Effective Feedback is NOT Written Feedback! So What is?

I’m not a fan of “marked work”. You can probably tell that from the title of this article.

At my last place of teaching employment, it was a thing and there was a box to put it in and everything. We’d drop in examples of marked work and they’d mysteriously disappear. Then we’d do it again and it would disappear again.

It was like writing to Santa. Or making an offering to the Old Gods. To this day I have no idea what happened to any of it, and neither do any of the other teachers I asked. In the end, I was dropping in examples from the previous year that I kept specifically for the purpose to see if anyone noticed. No-one noticed. The very fact that I and my colleagues were engaging with a process so decidedly absurd came to stand for the futility of trying to comprehend the meaning of our actions as teachers.

We did it because we did it.

What is Feedback in Education?

The whole marking thing has been the subject of lively debate for years. Back in 2016 the Education Endowment Foundation conducted a study on the subject and found that “there is very little evidence on which strategies are most effective“. Moreover, even Ofsted have stated that “there is remarkably little high-quality, relevant research evidence to suggest that detailed or extensive marking has any significant impact on pupils’ learning“. What Ofsted are interested in is “evidence of progress”, and what does that mean?

Well, therein lies the issue because that appears to be open to debate. Submitting examples of effective feedback might please those who have to represent the institution at inspection but all that is really required is that the work complies with the marking policy of the place concerned. So there’s already variation in that, right? Some places will want the dreaded triple-impact-marking debacle as standard while others will be happy with “good quality written feedback”, whatever that is. It’s all a bit subjective and vague for my liking.

But What is Marking Books even for Anyway?

Given that the majority of teachers asserted in the DfE‘s Workload Challenge Survey that marking was the primary contributor to their workload, and given that excessive workload is the number one reason for teachers leaving the profession, I reckon it’s high time we had a long, hard look at why teachers are required to do it in the first place, what purpose it serves and how (I believe) the process is being hijacked by those in institutions that suffer from chronic oversight-induced insecurity.

It’s not going to surprise anyone when I say that giving effective feedback to students is valuable. In fact, good quality feedback is the prime mover in improving learning. If students get great feedback on their work, what went well and should continue, what didn’t go well and would be best avoided, what can be improved and how then we’re all in teaching heaven, aren’t we?

The issue is to be able to provide that effective feedback in a way that means that all students get it, that they get it quickly, and that they get it in a way that makes sense. It’s completely fair that feedback is used to help students improve, but I’m absolutely convinced that written feedback is archaic, needlessly time-consuming and is incapable of capturing the best possible communication between student and teacher.

How do we Fix the Teacher Marking Problem?

Because communication is simply passing ideas from one brain into another brain, isn’t it? And language is a tool that allows that to happen.

Now, we can write language down if we want (which is nice) or we can speak it (which is also nice, but faster). On a day-to-day basis we don’t go about the place writing to each other all the time, do we? When was the last time you had a really good written discussion with your friends in the pub?

If you want to get meaning across to someone, you don’t write it, do you? You talk to them face to face because that’s the optimum way of using language. It’s actually considered cute and thoughtful when we do write letters to each other because it takes more time. Written communication is not the most effective way of using language. It’s limited by what you write, can’t be expanded on, is open to misinterpretation and doesn’t allow for a two-way exchange without more writing.

In other words, the written word is a horses**t way of communicating compared to the far superior method of verbal communication.

Look, I’m a writer. On a good day, I write at about 500 words an hour, which is high by most standards, but then I am a self-confessed hack. Do you know how long it takes me to read 500 words out loud? 2 minutes 20 seconds. I just timed it. It doesn’t take a genius to work out which is the faster means of communication. Add to that the possibility of enhancing the communication by making it a dialogue and I believe we have a winner!

I have long been an enemy of marking in its current form because I am a firm believer in the face-to-face variety of communication and that’s down to the fact that I know damned well that it is the most effective form known to man.

Don’t believe me?

Ask a UN negotiator, or an FBI hostage negotiator, or any police officer dealing with the public for that matter. You don’t see them passing notes, do you? The very idea is so risible it would make an excellent comedy sketch. But teachers? Yeah, let’s make them do all their important work in writing. Let’s make sure they don’t have the time to use language to it’s full effect.

