammar and punctuation errors. I spent time talking through these with students and then they independently went back and found these errors in their own work and corrected them. They then wrote a short reflection along the lines of: my most common SPAG errors were… I’m going to avoid making these mistakes in future by…

The biggest weakness on the baseline was students’ analytical writing, so the biggest section on this feedback sheet was a space for us to work through the WHAT, HOW, WHY? writing structure. This is then something we were able to refer to in later lessons.

Finally, students had lots of misconceptions with the timeline, so this was included so that they could work on memorising the content for homework. This formed quizzes in future lessons to aid long term retention.

Step 4: Responsive Teaching

For the next few lessons, I ensured that I returned to some of the key errors and re-taught some content which had not been well understood the first time. For example, I attempted to rectify some of the confusion around timelines by having students plot some key dates on timelines, including the other texts we had studied during the year.

I also modelled analytical writing using WHAT, HOW, WHY? and had students doing regular recall of their common spelling errors and timeline details…

Step 5: Repeat, and keep standards high

Once you have been through diagnosis, feedback and then taught in response to the needs of students, the cycle happens again. Roughly once per week, I sit down and read EVERYTHING students have written. I make notes of all my observations – this time on a slightly different proforma…

If students begin to think that no marking means they can get away with sub-par work, they are swiftly corrected. Whe this happened, I had those students back in their own time, they improved their work until it was up to standard, and it didn’t happen again. My students know I am reading everything and that I won’t miss a beat. In many ways, I can be even better at noticing students who dip, because I am reading everything they write as opposed to just one piece of work per week.

Our findings so far

Six colleagues followed this system in three different subjects over eight weeks with a range of age groups and ability range, including some low level EAL students. The main outcomes so far:

  • Staff have dramatically reduced the time spent on feedback, and have instead had time to plan better lessons AND have more time for themselves. All staff involved in the trial reported that they felt their lessons were more purposeful and they had a better work-life balance. One English teacher colleague said it was the first time she hadn’t taken books home over the weekend to mark in her entire career.
  • Students are making fewer SPAG errors. Something about being forced to independently find and correct their own errors is making them more careful in the first place. In my own Y8 class, I counted up the average errors on a page across the class at the start of the trial and compared it to the same after 8 weeks, and errors had reduced by 80%. As someone who has spent a whole career fruitlessly circling capital letters, this is a huge step forward.
  • Students didn’t like it at first, but many began to see the benefits by the end of the term.
  • By the end of the term, all classes involved in the trial were working at the same or a better level than the progress we would expect if they had continued with traditional written feedback.

Clearly this is a very small-scale trial. We intend to broaden it this academic year, and test our processes more rigorously. I also do not intend to put a blanket ban on written feedback at any point in the future no matter how successful the trial may be. I want to see what works, and then give subject leaders the chance to decide what will benefit their area, staff and students the most. Clearly, what works in writing-heavy subjects will not work for all.

It is now clear from this summer’s results from schools who have already scrapped written feedback (e.g. Michaela), students can do extremely well without the need for teachers to slave over books for hours on end. I firmly believe that many of the things we do in schools which create unsustainable workload for teachers are simply there because the always have been. We write in books because that’s just what teachers ‘do’ and always have done. We spend hours on written subject reports because that’s what we have done traditionally, and parents expect it. These things don’t have to remain just because they are familiar. The other side of this is fear and a lack of trust. Many of the policies which we pursue in schools are there because we feel secure in rules and regulations. Educating young minds is such an intangible business – learning is invisible and we can’t get a clear sense of where we are or what we are achieving. It is easier for school leaders to say ‘students are learning because I have a spreadsheet to show that all staff are complying with x and y policies’, or ‘look, there is purple pen on every third page, so the children are definitely getting a good deal.’ This is part of the reason why unmanageable marking policies came into being: it’s about what is easy to pin down and track.

Leaders need to be brave, consider what actually works, and make the decision to change if necessary. Let’s not sleep walk – let’s scrutinise everything we do and decide what really deserves our time.

Most importantly, our staff are dedicated, valuable and skilled people. Let’s not waste their time or eat into their weekends and home lives for no reason. Let’s make sure they are only doing what matters most.

I’d be really interested to hear from any other schools who are doing something similar, or who have taken the plunge! Please get in touch via Twitter: @funkypedagogy