The books that fall through the cracks

For a long time, I have said ‘look at my books’ as the clearest indicator of what goes on in my classroom. They provide a clear narrative of the lessons, the effort, the feedback.

And yet we have had a work scrutiny with a random sample this week and I have found myself hoping that certain pupils’ names are chosen. The ones who read and act on the feedback, the ones who attend regularly, the ones who underline the title! And there are a small number of books I don’t want anyone to see- the books that fell through the cracks.

Part of me wants to criticise the work scrutiny process but I think it’s better to question why I have any books that I don’t want to be ‘scrutinised’. So I’ve chosen a sample of two books from one of my classes for a closer look. The first is the book I’d most like to show off and the second is the one I hope is never looked at.

Book 1 (The one I want them to look at)

Sheet 1This student engages in feedback. Every single time that I have provided feedback they have addressed it. There is regular ‘dialogue’ with me. Comments like ‘Thanks Sir’ and ‘I’ll make sure that I do that in the next draft’ show this. I often provide feedbactivities– tasks to support their targets- and these are always approached with determination to improve.


TicksThis student also ticks every error to show me that she has read it. It’s an interesting habit and one it is worth trying to instill in others.

It isn’t perfect because there are still misconceptions. They could use a ruler more regularly and they appear to have used the last page of the book to practise their signature.

All in all, this book shows off the impact that good feedback has when it acted upon. The student is making progress- evident in the book and the data. If you judged me on this book, you would have to say the quality of my marking is high and the student is making excellent progress. Match it to the data and it would corroborate that.

Book 2 (The book I don’t want anyone to look at)

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the next book.

It is a book that starts on the 11th of March. It’s a replacement for the first one which was lost. (I didn’t lose it, although students’ books do go walkies sometimes). All that evidence of progress and all that feedback is missing. Yes, I have a markbook with data recorded and all of the previous targets but there is no evidence of it in the book.

Worryingly, there’s not much from me in the book- at least not in pen. They have missed the key assessments and so some pieces of work are acknowledged but not given particularly developmental feedback. There are two feedback sheets. They at least provide evidence that I’ve done something. However, looking at the sheets tells another story- the feedback didn’t really count.

First of all, they are not really engaging with the feedback at all. In the second image, the minimum is completed before scribbling all over the page.

Sheet 2Sheet 3










The attendance of the second student is not high and they have missed a number of lessons for a number of reasons. A couple of feedback sheets have not been glued in so must have fallen out of the book. I’m not suggesting we should make excuses like this and avoid trying to address the issues but it does provide context.

If you judge me on this book, you could argue that this is not good enough. Is that fair? I don’t think it would be fair to say this was indicative of the average student in the class. Looking through the pile of books from the class, most are close to the first one but there are quite a number of instances where the feedback is not really engaged with, there are a few feedback sheets not stuck in, there are the times when people were absent. If you look at every single book you will see a consistency and lots of evidence of good practice. It would be fair to say that this student is not visibly making good enough progress, that they are not engaging with the feedback and that I don’t seem to have addressed this well enough.


I put a lot into my marking and if book two was chosen in a sample I’d end up having to defend myself and make all of the aforementioned excuses.  It’s hard not to feel a little defensive. (Perhaps it’s that word ‘scrutiny’) Whereas, in writing this blog, I’m asking myself why I have not picked up on this sooner. Why has it taken me nearly three months to pick up on a student who has not properly engaged in feedback in that time?

An idea for a developmental way of looking at exercise books would be to do as I have above. Select the best and ‘worst’ books from a class. Reflect on what the books show and how the issues can be addressed. This could be done as a something more formal, as part of staff or departmental training or just as an individual. Some may say that it doesn’t show the true picture- nobody is going to pick the worst book. I think it all depends on how it is framed. If people are working in a culture where they feel their development is valued and this is not simply a judgemental approach, I think they’ll embrace it fully.

