Lesley Hill, headteacher of NACE member Lavender Primary School in North London, explains how the school’s approach to marking and feedback has evolved alongside the development of a strong learning mindset culture.

Our marking and feedback policy cannot stand alone. It only works because we have embedded the learning culture on which it depends.

About five years ago, we were proudly using assessment for learning (AfL) strategies, such as no hands up, colourful cups, and thumbs up, thumbs down and thumbs somewhere in between. None of this was particularly useful for those learners who were unable to be honest about where they were in their understanding. This became apparent to me during a Year 2 literacy lesson. I shook my lolly-stick pot and was ready to pick a child to answer my question, when a higher achiever visibly shuddered. That said it all.

We turned to the work of Carol Dweck and immediately introduced growth mindset, understanding that higher-achieving children can often be those with the most fixed mindsets, causing barriers to learning.

Developing skills for effective learning

We knew that embedding a growth mindset culture was essential, but we also realised very quickly that the skills of being a good learner had to be taught too. A school full of determined children chanting (albeit sweetly) “We can do it!” doesn’t necessarily mean better outcomes. We introduced themes around Guy Claxton’s work, Learning to Learn, and our children learnt to be resourceful and reflective, as well as resilient.

We also understood that if children were truly going to understand where they were as learners, we needed to examine our success criteria. Hours had been spent trying to put English success criteria into a hierarchical order with a must, a should and a could. Whilst our lower-achieving children stayed safely with the “musts”, some of the higher-achievers completed the “should” and “coulds” and missed some basic “musts” altogether. We ditched MSC for toolkits, after attending a Pie Corbett course.

Giving children ownership of their learning

The same training also prompted us to establish cooperative reviews, which offer a focused and structured peer assessment strategy. We have trained our children to give effective feedback and to have useful discussions around their learning. This is key. Our current marking policy includes lots of peer assessment and reflection, which begins to give ownership to the child. We firmly believe that ownership of learning impacts positively on children’s motivation to challenge themselves.

This ownership was previously promoted by allowing learners to choose their own level of maths tasks, where they would be encouraged to make decisions about the levels of challenge they could manage. We have since bought a Singapore Maths scheme; the reflective approach and decisions around which strategy to use to solve a problem fit perfectly with challenge and ownership.

Learners also have ownership over the marking of maths. The answers are on the tables and learners check after solving a few problems. If they have some wrong, they will unpick the steps they have gone through to understand where they have made an error or have a misconception. This deeper-level thinking can enable them to change their approach to get a solution. Should they not be able to see where they have gone wrong, the teacher will step in to guide or re-teach through a face-to-face conference.

Moving on from written marking

Conferences have taken the place of written marking. It was apparent to us for some time that reams of written marking or rows of ticks and dots, carried out away from the learning context and delivered back the next day, was, at best, hard for children to relate to and, at worst, a meaningless waste of time. With teacher workload high on the agenda, our decision to stop written marking altogether, for every subject, was not difficult to make. Our children already owned their learning, they knew how to self- and peer-assess effectively, and they were reflective, resilient and skilled learners. It was an easy step to hand over the pen.

Our marking and feedback procedure is simple. Children mark their own work according to the success criteria and they write a reflection on their learning – commenting on their understanding, successes and difficulties. They are also challenged to consider how they have approached the work and what they might do differently. Teachers look at the books every day and identify where there is a need to support or extend children’s learning. They plan in targeted 1:1 or group conferences for the following day, or hold spontaneous conferences, to address misconceptions, clarify points and extend thinking. During conference discussions, children are encouraged to consider where they have met their targets and to choose new ones, and to talk about the reflections they have made.

Children’s reflections are a window to their understanding, not just of concepts, but of themselves as learners. They provide teachers with far greater insight than a piece of work on its own and thus teachers can cater far more effectively for each child’s needs. Our approach to marking is not a stand-alone. It is an extension to the learning culture we have worked to create: a culture of learners who can recognise and be honest about where they are, who know where they need to go, and who are not afraid to share the responsibility for getting there.

Lesley Hill is headteacher of Lavender Primary School, a popular two-form entry school in North London, part of the Ivy Learning Trust and a member of NACE. She has taught across the primary age range and has also worked in adult basic education and on teacher training programmes. Her current role includes the design and delivery of leadership training at middle and senior leader level, and she also provides workshops on a range of subjects, such as growth mindset and marking. Her forthcoming book, Once Upon a Green Pen, explores approaches to create the right school culture.

How does your school approach marking and feedback? What new initiatives have you introduced, and why? How is feedback used to challenge and support more able learners in your school? To share a case study with the NACE community, get in touch.

Read more: log in to our members’ area to access the NACE Essentials guide to learning mindset, and the accompanying webinar.
Tuesday, February 27, 2018