Earthrise and evolving approaches to classroom feedback

As part of our new blog series on all things education, Oasis’s National Director Secondary Graham Tuck explains how school leaders should embrace change when it comes to successful classroom feedback – and why it’s time to put ‘formal observations’ out to pasture.

At the weekend, I met up with my friend Simon (Mr P). Together we have enjoyed a long, sometimes difficult but always unconditional friendship. And so we argue. Constantly and comfortably. One of our big ones is around the English language (He’s an actuary and I’m an English graduate so he has no right…at least, that’s what I tell him). He likes his English to be chiselled in stone, no changes and with rules (particularly the ones about the apostrophe and the splitting of infinitives and the things you had to write out lots of times at school) fiercely applied. “It’s fewer, not less!” The ossification of language.

From that last barb, you’ll understand that I don’t agree with my friend. Language, I believe, is about change. The change that took us from Chaucer to Shakespeare and beyond. 1990’s society needed something to describe an iteration of modern man, so “metrosexual” was coined: a brilliantly constructed portmanteau and no better or worse than the Bard’s melding of “lacklustre” and “madcap” 400 years before.

“OK, Mr P,” I say, in an attempt to win him over to my cause through his love of all things scientific. “What about Earthrise?”

His response is typically to the point but I give it another go.

“Earthrise,” I repeat. “Until we get to the moon, there’s no such word. Then, we get there and look back and see what no-one has seen before. We have to find a word for it. So we call it Earthrise. Beautiful isn’t it. And only 50 years old.”

…Simon goes to the kitchen to pour us a beer and to re-arm…

I think that we now have the equivalent of Earthrise in our classrooms. The problem is, we are sometimes struggling to look down the right end of the telescope. To adjust to a new language.

So we continue to look at the teacher (and to give them a grade) independent of the learning (or, in some cases, the lack of learning) that is going on around them. And when we feedback, we do so knowing (or secretly knowing) that little will change. “The problem is, you need to differentiate more.” (Simples)

My tentative suggestion to leaders is this (Tentative because principals and teachers across the country may already be there and beyond). Spend more time looking at the books (not for compliance but for learning and progress), talking to the students (in detail, about their work, their ideas and their thinking) and exploring the data (for what it tells us about progress). Then – when you’ve identified where the learning is happening and not happening – visit the classroom to unpick those reasons with the teacher. Construct the feedback so that it makes a difference … leverage conversations rather than quasi-inspection-speak. Build a shared understanding. That means that feedback takes some time – and needs to be followed up – and must never contain numbers. Even if you are tempted. Strive for a culture where, on a classroom door, the teacher has written: “I’m working at the moment on how I make my questioning sharpen the students’ understanding of the First World War and what it meant for the men who fought in it: please come in and give me feedback”.

Finally, use your teaching champions to drive the staff learning forward.

And ban the phrase “formal observation”. It’s silly.

But then, so was Earthrise before we got to the moon.