Work scrutinies are important for a number of reasons and they can provide much useful information. If conducted well, they can be very helpful in developing practice but we’ll get much more out of it if we take a good look at our own books and start with the dog-eared, graffiti-covered, why-have-they-only-used-the-right-hand-pages books that have fallen through the cracks.

Further reading:

In this similarly reflective post, I looked at the impact of my feedback.

Feedback on my feedback

While feedback is one of the most effective interventions, not all feedback is good. Many studies do show a negative effect of some feedback. An analysis by Kluger and DeNisi (1996) of 3000 research reports- and excluding a number of poorly designed reports- showed that effect sizes were ‘highly variable’ and 38% were negative. (Source: Dylan Wiliam at the Festival of Education)

Giving feedback isn’t enough. The quality of feedback matters and we spend so much time writing feedback and marking books that it is ridiculous not to ensure that the feedback is good enough. With that in mind, in this post I am casting a hyper-critical eye on a piece of feedback I gave which didn’t work in the way I wanted.

Following an essay on war poetry, a number of my year 9 students received this target: ‘Try to analyse the effect of specific language techniques’. They tended to spot a technique and use a quotation but the analysis was simple and along the lines of ‘makes the reader want to read on’ and ‘makes it more effective.’ They were given the following activity to support, based on The Woman in Black:

“…gazing first up at the house, so handsome, so utterly right for the position it occupied, a modest house and yet sure of itself, and then looking across at the country beyond. I had no sense of having been here before, but an absolute conviction that I would come here again, that the house was already mine, bound to me invisibly.”

Personification is a language technique that makes something which is not alive seem as if it is. Can you find an example in the passage above? Write the quotation.

Why do you think the writer might want the house to seem alive?

 Problem 1: The task doesn’t really offer any additional support

Example 1The first issue I spotted is illustrated by this example where the student has performed at the same level that they were performing at in the first place. They answered the question, but nothing in the activity, or my advice, gave them any support in answering the question better. The feedback itself might be a useful reminder for the next essay but if the student couldn’t do it before then a poorly framed task like this will not help them. The task was supposed to make students think about the effect of language. However, with no support to do it better, then nothing changed!

Problem 2: Poorly chosen example and poorly worded questions

The technique of personification was chosen because we were studying it in the following lesson. I think I picked the wrong example to illustrate this. Although the complexity of the text is not beyond the class, there are a number of aspects which needed explaining: handsome; modest; absolute conviction. Too much time was taken simply trying to work out what the passage was saying. This quotation is harder to analyse in the context of the whole text and I could have used an example from the start of chapter two which personified fog as evil. Students had just studied foreshadowing and pathetic fallacy so the analysis of the language would have been more straightforward and actually more precise if I had chosen that extract.

Even if the quotation had been straightforward, there is an imprecision in my design of tasks and questions. Technically, personification is a language technique that makes something which is not alive seem as if it is but this is not precise enough and certainly doesn’t get to the heart of how personification works in writing. In asking the question ‘Why do you think the writer…’, I felt that I was allowing the students scope to offer wide-ranging interpretations and I did get some thoughtful responses from students. However, the question didn’t have an explicit link with the previous one so students didn’t link the evidence they had chosen to the explanation of the effect. In the example below, I am happy that the student is exploring the effect but the response isn’t really linked to the particular quotation they have chosen.

 Example 2






Problem 3: The task doesn’t make them think solely about the thing I want them to think about

Doug Lemov writes in Practice Perfect,‘When teaching a technique or skill, practise the skill in isolation until the learner has mastered it.’

In this instance, students should have been thinking about the analysis part. I instead tried to make them learn a new piece of terminology (or at least refresh their understanding), find evidence and then analyse it. They had to do a lot of work before even getting to the key part. The final question could have been attempted without any of that part. The student below found the first part so difficult that they spent very little time on the analysis part. One student wrote nothing.

Example 4As I said earlier, I am being hyper-critical, but feedback is too important and frankly too time consuming for there to be any room for poorly designed feedback. Feedback needs to be designed so that they unavoidably think about the feedback and not other aspects. Explanations need to be crystal clear and precise to allow this to happen.


