Beyond Levels with Bikes and Bugs – My Feedback Cake

Beyond Levels with Bikes and Bugs

At the London Olympics in 2012 Steve Brailsford, The Team GB Cycling Coach, was interviewed about the teams success:

Marginal Gains – Steve Brailsford

At the time, I was disillusioned with the trend of sharing explicit level criteria with students, using them for target setting and was reading more and more ludicrous “pupil speak” alternatives.  I had found several “Progress Ladders” purporting to give the specific criteria differences between Level 4a and Level 4a+ all with a clip art of a stick man labouring up a ladder.  I was concerned that the criteria were written for teachers and were to be used in conjunction with detailed exemplars.  The nuances of the different criteria were lost and had been replaced by a checklist of “things” and we, at the chalkface, were trying our best to tick the boxes.

Brailsford’s interview ended and I continued with my day but the key message nagged at the edges of my consciousness.  In a sport, where the distance between winners and losers is measured in thousandths of a second, it stands to reason that every minor improvement must have an effect.  But in schools the difference between grades is just one mark.  Over a decade of schooling will ultimately boil down to that one mark for thousands of students.  If we can Aggregate Marginal Learning Gains, the mark may tip in our favour.

What is teaching and learning all about?  At its crudest, most fundamental level, teaching and learning is about introducing someone to something new and doing whatever it takes to help them get better at doing it.  So, what if the thing that they needed to work on didn’t fit neatly into a level criteria box?  What if the barrier to progress for a student was their posture in their chair?  The most worrying question that kept hammering away at the front of my mind was what an inspector would think if they asked one of my students if they knew what they needed to do to improve.  “Sir says my target is to sit with my back against the back of my chair and with two feet on the ground when I write”.

In the end I took a bold step and decided to test the principles by using Marginal Gains with one group and have never looked back.  (And before you ask, one boy did get the target about sitting in his chair properly, made 4 sublevels of progress over the remainder of the year where he had stagnated for a whole year previously and still mentions it when I see him on the corridor).

When I stripped away the level criteria and just focused on what it would take to help the student get better at “things”, the world looked very different both to me and to them.  Students gave each other far more detailed and specific feedback than they would ever have done if they were also trying to attach a level criteria.  My targets were more focused and could change organically as the student progressed.  Nothing was off limits, no matter how small it seemed.  I levelled work only for the purposes of data collections and made sure students knew the results of these assessments but this no longer dominated what we did.  The most important question was the simplest when it came to feedback: “What would make this better?”

The final icing on my feedback cake was delivered in an session last year by the amazing @HYWEL_ROBERTS.  He introduced us to Ron Berger’s Critique and a drawing of a butterfly:

Austin’s Butterfly – Ron Berger

The power of specific, focused, helpful feedback is demonstrated beautifully in this video.  The principles of being Kind and Specific were already implicitly embedded in the feedback process of Marginal Gains.  Drawing them out explicitly for students added the missing element of being Helpful.  I added a demonstration element to the feedback process.  If I wanted students to focus on their use of adjectives in a description I would give them three examples that I might add.  If a student thought their partner needed to hold their pen differently they had to model it and help them master it.

The key question I asked myself was “would the butterfly have benefited from being linked to level criteria?”  The resounding answer from students was “No way!” (OK they used different terms than this.  Straight talking Yorkshire through and through).  I tried going back to criteria based feedback but groups felt constrained by the criteria; confused by the wording; restricted in what they could suggest.

Our DIRT has now moved beyond levels exponentially.  During “Carousel Critique”, where students move to several different peers to leave feedback, I noticed they were seeking out the students they had previously visited in order to monitor their progress.  Students no longer look for the “scores on the doors”.  Recently, my inspection fears have been allayed internally and ratified externally, when Ofsted paid us a visit.

Guided by the principles of being Kind, Helpful and Specific, we, my students, TA’s and I, now have one question to rule them all: “What would make this better?”.  The final cherry on top of the feedback cake, which melted through to the core, has to be  SOLO taxonomy… but more of that later…


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