“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Albert Einstein

I might have been tad overly optimistic at the end of last week’s post on using strategies from Andy Tharby and Shaun Allison’s ‘Making Every Lesson Count’: “Regardless, I skipped out of school on Friday afternoon like Mr Du Beke himself.” Now don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed a week of experimenting with a range of their strategies and could see the visible impact on student learning (trust me – it would be the best £12.99 you spend for quite some time!) Yet the “skip” was severely hampered, reduced to a mere energetic amble, by the sack of two sets worth of lively articles defending the reputation of young people. Two sets of books that I knew would take a sizeable and depressing chunk out of my weekend.

Now fear not, this is not yet another impassioned and sweaty marking rant, nor indeed is it a dramatic call for marking to be consigned to the teaching and learning dustbin – nestled beside the woeful and lonely word search. I firmly believe in the importance of marking and do lots and lots of it. Yet I find myself growing increasingly frustrated by what I perceive to be my own inability to translate the hours of effort into meaningful results for students. It is eating up my time but not eating into visible learning outcomes. To often the ‘response to marking’ sections of lessons are perfunctory at best and at worst, a waste of vital learning time. I also worry that I am developing a culture of complacency and that my students are not armed with strategies to regulate and reflect on the efficacy of their writing.

So, at the risk of incurring a ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ restraining order, I have turned once more (for the last time – although I could continue this for weeks!) to the reassuring hands of Allison and Tharby. My aim: that the time invested in feedback (in its numerous forms) would result in tangible improvement in the writing of these Year 9 students. That by the end of this feedback cycle they have improved their writing and have a greater ownership of this writing style.

Stage one: Self regulation:

“Young people must not become slaves to feedback. We want them to become self-regulating learners, able to review their own work” ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ pg 192

The sack of workbooks and I had an early Saturday morning face off, unfortunately for them I won. They returned to the sack, sulking for the rest of the weekend and growing dust while I frolicked. Instead of pretending to skim read lots of read both my Year 9 groups started what I called their ‘Reflection Lesson’ on Monday morning with the ‘Pernickety Proof Read’.  First the students numbered their lines and paragraphs, a simple trick to ensure that they could identify exactly which areas of their writing were strong or needed development. They then had a section of this initial lesson to read over their work, paired with a PowerPoint with a range of common errors they had been making. I also showed them these brilliant examples of George Orwell editing the opening of ‘1984’  and we discussed the importance of crafting writing.

I liked the notion of the highlighter “prowl” in ‘Making Every Lesson Count’, and to make this slightly less menacing I used a particularly ornate pink highlighter and warned them of the humiliation of having pink circles in their workbooks for sloppy errors. Amused me, not sure they shared it first thing on Monday morning. I particularly liked the spacing element of this task, allowing students to return to a piece of work after time to reflect on it carefully. This student has got rather excited with the thesaurus, but she is clearly thinking hard about the intended impact on readers: certainly not “lethargic” indeed:

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The students then did their ‘Scintillating success’ section of the lesson, identifying their most effective sentence and most effective paragraph from their numbered lines and paragraphs. I had to swat away (with the pink highlighter, obviously) a few cries of “you tell me, sir!” Useful stuff: refining their ability to recognise what quality writing in this style is. We then shared some examples and students had to justify why their chum had identified that as their strongest.

Stage two: Peer assessment

“Gallery Critique, as introduced to us in Ron Berger’s ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ is a much more attractive option” pg 185

I have done lots of gallery style sharing before, but never with the level of thought and scaffolding that I used it this week. We first discussed and rationalised the following criteria, taken directly from ‘Making Every Lesson Count’:

Kind: I really like the way you/ Excellent use of/The most successful thing about this was…/I enjoyed reading this because…

Specific: In the first/second/third paragraph/line…I think line/paragraph is difficult to understand and could include…Your sentence/paragraph was…

Helpful: Think about adding/Think about taking away/Have you thought about/To improve try…

I then gave them the example of a student’s I had completed and copied previously. I hoped this would provide structure and ensure more detail in the peer comments:


Off they went, with some time to look at a number of different examples. For a first attempt the students struggled with this, with the conventionally vague or pointless comments that can often shatter any peer assessment validation: “I really like your article” is a disappointing finale:

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I do think that this will get more sophisticated and detailed with more training and development, particularly with frequently modelling examples and discussing as a whole class. I was interested in how useful students found this as a learning experience, so asked them to jot down some thoughts at the end of the lesson. There were some inevitable comments about just wanting my feedback and finding it confusing, but there were some more thoughtful comments relating to feelings of increased understanding of ideas and knowledge what a good piece looked like.

