Improving peer feedback with Public Critique

When Critique goes wrong

So, how much of the feedback students get do you think comes from their peers?

I’m not talking about feedback on their choice of trainers or on their ability to wear a hoodie with dash and élan, I’m talking about classroom feedback on their learning.

So, go on; how much? Most teachers when asked to guess hazard something along the lines of 10-20%. In fact, according to research undertaken by Graham Nuthall*, the actual figure is more like 80%.

And of that, 80% is, apparently, wrong.

This leaves us with something of a problem. Whether we encourage it or not, whether we’re aware of it or not, students are giving each other erroneous feedback on their work continually. If this alarms you as much as it does me we have a limited number of choices; we can either make them work in absolute silence and stand over them with a rolled up newspaper ready to beat the slightest misapprehension into submission or we can try to harness the fact that peer feedback is so prevalent and work to improve its accuracy. We can of course do neither of these things but that will result in perpetuating an awful lot of misinformation and misunderstanding and on balance I cannot recommend this course.

And even when students’ feedback isn’t wrong, it can be pretty bland and meaningless. We’ve all had students peer assess work which gems like ‘make it neater’ and ‘do more’ which, while possibly helpful will have zero impact on their chum’s ability to improve. Clearly we can give them clear, focussed success criteria to inform their feedback but while this may mean they make better comments in formal peer assessment, it has little traction on all the informal feedback flying around.

So, what to do?

Well, along with many other teachers up and down the land I’m fortunate to have found out about and read Ron Berger’s impassioned plea for ‘beautiful work’, The Ethic of Excellence. In it he lays out his manifesto for creating a culture of craftsmanship in schools, part of which is his insistence that if work isn’t perfect, it isn’t finished. A big part of this is that students need to get used to drafting and redrafting their work with regular Public Critique sessions where students offer each other advice and guidance on how to improve their work. Berger explains the process to bunch of primary kids using a lovely visual example in the following clip:

As you can see, this is great for demonstrating progress and encouraging resilience. The other huge win is that, if properly modelled, it can have a huge impact on students’ ability to give each other feedback which is useful. 

Berger outlines a number of principles essential for getting the critique process right.

1. Feedback should be kind, helpful and specific.

2. It should be hard on content but soft on people

3. All students need the opportunity to step up and share their thoughts and then step back and let others have their turn.

Critique protocols

Being a tinkerer by nature I can never just leave leave these ideas entirely alone and have polluted the purity of Ron’s message with the following advice:

Kind

It’s all very well for feedback to be kind but this is something most students are already a bit too comfortable with. They will happily festoon their feedback with smiley faces, kisses and other mitigations all of which ensure that they’re so busy being inoffensive that nothing of value gets said. So feedback needs to be kind, but honest. It helps students to be ‘kind, but honest’ by focusing them on the work, not on the student. They should depersonalise their comments by avoiding statements like ‘you haven’t…’ and rephrasing as ‘it should have…’ Also, phrasing advice in the form of a question can make it much easier to hear and then act on.

Helpful

I’m very keen on teachers (and students) explaining why our instructions should be acted on. To this end I’ve found it helpful to insist that students should take the trouble to explain why their advice is helpful by adding a ‘so that’ on to whatever it was they were suggesting. This might result in a comment along the lines of ‘begin the first sentence with an adverb so that it makes more impact and your sentences are more varied’. This idea is synthesised (pinched) from Zoë Elder’s advice on constructing learning outcomes.

Specific

The more precise feedback is, the easier it is to act on. I tell students to zoom in on details and offer specific advice for improving these. They should be making suggestions along the lines of, “Can you think of some alternatives for the word ‘weird’?” or, “Can you think of something else the writer might have meant by the word ‘cold’?” When feedback is as specific as this it’s almost impossible not to act on it.

This all requires effort. Embedding a culture where students give each other high quality feedback informally will not happen by itself or because you wish it to be so. In my limited experience I’ve found that some groups are better at it than others but all groups require persistence to get it right.

The start of the journey is to use Guided Critique sessions. In these I would model the critique process by focusing on a small number of students and encouraging all members of the class to ‘step up’ to offer critique and ‘step back’ so that everyone gets a say. This is vital if you want to build affiliation within your classroom and it makes the process safe. Most importantly maybe, as a teacher I can also engage in meta critique by discussing whether comments are conforming to the critique protocols.