Removing the cues

Stabilisers helped me to learn how to ride a bike. But until I took the stabilisers off, I couldn’t say that I was able to ride a bike. I have been considering the role of classroom ‘stabilisers’ and how in some cases we might be keeping them on for too long. These stabilisers- or cues- take different forms, from displays to thesauruses and the way that we inflect our voice when we say something like, ‘Is that a simile or a metaphor?’ With too much of these, students become very good at recognising, but not so good at recalling.

We can think of students’ knowledge as appearing on a continuum as follows:

subconscious understanding > familiarity > recognition > recall with a cue > recall.

(paraphrased from Memory: A Very Short Introduction)

Our job is to shift students’ knowledge along that continuum. If they cannot get to the ‘recall’ part, then do they know it at all? Much of the time we keep students at the ‘cues’ stage, where they can perform pretty well in a lesson but without actually being able to do the thing that we want them to do or remember the thing we want them to remember in the long term.

With too many cues, students are just using ‘maintenance rehearsal’ i.e. just learning something enough to get through a lesson or a task. With this, there is a danger that nothing stays in long term memory as the deep thinking required for this to happen is not present. Our ultimate job as teachers is to encode the knowledge, ensure it is stored, then put students in a position where they can retrieve the knowledge without needing our cues.

Interestingly, the act of retrieval itself helps to make things stick and allows students to create their own cues: “Each act of retrieval alters the diagnostic value of retrieval cues and improves one’s ability to retrieve knowledge again in the future.” (Karpicke, 2012)

Bearing all this in mind, I have been considering some of my current practice and implications for change:


feb2013 065This is one of my displays, showing a range of connectives. It is helpful to refer to but now I have a concern that the display doesn’t help students in the way I want it to. Students are never asked to recall the connectives if they are in plain sight. Recently, I have been removing connectives and asking students to recall the missing one. I must confess that I cannot make up my mind whether this display is a help or a hindrance. Advice is welcome.


When we provide feedback we often provide prompts or directions for next steps. We could design even better feedback which requires a follow up activity some time afterwards where students are asked to recall. For example, we might give students an exercise on homophones which explains the rules and asks students to identify (i.e. recognise) which homophones have been used incorrectly in a range of sentences. One week later, we might ask them to write their own sentences or explain the rules of homophones themselves- asking them to recall. This is not something I currently do. I ask students to reflect on whether they meet their target but not by asking them to recall. I’m going to experiment with this form of follow up retrieval homework over the next term.


For students to be able to use a range of vocabulary expertly, we need to shift it from that zone of recognition- they understand it when they read it- to it being part of their regularly used spoken and written vocabulary. Spending too much time searching for the right word in a thesaurus will not have that effect. Displays with key words will be helpful to a point but with no guarantee students will recall them in the future. We know that students need multiple exposures to words in different contexts before they will be readily recalled and used. See this post for some further thoughts on vocabulary instruction.


I think literacy mats or similar can play a part in the classroom. I can see that they might be beneficial for students writing at length in other subjects but I have mixed feelings about them in English. Much like the connectives on the display above, by giving students a mat with, for example, all the punctuation they need to use for a certain level, are we in fact hindering them over the long term? The mats need to be taken away at some point and I would argue that they should be taken away completely. The cognitive load produced by a learning mat can be overwhelming too. Students spend so much time looking at a number of things that they have to include that they lose sight of what they have to do.

I will be using ‘mentor mats’ this half term. These are still a form of cue but consist of mentor texts for study with some elements highlighted for closer inspection. The cognitive load is reduced. There are still cues but these are the isolated areas for study in the unit, rather than a checklist of things to include. Because these cues are in the form of model sentences, they require more thinking than ‘You should include x’. Here is the text from a mentor mat to get the idea.

