The book that most inspired me this year was Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence. I decided if I was going to try one new thing in the classroom that would really make a difference to pupils it should be his ideas about focused critique and redrafting as I wanted to see if I could make a difference to my pupils’ perceptions of when a piece of work was ‘finished’.
I started the year by showing each of my classes the famous video of Austin’s Butterfly and introducing the concept of DIRT time.
Interestingly, my Year 7 and 8 classes got the idea straight away. They were blown away by the quality of Austin’s final butterfly drawing and the progress he had made and we had productive discussions about the value of redrafting and not giving up .Initially, however, they did not fully appreciate the strong connection between the quality of the feedback given and Austin’s capacity to improve his work.
With my older classes, the first viewing of the video was not as successful. They were dismissive of the idea that they had anything to learn from a six year old and could not see past this. I left it and then showed them the video again immediately preceding their next DIRT session. This time I was more insistent that they engaged with the ideas being presented.
Teenage DIRT bags
My next step was to make up DIRT bags to hand out to each table of four every time we were engaged in writing or redrafting. These contain a green pen for each pupil, an A3-size pupil-friendly version of the reading and writing levelled assessment focus levels for English and two laminated cards, one giving instructions on how to do good self-assessment and a similar one for critique (I chose to use this term with all my classes interchangeably with peer assessment).
The self-assessment card is headed HOW TO GREEN PEN YOUR WORK and contains a checklist of the different SPAG features pupils need to check before I will read their work – they have learned that I will not read anybody’s work unless I can see self-corrections in green pen on it already.
The peer assessment card contains explicit instructions on how to give good critique, focusing on the three key points: be kind, be constructive and be specific and giving examples of the difference between good and bad critique.
Peer Assessment Card
I finished every DIRT session by getting pupils to feed back to the class examples of helpful or not so helpful critique they had received from their classmates and explaining how they had changed their work in response to this critique. As a result, we gradually built up an expectation in pupil’s minds that they had an entitlement to receive specific and helpful critique that was linked to the success criteria for the work in progress. By examining examples of bad critique as a class, we also built up an understanding of what was not helpful so comments like ‘your handwriting isn’t very good’ were gradually cut down on if not entirely eliminated.
Another important facet of this approach proved to be getting pupils to sign their critique. This not only encouraged them to take ownership of the feedback they were giving, but also ensured that when marking students’ work subsequent to a critique session I was able to give feedback on the quality of the critique. This then led on to my next step, which was to create a new role for pupils who had proved the quality of their critique. I called these pupils Peer Assessment Leaders.
I rolled out the Peer Assessment Leader concept initially in Year 8, and quickly had 12 pupils whose critiques merited having the purple Peer Assessment Logo on their folders. I then used these pupils as a resource during DIRT sessions, asking other pupils to have their work checked by a PAL before starting to correct or redraft it. When marking work, I photographed particularly good examples of critique and created a display board that pupils could refer to if they needed guidance on improving their critique.
By the end of the year all my Key Stage 3 classes were using critique confidently to improve their work, although my Year 8 class were still by far the most skilled. My end of year data showed very good progress right across each class group, at least part of this is attributable to the way in which pupils were able to use critique to improve their work.
Looking at how I could improve my approach for next time around, I think the key difference between the Year 7 and 8 classes and my older classes in terms of how well they engaged with the process was down to the amount of time I felt able to spend on the redrafting of work in class. With the younger classes I had more freedom to focus on improving writing so we took our big pieces of work slowly, whereas the sheer volume of work that needed to be got through with other year groups precluded this approach. Next time, I will make redrafting as we go along a higher priority and also incorporate more opportunities for slow writing into our classwork.