Saturday 16 November 2013

GangA*star INSET day: Self- and peer-evaluation

Canons High School GangA*star INSET day – Thursday 3rd October 2013

Self- and peer-evaluation session

One of my very talented colleagues from the CHS English department and I, a Modern Languages teacher and Pedagogy Leader (@tommegit), organised and ran a workshop for staff at CHS as part of the INSET day which was focused upon challenge and stretch (with the ultimate aim of increasing the number of students achieving  A/A* grades), and our particular focus was on self- and peer-evaluation. It was a wonderful opportunity to hear different staff members’  perspectives on these different forms of evaluation, coming from a wide range of subject areas and distinct classroom experiences; so wonderful in fact, that it has inspired me to reflect on it now and share it through the Canons Broadside blog!

After an excellent introduction to the aims and desired outcomes of the day’s INSET by one of our high-achieving Year 13 students, who already has an impressive set of exam results and qualifications under his belt, staff went off in groups to take part in two themed workshops that they had chosen in advance. Each workshop focused on a particular area of pedagogy that could be viewed as an integral part of helping students aspire to achieve to the highest standard. The hope was that these sessions would get us to delve deeper into the thought process of what it is we are doing as pedagogues to help our students to be the best they can be; to push them beyond what is expected of them by others, beyond what their minimum target grade says they ‘should’ be getting. We want to inspire our students to aim for the top and to strive to be better than they are expected to be.

Elsewhere around the school, thought-provoking workshops were taking place, each focusing on different aspects of teaching and learning that we felt played an important part in meeting the needs of our high attaining students. The themes of the workshops covered a good  mix of core teaching techniques, including scaffolding, questioning, group learning, investigation and enquiry, the use of SOLO taxonomy and the ‘Flipped Classroom’. Actually, looking back on the range of sessions that we had running during this INSET day, I’m very jealous that I couldn’t go around to see all of them! But in actual fact, I was extremely lucky myself to be part of some of the most stimulating conversations I’ve ever had about teaching and learning, and sharing our thoughts on how we go about supporting the students we teach to be successful evaluators in their own learning.

To get the ball rolling, staff in our workshop wrote down on their mini-whiteboards (an old favourite of mine!) one thing that they found particularly useful when receiving feedback from another member of staff, more than likely to be a line manager, after a lesson observation, for example. That could have been a specific comment that they had received in the past, or the way in which the feedback was given. Some staff prefer it when they are given practical tips and examples of good practice that will help them move forward. Others prefer more of a coaching technique, whereby they are encouraged to formulate their own ways forward after a reflective discussion with their observer.

What all staff seemed to agree on, however, was that in order to get the most out of an appraisal situation, there needs to be dialogue, discussion, two-way communication, questions, more questions, and fundamentally, agreement between both parties. Everyone is different, and individual preferences will vary, but it is good to identify some common ground when investigating what makes for productive evaluation. And by and large, teachers know what is expected of them by their students, by their colleagues, by their line managers, by published teaching standards, and by other external bodies (not mentioning any names!). But can the same be said for the children we teach?

Discussion moved on to identifying the strengths and limitations of teacher-, peer- and self-evaluation. In groups of three or four, staff gave well-balanced interpretations of when and how each should be incorporated into our lessons.

The groups who concentrated on teacher-evaluation identified the key advantage is that we, the teachers, are the subject specialists, the experts, meaning that we are suitably equipped with the appropriate knowledge to provide relevant, targeted feedback and feed-forward to our learners, guiding them in the right direction. Furthermore, when we provide the feedback, it is relatively quick, and it provides us with an opportunity to check progress, which then goes towards planning our future lessons. However, it came across very clearly from our staff that this was perhaps not the most effective form of evaluation in terms of the students really learning from feedback comments.

So how might peer-evaluation be better? Staff felt that it is beneficial to allow students to get together and discuss want is going well and what can be improved. A striking resemblance to what staff said made for effective evaluation in their own professional development. The key difference here, though, is that perhaps our students don’t know how to give high quality feedback on their peers’ work. Often, students can be overly generous or particularly stingy when marking other people’s work, and many are influenced by complex social relationships that naturally occur within every classroom setting. This went on to raise the question, ‘How important is it to model peer feedback’?

Finally, as far as self-evaluation is concerned, similar points arose from discussion. Allowing students to evaluate their own progress can lead to better literacy and articulation, it can help students to review their efforts, and improve their self-esteem. But all of this is reliant on the clarity and purposefulness of the success criteria with which they are using to evaluate themselves and/or their peers. It is evident that students need to be trained in giving constructive feedback that will help themselves and others to move forward in their thinking, in an effort to move them away from giving superficial comments such as ‘Your handwriting is very neat’, or ‘You have written a lot. Well done’!

Many teachers have noticed that students tend to focus more on what they have managed to get right or do well in their work, and tend to ignore what it is that they have got wrong, or have neglected to include in their work. Whilst it is obviously important to acknowledge on what has been done effectively and praise the positive elements, it is equally important, indeed essential, to require our students to explore what can be done to raise the standard of work towards fulfilling the top bands of success criteria, in order to challenge our students and provide them with the opportunity to be as successful as they possibly can be.