Stage Three:  Individual Improvement Tasks

“Present a slide that links an improvement task to a specific target that you have written in the student’s book – shortened to a T code” ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ pg 175

Fine, we have had a lovely reflection lesson, but now I did need to mark them. So I came up with a list of targets that I felt would relate to the student’s tasks, having spent a lot of the peer lesson circulating and ‘live marking’ while students read their own or each others. Importantly I also talked to students about their work while this lesson was going on, perhaps the most under nourished and useful form of feedback! The criteria:

  • T1: Use a wider range of vocabulary.
  • T2: Use a range of sentence starters.
  • T3: Use a range of adverbs to convey confidence.
  • T4: Build in a wider range of techniques.
  • T5: Check your spelling carefully.
  • T6: Develop the detail of paragraphs and arguments.
  • T7: Try to develop links between paragraphs.

Now these T’s look delightful but aren’t really much use as a mechanism of feedback on their own, as is made clear in ‘Making Every Lesson Count’. The students would write down their T then look expectantly up, unaware at this stage exactly how to apply them to their work. So I also created T1, a marking support sheet (which took around fifteen minutes) and copied to return to students in the response to marking lesson. This provided scaffolds for each of the targets. I then spent less than five minutes on each response, reading, checking for any missed errors, noting some positives in a summative comment and adding in their T targets. Students got the response back and spent some time correcting spellings and developing words.

I did want something more substantial from this however, so the students identified from marking and their self and peer assessment what their weakest paragraph was. I then asked a particular amenable young chap if I could type up what he perceived to be his weakest paragraph  so we could develop it as a class. Cue some interesting whole class writing, with students chipping in to develop this paragraph:

Young teenagers have no empathy? Ridiculous. I am outraged by this statement. Do you really think I need an empathy lesson? The adult generation are nothing but a clan of hypocrites.

To this:

Young teenagers have no empathy? Ridiculous! I am absolutely outraged by the complete generalisation and stereotype implied in this statement. Do you really think that I, a delightful member of the teenager race whose middle name is empathy, really require an empathy lesson? Let us be honest: how much empathy do the zombie like adults possess? They are nothing but a clan of ludicrous hypocrites!

Having deconstructed what was improved about this paragraph, off they went to work  to improve their paragraphs, using the marking, peer assessment and marking support sheet for their targets. This student’s initial paragraphs and improvements (note the self corrections after the minute worth of pernickety proof read at the end!)

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This response was representative of a significant number from the group: more detailed, more sophisticated in its structure, more varied in vocabulary use and more appropriate in style. From a response to marking process this degree of improvement is an experience I have had very  rarely. The three important lessons I will take moving forward:

  1. Marked work should only be meaningful extended pieces, that have emotional investment from students and are the end product of a series of lessons.
  2. Coupling self, peer and teacher marking is hugely beneficial and develops student autonomy and pride in work. This was yet another validation of the slow teaching strategies I wrote about in this post.
  3. Targets need modelling and support to ensure consequential improvement in student work. The time invested in writing a support sheet is much more helpful than slavishly repeating superficial marking comments. This, aligned the T target system is a sensible, pragmatic and quick approach to marking.

Now I am very aware that this was a project that spanned over two lessons, was heavily scaffolded and modelled. Yet Key Stage Three and Year 9 is surely the time to invest in doing these kinds of projects, so that students are trained in the process and can move into GCSE study confident in how to reflect meaningfully on their own and other’s work. Importantly it ensures they are clear in how to write in this style effectively before moving on.

Now Mr Einstein was clearly a bright chap and in his opening gambit to this post he was obviously sharing his reflections on the marking cycle. Marking deserves similar microscopic detailed level of reflection and experimentation as all other aspects of teaching. Endlessly repeating the same tired marking methods and the churning out of red pen strewn student work does nobody any good. Shame that my better half isn’t quite sharing my enthusiasm/obsession with ‘Making Every Lesson count’ or indeed buying Einstein’s wisdom regarding the weekend cleaning! Duty calls,  thank you for reading!




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