The importance of Closing the Gap
by Tara McVey
The key idea behind our policy of ‘Closing the Gap’ is figuring out what the students don’t know and teaching them it. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that in principle...
Sometimes, as teachers, we don’t see the obvious; we do things because it seems like the best way and we simply don’t question it. Well, I think that marking is one of those things. It simply became an assumption that, the more you wrote in the student’s book, the better and somehow, as long as they responded to it, they were learning. Well, it took a conversation with a student focus group of very honest Year 10 students to get us to relook at how we marked and gave feedback. One of the students commented that being told, “in your next piece of work, you could do this” did not actually tell them how to do it. They knew what it was that they were supposed to do, so if they knew how they’d have done it in the first place. Another talked about self assessment saying, “We write what we could do better but we don’t get the time to actually do it.”
Andy Tharby, talking about feedback in his own English classroom, reiterates this idea. “Let’s say I write, ‘You need to use the possessive apostrophe accurately’ in a child’s exercise book. This is only useful if: a) he already knows and understands the concept of the possessive apostrophe, and b) the feedback reminds him to use the possessive apostrophe in his future writing. If these requirements are not met, then my written feedback will not solve the problem alone. Only focussed teaching and/or sustained practice over time will lead to a genuine improvement.”
So, if not for the students, who have we been marking for? Is it because we are good teachers who work hard, therefore we drag bags of books home at the weekend? Is it our way of showing our love for the students? Well, actually, I think it is a false love - we are doing because we have been told to - or because it is ‘what we do’. As busy teachers, it can take several days between the students completing a piece of written work and the teacher being able to sit down for several hours to ‘feedback’ on the whole set of books. By the time they get the feedback, they have moved on to something else. This does not help their learning. Jo Facer, talking about marking at Michaela says: ‘The thing is, what makes the difference in their writing is the quality of the feedback and how timely it is. They don’t need feedback on a paragraph they wrote two weeks ago.
As part of the workload challenge, the Government set up independent teacher workload review groups, one of which looked at marking. They commented that ‘It can be disjointed from the learning process, failing to help pupils improve their understanding. This can be because work is set and marked to a false timetable, and based on a policy of following a mechanistic timetable, rather than responding to pupils’ needs.’
I think much of the focus on feedback and marking as a key driver for progress came originally with the best of intentions from the EEF toolkit. However, the toolkit itself defines feedback as ‘information given to the learner and/or the teacher about the learner’s performance relative to learning goals.’ The notion that feedback can equally be seen as the information that the teacher gathers in order to inform their planning is one that is often missed.
So, what have we done about this? In September, we launched our new assessment policy as a feedback policy, based on the idea of ‘Closing the Gap’ between what they should know and what they do know. Teachers gather evidence about student progress through a variety of means, starting with the most immediate, in the lesson while it is taking place. If teachers do give specific feedback on an extended piece of work, the marking is coded with each code representing a specific gap. When the teacher has gathered sufficient evidence, they will teach a ‘Closing the Gap’ lesson which is planned around the individual needs of the students in front of them. Instead of spending their time marking, we want teachers to spend their time planning, so that our students will know how.
To take it to its simplest, we are figuring out what they don’t know and teaching them it. I don’t think anyone can argue with that.
Workload Challenge - Eliminating Unnecessary workload around marking.