I hate to say it but Peer Assessment is, in my experience, hugely ineffective. I know it’s probably the way I was doing it so couldn’t dismiss it out of hand but it never really works for everyone and can be a massive waste of time if every pupil doesn’t benefit. It seems to be one of those things we’d love to work, perhaps even convince ourselves that it does. However, I spent a lot of time teaching kids to critique each others work and they find it difficult. So I tried to find another way that worked.
Even using the ‘This was good when…’ and ‘Even better if…’ structures proved problematic. Asking them to comment on each others work instantly turned the room into what I imagine the Green Room at the ‘One Show’ to be like. Everyone is great and ‘I do so love your work’ and ‘No, yours is better’ and ‘I love everything about it.’. We all feel great about ourselves. But I hate the bloody ‘One Show’. If our pupils cannot accurately and consistently provide effective feedback to peers then it is at best unfair and at worst a complete waste of valuable time. So, what to do?
This year I’ve left three valuable notice boards completely blank. The complete back wall of my classroom. I no longer use it for posters of what Skellig might look like (yes, I know) or the life and times of Jem and Scout. (Aren’t posters just busy work? Do kids really learn anything from them? Another blog post, I think). Once a week, when possible, every pupil pins an example of written work on the ‘Feedback Gallery’ – no exceptions. I give them post its and ask them to comment on what they see. Again, comments are not always helpful but what they do see are examples of peer work which may be better than theirs. They begin to see where improvement is required. They also see inferior work which confirms that they are moving in the right direction.
What I’ve noticed is that, as the classes get used to using the Feedback Gallery and making their work public, they do spend more time on first drafts. Knowing that their work will be there for all to see is a key to focus and attention to detail. Some did not like it at first but began to understand the benefits. What I’ve tried to do is look beyond the strategy and think about the true benefits of Peer Assessment. I, like many I would presume, did try to persist with it even though in my heart of hearts I knew it wasn’t as effective as it could be.
It is difficult at times to face up to the failure of a strategy we’ve used. We try to paper over the cracks by concentrating on the ones who do everything well and give excellent feedback to peers. But it can never be all can it? Why persist with something which wasn’t helping the pupils who need it most? Structured, constructive feedback is what they need but, more importantly for some, modelling of good practice with examples. It’s all very well being laudatory and glowing to Adrian Chiles in the Green Room but our children deserve better.
I’ve always been my greatest and most fierce critic, which, I think, has allowed me the freedom to blog on my everyday practice. That knowledge does, however, make reflection somewhat difficult; New Year’s Resolutions have never been my strong point. For I have to confess, as I approach the fourth anniversary of starting my blog, confidence in my own ability has taken a step backwards this year. Not sure why. Perhaps when you blog and receive some very complimentary feedback on your writing, you begin to believe your own hype. Closer self-inspection often brings that crashing down.
On the face of it I’ve achieved a lot this year. I was invited to speak at researchEd in York and duly presented my take on the progress of curricular changes in Scotland. I think it went well but for the day I was overwhelmed with ‘Imposter Syndrome’. Merely speaking about what I thought I knew confirmed how little I knew. I returned to my first love and organised a Pedagoo event at Strathclyde Uni. Same syndrome applies. Only when you attempt to introduce change do you realise the scale of the challenge in education. And it is hugely intimidating.
I continued with my Masters studies this year and also began to see more of my writing being published, both creative and educational. It never ceases to amaze me when I see my name in real print but I’ve never let it go to my head. Just having a voice doesn’t mean it is an necessarily important one. It merely highlights to me the scarcity of teacher voices out there. The whole raison d’etre of Pedagoo was to get more teachers involved in the conversation and while we continue to do that, it’s frustrating to think that we’ve still only created a small ripple in the pool.
However, despite all this, as teachers we should only ever be judged on what we do in the classroom on a day to day basis. The rest is merely window dressing. I’m not convinced I’ve been as effective this year as I have been previously. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps distracted by outside influences. Perhaps I’m ready to leave the classroom and move on to other things. But I try never to forget that I am first and foremost an English teacher who teaches children. When that is not going as well as I’d like I have very little right to pretend I am some sort of leader of learning. This needs to be where my resolution lies.
I have no idea what 2015 will hold for me – can any of us really ever know? I know I will continue to write because it gives me great pleasure. I will continue to volunteer to present and speak at educational events if anyone will have me. I will continue to try and engage more teachers in research and discussion of their practice. But, and far more importantly, I will spend more time trying to be a better teacher of English. That is what I am paid to do. And we should all spend our time trying to be better than yesterday.
This is the unedited text of my article in today’s TES Scotland
There’s a famous scene in Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ where the poor hero is desperately trying to keep up with the conveyor belt of screws to tighten in the factory where he works. He copes admirably and cheerfully at first but, as he seems to be able to comfortably manage the workload, the conveyor belt starts to go quicker and more nuts and bolts fly towards him, causing the inevitable. He misses some, things back up and he quickly becomes scunnered with the whole thing, his former enthusiasm a distant memory. That’s before the iconic scene where Charlie is literally sucked up by the very machinery he thought he was operating.