Gallery Critique

From there, we should aim to get classes using Gallery Critique. This is where students lay out their drafts for each other to look out and spend a lesson, or part of a lesson, commenting kindly, helpfully and specifically on each others’ work. I’ve found that it pays to give students a fair bit of warning about these sessions as displaying their work before they’re ready can be damaging on some students’ fragile egos. But the benefit is immense; most students immediately begin to take more pride in their work when they know the whole class will be scutinising it. I have had some students who are reluctant to take part in the process at first and have found it easier to let them wait until they see the benefits. It’s normally at the second Gallery Critique session that the progress of some becomes truly evident. Those that haven’t been trying or who feel ashamed of what they’ve produced start to see the point in making effort and learn to see that making mistakes is just part of the process of creating ‘beautiful work’. For any kind of written work, I would heartily recommend that Slow Writing be part of this process.

The final stage and the point at which we all want to end up is the point at which Critique becomes informal. I start to embed this by asking a class to offer offer each other critique at various points during lessons and float round monitoring that all is well. Eventually, if you persevere you’ll be rewarded by hearing this happening without you directing it. These are the golden moments which we teach for and some of my classes have become wonderful at supporting each other through the process of mastering skills and creating high quality products.

Like most great teaching, this is incredibly simple, but it ain’t easy. You will get it wrong along the way and, if you’re anything like me, some of your mistakes will be spectacular. But, if you believe it’s worth doing; if you persevere; and if you’re determined it will pay dividends.

Potential pitfalls

Here’s an FAQ of the sort of stuff I field from teachers anxious to avoid the pitfalls:

Q: How do you manage a mixed ability class where less able students are expected to critique more able students’ work?

A: Manage Gallery Critique so that the weakest students do the rounds with you as teacher’s assistants; point out to them how and why you’re critiquing and concentrate on those students whose work is ‘just out of reach’ and explain how they might emulate it. Other students might need critique stems to help them make meaningful comments. I sometimes give out pro formas, sometime I focus them on the though stems on my classroom wall. In more informal critique sessions it all depends on your seating plan; think carefully about giving students critique partners whom they will benefit from working with.

Q: What happens with poor behaved, demotivated students? How do you make them take part and not ruin it for others?

A: I don’t. I encourage them to take part of course, but I wait for them to be ready. In my Year 9 class I initially had 3 reluctant class members who would share their work and weren’t prepared to ‘step up’ to offer kind, helpful and specific critique. (It’s important to come down hard on anyone deliberately offering critique which does not meet these requirements ) As a class we picked them off one by one; they quickly started to see the benefits and felt they were very much on the outside of the classroom culture we were establishing. One boy took two months before he started to give way and still has times where he choose not to take part but this is so much better than he might have been in a different classroom environment.

Q: Some higher ability students struggle to accept feedback from their peers – how should you approach this?

A: By making your own work part of the critique process. Model accepting criticism and invest time affirming the feedback of other students which is not being ‘received’. Normally, students refuse to act on feedback when it’s perceived as not kind enough or not helpful enough. Make sure comments are ‘soft on people’ and that the ‘so that’ has been clearly articulated: without this some students may not see the point. Sometimes it’s our job to help bridge the communication gap by rewording and smoothing. We also need to be aware of students with fixed mindsets and help them to take a more ‘growth’ approach to feedback.

Q: What happens when a students has ‘done everything’ and other students can’t think of any feedback to move them on?

A: Ha! That old chestnut! Normally this is my fault because I won’t have pitched the work high enough and my success criteria might not be clear enough. In this case I revert to Hattie’s advice:

A teacher’s job is not to make work easy. It is to make it difficult. If you are not challenged, you do not make mistakes. If you do not make mistakes, feedback is useless.

Visible Learning

And then I ask how I can get them to make more mistakes. Works a treat.

When and if I get other questions, I will post responses here.

Now, I’m afraid I’m not really adding much to the debate or saying anything new or exciting; this post really just collects together my thinking on a teaching tool that I’ve been experimenting with in earnest since September The final word, however, must go to the master of Critique, Alan Partridge:

*Nuthall (now sadly deceased) documents his fascinating findings in the hard to get hold of, but essential tract on how children learn, The Hidden Lives of Learners. And despite the arse of having to pay for shipping from New Zealand, I urge you to read it.

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Work scrutiny – What’s the point of marking books?

Marking is an act of love

Phil Beadle

If you’ve never taken part in a whole school book scrutiny, I’d recommend it. Seeing how students treat their exercise books across different subjects is very revealing. I’ll happily agree that students’ books can’t give a complete picture of their learning and progress in particular classes but they certainly ask interesting questions about whether marking and presentation matter.

