Where is your eye drawn?

Okay, mea culpa. I have failed to update my blog in well over a month. For someone who had the best of intentions to do this at least fortnightly, this is a serious failure. The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley as the mighty Burns once said. Or #fail as my pupils might put it.

I gave an assembly on growth mindsets recently, and one of the points I made is that failure isn’t the end of the story. We make mistakes and learn from them, so when we don’t do well in a test or essay we have to identify what went wrong and how we can improve on it next time. A colleague told me that she doesn’t like the word ‘fail’ as it promotes a fixed mindset. A pupil will find it easy to label themselves a failure if they find themselves getting low marks all too often. And so starts the predictable descent into academic ostracization: the child who will never do well is created through a mix of his or her own misfortune and an academic system that writes them off despite the best of our intentions. Our impact as teachers can never be underestimated. And our words and actions are crucial here. Without clear direction from you, the teacher, can we really expect our pupils to work it out for themselves? Hattie makes a very clear point: know thy impact. And I feel that one of the main ways of knowing what that impact looks like is through the feedback we give to pupils. Which, incidentally, Hattie identifies as one of the most significant effect sizes there is.

But perhaps too often, given a mound of marking to do, we find ourselves writing banal advice, or curt one liners about making more effort. And we want to do better, but cannot quite manage to do so yet. I don’t believe there is a particularly easy fix here: no simple tick sheet or form will enable the quality feedback pupils really deserve, no matter what level of effort they have put in themselves. But even where the feedback is brief, the tone and the message is still crucial. And it’s a starting place for something better.  Hattie is on the money here: pupils need to know their success criteria, given guidance on how to achieve it, aim for it in their work, be assessed on it and given guidance on what to do differently where they didn’t meet the criteria as successfully as they could.  The problem here is when the success criteria is bogged down by vague or obtuse descriptors, or some sort of education-speak that is hard to access.  More often, I suspect, the success criteria shouldn’t be generic.

A little while ago I devised a Feedback for Learning framework for teachers. You can download it here: Albyn Feedback for Learning Framework. I’ve tried to demonstrate growth mindset praise and criticism, and good feedback methodology ala Hattie.  The only thing I regret with this document is that I described how success criteria should be levelled.  I think this harks back to my time in England and the often generic NC levels.  Why do we do that?  I’m toying with the idea of criteria that describes only the best version of an outcome, a series of category “look fors” or something similar.  We can then tell pupils where they are at – excellence, secure, developing or building a foundation – and give feedback as appropriate.  It might prove to be more organic and ‘real’.  Not sure: watch this space.

This brings me back to the #fail issue.  There will always be pupils who don’t produce good work, no matter how we structure things.  The issue here is about the nature of that feedback.  Carol Dweck talks about the “power of YET”.  If a pupil says “I can’t do this”, you reply “you can’t do this YET”.  I would also add about the “power of AND”, instead of but.  Our criticism will seem less negative if we use the word ‘and’ instead of ‘but’ in our written and spoken feedback.  It equalises things out.  In the picture at the top of the page, your eye is most probably drawn to his missing tooth.  Our natural negativity bias forces us to look for the problem, and using words like “but” in our feedback is a signal to our brains to place more emphasis on this than on all the positive praise we might lavish or eek out.  The other consideration here is when giving a grade, we simply rate A, B, C or “Not Yet” representing anything below that level.  I know that Dweck is considering whether this would have the desired impact, and I’m not sure whether it would become a synonym for “fail”.  What I like about it, though, is that it communicates that success is possible.

Am I happy with my blogging efforts?  Not yet.

Hmm, might work.