By Catherine Steel

Every school day, educators are actively encouraging children to ‘reflect on their learning’, respond to feedback and improve their work. But what does all of this mean and what’s the point?

I’m sure many adults and children alike will have had their own advent calendars and waited excitedly in anticipation of what was behind each door, but are doors and barriers always exciting and how do we overcome them?

Growth Mindset – You can do it if you think you can!

An ancient Roman myth told the story of Janus, God of beginnings and transitions and therefore, doors, gates, passages and endings. He is shown as having two heads; one looking forwards to the future and the other looking back to the past.

This led me to thinking about Carol Dweck’s work around having a ‘Can Do’ attitude and a growth mindset. By encouraging children to believe in themselves, we are promoting a positive approach to thinking and learning, not just in school, but in life. Creating a learning environment where it is safe, and even encouraged, to make mistakes, children will push themselves and rise to challenges without fear of getting it wrong or being told off.

Such an environment and mindset, naturally leads to independence in daily activities.

Encouraging Independence

Throughout my career, I have worked in various year groups and Key Stages, but the success I’ve had is largely down to making the children believe that they can do it by themselves. They might not always get it right, but they are confident enough to have a go in the first place, which in my book, is the best way to learn.

When activities are planned to be as flexible and open as possible, thus allowing the children to lead the learning, they will automatically engage with each other through talk. Discussion, reasoning, sharing of ideas and negotiation are only some of the wonderful skills I’ve witnessed over the years. Children of all ages really do begin to view each other as sources of help first before asking an adult.

Key Stage Two children often prove what they have learned in the lesson through use of mini plenaries and exit passes. However, in Key Stage One and Early Years, it can be harder for the children to evidence what they have been doing, especially if they have been independently accessing provision while the adults are doing focused activities. Last year, I trained my Year One children to take photos of their work (including playdough models, Lego creations and all) so that when I asked, ‘What learning have you done today?’ they could show me. To take this a step further, I would use a visualiser to show the photos to the whole class and allow the children to explain their work to celebrate it together. Even without the use of technology, it would be possible to adapt this approach for all year groups.

Working walls are another useful source of information and a way for children to check their work, but eventually there comes a point when all the work is complete and it needs to be marked.

Marking and Feedback

Every night, teachers across the globe mark countless pieces of work to hand back to the children, but how can we ensure the quality of what is said and are children ever given an adequate chance to respond?

Ultimately, the purpose of marking work is to give feedback to each pupil about the work they have done. Often, teachers give children instant feedback verbally throughout an activity, but it is then lost without trace. A useful way of acknowledging this is to put ‘VF’ (verbal feedback) on their work. I have also seen teachers share a sample of work within a small group and discuss what is good about it, what could be improved and record it to be photocopied for each child in the group as evidence of the feedback.

Lots of schools seem to use the stars and a wish system or something similar, again sharing an example of work from the session and discussing what is good and how the individual can improve it further. This notion of using past experiences and knowledge to improve something in the future is a useful tool when unlocking the next door on their learning journey.

By the end of the year, I found that a class of five and six-year-olds could peer mark effectively and provide next steps. Even children who initially struggled were able to verbally explain face to face or record on a talking postcard and leave it with the work for the owner to access.

Having trained children to peer mark, I really can see the advantages of this. Once adults have modelled what to look for in work across a range of subject areas, the children pick up how to do it. This, in addition to careful teaching of how to mark and what to look for, really enhances the quality of the work being produced.

We used green highlighter pen for great things and orange for things to improve. Initially, I found that children would mark everything green just because they could. However, through constant practice, they became good at marking by using the shared success criteria.

The key was to allow time for the children to read or listen to the next steps, discuss how to make it even better and then respond to the feedback provided.

Another chance for responding to feedback, particularly at primary is through use of another colour pen or pencil crayon. We used the ‘Purple Pen of Progress’, but I am aware that other schools have a variation along the same theme. Again, through practice and training, children are given the chance to show that they can improve their work and also answer any challenges that may have been set as an extension. In my experience, it helps them to remember to use these features in future work as they have had time to practice using new skills. This constant use of shared successes and learning from mistakes in order to improve has a real impact on learning of all ages.

The next time you find yourself chasing your tail, remember this quote by Kemmy Nola, “No one can change the past. Whatever we think we are right now is the reflection of whatever we did yesterday, but we can exert ourselves vigorously to be the best in the future”.

Click here to read this article free in the January 2015 Edition of UKEdMagazine

Catherine Steel is currently working in schools in Bradford and Leeds, looking at implementing the computing curriculum. With a keen interest in using technology to enhance learning, find her on Twitter at @TaffTykeC.

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