Michael Chiles, The Feedback Pendulum: A manifesto for enhancing feedback in education

This book contains a detailed examination of a variety of techniques for giving and receiving feedback, including written comments, question and answer sessions and whole class feedback. It also provides useful examples of grids and models teachers can use for giving feedback to students, and gives tips for helping to ensure pupils engage properly with all types of feedback. On top of this, it has chapters on how to provide effective feedback to colleagues and parents. The three changes I want to make in my practice having read this book are:

  1. Start using the GROW model in discussions with parents. In the past I have only really considered this model as appropriate for ongoing coaching conversations but I can see how useful it could be in ensuring focused, honest and productive dialogue with parents. (The GROW model facilitates discussions on goals (what the student wants to achieve), the reality (where they are now), the options (the ways to overcome any obstacles that stand in the way of achieving their goals) and the way forward (what the student needs to do next).)
  2. Allow colleagues to decide when they want feedback on their lessons, rather than just choose a time when we are both free and propose we meet then. If I suggest a time, a colleague is unlikely to say no, even if that time does not really suit them. I might, unthinkingly, be scheduling a slot which makes their already stressful Thursday feel unmanageable. Handing the initiative to the person I have watched enables them to pick a time when they are more likely to be relaxed and receptive to feedback. This means that the feedback is more likely to be effective but, more importantly, it prioritises the wellbeing of the person who has been observed.
  3. Mark work with a class. The book suggests marking under a visualiser, so that students can follow as you annotate the work. I am not sure I would quite do this because I like time to deliberate on the work in front of me and watching me think is probably not a very useful learning experience. What I can see would be valuable, however, is adding simple annotations to piece of work (e.g. asterisks and question marks) and using this to start a conversation with a class about why I had labelled the work thus, and how it could be improved.

Tim Harford, Messy: How to be creative and resilient in a tidy-minded world

I enjoyed this book.  Harford writes in an engaging way, and it’s full of interesting stories about how shaking things up a bit has helped people to think differently and be creative.  Harford’s argument is that: ‘we often succumb to the temptation of a tidy-minded approach when we would be better served by embracing a degree of mess’.  I am not at all sure, though, that most of what Harford writes about belongs under the heading ‘messy’.  Mess, to me, and indeed to a higher authority than me, the Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language, means ‘disorder’ or ‘confusion’. Martin Luther King’s decision to abandon his script and speak ex tempore on 28th August 1963 can scarcely even be classified as improvisation since he had spoken the lines about his ‘dream’ before.  That he had not intended to use those lines in his speech that day hardly constitutes an example of mess.  Equally, Harford quotes studies which show that workers are 30% more productive when they have been allowed some say in designing their office space but there is a  lot of difference between being able to put pictures and pot plants where you want them and making a mess.  I am equally sceptical about the idea that it is messy to have several projects on the go at once in your professional life.  I would rather say that that is diversifying.  Harford says: ‘The most brilliant people have multiple projects on the go at the same time or switch projects frequently’.  He cites Alexander Fleming, Louis Pasteur and Nobel laureates Linus Pauling and John Bardeen as examples.  Harford suggests that switching projects kept these men fresh and was part of the reason for their brilliance, but I was left wondering about how far it was their exceptional abilities that allowed them to roam across academic territory in a way not open to those of lesser ability.

As a, some would say, obsessively tidy person, I am not impartial on this one, but it seems to me that genuine mess is a problem.  The student whose folder is a mess is the one most likely to lose a worksheet.  The student with poor organisational systems is the one who will forget to hand in her homework on time.  I accept that someone else’s filing system might look chaotic to me but actually be perfectly functional.  I accept that sticking rigidly to a plan isn’t always a good idea.  After all, every teacher knows that sometimes the best lessons are the ones in which we divert from our plans.  But, again, I’m not sure I consider either of these things to be genuine examples of disorganisation.

