New initiatives don’t seem to emerge in schools so much as they burst upon us fully formed. You just look around one day and realise that everyone has suddenly started speaking about something as though you will know what on Earth they are talking about. We saw it with the term “wave one intervention” (which essentially just means inclusive teaching) and “tier two vocabulary” (tricky words, the kind you always had to explain) and then we saw it with "Dirt".
What is Dirt?
Dirt stands for "directed improvement and reflection time"; it often takes place in the first few minutes of a lesson, where pupils are expected to respond to feedback. It commonly gets called “Dirt time” which makes about as much sense as “ATM machine”.
Despite this, I know that Dirt has its heart in the right place. It grew out of the feeling that teachers were spending too long marking books, only for pupils to barely glance at the comments and for everyone to go on as before.
Marking is hugely time consuming (Dylan Wiliam has called it “the most expensive PR exercise in history”, something done to appease parents rather than to support students) and won’t do any good unless it leads to a change in behaviour. Dirt was designed to address this by making sure that pupils did something with their feedback.
Why we need to stop the Dirt
The problem with this is the same as the problem with so many initiatives: it started being imposed on teachers with very little thought about what it was trying to achieve. It became yet another thing we had to demonstrate we were doing. It turned into something to be put on lesson plans and checklists and even started to appear in classroom Dirt displays.
Dirt usually involves improving a piece of work; the pupil completes something, they receive feedback on how to do it better and they make some corrections. This is fine if our objective is for them to be able to eventually produce one really good piece of work, free from errors. But it may not help when they come to do any other piece of work. It confines feedback to being something that happens in one section of the lesson: “Improve this piece of work you did last week. Now put it to one side and we will move on.”
This sends completely the wrong message. Feedback should seek to improve the pupil, not the work. The feedback they receive, however they receive it, should influence the rest of the work they go on to do throughout the next lesson and beyond. We want pupils to be thinking about this feedback whenever it is appropriate, not just at the beginning of a lesson because someone in SLT has decided it is a “non-negotiable”.
Selling feedback back to teachers
Feedback is an integral part of teaching and learning. When we see how a class is doing, and become aware of mistakes and misconceptions, we adjust our teaching and plan to address it. We give pupils feedback constantly throughout a lesson. We tell them that a verbal answer is good, then explain that they need to add more detail; we glance at books and remind them that they have just made the same mistake they made last week; we stop the class to address a point many people seem to be confused on. All of this is about improvement and reflection.
It is important that pupils review their work (it is Rosenshine’s final "principle of instruction" after all), but this process is too important to be confined to the rushed beginning of a lesson. Instead it needs to be, as it always has been in good classrooms, an ongoing part of the learning process. Pupils should be challenged to read back over and improve their work all the time. At the start of a lesson, in the middle or at the end. None of these occasions needs to be called Dirt. It is just teaching.
As with “wave one intervention” and “tier two vocabulary” it feels as though people have taken something that teachers already do and repackaged it to sell it back to us. The aim has been to make feedback visible for an observer rather than useful for us or our pupils. It needs to stop.
Mark Enser is head of Geography and Research Lead at Heathfield Community College. His first book Making Every Geography Lesson Count is out now. He tweets @EnserMark