What? It’s nonsense. Who came up with this idea in the first place? The Marx Brothers? Look at it: The student writes their work, gives it to you and goes away. You take the work away, write feedback on it, give it back and go away. At no point in this process did you actually discuss the work with the student. Everyone in the process made full use of the least effective use of language known to the human race. That’s nonsense, people. Plain and simple.

So I’m going to propose a quick thought experiment. Imagine that you had a way of marking that simply involved talking through your students work with them face-to-face and having a meaningful two-way conversation that’s tailored to their individual needs. Neither of you writes anything, you just talk and someone else records what is said so the student (and you if you want to) can refer to it later. How does that grab you?

We Can Just Use Voice Recording!

Even a cursory glance on Amazon reveals a variety of voice recorders available on the market. Is it possible to arm students with an electronic device specifically for use by teachers to record and file their feedback, subject by subject, piece by piece? Of course it is.

Are there apps available on Android and iOS that they can use to store their feedback in a similar way? Of course there are.

And could it be stored in a cloud so it can’t be lost? I refer you to my previous answer.

Could an independent IT consultant develop the software and source the hardware to introduce that across a school or college? Could training be arranged on its use? Could it be introduced at induction? Do young people have the skills to handle it? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding “Yes”.

Police Interview Procedure

And if it’s about “evidence” of marking, let’s have a quick look at how the rest of society has been recording evidence for decades. I doubt that many of you will have had the misfortune to be interviewed by the police, but they record those things. On audio. If you’ve ever been in a disciplinary hearing at your place of work, guess what? They record those things. On audio. Even the entire court system uses stenographers with special typewriters to record proceedings, and that’s because audio isn’t legal. Anywhere you see “evidence” of interactions being treated seriously it is recorded. On audio.

I reckon that one of two things is happening; either the “evidence” isn’t as important as it’s being made out, or it is and it’s being recorded wrong. And I also think it’s the latter because what would happen if you stopped doing marking? You’d end up in a disciplinary hearing. And they’d record it. On audio. Oh, the irony!

So why has it not happened already? Why, despite the fact that such a means of providing feedback for students would be far more effective than written feedback because it’s a dialogue that allows for full personalization, and despite the fact that adopting something like it would slash teacher workload enormously, is it just not in evidence yet? In a word: Money.

School Funding Crisis

I’m not suggesting that schools and colleges are all wrong or weird for not adopting something of this kind. They just can’t afford it. It would, after all, be expensive in terms of R&D, hardware purchase, insurance, training, maintenance and so on. What I am saying is that the very fact that it is not seriously being explored in the mainstream is a clear indicator that institutions would rather their teachers labor under enormous workload, most of which is coming from marking and potentially lose good teachers because of that than even consider exploring that particular avenue.

It’s not a thing, is it? It’s not even on the majority of mainstream institutions’ radar. Once again, the fact that you can get teachers to do something for free is preferable to investing in helping them do their jobs, even when the investment would yield an enormous increase in the quality of your outcomes.

Education Priorities

Spending time and money on reducing teacher workload isn’t a priority. Having happy and healthy teachers isn’t a priority. Having students receiving the best quality feedback in the best possible form isn’t the priority.

Having evidence of marked work to demonstrate to a school inspector that your teachers do in fact mark work is the priority and the way it’s being done currently is just plain horses**t.

It is possible, though, and it is happening, albeit gradually. It took me no time at all to find “Markmate”, which is a commercially available package that allows teachers to dictate their feedback and print it onto sticky labels that can be applied to students work.

And then there’s software like Dragon that converts speech to text and can be used to print feedback.

Any solution of that nature dramatically cuts down the amount of time that teachers spend writing feedback, and so have to be a good thing. It’s just that none of it is free, most of it is “competitively priced” (i.e. expensive) and all of it would require a major rethink about how teachers do their marking.

Once again we return to the same problem. All the time teachers are prepared to do by hand what could be done more efficiently, more effectively and with better outcomes for free nothing will change.

School Funding Crisis (Again)

Basically, it doesn’t matter that there are far superior solutions out there, what we’ve currently got doesn’t cost anything (on paper) and gets the job done. And that’s why it’s not changing.

And that, my friends, is horses**t.