Just for a moment, let’s assume we all understand and agree that giving quality feedback to students is the most important thing teachers can do (click here for more on this.) Let’s also assume we agree that while other forms of feedback may be equally valuable, teachers marking books is one of the most important and effective ways of ensuring that students are getting clear, timely feedback on how well they are making progress. This being the case, why do we waste so much time doing other stuff?

Phil Beadle, in typically provocative style, puts it like this:

You can turn up hungover every morning, wearing the same creased pair of Farahs as last week, with hair that looks like a bird has slept in it, then spend most of the lesson talking at kids about how wonderful your are; but mark their books with dedication and rigour and your class will fly.

How To Teach

Not only does this make me feel slightly better about my weakness for Pinot Noir, it also confirms what I’ve long believed: the more often I mark their books, the more effort they will put into their work. No effort on my part = no effort on theirs. So, at least on one level, decent presentation depends on marking.

I may have entertained doubts about the importance of presentation before reading Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence, but not now. In it he sets out his manifesto for supporting students to create beautiful work. My ears are still ring with the words, “If it isn’t perfect it isn’t finished.” It’s such an inspiration to know that this is not just possible but actively worth pursuing. But it’s up to us to explain why sloppy work is unacceptable. If you want titles underlined, get students to think about the reasons and explain what the point might be; don’t just insist on compliance. Students will not value their written work unless we do. I suggest regular Amnesty Lessons to ensure books are up to snuff; get students go back over their work looking for errors and correcting them and insist they take pride in what they produce. 

I have started referring to writing as ‘drafting’, as in: “I want you to draft an article on…” This then encourages re-drafting. My thinking is that if students know from the outset that this is how writing is supposed to work then maybe then they will see more point in moving towards a beautiful, finely crafted end product.  But none of this will happen unless they know, deep down in their souls, that I will be checking. 

I was criticised recently for mindlessly spouting the research finding that while 80% of feedback comes from peers, 50% of that is wrong. The point was that while this may be case in some classrooms, it doesn’t have to be in mine. Peer assessment has long been a vaunted component of AfL with the point being that students should be “activated as learning resources for one another”. I’ve been as guilty as anyone in the past for getting students to mindlessly dribble about ‘what went well’ and how work could have been ‘even better if…’ Clearly, well designed success criteria are essential for this process to be effective, but even more important is that the process is public and transparent. If students know that you and everyone else are going to be reading their scrawled “Great work LOL!!! – maybe do a bit more next time :)”, and that it will be held up as unacceptable then maybe they’ll think a little more about how their feedback can be formative.

The best strategy I’ve come across for making this happen is Public Critique, explained superbly by Tait Coles here.

To avoid this:

We have this:

The idea is that work is displayed publicly so that everyone gets to see everyone else’s work and everyone’s else’s feedback. It takes time for students to get good at this and, certainly at first, requires the teacher to do a fair bit of reframing of students’ feedback. To begin with this benefits from being a formal process but as it becomes embedded in classroom culture it can become much more on the hoof with students asking for and receiving critique as and when they need it.

This can, and does, have a staggering impact on the quality of students’ work; their pride and enthusiasm shines through and is clearly visible in their books.

My other contention is that marking students’ work is the only really effective way of differentiating lessons. In an ideal world I would mark their books after every piece of written work and give each student detailed and individual feedback for them to act on the following lesson. The fact that I regularly fail to do this is a constant source of shame: must do better. In a previous post I set out how I thought written feedback should take place:

Students do work, I mark it with feedback that requires them to do (or re-do) something, and then they do it. Based on my knowledge of each individual I will have a good idea of what they’re capable or and whether the work they’ve handed in demonstrates progress. I would aim to mark a class’s books regularly enough that at least 1 out of every 4 lessons is spent acting on feedback. Not only does this mean that every student in the class has a uniquely differentiated lesson plan, it also means that I don’t have to fritter away my time planning ‘activities’.

Here’s our Triple Impact Marking Protocol for English (other subjects adapt as appropriate)


Easy for me to say? As an English teacher I have fewer classes than, say, your average humanities teacher. How on earth are they supposed to keep up with this workload? This is not easy. If you have 15+ classes a week you’re really going to struggle to look at their books often enough to make a difference to their learning. But that’s the issue, isn’t it? Just covering content won’t cut it and, other than redesigning your curriculum to avoid this kind of logjam, the only way forward to set up a system whereby students do the majority of lesson-to-lesson monitoring and critique and you put together a timetable to mark each classes books once per term. I know this is a tough gig, but if you approach marking as planning then it might seem a little more do-able.

