Effective Feedback | CLF Conference

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It is probably true that effective feedback is the important aspect for improving performance and accelerating progress. Where an expert coach (teacher or other) offers feedback that is timely, specific, within the task and moves individuals to respond and take action, children see things differently and are supported to deliberately practise to make gains in knowledge, skill and understanding.

It is also probably true that we can be blinded into assuming that feedback is limited to the written variety in books (Silo effect). Whereas effective formative feedback should be used to inform all parts of teaching. This is the craft of teaching… where teachers use effective feedback to inform their pedagogy and base planning on an acute awareness of where children are and precisely what they require next to make progress.  Perhaps it is more a mindset and an approach rather than a strategy or a method.

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Which begs the question… what makes feedback effective so that it pervades all that we do and leverages gains in knowledge, understanding and skills?

The following reflects some of the best practices across the Federation and identifies the key aspects for securing effective feedback in all classrooms…


What if… effective feedback is more precise and leveraging when there is a depth of knowledge that teachers use as a framework/basis for feedback? What if… this knowledge encompassed…

  • subject/age-related understanding of standards and expectations – that also ignited an interest and passion around content?
  • a deep understanding of the key concepts and importantly the key mis-concepts that are built into a child’s progress in a subject or area?
  • Knowledge of exam and age-related expectations to provide precise feedback – with the end in mind?
  • Knowledge of pedagogy – the how do I teach for understanding?

What if… the Sutton Trust is right about the two key factors influencing great teaching, Content Knowledge (particularly concepts and misconceptions) and Quality Instruction (questioning and use of assessment – modelling, specific practice that is based on quality feedback)?…

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What if… feedback was focused within tasks and not bolted on to tasks?What if… we recognised that some of the best feedback happens within tasks…tweaking and suggesting … intervening (whole group, small group, individual) in the moment. Too often feedback is given outside of the event of learning and is not reflected in the planning of subsequent lessons –  so that students are unable to remember or link back to the cognitive challenge they were wrestling with.

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What if… Ofsted are right about the nature and required impact of assessment and feedback…

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What if… teachers spent more time planning lessons based on the formative assessment of present progress of pupils (perhaps always based on present progress in lessons and the learning demonstrated in books) to focus planning on closing gaps and addressing mis-conceptions … not just progressing through the scheme of work? Based on the precision of planning there is a discernible difference in the progress of each child. When lesson planning, details matter… (marking is feedback for planning.)

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What if… much of what is marked does not trigger the action and response required from the child to close gaps. In fact what if… a good proportion of written feedback is not read, not understood and not ultimately acted upon?

What if… the quality of books are judged on the progression in content, skills, understanding and application, rather than the amount and extent of marking – rewarding the closing of gaps, progression of learning and the quality of planning, whether this is achieved directly from written feedback, oral feedback, lesson planning or in the quality if teacher intervention within lessons and across lessons?

What if… teachers wrote less feedback and students wrote more in response – where feedback is responded to in lessons as a key part of the planning – time and commitment is made to close gaps by re-doing and redrafting, by consolidating and practising?

What if… Feedback was SMART –

  • specific – directly related to the skill gap, hole in knowledge, lack of understanding.
  • measurable – you will know when you can do this when…
  • achievable – set in the proximal zone for a child – it is the next step in their learning
  • realistic – specific enough and a gap that is closable in the next 20 minutes, lesson or two.
  • timed – it is acted upon in the present or as soon as possible after the event – and importantly actioned.

…and what if… the very best feedback has the potential to ignite motivation or better still enable a child to see the world, an idea, an approach through new eyes – so that it removes a barrier, unlocks a misconception and makes connections in the brain that support improvement. – seeking light bulb moments.

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What if… effective feedback was clear with children so that they know what they are aiming for, the size of the gap and specifically what they need to do next to close the gap. (D. William) …children know what good performance looks like.

What if… summative assessment provides a very rich form of feedback – but that this is lost unless there is strong feedback, gap recognition and a move to action (DTT DIRT) that specifically closes gaps? What if…there is no opt out policy for individuals – who must use time in lessons to respond to feedback? (e.g. DTT, DIRT)

What if… we ensured that where feedback is given that this is not wasted … that subsequent lessons reflect the formative learning of the marking and feedback that has revealed exactly where each child is … so that lessons are well planned, crafted and directed to close the gaps … often re-doing and re-drafting to secure learning over time.