But let’s set aside both my quarrel with the idea that this book is genuinely about messiness, and my feeling that mess is often a really bad thing because neither mean that the book is without merit.   The sections in the book that considered planning, group work and essay writing gave me particular pause for thought.


Students often ask me about how they should be planning their revision.  Studies quoted in Messy would suggest that the answer to this question is ‘not too rigidly’.  Psychologists Kischenbaum, Humphrey and Malett asked one of the groups of students in their study to create and follow daily plans with ‘specific, quantifiable goals, another groups to ‘set out goals and study activities a month at a time, and a third group not to plan at all’.  The students with daily work plans started well but ended up working fewer hours each week than those with no plans at all – 8 hours a week as compared to 10.  It was the monthly plan group who achieved the most, averaging 25 hours a week.  A year later, those in the monthly plan group still had better study habits than those in the other two groups.  Kirschenbaum et al concluded that the daily plans were a disincentive to hard work because it was so common for students to fail to achieve their daily goals, and that when this happened, their motivation sagged.  The researchers also pointed out that the daily plans were time consuming to produce, and diverted students efforts away from actual work.  Harford flagged up another problem with daily plans – they don’t allow for adjustment for an unanticipated illness or visit, whereas with a broader plans ‘it’s easy to accommodate these obstacles and opportunities’.

Group work

I have a great team at work.  We are generally all on the same page.  We are efficient.  We get things done.  But how good are we really at problem solving?  Probably not as good, Harford would suggest, as a more diverse, less harmonious team.  It is the work of Scott Page and Samuel Sommers that have prompted this conclusion from Harford. Page is a complexity scientist, apparently.  I am a little hazy on what these means but it sounds impressive. His studies show that ‘in many problem solving contexts diversity trumps ability’.  Add an economist to your team of statisticians and even if the former is a little bit average, he will add more value to the team than yet another statistician.  Page says: ‘There’s a lot of empirical data to show that diverse cities are more productive, diverse boards of directors make better decisions and the most innovative companies are diverse.’  Work by psychologist Samuel Sommers endorses Page’s conclusion.  Using mock trials inspired by real cases, Sommers has studied how juries make their decisions.  He found that if both an all-white jury and a racially diverse one were asked to consider the case of a black defendant, the latter were more thorough and careful in their evaluation of the evidence.  This was in part because the perspectives of the black jurors were different but also because the white jurors took more care to make sure that their viewpoints were well substantiated.  This was because they felt that they were more likely to be challenged about sloppy thinking by black jurors than by other whites.

Essay writing

Apparently, a similar thing applies to essay writing.  A study has shown that participants asked to produce an essay for someone with different political values from their own wrote more fluently, and argued better, than those asked to write for a ‘friendly’ audience.  This made me wonder if I should be telling my GCSE and A level students to assume that the examiner will not agree with their conclusions and to argue accordingly. It is a small experiment I will try, and if the results are worth reporting back on, I will do that here.

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Deslauriers, McCarty, Miller, Callaghan and Kestin, Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom

This paper describes a study conducted on physics students at Harvard University. The study shows that students think that they learn more from fluent, well delivered lectures than they do from being required to actively engage with problem solving.  But the test scores from two groups, the first taught by the former method and the second by the latter, suggest that the reverse is true.  Students learn more when required to engage in deliberate practice and struggle with difficult problems.

This could be said simply to confirm existing evidence, but the rigour with which the study was conducted gives it additional weight in any discussion of which teaching methods should prevail.  Alongside students being randomly assigned to one group or another for the duration of the study, care was taken to ensure that the two groups received exactly the same course materials, and that both instructors had not only received ‘extensive, identical training in active learning’ but also had ‘comparable experience in delivering fluent, traditional lectures’.  The outcomes cited (that students taught using active methods of study went on to achieve higher test scores than students taught by passive methods) were measured by a multiple choice test.  To avoid bias in the wording and structure of the test, the questions in it were devised by a third party, rather than by either course tutor.  The study was conducted twice, using different students each time.  The results from the two trials were very similar.

