Like many schools, we have spent some time focusing on how we challenge our most able pupils. With this in mind, we made this a focus of our most recent work scrutiny activity and looked at books of the most able pupils in Years 7, 8 and 9. Our aim was to answer the above question – how well does the feedback we give support our most able pupils? Within this, we asked the following sub-questions:
- Is there evidence of high challenge in exercise books? What does this look like?
- Is marking and feedback used to stretch the most able?
- Is there evidence of exemplar work at the top grades?
- Are pupils given the opportunity to improve their work based on this feedback?
Admittedly, the last two questions are rather leading as these have been focal points for us as a school.
At the end of a day looking through hundreds of exercise books, I was left with the following thoughts about how feedback could/should support the most able pupils.
1. Finding the Breaking Point
This is an idea I recently discussed with a Head of Department at our school, and was very evident in the exercise books I looked at. The question to ask is, ‘How often do we increase the challenge of the work until we find the things that pupils can’t do?’. In the books of our most able pupils I found a lot of correct answers, but not many wrong ones. On the surface this might seem like a good thing, but I wonder if the challenge can possibly be high enough when pupils complete pages and pages of exercises without a single mistake. As the value of wrong answers is well established, do we need to increase our focus on finding the wrong answers rather than the right ones? How else are pupils to know which areas require greater focus and attention?
2. Glimpses of Excellence
Another question I ended up asking myself a lot was ‘How do I know what makes a perfect answer in [subject]?’. We’ve spoken a lot about modelling answers for exam classes, but how often do we give pupils really shining examples of responses at KS3? There seems to me, no better or more time-effective way of making our standards and expectations clear to pupils. In addition to this, I think that preparing models is a really valuable form of teacher learning and lesson preparation.
3. Asking Questions / Making Demands
As a school we have developed a (very healthy) habit of marking using questions. This is a fantastic step forward in terms of pupil engagement, particularly where proper time is given to this in the lessons that follow. The key question arising from the books was, ‘Are the questions we ask in our marking targeted at moving pupils to the next grade (particularly at the top end)?’ If they are then they should require pupils to perform at a higher level in order to provide an answer. If they don’t demand this of pupils then do they serve the purpose of moving learning forward?