It’s become a truism that feedback is the most important activity that teachers engage in. Feedback, we are repeatedly told, is tremendously powerful and therefore teachers must do more of it. Certainly Hattie, the Sutton Trust and the EEF bandy about impressive effect sizes, but the evidence of flipping through a pupil’s exercise book suggests that the vast majority of what teachers write is ignored or misunderstood.

Teachers’ feedback can certainly have a huge impact but it’s a mistake to believe that this impact is always positive. I written in detail about marking and the power of Directed Improvement Reflection Time. I’ve  also considered some of the things we’re not usually told about feedback and the fact that it might be worth thinking about delaying or reducing the feedback we give. These musings have been important in developing my thinking, but I keep coming back to this slide Dylan Wiliam uses in loads of his presentations:

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The point he makes is that teachers’ feedback often has unintended consequences; if we’re not careful, it may have the exact opposite result to what we intended. I’ve been thinking about this for some time now and it occurs to me that it might be helpful if we were a lot clearer about why we were giving feedback. Last week I spent the day with CPD leader, Alex Battison and together we decided that there are perhaps only 3 reasons that make giving feedback worthwhile:

  • To provide clarity – most mistakes are made because pupils are unclear on precisely what they should be doing. Providing feedback that points out misconceptions and provides clarification is an essential first step. If we don’t get this right all else is for naught.
  • To get pupils to increase effort – this is the hoary old chestnut at the heart of every success. Try harder is usually of huge benefit. Getting pupils understand what they should be doing is hard enough, but motivating them to actually do it is the master skill.
  • To get pupils to increase aspiration –  There’s certainly some merit in overlearning concepts and practising to the point that errors are eliminated, but feedback may not be necessary to achieve this. But once a goal has been met or exceeded, pupils need to aim for something more challenging. No challenge means no mistakes and no mistakes means that feedback is unlikely to be useful.

If we understood which of these purpose we were engaged in, our feedback might be a lot more useful and a lot more likely to produced the desired results. As always, if we’ve dealt satisfactorily with the why, we are much better placed to think about how.

In my next post I’ll have a punt at suggesting how we might go about giving feedback that fulfils these aims, but in the meantime, please do let me know if you think I’m on the right track.

Getting feedback right Part 2: How do we provide clarity?
Getting feedback right Part 3: How can we increase pupils’ effort?
Getting feedback right Part 4: How can we increase pupils’ aspiration?