Why we’re still getting feedback wrong

Teachers should be acting on the feedback of pupils – not the other way around, argues Mark Enser

Mark Enser


When I started teaching, back in the early years of the new millennium, Assessment for Learning was all the rage. It dominated most Inset days and CPD sessions for the first couple of years of my career and one message kept on being repeated: “Pupils need the opportunity to do something with the feedback you give them."

At this point in the murky and confused history of teaching, feedback only really meant marking, and the focus was on moving away from “flick and tick” and summative comments (“good”, “well done”, “try harder”, and of course the old cliche, “see me”) and towards the kind of actions that told the pupil how to improve the work. Sadly, we were still working in a system driven by summative assessment and targets, and so Assessment for Learning largely seemed to lead to comments like “To move from a level 4 to a level 5 you should…” or “Your target is a C so you need to…”. 

Once you had spent your evening writing such comments in your pupils’ books (in whatever coloured ink the school policy named – those were crazy days), you would ensure that pupils had a chance to respond to the suggestions for improving their work. They would painstakingly go through and correct the errors you had identified and include the items you had said were missing.

For example, if you told them they needed to “add more detail” (a perennial favourite) they would write another sentence or two about their work and then you could all go about your day safe in the knowledge that they had “done something with the feedback you had given them”. This was all recorded in their books and would be visible for the next round of scrutiny. 

However, a week or two would pass and it would be time to go through the whole procedure again and you’d find yourself correcting the same errors and making the same demands that they “add more detail”. The only things that would change as the year went on were how far behind you were in the marking schedule and what colour of ink you were supposed to mark everything in. 

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Looking back now, I wonder how much has really changed. I still hear of schools who insist that written comments in books form the bedrock of a marking policy. The focus is still very much on making feedback visible for outside observers and policies still dictate that books be marked every X weeks regardless of the number of lessons that may have taken place or the number of individual classes a teacher may have. At least the multi-coloured pen policies seem to have finally bitten the dust.

Even where schools have come to their senses and realised that there are many more effective forms of feedback than vague written comments, the notion that “Pupils need the opportunity to do something with the feedback you give them” still seems to be central. This is understandable; it seems to make more sense than providing feedback and them not doing anything with it. But what if we turned it on its head?

I am increasingly coming to see the value in approaching feedback not as something that I give to pupils on their work but as something that pupils give to me through their work. So, my new principle is: teachers need the opportunity to do something with the feedback that pupils give them.

What is responsive teaching?

What this really means is responsive teaching. Rather than giving feedback to 30 pupils and expecting each one of them to act on it, I can get feedback and act on it myself through the next stage of teaching. 

For instance, if I know there is a common error occurring in pupils’ work, I can address that in the next lesson through teaching about the problem directly. If pupils need to write in more detail, I can model what this looks like and then give them a specific, scaffolded task to help them achieve this for themselves. 

And I can get the feedback to do this not only by looking at pupils’ work, but also through questioning, quizzes and dialogue. 

Here is the real beauty of responsive teaching… great teachers are doing it already! What needs to shift isn’t the teachers, but the culture in which they work and which often fails to realise the importance of this kind of action. When we say “feedback is important” we should be acknowledging that this feedback is not a one-way process in which the teacher gives feedback to the pupil in the hope they will “do something” with it. Instead, it is a two-way process in which the teacher gets feedback and plans the next stage of the lesson with that in mind. 

Why is it so important to spell this out? Because excellent responsive teaching takes time. It takes time to get the feedback in from pupils and then to adapt lesson plans and resources. That time has to come from somewhere. The place it can come from is feedback policies that only focus on the other side of the desk. 

So, leaders: stop asking teachers to spend hours giving feedback to pupils that seems to make little difference to future work and instead allow them to do what they do best, getting to know their classes and teaching them accordingly. 

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His latest book, Generative Learning in Action is out now. He tweets @EnserMark

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