In my first week at university, I remember buying a small notepad to keep a list of all the things I needed to remember now I was living away from home. Amongst some quite mundane tasks like “register with GP”, “get a library card” and “find out if the union will be showing West Ham’s next match”, I also absent-mindedly added in “write essay”. The first few weeks of term slipped by and while the other items on the list were quickly ticked off, “write essay” remained. I started new lists on different pages, but "write essay" remained, looming horribly at me amid reminders about milk and discount travelcards.
A few years later I read David Allen’s productivity book, Getting Things Done, which offered some brilliant advice on avoiding this problem. Allen recommends that when you are trying to get something done, you should “write down the very next physical action required to move the situation forward”. The advantage of this is that it gives you more clarity about what you have to do.
Based on this, some of the items on my list were great. For example, "go to the union and ask if they are showing West Ham’s next match" is great. It’s very clear what to do and easy to tick off once it has been done. “Write essay”, on the other hand, is terrible. It’s the kind of list item that ends up scaring you because it’s too big. It’s so vague that you don’t know where to start – so you don’t get started. And even if you do put in some work on it, you probably won’t be able to tick off the whole item, which is demotivating.
Fast forward a couple of years. I had graduated from university – having managed to tick off at least some essays along the way – and was working as an English teacher. When marking essays, I frequently used the newly-invented Assessing Pupil Progress grids to give feedback such as the following: “you’ve used a reasonably wide vocabulary, although not always appropriately”.
But this kind of feedback suffers from the exact same problem as “write essay”. What should a pupil actually do in response to such feedback? How will they know if they have successfully done it or not?
Using whole-class feedback
This is one of the reasons I like the whole-class feedback approach: it replaces vague written comments with specific actions that help pupils improve. Instead of telling pupils to “use vocabulary more appropriately”, a teacher using whole-class feedback might plan an activity that teaches the whole class why “cheesy” is not an appropriate word to describe Romeo – and why “sentimental” is.
The specific steps of action derived from such an approach can often seem quite mundane and basic. “Read the first five pages of the essay the lecturer talked about and write a one-paragraph summary of it in your own words” is not nearly as impressive as “write essay”. “Go to union and find out if they are showing the West Ham match” is not nearly as impressive as “Watch West Ham win and make loads of new friends in the process”. But that is to miss the point.
The accumulation of the mundane can lead to the profound. The accretion of small and insignificant acts can lead to big and significant results. On their own, complex tasks can intimidate and provoke procrastination: reduce them to smaller steps makes them accessible and achievable. Ultimately, it’s the ability to break complex tasks down into small actions that makes learning – and life – possible.
Daisy Christodoulou is director of education at No More Marking and the author of Making Good Progress? and Seven Myths about Education. She tweets @daisychristo