This means that in the case of both trials, students underestimated the value to them of being required to use active learning methods.  Why?  The authors of the study suggest that there are three reasons for this.

(1) Listening to the well prepared, well delivered lectures tricked the students into a false confidence with the material.  This is why we need to remind students that understanding something in the moment is not the same as having learnt it.  Equally, we need to make sure that students are familiar with the idea that struggling with a difficult problem is good for their intellectual development.

(2) Students are not always good judges of their own learning, especially if they are new to the subject they are studying.

(3) University students are not sufficiently exposed to active learning methods, and perhaps tend to assume that what is familiar to them from other courses (lectures) is what works.

All this is a reminder that is not enough simply to use effective learning methods with our students, we also need to make sure that they understand the benefits of these learning benefits to their present and future success.

A place for everything but nothing new under the sun.

The fourth myth which Daisy (Christodoulou) examines in Seven Myths About Education is the one that says that remembering things is unnecessary because the mechanisms exist to allow information to be looked up. Daisy points out at the beginning of her chapter on this myth that it did not originate with the invention of the internet but I still found myself raising an eyebrow when I came across evidence of its being pedalled in the late eighteenth century. In her quirky and fascinating book, A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order, Judith Flanders writes that the late 1700s saw ‘the emergence of a new phrase in the English language: ‘a walking encyclopaedia’.’ To be described thus was not a compliment. Indeed, it signified contempt for the person on whom it was bestowed, as one who did not understand that an excellent memory had been made redundant ‘by alphabetical order, by indexes, by catalogues and by encyclopaedias’. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who still believed in the value of memory, found himself the subject of much ribbing as a result. In Headlong Hall, his novel of 1816, Thomas Love Peacock features a Coleridge-like character called Mr Panscope, a ‘chemical, botanical, geological, astronomical, mathematical, metaphysical, meteorological, anatomical, physiological, galvanistical, musical, pictorial, bibliographical, critical philosopher, who had run through the whole circle of sciences, and understood them all equally well; that is, not at all’.

Of course, Socrates famously worried that the act of writing things down would degrade memory. Perhaps in saying this he was reacting to a version of the myth that existed even in his day. However old this false idea, it is surely time for it to be entirely abandoned. If you need any convincing on that point, I cannot recommend chapter four of Seven Myths About Education highly enough. And do read the rest of the book too.

Robert Cialdini, Influence: the psychology of persuasion

This book explores the subtle ways in which you can get people to do what you want.  Anyone who works in sales and, conversely, anyone who wants to avoid falling prey to cunning sales techniques, should read this book.  I have no intention of making a career move to salesperson but I do not like the idea of  being manipulated, and I learned a lot from Influence about the techniques and patter of which I should be wary.

I do not I like the idea of being a manipulator either but sometimes in teaching needs must.  If I can get a child to behave in a certain way without them even realising that I am using my influence that is surely a bonus?  Let’s ignore the irony that I have been influenced by this book to reconsider the way I, and others, do things in schools, and concentrate instead on the possible lessons from this book for teachers.

Lesson 1: People are more likely to commit to a contract they have completed themselves in pen and ink.  This made me wonder if rather than giving students printed behaviour contracts, we should be getting them to copy out our expectations for them.  At very least, they should probably be filling in their name several time on the contract (I, Delilah Fitzalan, will …) and writing a sentence at the end confirming their agreement to its provisions.  (Perhaps some schools already do this but nowhere I have worked has.)  Might this also suggest that children are more likely to fulfil academic targets they have copied them down themselves?  I went to a great Research Ed talk back in September 2018 given by Claire Hill and Rebecca Foster in which they advocated exactly this, partly for reasons of workload, and it is something I now do with my classes.  It not only saves me time but also makes my pupils more invested in meeting their targets, and that is a double bonus.

