Does remote learning kill the art of feedback?

Teaching is about being in a constant state of feedback, says Mark Enser – but being behind a screen has curtailed this

Mark Enser

One learning: Does remote learning kill feedback for teachers

“Never flick and tick.”

The year was 2003 and, to the best of my recollection, that was the first piece of advice I ever received on feedback. It was the early years of a brand new millennium and Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black’s ideas on Assessment for Learning were being misapplied up and down the country. 

Feedback meant writing comments on pupils’ work that told them how to make that work better. “Add more detail," we scribbled, and, “Explain your answers." A lot of red ink was spilled here on the feedback front line, as teachers struggled to keep up with ever-more crazy demands to provide pupils with feedback. 

Great expectations

Over time, things changed. Or, even if the expectations didn’t change, we did. Keeping up with the marking load was impossible and so teachers, being ingenious, adapted.

We found ways to use marking codes that could be scribbled in books. We gave whole-class feedback in which we picked up on common errors. We gave verbal feedback to pupils on their work (with or without a stamp). We started thinking about how we could give feedback that would be helpful for the pupil rather than helpful for outside observers.

Making feedback useful

Over the past few years, have written a lot about making feedback more useful and less work. I have given tips for cutting time spent on marking, the problems with restricting feedback to DIRT activities and how Rosenshine’s Principles can help us to give feedback during remote learning.

My second book, Teach Like Nobody’s Watching, has a whole chapter on feedback designed for the pupil and not leaving paper trails, and I stand by every word. However, when it came to feedback, I don’t think I could see the wood for the trees. 

If you have been driving for a number of years, it can be really difficult to teach someone else to drive. Imagine it: they sit in the driving seat and you now need to explain everything that you do when you drive in the order that you do it, and explain to them why you do it. It doesn’t take long before most of what we do when driving becomes automated. 

It is the same with teaching. A few years at the chalkface and we start to work on autopilot. However, in the past year our environment has changed completely and we are having to do things in entirely new ways. This forces us to consider what is different and what is missing. What I found different and missing is feedback.

Electronic tick and flick

This occurred to me last week when I found myself commenting “Good work. Thank you for this” for the twentieth time on work submitted electronically on our virtual learning environment (VLE). What was I doing? Wasn’t this not only a return to the bad old days of writing the same comments on pupils’ work but the days before the bad old days of “flick and tick”? Well, yes, but also no. 

I realised that I was finding a way to replicate what I would do in the classroom to acknowledge the work that pupils were doing. There, I could do it verbally and instantly as I walked around the room. Here? I was left reading their work on a screen and sending the comments back to show their work was being read. I was getting feedback from their work and giving feedback to them – albeit in a fairly basic form. 

And that is when I realised that almost all teaching, in more normal times, is a form of feedback. And this is why remote teaching is so hard.

Pupils turn up to the classroom and I get immediate feedback on who is ready to learn and who might need support in settling down. They get feedback from me on this.

“Good to see you. Thank you for coming in so quietly. You need to take a moment to pause and calm down or you will distract other people." Feedback got, feedback given. 

We start by recapping the previous lesson and I get feedback on what they thought was significant and what they may have missed, and I feed back to them and respond. 

I talk to them about something new. I get feedback from their body language about who is listening and who seems to be away with the fairies. They get feedback about why this is not helping them learn about the fascinating topic of rock formation in the Sussex Weald, and they smile. I get feedback that this strategy to engage them in the lesson may have worked, and so we continue.

Sensory deprivation

Every lesson, every day, for the past 18 years has involved me getting and giving feedback. Now it feels like I’ve been teaching in a sensory deprivation tank.

Whether in live lessons or pre-recorded ones, the quick and automated flow of feedback and response has been stymied as body language is obscured, pupils slowly reach for the unmute button or we try to look through hundreds of pieces of work to glean clues as to what has and has not been learned. 

And we continue to be ingenious, of course. We find workarounds, we explore new ways of using technology and we make the best of it, but there is no getting away from the fact that it is not as good and it is not as easy. Teaching without feedback is demoralising and ineffective for not only the pupil but also the teacher as well.

The only positive I can take from this is that it might help me to be a more reflective practitioner when back in the classroom. Hopefully, I will be more aware of what I am doing and why I am doing it, and that way I can go back to refining and improving.

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex. His new book, Powerful Geography, is out now. He tweets @EnserMark

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