I glibly repeated this mantra that marking is planning in a meeting recently only to be bluntly told that this is not the case in science. Now, I’ve nothing against science teachers or science lesson, but I just don’t see this. Of course I appreciate that science teachers are under enormous pressure to cover content but surely not at the expense of making sure that they’ve learnt what has already been taught? Of course subjects are different and what works in my English lesson won’t necessarily work in the same way in science but unless you mark their mark their books how on earth will you know whether you’re teaching is having any effect? Yes, you can use traffic lights, hinge questions, exit cards and other AfL paraphernalia to get a sense of students’ understanding, but there’s nothing like trial by extended answer for separating the knows for the know-nots. Maybe this was a misunderstanding? Maybe we understood different things by ‘marking’. According to Dylan Wiliam this would hardly be surprising:

In most Anglophone countries, teachers spend the majority of their lesson preparation time in marking books, almost invariably doing so alone. In some other countries, the majority of lesson preparation time is spent planning how new topics can be introduced, which contexts and examples will be used, and so on. This is sometimes done individually or with groups of teachers working together. In Japan, however, teachers spend a substantial proportion of their lesson preparation time working together to devise questions to use in order to find out whether their teaching has been successful, in particular through the process known as ‘lesson study’ (Fernandez & Makoto, 2004).

This is fascinating and begs a couple of questions. Firstly, should we mark our books alone? And secondly, what if marking was concerned with devising questions to find out whether teaching has been successful?

On the first question, I’m all for marking collaboratively and of course moderation and standardisation are vital. Sadly, it just isn’t practical to do this all the time. Much as I love the teachers in my department, I really don’t want to spend that much time with them! But having some sort of ‘marking buddy’ with whom we regularly compare our books is probably a healthy and sensible thing to do.

The second question is, the whole point of the type of marking I’m advocating and that I’d want to see in students’ books: thoughtful dialogic questions based on the work students have done and designed to prompt them to make progress. Ensuring the progress actually happens requires some DIRT (Dedicated Improvement & Reflection Time.) This has two wonderful advantages:

1. Your next lesson is planned. Every students has an individual lesson plan based on your careful marking

2. Students get to consolidate their learning and have an opportunity to master the skills and knowledge they’ve learned.

So, all this was a very long winded way of saying, mark your books.

At my school our next INSET day will have all staff scrutinising each others’ books. This may sound heartless and unfair but surely this is a matter of professional pride? And if not, just as students need to know I’ll be looking at their work, I need to know that someone else will be looking at my marking.

I’ll end with an anecdote. In what has become folklore at my school, one teacher said to another after being given an opportunity to observe each other, “You’re the reason SLT give us a hard time!” A decent leader should have a damned good idea about whose books need monitoring and whose  can be used as exemplars. Middle leaders should be scrutinising their teams’ books regularly and sharing the findings in a non-judgmental but in way which very clear about their high expectations. This is just too important to leave to chance.

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The art of failing

Why on earth would we ever want to fail? Failing’s bad, right?

Obviously getting something wrong, performing poorly and making mistakes is uncomfortable. But these things are a part of life. An important part. Apart from all the stuff about failure being character forming there’s the more important consideration that if we only ever experience success then maybe we aren’t trying very hard?

So why are we so seduced by the tawdry allure of success? TV screens are crowded by attractive idiots who are held up as contemporary models of success but really don’t seem to have tried very hard at anything to arrive at their dubious destinations. What then is success?

The dictionary defines it as “the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavours” which sounds pretty reasonable except the word termination. Overlooking all its negative connotations for a moment, let’s just consider it as a summation; an end result. When all is said and done we are left with success. Or failure. It’s a zero-sum game which some win and others lose. Our attempts and endeavours either end favourably or they don’t. And of course the obvious termination of our endeavours is death, conjuring images of St Peter interrogating us on whether our life has been successful.

I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t describe my own trajectory very accurately. For one, I did badly at school. I failed most of my GCSEs and could easily have been written off as a failure. I then continued to fail in spectacular fashion for some years before blundering into university and managing somehow to end up with a 2:1. Not exactly success, but not certainly not failure.

When I started my career as teacher I was rubbish. Really. Those early years are nought but a source of shame. I failed often and hugely. If I’d qualified today I’d probably have been drummed out of the profession in short order. But, for some strange quixotic reason I persevered and got a little less appalling. The turning point was joining a school which promptly went in to Special Measures (a coincidence I assure you.) Again, another massive and conspicuous failure. I wouldn’t advocate this as a way to develop as a teacher but my goodness I learned a huge amount and it ignited the love of teaching and learning which has since been fanned into a roaring inferno. Who says there’s no up side to failing?