Lesson 2:  What you tell people, influences how they behave, even if its not true.  This finding comes from a study about charitable giving, which showed that if people were primed to think of themselves as charitable, they gave more money to charity.  Now, I don’t want to give pupils, or classes, false or empty praise but if regularly repeating that I see a group of students as hard working makes them exactly that, it would seem a sensible think to do.  This is perhaps one to start in Year 7, before it is in any way falsifiable.  Some schools do already have this as a de facto policy, of course, and regularly repeat mantras such as ‘at this school we work hard’.  In the past, I tended to be silent on such things whilst I got to know a pupil or class, but it is a policy I have changed lest I miss an opportunity to inculcate the behaviour that I want right from the start.

influence: The Psychology of Persuasion - Collins Business Essentials (Paperback)

How to make essays about learning not performance

Are essays about learning or performance?  About a year ago, I listened to a teacher at another school explaining how her students tended to believe the latter.  I knew without having to return to my school to conduct any focus groups, that my pupils would also think that way.  Since then, I have had conversations with several of my classes about this issue, hoping that I could get them to think differently.  I have not entirely succeeded but this is a hard one.  Essays by their very nature are the product of a lot of research, planning and thought (ideally, at least).  Their success hinges on choices made by their author: what reasons to discuss, what evidence to include, and what arguments to make.  How these arguments are justified is obviously crucial too.  All this makes an essay very personal and their author more likely to be sensitive to criticism made of it.

This sensitivity can make students less willing to take risks when writing essays, which hinders their intellectual development.  A bigger problem with seeing essays as performance pieces, though, is that students treat the comments made on them (or about them, if the feedback is verbal) as summative, rather than formative.  They might briefly take note of them but they will as quickly forget them.  How can we get students to engage more with the feedback we provide?

  • Require students to redraft work.  This has obvious benefits but it is not always practical.  Sometimes we need classes to move on more quickly than this will allow, particularly at GCSE and A Level.  I prefer pre-emptive versions of redrafting, such as compelling students to discuss a detailed essay plan with me before setting pen to paper and/or making them write and discuss one section of an essay with me before embarking on the rest of the task.
  • Unless students are preparing for public exams and need a clear idea of what level they are working at, avoid giving grades.  I have not found this to be transformative, sometimes students still don’t engage with the comments, even when required to write them out themselves, but it certainly helps.
  • Tell our pupils that we are not so much marking their essay as editing it.  They should think of what we write on (or say about) their work as pieces of advice, rather than a series of judgements.  The purpose of the advice being, of course, to broaden and deepen their thinking on the issue at hand.
  • Phrase our advice as questions, not comments.  Students tend to feel that if they have read a comment, it’s job done.  When confronted with a question, they understand that it is their job to respond to it – making the changes, corrections or additions it demands.
  • Set tasks not targets.  The latter can seem a bit nebulous – things to aspire to, at some vague point in the future.  The former are concrete.
  • Finally, make it a requirement that your pupils demonstrate that they have answered the questions you have asked.  Unless there is a fundamental problem with the original piece of work, students can simply provide these answers by making additional notes on the original piece of work.

S-J Blakemore, Inventing Ourselves: the secret life of the teenage brain

I didn’t think that this book was particularly about the teenage brain. It describes more generally how the brain grows, develops and changes throughout life, and provides scientific explanations for the behaviour of children, teenagers and adults.  This is fine, I suppose, and I may be thinking too much like an arts graduate here but, I am not sure how useful it is for teachers or parents to know, for example, that the reason the teenagers in their life are taking risks is because their limbic system and prefrontal cortex are developing at different rates.

