These slides accompanied a CPL session on feedback – focusing on the different ways we need to address misconceptions and errors.
The problem with feedback
Feedback is an important part of teaching. In fact, teaching would be inconceivable without it. Try and teach a lesson without saying whether an answer a pupil gives is correct or not, or whether it needs developing. Try and teach a lesson without glancing the work of a pupil who says they are finished and suggesting next steps. I am not sure it can be done.
It is therefore not surprising that the EEF toolkit finds that interventions on feedback leads to greater gains in pupil learning than anything else. Teaching IS feedback. Unfortunately, drilling down a little bit further into the headlines reveals that although some interventions in feedback led to huge gains, many actually left pupils making less progress than they otherwise would have done. Feedback is important – but this doesn’t mean more feedback is always better.
Part of the problem was revealed by the DfE report into unnecessary teacher workload which concluded that much marking was being done for the benefit of outside observers and not for the pupils themselves. We see this phenomenon with verbal feedback stamps, different coloured pens and book scrutinies checking that books are marked every X number of weeks. We have been very fortunate as a college to have avoided much of the Great Stupidity around marking policies, but some of the ideas can still infect our practice.
So if feedback is important, but more isn’t always better, what can we do? One step is to recognise that different feedback is needed for different things. This post, and the accompanying presentation, discusses the way we give feedback to pupils about misconceptions and errors.
Donald Rumsfeld may have realised that there were known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns but sadly he missed the most important – wrong knows. Things we think we know but are wrong about. These are misconceptions and they are dangerous.
They are dangerous because we can’t know we are wrong, if we did, we wouldn’t have them. We can also go and build more misconceptions around them. For example, a frustration in history is the number of pupils who think that crocodiles inhabited the moats of castles across England. To believe this gives rise to misconceptions about the ecology of crocodiles and the trade links between Medieval England and where ever these pupils think that we got the crocodiles from.
Many misconceptions arise because they feel intuitively right. In geography we see that many people believe that it is hot in the equator primarily because it is closer to the sun. That feels right. Even once you explain that it is due to insolation levels and the curvature of the Earth, people return to their original misconception. It is easier than the truth. Other misconceptions arise because two different ideas are taught at different times and, as natural pattern seekers, we join them together. For example, pupils often believe that the hole in the ozone layer causes global warming.
To deal with misconceptions we need to find them. It helps if you have been teaching for a while as you build up a bank of them you know pupils will have. You can then address them clearly and pull them apart. We can also try to draw them out through questioning. Here closed questions are your friend as you can make much more accurate diagnoses about what pupils know that you will with an open question. Hinge questions can be a useful tool here as well as they can quickly involve the whole class and help to identify who is still holding on to misconceptions. This is best done before the end of the lesson to avoid pupils leaving with the misconceptions in their heads. You need time to reteach them if you spot them.
Another approach is to wait until pupils have done the work and then look for misconceptions in their work. We need to be aware though that at this point the damage is being done and the schema (the pupils web of knowledge) is being constructed with this misconception within it. If we do spot misconceptions in the work it is unlikely that written marking will help as this is an inefficient way to reteach something. The comments you will need to make are probably going to be too long and complex to address the problem. We are better off re-teaching it at the start of the next lesson.
Unlike misconceptions, errors are things that pupils already know are wrong, but do anyway. Most pupils know that they need a capital letter at the start of a sentence and not just for random words, that apostrophes indicate possessions and not plurals and that their conclusions should answer the question. Picking up on these errors in their work is probably a waste of time. They already know.
A better approach would be to insist that they look for and correct these errors themselves before handing the work in to you. We can use a quick template containing common errors, or ones more specific to the task, that they can they check their work against. I have spent 15 years circling errors for pupils and then asking for them to correct it and it has made not one jot of a difference.
The problem is, we just build a culture of dependency. They can just wait for us to identify the errors; whereas they need to start checking their work themselves until doing so becomes second nature.
Feedback is an important pillar in a great lesson, but it needs to be feedback for a particular purpose and the purpose should shape the form. We need to pick up on and address misconceptions through responsive teaching but we should start directing pupils to picking up on known errors. Feedback that works and not a red pen in sight.