Each year I’ve reflected all the stuff I’ve failed at and all the stuff I consequently learned. And every year I’ve slapped my balding bonce and said, if I’d known that last year I’d have done my students a much better service. And steadily I’ve become a fairly decent teacher. Not perfect but, certainly by some lights, a success.

So, how did that happen?

Regular readers will be well aware of my fondess for the following line from Beckett’s bizarre (and sadly neglected) prose poem Worstward Ho! – Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

What resonates for me is the idea of small, incremental steps and of effort. The effort I’ve put into not being a crap teacher has, bit by bit, paid off. I am now proud of the job I do. I still worry about making mistakes but am content that when I make them, I’ll learn from them and use what I’ve learned to be better next time and I’m constantly getting better. I love this line from Dylan Wiliam: ask teachers if they can improve. If they say yes, work with them. If they say no, fire them.

The real failure is a failure to try. For some people it feels a lot safer to not try and fail than slog your guts out and feel that you’ve gotten nowhere. It’s much easier to do substandard work than risk the humiliation of your best not being good enough. Safe and easy are the enemy and I am making it my mission to root them out where ever they lurk and expose them to purifying light of risk and hard work.

Interestingly, there is some evidence which suggests that less confident people are more successful. The main thrust of this argument is that if you’re not over confident you’ll be more receptive to negative feedback, you’ll put more effort into preparation and you’re less likely to be deluded about your ability. This sort of approach requires, nay demands, a healthy and intimate acquaintance with failure. If you’ve experience a few horrible gaffs you’e much less likely to be a cocksure and annoying squirt.

So, can we design a curriculum that encourages students to risk failure? Can we promote a culture where working hard and creating excellent work is the norm? And can we get students to believe that they are capable of doing better than they ever believed possible?

Here are three simple (but hard) strategies I’ve been using in my classroom:

1. Give students tasks at which they cannot succeed. You could make the time limits too tight or make the success criteria so impossibly exacting that there is no way they could meet them. Maybe you won’t give them all the required resources or maybe the task is so open-ended and vague that there simply isn’t a solution. Naturally enough, students will find this frustrating. They’ll want to give up. The point is that you need to unpick with them why it’s important to fail. Some students never fail at school; they find everything effortless. Others never seem to do anything else. The point is that working hard despite the chance of failing is difficult. We tend to focus on the product rather than the process. By removing the possibility of there being a successful product we can force students to focus on the process of learning. They will start to see that understanding and valuing the process will lead to the creation of better products and they will begin to see that it doesn’t matter if at first you don’t succeed: you can always fail better in the future.
2. Don’t accept shoddy work. This is difficult at first but has dramatic results. If students hand in work which is not of the highest quality, I make them do it again. I’m particularly unyielding about proofreading. The failure to do one’s best is the only failure I balk at. They moan, complain and stamp their tiny feet but it’s vital to remain resolute in the face of their attempts to refuse to do this. Initially this will require you to give up some of your time but it will pay off. I’ve rarely had to make a student redo their work more than twice. The carrot in this equation is that they quickly start to take pride in their work. Even if it’s ‘wrong’. This is all part of valuing the process over the product.

3. Ron Berger talks in his wonderful book An Ethic of Excellence about the idea of Public Critique. One of the reasons students produce slapdash work is that no one sees it. If we create a culture where students regularly, and publicly inspect each other’s work. Find somewhere to display the work students have done; give them dedicated lesson time to assess it and then get them to suggest how it could be improved. Berger suggests that feedback should be kind, specific and helpful. If one of these components is missing then the chances of it being received and acted on are severely reduced. The key is to be soft on people but hard on content. Once feedback has been received then students need to do the work again. And again. Until it’s as good as they can possibly make it. Along the way they will have ‘failed’ and their efforts to improve will provide visible evidence of failing better. The end product will be a gift – something in which they can take pride – something they want to show off. I get my students to blog their work so that it reaches an audience beyond the school and their immediate community. This makes them more aware of their audience and results in them being less prepared to tolerate second best.

And remember, if you’re going to encourage your students to risk failure and work hard you will have to do the same. I’ve put enormous effort into some really spectacular failures. No matter: as long as I continue to strive to fail better. And some of my better failures have been beautiful.

You only really fail if you give up. Until then, it’s learning.

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Great article on ‘productive failure’ from Anne Murphy Paul, Why Floundering is Good

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