Curriculum Design

We should design curricula with the opportunities for students to encounter the material they need over and over again, removing the cues and increasing the amount to be recalled. This means that we might teach a concept for the first time and provide all of the supports and then revisit it later without them. For example, in a year 7 scheme of work I have just designed, students will write about The Kraken. Tennyson uses personification in the poem and I want students to be able to comment on it. Therefore, several weeks before, at the start of the scheme, students are taught about personification, encounter the technique later in a short story, revisit it in another poem, The Second Coming, and then read The Kraken. At this point, we hope students can recall the technique unprompted.

This is not a post arguing that cues and scaffolds and supports are not necessary- they play an important role in the learning process. Sometimes it is only repetition of certain cues that force things into long term memory. For example, the C, B, A, mnemonic was important for me to recall the pedals when learning to drive. This cue was never ‘removed’, it just became unnecessary after a point.

If we wish to isolate a skill for practice, we may also provide support on other aspects. For example, when I am looking at sentence structure, I may well offer model sentences and example sentence starts. When I want students who struggle with extended writing to comment on a text, I will often provide scaffolds for support. However, this is always with an end in mind, leading students towards the place where they will be able to do this without the prompts.

Further reading:

David Didau: Deliberately difficult – why it’s better to make learning harder – essential reading on ‘desirable difficulties’.

David Fawcett: Can I be that little better at…using cognitive science/psychology/neurology to plan learning – a must read exploration of key principles of cognitive science.

Stephen Cavadino: Why calculators should be banned (and for balance- a counter argument)

Behaviour- 3 things you can control

I write this post as much as a reminder to myself after a few challenging lessons as it is advice to others.

There is nothing low level about lessons where you cannot talk without interruption and low level disruption is one of the most harmful things in our schools. When you have that class, you can feel completely overwhelmed and no matter what you try, nothing seems to work. You receive advice like ‘plan well and behaviour takes care of itself’ but that isn’t a helpful comment to hear when you are a hard working professional, especially if the implication is ‘plan fun lessons and they will behave’. There are all sorts of effective behaviour management strategies to de-escalate- and I swear by some- but they mainly work on individual students and are no use if the class just won’t listen.

Some things are not under your control: the state of mind students are in when they arrive in the classroom, school behaviour systems, the time of the day etc. You need to take comfort in the fact that there are some things that are very much under your control. Focusing on these things will help you improve the climate in your classroom and will allow you to remain calm, knowing that the behaviour will improve.

The seating plan

You decide where students sit. The simple act of placing students in a seating plan indicates that you are in charge. The symbolic aspect is important, but there are obviously far more benefits.

Most low level disruption is caused by chatter or students looking at each other. You should identify combinations that you don’t want and separate those students. Place them as far away from each other as you can possibly get away with. Even when they are far apart, check for eye-lines. Sit down in your classroom and identify where your ‘blind spots’ are. I have computers in my room which help me to block students off but which also create blind spots I need to be aware of. Surround your most challenging student with positive peers. Do whatever you can and insist students follow it.

You should see a seating plan as a constant work in progress. If it doesn’t work, change it. Swap students around. If you feel at any point it needs changing, then change it. Students complain and will always try to sit where they want to. Be resolute and insistent- it doesn’t mean that you can’t move someone if they speak to you at an appropriate moment and explain a situation you were not aware of e.g. a previous incident of bullying.

The phone call home

I have learnt that 99% of parents are incredibly supportive. They want exactly the same thing for their son/ daughter as you do. A phone call and a quick conversation can often be the only thing that is needed to keep them on track.

You can find out things that help too. Once, I had a challenging student who I could barely get into the classroom. I found out from his mother that he wanted to be a zookeeper and from the moment that I talked about animals with him, he was a model student.

Changing the atmosphere of a class isn’t just about phoning the parents of the students who display the worst behaviour. You should make positive calls to the students who are doing the right things. You do this because they deserve it, because it’ll make you feel happier and because it will keep them on your side. There are a number of students who will get one or two warnings in your class but never a detention. Phone their parents too because they are ruining your lesson every time it happens.