There were, however, two sections of the book that did provoke my interest: one relevant to pastoral care and the other to brain training.  The first of these sections discusses a couple of large scale studies examining how far children and adults are influenced by the opinions of others.  These showed that young adolescents (12 to 14 year olds) are particularly swayed by what they are told to be the views of other teenagers.  Older adolescents (15 to 18 year olds) also care about what others of their generation think but place more faith in the views of adults than their younger counterparts.  One of the conclusions that Blakemore draws from this is that ‘health advertising aimed at young people, rather than focusing on the risks of dangerous behaviours such as smoking, binge-drinking and experimenting with drugs, should perhaps focus on social norms and peer influence’.  I can see this.  Thinking that a potential friend or love-interest finds the smell of cigarettes disgusting is probably more of an incentive to avoid tobacco than knowing that you might develop lung cancer at some unspecified time in the future.

Researchers at Yale and Princeton Universities made use of the finding that younger teenagers are especially mindful of the views of their contemporaries when conducting a trial for a new anti-bullying programme in 56 middle schools in New Jersey.  Half of all pupils at each school were allocated to the programme,  with the other half serving as a control group.  Those enrolled on the programme were ‘encouraged to lead grassroots anti-bullying campaigns’.  One such campaign involved students designing anti-bullying posters.  These were tagged with both the name and a picture of the student-artist, and then displayed around the school. The rationale behind this was to create a clear link between the anti-bullying message promoted by the poster and the named individual who had produced it.  Another student-led campaign encouraged participants to give out orange wristbands as rewards to fellow students ‘observed in engaging in friendly behaviours’.  The schools that took part in these pilot programmes reported a drop in reports of student-to-student conflict of up to 30%.  Follow-up studies that tracked individual students involved in the anti-bullying programmes suggested that the larger a student’s friendship group, the more strongly the programme had influenced them.  I liked the positive nature of this approach, and the results sound great but it would have been helpful to know what other systems these schools had in place for tackling bullying and if the impact of the programmes was transient or long lasting.  Also, as all well-informed teachers know, sometimes just focusing on something helps, and the value of a particular approach can be overstated.  Here, the focus on bullying could have made more of a difference than the grassroots nature of the campaigns.

The section of the book on brain training can be more briefly explained.  Blakemore and her colleagues were interested in whether cognitive skills were better learned at some stages in adolescence than others. To explore this they divided a group of 558 eleven to eighteen year olds into three groups, and gave each group training in one cognitive skill, either non-verbal reasoning, numerosity discrimination (this involved looking at ‘two groups of different coloured dots in quick succession on a computer screen [and judging] which group had the most dots’) or facial recognition.  Tests administered before and immediately after the training, as well as ones carried at sixth months later, provided two key pieces of information. (1) Training on non-verbal reasoning and numerosity improved performance but training on facial recognition yielded no gains.  (2) Older adolescents benefited most from the training.  Whilst this certainly does not suggest that education is wasted on the young, it does suggest that those of us in education need to be cautious about thinking ‘the earlier the better’.

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P. Agarwal and P.Bain, Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning

What I loved about this book were its many suggestions for how to do retrieval practice effectively. I use a lot of short answer quizzes and have certainly found these a powerful teaching tool but Agarwal and Bain will enable me to add further techniques to my reportoire.  Retrieval methods I am looking forward to trying out in lessons are:

  1.  Brain dumps (AKA free recall or stop and jot for those who can’t see themselves using the phrase ‘brain dump’ in their lesson) – halt your teaching and ask each student to write down as much they can remember from the content of the lesson.  Evidence suggests that doing this will increase a student’s ‘learning of past and future content’; their ability to organise their knowledge; their confidence with the material and their ‘inferential learning’.  Agarwal and Bain write that there is no need to collect in or read what students have written.   They do, however, suggest that it is useful for two students to compare the content of what they have written and discuss any similarities or differences in what they have remembered.  Presumably, there are times when it would also be helpful for students to check what they have written against the information in the textbook.
  2. Retrieve taking – rather than asking students to take notes as you teach, ask them to do this after you have finished speaking.  The same technique can be applied to taking notes from a book – read a section, close the book, jot down what you remember.
  3. Blast from the past – this is a easy way to revisit something you taught a while ago because all it requires is for students to pair up and discuss what they remember about that topic.
  4. Dice Game Strategy – put students in pairs and give each pair two dice and a numbered list of questions.  The students then take turns to roll the dice and answer the question related to the number rolled.  Since this would inevitably lead to some repetition of questions and answers, it would be particularly useful for key pieces of information you want all students to know really well.
  5. Retrieval cards – give each student four cards, each with a definition written on it.  Get them to write down the word defined, putting a * by it if they are sure their answer is correct and a ? if they are unsure.  Then get them to check ALL their answers in a textbook, verifying that the *s are correct and changing the ?s if necessary.  The student can then keep the cards to use for revision at a later date.
  6. Power tickets – these, which follow the format below, are a quick way of getting students to recall facts from a variety of topics.