So how can we train our students to close  the gap between their original piece of work (first draft) and a higher quality piece of work after acting upon feedback (final draft)? At this point, I’d like to recommend reading two excellent blog posts that discuss these themes further: the first posted by Tom Sherrington, Making feedback count: “Close the gap”; the second posted by Harry Fletcher Wood, Closing the gap marking – give them a read, they’re very insightful!

As our group discussions developed, teachers were full of wonderful ideas of how to get students to provide, as well as act upon, constructive feedback for improving their work. Ideas included role-modelling constructive feedback dialogue, sharing model answers with a clear feedback commentary, sharing key success criteria with students, allowing them to be the examiners by providing students with mark schemes, and training students as experts or ‘lead learners’ in particular areas of work, based on their own strengths.

One colleague went into more detail about using expert groups of students and ‘lead learners’. Imagine setting up the classroom so that, on different groups of desks, you have different groups of expert students focussing on one particular area of evaluation (e.g. checking correct use of subject-specific terminology, checking the structure of paragraphs, checking grammar and punctuation, checking that relevant sources have been used to back up an argument, etc.). Pieces of work can then rotate around the different groups of experts, and on each rotation, they add Post-it ® notes with a targeted piece of feedback from their particular area of expertise to help the recipient improve their work on re-draft. This is an idea that I am keen to develop in my own MFL classroom, particularly with my GCSE classes when, during Stage 2 of their Writing and Speaking Controlled Assessments, the teacher is no longer permitted to provide students with support.

An issue that we discussed surrounding these ideas was that, potentially, providing students with mark schemes and success criteria can back-fire owing to the formal and often ambiguous language used in these sorts of documents. If, for example, one of the bands in a mark scheme explains how to award a certain number of marks for “an appropriate response”, well, what on earth does appropriate mean or look like?! It can sometimes be a challenge for teachers to consistently and accurately interpret some mark schemes, so I truly feel for our students on that front. It simply highlights the importance of making these kinds of documents accessible to our learners by adapting the language in mark schemes and success criteria so that it is more student-friendly and less alien.

We felt that it was essential to ensure that success criteria is well built up for students, allowing for clear progression and encouraging more complex compositions. It needs to be framed within a real context, in order to bring a piece of work to life and for it to carry more meaning for the students. They need to be able to interact and engage with the criteria rather than feel threatened by it. We discussed how adding SOLO Taxonomy symbols (pre-structural, uni-structural, multi-structural, relational, extended abstract) to each band of the success criteria could help students to meet this end. We also felt that we need to let our students practise marking on their own, then discussing the thought process behind their marking with a partner or small group, encouraging them to find evidence from the piece of work to support their decisions, before sharing it with the rest of the class (think, pair, square, share). Although this can be a daunting experience for students the first few times they try this, the group believed that having open forum discussions in this way will help raise their confidence and make them feel more familiar with and comfortable using marking criteria.

As the workshop was reaching its conclusion, I asked the group to write down a reflective comment or further question to consider on their mini-whiteboards as a way of consolidating what had been discussed around using different evaluation strategies to stretch and challenge our students, and I’d like to round off this blog post by sharing some of their extremely high quality reflections:

·         ‘If students are not trained properly how to peer-assess then this may affect the quality of the feedback and feed-forward’;

·         ‘It is important that time is dedicated to training students to peer-evaluate effectively. This should start at Key Stage 3’;

·         ‘Self-evaluation should be built in Key Stage 3 so that they can be trained for Key Stage 4. This will help push the A/A* students to think about their work’;

·         ‘Is giving model answers to students a good idea? Does it challenge them or does it help to spoon feed? I am undecided’;

·         ‘Asking us to consider the pros and cons of self-, peer- and teacher-evaluation made me realise how essential the first two are in ensuring students really understand how to improve – they involve thinking and doing, rather than receiving ‘wisdom’ from the teacher – active rather than passive learning’;

·         ‘Need to make criteria student-friendly. Close the gap. Key words in a good answer. Illustrate the criteria’;

·         ‘Allowing more time to share and reflect on the feedback when it’s been given’;

·         ‘Evaluation is effective in increasing the number of A/A* grades – the issue is that we need to take a variety of approaches to evaluation. Sometimes self, then peer, and of course teacher. Peer-evaluation and use of the micro-teacher very effective!!’;

·         ‘Making time at the start of the lesson to respond to marked work’;

·         ‘How do we make grade criteria easier to access for our students without removing challenge?’;

·         ‘Ensure students act upon feedback by regularly revisiting and reviewing their progress. Small achievable targets leading to incremental gains for all students’.

This variety of reflection reminds me of the challenges that face our school, or any school for that matter, in ensuring that we, as practitioners, have the time and space to digest this food-for-thought and consider what best suits us as individuals in our own unique teaching situations, whilst at the same being provided with the supportive frameworks to allow us to learn from, and with, each other.

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