I believe that the current system requires teachers to engage in a process that is hopelessly archaic, grossly inefficient, costs a ridiculous amount of man-hours, costs institutions good teachers, costs students the quality feedback they deserve, makes the process of education far slower than it could be otherwise and fundamentally ignores a universal truth: that humans communicate best face-to-face.

Yes, it would cost money to get marking updated to 21st Century standards. Lots and lots of money.

But just take a cursory glance at what’s being done to try to tackle the issue right now. Go to Amazon again and look up “Verbal Feedback Given Stamp”.

In the primary sector mostly, teachers have gotten so fed up with the amount of marking they have that they now just stamp students work with one of those. If everyone in every institution did that, all “evidence” of marking would disappear overnight.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, in fact, I think it’s awesome and I wholeheartedly recommend it. I’m also saying that the tragedy of such measures is that we can’t hear what that feedback was and I think we should because I for one believe it would have been excellent.

Not only that, I believe it would have been caring, personalized and developmental. Everything, in fact, that feedback should be.

Does anyone else think that’s tragic?

Am I alone in thinking that resorting to a stamp to cover all the incalculable wonder that took place during that interaction is anything other than an attempt to turn the qualitative into the quantifiable? I don’t think so. Teachers all over the world would love to be able to put a stamp like that on their students work and know that’s enough.

To know that anyone looking at that would know that what that stamp means is that a meaningful interaction took place between teacher and student that enhanced learning and moved that student towards the best possible outcome for them.

To be trusted to the extent that what that stamp stands for is a job well done. Is it evidence? No, it isn’t. Not currently. But I refer you to my earlier comments on what constitutes evidence in mainstream society.

If it matters, you record it on audio and then anyone who wants to know can access it, hear it, even engage with it and know that it happened. It was real, and it was a dialogue: the most powerful form of communication known to man.

I, for one, want any piece of students work to be marked with nothing more than something to show that marking happened. Make your own stamp for all I care. Draw a smiley face. Let the student mark it any way they see fit. I dare you.

I simply don’t care how you “mark” the work as having been marked because the only thing that matters to me and every other teacher in the universe that cares about their students is that the student got great quality feedback on something they took the time to create.

It’s not our job to find the evidence for them.

If other people want evidence that it happened, let them find it. Tell them where it is. Show them a date stamp, a file name, an entire filing system. Tell them how your feedback system works. Show them that you and the student know where it is and, if you’re feeling Puckish, let them work it out for themselves.

Challenge them to stop any student in any corridor and ask for their feedback files. Watch their Victorian countenance twist as they try desperately to figure out how your 21st Century system of exceeding their expectations works. Watch with glee as the student, with equal glee, explains where all their geography feedback is. or history, or math.

Because the problem here is not students, or teachers, or effective feedback. The problem is the ridiculous way that those concerned with the process of teaching and learning are being asked to comply with methods of recording that effective feedback that have no place in a progressive education system.

Your students know how they’re getting on, right? You know how they’re getting on too, right?

That’s Because Teachers Collaborate

Imagine a world in which those conversations form the basis of your “marked work” and I guarantee a better system of education. Instead of being held back by having to provide “evidence” of what you’re doing for the sake of a system that can’t keep up with you, imagine being able to drag that system into your world. The world of your daily interactions with your students.

The world in which you talk to each other and anyone who wants to know the score can simply listen.

Currently, I’m sorry to say that we can only imagine that world because I don’t see it getting the funding it requires any time soon. And that’s especially true when teachers are prepared to engage in an outdated and inefficient feedback method simply because it’s free.

Except it isn’t free.

The cost to education is teacher health and massive turnover. More and more teachers are quitting the profession because of workload and that must stop if we are to have any hope of providing the quality education we all want. But maybe, just maybe, we can open that can of worms and see what happens.

How about I give you a dare?

I dare you to sit your line manager down and open a discussion about this. I dare you to ask about the viability of a system of marking that involves recording the conversation about the work on audio only. Give them this article to read if you like. I dare you to point out that what you’re currently doing could be so much better and open the door to a better world for all concerned.

Maybe, just maybe, we can start something that won’t go away. Something that puts the blindingly obvious in the faces of those that don’t want to see it. Something that gathers traction over time. In short, something that demonstrates that the current way of handling the very thing that is creating the reason for the current recruitment crisis is, in fact, horses**t.

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