The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.

Fran Lebowitz

One of the criticisms of my post about book monitoring is that I have omitted checks to see whether students have responded to feedback. This omission is entirely deliberate. Does this mean I don’t care whether students respond to feedback? You might think this is a bit of a silly question – of course they should. After all, what’s the point in giving feedback which will be ignored?

Dylan Wiliam makes the following comment in my book:

Sometimes the support we give to students may be emotional rather than technical—getting them to believe they can do something they themselves don’t believe they can. That’s why I don’t think that feedback should be descriptive. I think it should be productive—the only interesting thing that feedback does is what it does to the learner, and specifically whether it prompts them to do what we want them to do (raise aspiration, or increase effort, according to the situation), which is why I suggest that feedback should, in general, be more work for the recipient than the donor. …There are much more effective ways of structuring feedback interventions than just marking students’ work. (p 267) [my italics]

I’m sure everyone would be willing to allow that feedback is only worthwhile if it is acted upon. The challenge then becomes to determine what effect our feedback has produced. This resulted in the vogue for dialogic feedback in which teacher and student write out a conversation in the student’s exercise book. The literal-minded and the lazy have interpreted this as checking to see whether students have written a response to their teachers’ written feedback. This is the nonsensical logic of ‘triple marking‘: 1) the teacher gives feedback on student’s work, 2) the student writes a response to teacher’s feedback, and 3) teacher gives feedback on student’s response (and so on ad infinitum.)

In the worst cases, we can find evidence of students responding to teachers’ feedback which display absolutely no positive impact at all. In this example, the student’s response is meaningless:

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Of course, anyone can pick out poor examples to ridicule a practice, but my contention is that even when we get good examples there is still no evidence of learning or progress. Here’s an example from Scott Williams who has very kindly allowed me to critique one of his colleague’s books:

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Here we see a combination of teacher marking (in blue) and peer critique (on the PostIt) and student response (in green).

This was the teacher’s feedback: “Link some of your ideas to different groups in society (rich, poor, businesses, children).”

And he is the student’s response: “Businesses are impacting on global warming because they use a vast amount of energy and they release fuel polluting the earth.”

Clearly, the student has done (some) of what the teacher wanted. We might look at this and conclude that learning has occurred and that progress has been made. But has it?

My definition of learning is the retention and transfer of skills and knowledge. If we accept that in order for learning to meet this definition it must be durable (it should last) and flexible (it should be applicable in new and different contexts) then we should also accept that it cannot be observed in the here and now. The only way to see if something has been retained over time and transferred to a new context is to look at what students can do at another time and in another place. Just because the student has improved their work here and now does not mean they will still be able to do this elsewhere and later.

One of the most useful and important pieces of information for teachers is the distinction between learning and performance. Performance is what students can do. It is all that we can ever observe. Learning takes place inside a student’s mind and as such cannot be observed directly.

We can make inferences about learning based on the performances we see, but, performances at the point of instruction are a very poor predictor of learning. What students can do in a lesson – or in response to feedback – tells us very little about what they might be able to do elsewhere and later. Teachers provide cues and prompts increase students’ performance in lessons and students are skilled at mimicking what they think teachers want to see and hear. This mimicry might result in learning but often doesn’t.

If my feedback to a student prompts them to rewrite a passage varying sentence structure or to include a more detailed analysis of a quotation, what does it tell me if the student then varies sentence structure or provides a more detailed analysis? Even the most charitable interpretation only reveal that the student was able to follow my instructions.

Maybe instead I could provide feedback in the form of a question? Questions demand a response and the best questions provoke thought, so this is sure to demonstrate the advancement of students’ learning, isn’t it? Well, no not really. I can ask very general questions like, “What have you done wrong?” or “How could you improve this work?” which are only useful if students already know what to do and just couldn’t be bothered to do it in the first place, or I could ask more precise questions like “What would be a better word to use instead of ‘nice’?” or “Which stage of the formation of oxbow lakes have you missed out?” These kinds of questions are so loaded that they artificially inflate students’ performance and contain such strong clues as to the expected improvement as to result in mimicry.

Checking to see whether students have responded to written feedback is short-term managerialism which privileges performance over learning. This might not be so bad but for the fact that there’s compelling evidence to suggest that reducing performance at the point of acquisition can actually increase future learning. If students struggle to perform well during instruction, or at the point of feedback, this can make their memories more flexible and durable.

The best kind of feedback might just be more teaching and lots of practice.Just as the opposite of talking isn’t listening but waiting, the opposite of checking for students’ responses to feedback is to allow them to make progress over time. The best way to check that students are making progress is to wait. Waiting is hard to do because it requires patience (a virtue I should add to this list.) The best idea might be to benchmark students’ performance in an assessment here and now, and then use comparative judgment to see whether performances have improved elsewhere and later.

When monitoring students’ work we should seek to avoid being blinded by the easy distractions of teacher feedback and student response. All that ever matters is the quality of the work.