Sound familiar? It may just be me but it seems that we are reaching a tipping point with Curriculum for Excellence where many of us feel we are being sucked up into the machinations of the labyrinthine assessment process and forgetting what it was all about in the first place. Half way through year one of the new Higher in English and I’m still making sense of the Internal Assessment strands. The SQA have suggested a ‘light touch’ to assessment in English, presumably meaning that my own professional judgment trumps any suggestion of passing a timed exam. But the hours I’ve spent attempting to decide where each of my 30 students has passed one of three or four outcomes in four different strands? Too much. Just too much.
I still believe in Curriculum for Excellence, truly I do. But it becomes increasingly frustrating when the machinery which should be there to make it happen fails to take into account the relentless conveyor belt of nuts and bolts which head our way every single day. That the conveyor belt seems to be increasing in speed doesn’t help. But the elasticity of a teaching profession which has stretched and pulled and expanded and contracted in order to deal with a changing curriculum at the same time as teaching a new course in the midst of the greatest austerity cuts many of us have known is becoming dangerously stressed. In a year when we’ve been issued with a ‘Dealing with Workload’ paper, the irony crashes down like a cartoon anvil when it becomes clear to me that many of my colleagues have been unable to read it: they’re too busy.
Where the problem lies, I fear, is in the fact that we are trying to force a new shiny thing into an old tired thing; a beautifully inspiring new curriculum into a structure which does not match its online dating profile; a sleek modern high speed train on tired broken old tracks; the scope and scale and ambitions of the Curriculum for Excellence battering against the door of the same school system that I went through thirty years ago. Is it any wonder that the shine is in danger of wearing off? However, a tipping point can go either way. The strength of our teaching profession in Scotland can and, I believe will, push it over the hump and make it work. There’s too much at stake to give up on it now.
I’ve always been very positive about CfE and I hope I still reflect that in my practice. It would have been easy to write a glowing report card but more honest to write this in the middle of another stressful assessment period. What is difficult is that I see committed and supportive teachers being sucked up by paper work and ludicrously unnecessary evidence requirements. We’re bending over backwards to make it work but perhaps the real change needs to be elsewhere. Slow the conveyor belt down. Let us tighten up the nuts and bolts we have. We can make them outstanding. Our education system could be outstanding. Let us teach.
I’ve probably always been uncomfortable with the premise that some subjects are described as knowledge-based and some skills-based. As an English teacher I know I’ve said this at times. ‘English is more skills based therefore we are different to Maths or Science or…’ It’s ludicrous really. It not only weakens an argument for genuine creativity but undermines the abilities of our pupils. For is it not the case that skills are fairly impossible without knowledge; therefore knowledge on its own is hugely important if we want our children to develop into skilled human beings? It seems to me that the Curriculum for Excellence requires some clarity on this matter.
The documents, the experiences and outcomes, the very things that have many of us tearing out grey hairs out in frustration were deliberately written as ‘Can do’ expressions. For example, from the English and Literacy Listening and Talking strands:
‘As I listen or watch, I can:
- • identify and give an accurate account of the purpose and main concerns of the text, and can make inferences from key statements
- • identify and discuss similarities and differences between different types of text
- • use this information for different purposes. LIT 3-04a’
This all makes perfect sense, I would have thought, but it might not be as simple as that. That a pupil can do any of these things in a one off lesson might be good but I would be more comfortable if they could do them again and again, getting better every time. I’m not convinced we’re at the stage where that happens just yet.
So it is at this point that I sheepishly return to my old school nemesis: Maths. What bamboozled me about Maths at the time was the seemingly unnecessary repetition of problems which I could clearly solve after the first two or three. The horror of completing pages full of these drove me crazy. However, is there a better example of real learning than that? The embedding of ‘I can…’ strategies which took us beyond the surface level of ‘I can do it today’ ? The challenge should come when we take that knowledge and teach pupils how and why Maths is important and how they may develop that knowledge into skills.
As an English teacher I get frustrated when children are attempting to create pieces of imaginative written work when they clearly have trouble with the basics. The awareness of how language works comes from an awareness of the structure of expert writing and an embedded knowledge of basic grammatical structures. No-one can be naturally creative. We learn the rules and then, and only then, can we break them to become creative. Skills come from knowledge, therefore that knowledge must be the key. However, the challenge of CfE comes when we try to turn that knowledge into skills in every subject.
The new curriculum in Scotland is an ongoing project which will be difficulty to assess in the short term. But surely one of the aims needs to be the development of our children into knowledgable AND skilled human beings in every subject they study. And that might mean that sometimes, like me all those years ago in Maths, they need to get used to being bored. When I teach conjunctions and prepositions it might indeed be necessarily ‘boring’ for a time. The pay off should come when they display that they ‘Can do’ it. When they can, we should move heaven and earth to develop their creativity.