This project began in the autumn term when colleagues from Sawston VC along with every member of teaching staff from our seven feeder primary schools came together in a somewhat cramped Henry Morris Hall. The excellent Sue Swaffield from the University of Cambridge was ready to speak to us about AfL. At this point I have to admit I was a touch sceptical about what else there could possibly be left to say about AfL that we hadn’t heard or read before. It turns out I was monumentally wrong. Taking part in the subsequent AfL cluster project has been one of the best CPD experiences I have had in my teaching career to date.
Alongside a focus on feedback and how we help pupils to respond, one of the key aims of the project was to deepen our partnership with primary schools. For me, being truly collaborative with colleagues from primaries was what made this such a success. From the outset, we identified themes that we would like to focus on as individuals; small groups were then formed based on similar areas of interest. Our group consisted of: a KS1 teacher, a KS2 teacher, a KS3/4 Geography teacher and two KS3/4 Physics teachers; definitely a mixed bunch!
There is always the worry with projects like this that finding the ever elusive time required to do things properly will never happen, especially if working with teachers from other schools. Thankfully we were given cover for our classes to allow us to meet regularly which made all the difference. Realistically, if a group of five teachers from two schools and several areas of specialism were to try and find the time to get together outside of their already hectic teaching days, it would never have happened. As it was, we didn’t really find our feet until we had met two or three times. We had lots of great ideas and grand schemes for interviewing pupils, conducting questionnaires and developing resources; in reality we came to the conclusion that we needed to keep things simple.
We all wanted to focus on how to get pupils to respond to feedback in a meaningful way. This certainly wasn’t always happening in my classroom and I’m pretty sure the rest of my group felt similarly. Why didn’t the pupils just read the comments that I had spent all of my Sunday afternoon writing and do something about them, especially when they have time in lessons to act on the feedback and yet still some of them don’t give it a second thought? Pupil interviews suggested that in some cases it was because they didn’t understand the targets; in other cases they just didn’t seem to see the point. So, how could we get them to see the value in responding to our feedback, and make sure that the feedback we give is clear?
In Physics, we decided to develop ‘grade booster’ resources which would be used following a test or exam. Of course, we have always tried and tried to get pupils to reflect on their test performances in formative terms: ‘Write three targets for yourself based on the test’ or ‘WWW, EBI’; it never works the way you want it to. Pupils are far too busy obsessing about the number of marks they achieved and how this number compares to every other single person to have ever taken the same assessment. We needed something to force pupils to engage with their areas of weakness and do something about them.
The idea with the ‘grade boosters’ is that the teacher marks the test (peer or self-marked would work too) and identifies which questions were the weakest for each pupil. The pupil then receives their test back as normal but they are also given a grade booster with their test. This is specifically chosen to address the individual pupil’s needs. They have to complete the activity, which is normally a set of guided questions or step-by-step calculations, and then re-attempt the test question without looking at the mark scheme. Only then are the pupils allowed to know their level / grade for the test.
Primary and Geography colleagues have developed similar boosters for literacy. Pupils’ work is marked and booster activities are chosen based on weaknesses in the writing such as punctuation or capital letters. The pupil then completes a similar piece of work with this area as their focus. The thinking is that giving a task rather than a comment as feedback means that pupils are more likely to do something with it.
So, does it all work? Pupils have been receptive and one parent even emailed to say that they had heard around the dinner table how helpful the boosters had been for their daughter. We are still playing around with how best to use the booster activities and are still exploring the answers to lots of questions: should the pupil choose their area rather than the teacher, would this promote deeper learner autonomy? Should the pupils complete the activity before they see their test paper? Should the pupil complete a different test question as a measure of their understanding or go back to the original?
There is certainly room for improvement but all in all, this project has certainly made me reflect on my practice and has given me the time and space to do so.
(Sue Gelder, Science, firstname.lastname@example.org)