If you are ever greeted with hostility, just keep the conversation about the specific behaviour displayed in the lesson. It isn’t an attack on the student, it isn’t a comment on them as a parent- it is a specific behaviour that is the problem. Don’t be defensive- you are making the call because you care. If you think that the conversation may be hostile, make it with your head of department present (or another more senior member of staff)and prepare responses to negative comments. For example, ‘What is he going to need R.E. for?’ or ‘She only misbehaves in Maths so it must be a personality clash.’

Remember that this all part of building teacher reputation. You want students to know that you will phone home. An initial flurry of calls home can have the required effect and you may never need to make a negative call again.


Books don’t answer back. Writing doesn’t chew. You can give feedback to students without any arguments and you should place marking the books of your most challenging classes at the top of your list.

Obviously, when you have a challenging class, the conditions under which feedback is received may be difficult to manage. But when you are struggling to get the attention of the class, feedback in books sends the signal that they matter to you. Despite the behaviour that they have displayed, you will continue making them your priority. I find that most pupils appreciate this and slowly but surely they come on board.

When the books of your most challenging classes find their way to ther bottom of your to-do list, they can end up looking pretty awful: graffiti, dog ears, pages ripped out. Marking books means that you can get on top of these things. If you allow books to get this way, it is another subtle signal that basic expectations don’t matter.


I am not suggesting that there are not wider issues in play. Everyone in a school has a part to play and we do need to think carefully about our lessons and reflect on our own practice. We must de-escalate using language and movement and we must escalate using the behaviour system. But when those things are not having an effect, we need to keep fighting the battles that are ours to win.


Evaluating the impact of written feedback

A couple of weeks ago I was putting together my slides for #TMSBradford and I took some photographs of mail merge feedback sheets completed by students. (This is one method I use for reducing time spent on marking while increasing impact.)

The problem was, I had to reject the first 3 or 4 examples because they hadn’t actually met the targets in the feedback exercise. Some had written very little and some had completed the feedback incorrectly e.g. used the wrong ‘there’ in a homophone activity.

This student has attempted the task but has not added all of the full stops.

This matters because it illustrated that the written feedback I had taken time to produce in these cases had zero impact! In some ways you could argue that there was a negative impact as a misconception was allowed to continue.

As a result of this, I then decided to look at a range of my books across all of my classes and look at the impact of my written feedback.

In some books, there was feedback that had no impact on future pieces of work- identified errors continued into the next task. Sometimes the errors were fixed immediately afterwards but appeared further down the line. In both instances, the time spent marking appeared to be wasted and the issues needed to be addressed again.

Of course, most of the time, students did act on the feedback and it is important to track those instances of success and do more of the things that work.

Dylan Wiliam, speaking at the Festival of Education, explained that written feedback is effective but that some studies actually show a negative effect. It is therefore not ok just to do written feedback, it must be of sufficient quality and have a worthwhile impact for it to be worth the time it takes. This is why this extra layer of evaluating the impact of written feedback becomes necessary.

I have already written about the entire process of making written feedback work. I would add the ideas that follow to that sequence so it becomes: before, during, after, evaluate.

Here are my recommendations for ensuring that written feedback does actually make a difference:

Ensure that any written feedback comes with advice on how to improve.

If you say ‘You need to organise writing into clear paragraphs’ then the few students who just forgot about paragraphs will possibly remember next time but the ones who don’t actually know when to take a new paragraph are not going to be able to understand just from that. It needs to come with some guidance on how to do that. Then students need an opportunity to put that guidance into practice. This is clearly the most important stage of the written feedback process so students need to be given time to do this. They also need to develop the mindset of relishing their feedback and wanting to use it to improve. Teachers need to assure students that their feedback is simply the most important thing for them to improve.

After giving feedback, read the responses to the feedback and ensure that any misconceptions are addressed.

Read the response to feedback immediately (or as soon as you can). If you don’t check that they have understood and improved as a result of the feedback then you risk the possibility that the feedback didn’t work. If students don’t improve from your feedback, refine it. Was the wording of your feedback helpful? Were students given sufficient time to read and respond? If a student just didn’t try then you can discuss it with them. This is obviously much more effective soon after the feedback.

