Interrogation chamber

17th October 2014 at 01:00

Feedback is a slippery subject. In my day, you responded to feedback by telling the hairy bloke on the bass guitar to shift his pickup away from the amp. But now, at least in schools, it requires a different tack.

Getting students to respond to feedback has become the holy grail of pedagogical pursuits, not only because it helps them to make progress but also because it leaves an indelible slug-trail of evidence that you are actually doing your job.

Next to the slam dunk of GCSE results (which, thanks to marking irregularities, are now as credible as an eyewitness account from a blind amnesiac), the best way to demonstrate that you are helping students to make progress is via evidence in their books.

Giving feedback has never been a problem for teachers. We're an opinionated lot, as in love with the sound of our own voices as the rhetorical flourish of our pens, so we rarely stint on handing out advice. What's trickier is getting pupils to do something with it. This is partly down to perception. They see "responding to feedback" as something that swotty kids do, like buying a gym bag with the school logo or bringing in cupcakes for the school librarian. The challenge for all teachers is to change that mindset, so that everyone - librarian-lovers and skirt-rollers alike - makes better progress.

It won't be easy. I recently moved to a new school where the older students have been reluctant to engage with my marking. They see my invitations to respond to comments as the equivalent of a stranger inviting them into his car to pat a litter of puppies. They're dubious about my motives. Who knows where such reciprocity might lead? If they answer a few questions today, tomorrow I might start trailing them around the yard demanding their views on poetry and whether I'd look better with a bob.

A change in attitude will be hard-won. Critical conversations have to be predicated on trust and that takes time to establish.

Unfortunately, I didn't give this enough thought when I marked my first set of student books. Instead of initiating them gently into the joys of dialogic marking, I covered their work with jackboot demands: "Where is your evidence?"; "What does this suggest?"; "Where are your full stops?" They greeted my comments with stunned silence. Finally, one brave girl piped up: "Miss, you're a horrible marker."

I glanced down at the evidence. Seen through my victims' eyes, such whiplash comments were gratuitously brutal. What had been hailed as good practice in my previous school was far too callous for students not used to this style of marking. They'd been expecting Mary Poppins; they'd got the Spanish Inquisition. In my zeal to improve results, I'd forgotten the old adage: softly, softly, catchee monkey. Instead I'd chased the traumatised primate over a barbed wire fence and into the path of a passing car.

They'll come round in time but I have to repair the damage. It will be a laborious process. Eventually, though, they may trust me enough to reply to my caustic comments - and advise me against having that bob.

Beverley Briggs is a secondary school teacher from County Durham

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