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Let them show you the red card

Geoff Barton offers five strategies for helping students evaluate their own work

Although many of us squirm at the idea of pupils as "consumers", schools increasingly recognise the importance of pupils' views in evaluating the quality of our classroom work. If we are serious about shifting our focus from teaching to learning, then we will never know how effectively learning is happening without asking pupils for feedback.

One primary teacher I know addresses this in the most immediate way possible. She issues her pupils with red and green cards. When she is explaining ideas, she asks the children to hold up the cards. Green means they understand; red means they don't. At a glance she is able to gauge the clarity of her explanations. And rather than being passive participants, as in so many lessons, the pupils are engaged in evaluating their learning.

This is something that as English teachers we can all learn from. It's a form of evaluation which is immediate, relevant and designed to improve pupils' learning.

We sometimes mistakenly assume that self-evaluation only works if pupils are writing something down. This is most frequently done when we ask pupils to record their opinions on a piece of work they have completed. Usually this involves questions such as: "What are you pleased with in this work?"

"What do you think you could have done better?" "What is your target for your next assignment?" These are fine, but can encourage superficial responses. They are too broad to help pupils make a comment that might genuinely inform their learning.

So here are five ways of increasing pupil evaluation in English, with the aim of creating pupils who are more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses and, as a result, will do better.

* Place less emphasis on writing. We don't evaluate only by dutifully writing down our thoughts. Instead, let's build in more thinking and reflection time. In a group discussion, remind pupils at the outset what the ground rules are. Then ask some pupils to observe the discussion and report back to the class and individuals on the ways they used language.

Next - the crucial bit - give the class thinking time and ask them to comment on the quality of this feedback. Build evaluation in so that everyone is constantly being prompted to reflect.

* Remember your visual learners. Instead of writing a paragraph about strengths or weaknesses, let's find some alternatives. Use star ratings, smilingunhappy faces, thumbs-updown, graphs, bar charts, doodles. Let's create opportunities for an entertaining but valid way of evaluating anything from the first paragraph of a story to the presentation of a leaflet or the overall coherence of an essay.

* Remember that evaluation has to be taught like any other skill. If we simply give pupils five minutes and ask them to evaluate their work, we will get little more than "I could have used more interesting words and checked my spellings more carefully". In literacy-friendly classrooms, the language of evaluation needs to be public and modelled by the teacher.

Synonyms for good (in the context of, say, an essay) might include: thoughtful, lively, provocative, clear, disturbing, accurate, coherent, well-supported, objective, and so on. This gives us the chance not only to teach pupils the vocabulary but also to demonstrate the way a truly reflective evaluation works.

* In most lessons I see, teachers work too hard and pupils too little. Make plenaries the pupils' zone. Insist that they lead the 10-minute session, working as a group to evaluate what they have learned in the lesson, calling on you only for advice or clarification. This will help the teacher assess how much real learning has taken place.

* Most radically of all, let's get pupils involved in planning as well as evaluating schemes of work. If the aim is to make Shakespeare exciting, involve a small group at the start to advise how it might be done and make sure all pupils know the work has been shaped by pupils. Then get them involved again in evaluating how it worked and how it could be improved.

This will move pupils on from being passive recipients of our schemes of work to co-authors.

Student evaluation lends itself to English more than any other subject because of our long-standing emphasis on discussion, thinking and self-assessment.

The benefit is increased student involvement, motivation and, ultimately, achievement.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds

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