If you only write a comment with no opportunity to act on the feedback then it is going to be difficult for you to ascertain whether they have even understood the feedback. Asking students to comment on your feedback or phrasing the feedback as a question might be one way to do that. Even then, you need to evaluate the quality of student responses. A comment of ‘Thanks Sir. I have read my feedback and understand it’ isn’t really that illuminating!

Tackle wide misconceptions in class too.

Take the opportunity to teach things that are coming up repeatedly in your marking. Do this in addition to students acting on the feedback. The feedback is much more likely to stick if it is accompanied by this.

The taxonomy of errors is a good approach to this. Andy Sammons has a couple of blog posts on the subject too: DIY LEARNING: Taxonomy of Errors and Using Taxonomy of Errors for feeding forward. This is my example of common errors in descriptive writing for use with a class.

Ensure that students revisit their targets repeatedly.

There are a number of ways to do this:

Make sure most recent targets are displayed on the front of exercise books or folders. Make them easy to refer to.

Another idea, which I will experiment with next year, is to create feedback bookmarks to be kept in exercise books.

Use the targets to feed forward into the next piece of work. Make this the first thing that you focus on when you mark.

Meticulously record targets for students and monitor them. I RAG them on a spreadsheet- If I don’t I lose track of the targets I have given in the past.

Have routines embedded to ensure students’ targets are memorised. This could be that they answer with their target in response to the register. It could be that you repeatedly ask individuals about their targets. It could also be part of a call and response.

(I’m not interested in students being able to recite these simply so they can say it when someone observing asks them, I want them memorised because I want them to be conscious of what they need to do and then do it in their work.)

Don’t give too much feedback to act on.

Sometimes you will identify a number of things that need addressing. You should be precise with your feedback to ensure that progress is made as a result of the feedback. Write too many targets and there is a danger that they will not be acted on.

Like any area of professional practice, we need to continually refine our approach to written feedback so that we maximise the impact. While I still rate the quality of my written feedback highly, there is still much more room for improvement.

The same but different

As a mentor of an NQT, I was looking to support her with her lesson.  She observed me teaching a lesson with my year 8 group and she delivered a very similar lesson to her year 7 group.

Although this was initially designed to be me team-teaching/ coaching to help improve her practice, I quickly realised that I was picking up tips on how to improve my own teaching.  There were lots of moments where a different spin illuminated an aspect of the lesson that was lacking in my own lesson.

For example, part of my starter activity involved pupils placing post-it notes with their answers on the board.  I then sorted these post-it notes into an order on the board, describing what I was doing and why.  She asked two pupils to sort them and explain why.  It was a tweak that brought that bit more to the lesson. The questioning in the class was also much better than in my lesson.  Pupils were required to  think for longer, to discuss and to feedback.   Actually, I probably don’t mean ‘better’ here,  rather it was different to how I approached it.  I am definitely a teacher who is reflective, but I still have certain entrenched methods which have served me well- but they are not the only  methods.

So many different factors affected the delivery of the same lesson too: the time of day, the room, the make-up of the class so much so that a lesson which was, essentially, exactly the same as mine was in fact quite different.

The less formal approach to this ensured that the experience was different to the norm.  I have undertaken many observations in my time and I know that once you place a judgement on a whole lesson, you then place absolutes on what is good and what is not.  If I had gone into this lesson and judged it, the process would have been nowhere near as revelatory.  I would have been ticking, and notetaking, and checking to see if certain boxes were ticked.   My feedback would have been centred around what would have made it a better lesson observation and not necessarily what would have made it a better lesson. For example, pupils were incredibly engaged with their writing.  The teacher let them continue and scrapped a plenary at the end.  I knew that the start of the next lesson will perform a similar function so I didn’t think anyone needed to panic.

Before I meander off on any number of tangents, I’ll bring the topic back to the initial idea.  In the next few weeks I will be creating more opportunities for this kind of paired experience and will be encouraging teachers to plan and teach lessons together.  I will also make time  to observe my colleagues and learn as much as I can.