What if… we understood that learning is a physical process – that the development of myelin in the brain (layers in picture below) enables neurons to fire and for things to be remembered or skills to be hard-wired … such that only through effective feedback that engages in practise and repetition do we internalise and physically create connections in the brain that allows us to remember and master…making the most of the feedback?

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What if…therefore, we used our understanding of the curve of forgetting to interleave curriculum and deliver a spiral curriculum that revisited and consolidated learning over time? Perhaps developing a layered, escalating spiral curriculum where children repeat and return to build on learning.

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What if… feedback needs to be in the proximal zone? and that the real challenge in teaching is to keep as many children in the proximal zone for as long as possible (explaining and applying knowledge just beyond what the child is capable of) … or in a state of FLOW (that area between boredom and anxiety)? What if… good lessons are pitched and challenging for 80% of students, but that in great lessons this is a different 80% each lesson? Pitch matters – sadly it varies by individual.

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What if… we understood that practise has to be deliberate to be effective and that this is accelerated where children are in the presence of an expert coach and effective feedback; a coach that…

  • maximises reachfulness in the presence of an expert.
  • supports children to embrace the struggle – “You will become clever through your mistakes.”
  • and encourages theft – using feedback and modelling to copy others.

What if… the real purpose of feedback is to support and engage children in purposeful practice or deep practice?….(Dan Coyle)

“We all have the ability to profoundly change our levels of talent, our level of skill. Where clusters of great talent emerge there has been a culture created where individuals are constantly reaching and repeating, making mistakes, receiving feedback, building better brains, faster more fluent brains…inside the brain myelin acts like insulation on the pathways and connections in the brain – each time we reach and repeat we earn another layer – signal speeds in the brain start to increase from 2 mph to 200 mph – neuro broadband – (or the difference between normal and great).”

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“…practice (is) intentional, aimed at improving performance, designed for (a student’s) current skill level, (aimed at excellence), combined with immediate feedback and repetitious.” (Malcolm Gladwell)

What if…teaching and feedback focused more on the journey; on the “near win?” (Sarah Evans)

“The pursuit of mastery is an ever onward almost.” … “Grit is not just simple elbow-grease term for rugged persistence. It is an often invisible display of endurance that lets you stay in an uncomfortable place,work hard to improve upon a given interest, and do it again and again.”(Sarah Evans)

What if… too often we give feedback and explanation that is not different from the first explanation or we ask children to simply re-do the same task – missing the opportunity to reframe and explain differently…increasing the chance of a child overcoming cognitive conflict?

What if.. questioning is one of the key ways to provide effective feedback and that through great explanation and modelling children receive on-going formative development and feedback based on exactly where the child is and what they need to know, do or understand next? – expert delivery of aspects of pedagogy that secures concepts and unlocks mis-concepts.

What if… when we have a really clear understanding of the curriculum, the journey, the key learning by age, the concepts and mis-concepts by stage – we can provide much more effective feedback against this wider framework?

What if… effective feedback is only secured where there is an ethic of excellence?

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What if… effective feedback is everywhere – from a corridor conversation to our expectations to what is seen as acceptable in the Academy?


Maybe then…based on secure knowledge (subject/age related/exam/conceptual understanding) teaching will provide a range of formative feedback that importantly informs deeply the lesson planning, but also provides expert coaching to support children to actively respond and work in their proximal zone where repetition and deliberate practice supports progress.

Maybe then…there would be no opt-out for children who are compelled to respond and act-on feedback and that this is integral to the learning process as children receive feedback that is built in and not bolt-on to tasks (and takes many forms – is ubiquitous within the teaching – a thread through the employed pedagogy). Maybe then children will experience flow and, with the aid of an expert coach, improve through well targeted deliberate practice.

Perhaps that… describes the greatest challenge of pedagogy and that which transforms teaching effectiveness … delivered by practitioners whose awareness, knowledge and grasp of pedagogy and the integral role of effective feedback creates the conditions for over performance. (…for a different 80% in each lesson).

Dan Nicholls

October 2015

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