Capture 2

One of the reasons the particular methods cited above are so powerful is that they directly engage all the students in the class.  This matters because research by Tauber, Witherby, Dunlosky et al has shown that doing retrieval practice in your head (merely thinking about the answer) does not lead to an increase in learning in the way that articulating or writing down the answer does.  Teachers need, therefore, to get all students actively engaged in recalling content and, as Agarwal and Bain have shown, that could not be easier.

Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning: Amazon.co.uk: Agarwal,  Pooja K., Bain, Patrice M.: Books

Cal Newport, How to become a straight A student: the unconventional strategies students use to score high while studying less

This book begins with the words: ‘This is not your average study guide.’  Indeed it isn’t and that’s not always a virtue.  How to become a straight A student contains a mixture of good study techniques, common sense and advice that I thought at best risky and at worst deplorable.  Let’s deal with the positives first.

Newport advocates some study techniques with proven effectiveness, such as using retrieval quizzes as part of your study programme.  He explains how to take effective lecture notes; how to read a book or an article for its argument; how to make best use of a library catalogue to find relevant reading; and how to plan an essay.  Newport provides extended examples to illustrate his points and encourages the reader to use these as opportunities to practise particular skills.  This is all very useful.

Also helpful are what I think of as the common sense tips in the book – things I think everyone should do naturally but which seem to elude many, and thus are certainly worth emphasising.  Amongst these are: use a diary to schedule your work; work away from distractions; don’t put off important tasks until the evening; don’t study for more than an hour at a time without a short break; and make sure there aren’t any gaps in your knowledge and understanding.  These tips form a significant part of the book, and specific guidance being given about how to do each of these things to best effect. Again, this is great.

Unfortunately, there were also times when reading this book made me want to put my head in my hands.  The following passage was one of those: ‘Many technical courses have assigned readings.  These are usually textbook chapters, and they typically focus on a specific technique or formula.  Don’t do this reading … Why?  Because the exact same material will be covered in class.  If you don’t understand the topic after it’s presented by the professor, then you can go back and use the reading to fill in the blanks.’  (Italics and bold type as in the original.)   This seems to assume a lot about what reading particular course tutors will set and their purpose in setting it.  Perhaps they will give their lecture assuming some that students have gained some prior knowledge from their reading, at which rate the lecture will simply be confusing for someone who has not done that reading?  Perhaps they have set reading which will complement their lecture?  Even if the lecture and the reading cover exactly the same material, from an academic point of view revisiting the material will be useful (a truth Newport acknowledges in other contexts in the book).

Another suggestion in this book of which I was wary was that of asking another student to explain a concept or idea with which you are struggling.  Yes, this might be useful but what if the student you ask does not understand the concept themselves and gives you an error strewn explanation?  Far better, surely, to ask someone who is genuinely an expert or consult a book you know to be accurate.

What was really depressing about this book, however, was the lack of any notion of learning being engaging and enjoyable.  Newport treats learning not as something to which you might want to devote time and mental effort but as something to be managed.  It my mind, I have retitled this book How to become a straight A student: a manual for jobsworths.          

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