A few days ago, I decided I would like to gain a snapshot about the number of schools that are now using verbal methods as their main form of feedback, those that are planning or in the process of moving from written marking to verbal feedback this year, and those schools where SLT have no plans to move away from written marking. I was simply interested in gauging some figures out of curiosity. The results were as follows:
Schools not planning to change from written marking: 37%
Schools still using written marking but planning to change this year: 14%
Schools mostly now using verbal feedback: 48%
I was pleasantly surprised by the 48%. Nearly half of all schools recognising that verbal feedback allows students to take ownership of seeing where they need to make improvements, with the aim that when they attempt a similar task in the future or in the examination hall, they will do so with improved results. It is not the aim of this piece to discuss each of the different methods of verbal feedback that my school now encourage teachers to use. I am happy to do that another time, but I know that others have already written about this.
However, it was the comments that followed the poll that made for interesting reading. Many teachers posted the reasons why their school either had or hadn’t chosen to move away from written marking, and it revealed a wide range of factors at play that I felt would at least make useful reading and possibly allow teachers at any level to begin a conversation within their school. Such wholesale change doesn’t happen overnight, and buy-in from staff is important if new habits are to be formed. Each of the sections that follow will address each of the barriers that appear to be preventing a move to verbal feedback within some schools.
- Whole school marking policy’.
Marking policies have tended to dictate, often using a range of non-negotiables, how often and the way in which work should be marked. And I can see why schools have them. In theory, it ensures that all students receive the same level of feedback, albeit in written form, and that all staff are conforming. However, these documents often produce a ‘tick box’ culture within schools, where, for example, the colour of pens used and frequency of marking appear to become more important than whether or not students’ learning is moving forward. Verbal feedback methods move away from these ‘safe’, measurable methods where it can be seen that marking has been done at a glance, for example, during a book scrutiny (one of my most hated words in teaching!) Verbal feedback is, by its nature, not written and cannot be checked in the way that written marking can. The use of verbal feedback makes it harder for boxes on policies to be ticked, leading many schools to feel reluctant to change. Which leads me to my second point.
- ‘But how can we prove we gave verbal feedback?’
Evidencing. The ever-increasing need to PROVE that we are doing something. Above all else. This mind set seems to pervade even in some schools that HAVE chosen to make the transition to verbal feedback, with items such as the dreaded ‘verbal feedback given’ stamp having to be used. I’ve even come across staff writing in students’ books every time they have spoken to a student to prove to an external observer that the conversation was had, and what was said! Time that could have been spent talking to another student, or addressing misconceptions from the front. Lack of trust, and the issues that arise from this within schools is one of the biggest factors driving the recruitment crisis. There ARE schools out there, mine included, that trust their staff, professional adults, to do a good job. However, the need to prove and check that teachers are doing something seems to be one of the major barriers to change. And we know what’s coming next…
In September, 2019, the new Ofsted framework will be rolled out. In it, they state that they do not expect to see any one particular frequency or type of feedback. Indeed, this statement was already in their current guidance that preceded the 2019 framework. But myths can sometimes take time to bust and the belief that written marking is what Ofsted want to see is still persisting.
- ‘But I love marking students’ books’
Even within schools that have made the change, it can be tricky to get buy-in from all staff. Or at least, it can be slow progress. Some teachers, despite the onerous amount of time it takes, genuinely like giving personalised comments to students, using their name, perhaps even a sticker! Great! Let’s do that verbally, instead, though, save time and increase staff wellbeing. Others get jittery after a week or two of not taking any piles of books home to mark (I include myself in this when I first stopped) as it’s just what teachers have always done. A form of teacher cold turkey! However, after eighteen months, my jittery feeling has well and truly passed, and with my first set of GCSE results through having not marked their books all year, (a very mixed-attaining class where only 6 out of 27 did not meet or exceed their target) I for one will never return to written marking.
- Students say they prefer written marking to verbal feedback.
Some of my own students have said this to me. But we have to remember that just because a student says they like something, doesn’t mean it is moving their learning forward. They also used to quite like spending inordinate amounts of time cutting out card sorts, for example, but no learning was taking place whilst they did this! Verbal feedback means that they have to THINK. Written marking allows them to be more passive. Quite possibly my favourite quotation at the moment in education is Danilel Willingham’s ‘memory is the residue of thought.’ It applies to so much of what we do in the classroom. However, thinking is hard! But it fits in with the idea put forward by Robert and Elizabeth Bjork of ‘desirable difficulties’. If something is too hard OR too easy, then they simply won’t learn, as the required thinking and ‘struggle’ hasn’t taken place. From my experience, lower attaining students in particular can find it hard to gain as much from verbal feedback as higher attaining students, so it is important that that we persevere in ‘training’ students in making improvements if they are to get the most out of it. Lastly…
- ‘It’s what parents want to see’.
I’m a parent. And when I went to school, my books were marked. The comments weren’t particularly lengthy or helpful. The word ‘good’ appeared every few pages and that was about it. But it’s what adults think teachers should be doing, based on their own experience from a time gone by when teaching was not evidence-informed in the way that it is starting to be now. However, I think basing policy and practice within a school solely on what parents want to see is potentially damaging. Parents went to school, but they are not trained educators. When I see my doctor, I let her make the decision about a diagnosis and treatment. I am not the expert – she is.
I have no quick answers to each of the issues raised here. However, I do think they are worth considering by both myself and others. I have become fairly evangelical about trying to encourage staff at my own school and others to make the switch, but it has made me think a little more deeply about why some are so reluctant to change. I am sure there are other factors at play, for example, a reluctance to embrace the research-informed movement, but I hope this has at least been food for thought for those in schools where change has already happened, where it is in the process of change, and where it is yet to happen.