Last year when I began my Masters of Ed, my lecturer told me that I should read about ‘feedback’. She encouraged me to look at the work of Black and Wiliam (Inside the Black Box being their most well known and eloquent paper on feedback and assessment), Hattie (his book Visible Learning on the effect sizes of a variety of teaching methods revealed ‘feedback’ has the most significant impact on learning) and Petty (who used the research of Hattie and made it practical for the classroom in his book ‘Evidence Based Teaching’). I think I’ll always be grateful for her suggestions as they opened a world of ideas for me regarding assessment, feedback and project-based learning.
One of the biggest criticisms of project-based learning is that it is a constructivist pedagogy and constructivism has been shown to have some flaws. Pretty significant flaws as well, the biggest being that ultimately students don’t learn as well using these approaches as they do with a teacher-centred pedagogy like ‘whole class interactive teaching’ which gets one of the highest effect sizes according to Hattie. Project-based learning shouldn’t be lumped in to the same category as other ‘inquiry’ learning approaches, or even problem-based learning, because project-based learning is a method that has been refined and strengthened over many years of practical teacher research – trial and error. The popular BIE method of PBL has a strong structure and relies heavily on formative assessment to track student learning and progress. Research into project-based learning (PBL) “has found that students who engage in this approach benefit from gains in factual learning that are equivalent or superior to those of students who engage in traditional forms of instruction” (Barron and Darling-Hammond, 2008, p. 2).(One must also keep in mind that Hattie’s data is drawn from a meta-analysis of standardized test data … that is, the research data he is analysing is actually from the tests we hate.)
So the focus here then, is on assessment again. Barron’s (1998) study of project-based learning using a longitudinal case study of 5th graders found that, given timely feedback as part of their PBL experience, students took “advantage of the opportunity to revise” (p. 304). Moreover, Barron concluded that an “emphasis on formative assessment and revision” (p. 305) is central to PBL. And I have to agree with him. So, enough with the wanky academic quotes – let’s get to the real classroom practice stuff. How does quality feedback work in the classroom? Well there’s more than one way to skin a cat but I’m just going to show you my way … er, not how to skin a cat of course – that was a metaphor.
My students have been working on some written responses to texts as part of their lastest projects. Sounds thrilling, huh? But we can’t confuse project-based learning with shiny products that draw a crowd and make them go ‘ahhh’. Nope, project-based learning is just as applicable to fun stuff like film reviews and essays … lucky kids, hey? Year 8 have been writing a film review of the 1999 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Year 9 have been writing personal essay about Romeo and Juliet answering the question, ‘Can we learn from tragedy?’ and Year 10 have also been writing personal essay but focusing on the question, ‘Are humans wild at heart?’ All of these text forms are new to my students – personal essays being quite distinct from your regular old English essay – so it’s a big learning curve for them. Quality feedback is essential and quality feedback is rich, personal feedback.
I’ll admit that I’ve been reading quite a lot about feedback/formative assessment lately as I was preparing to write a thesis proposal for my Masters of Ed (I’ve decided to quit it now, for those of you playing along at home, haha) and this had a major influence on my view of the role that feedback plays in PBL. An article that I particularly enjoyed reading (no, really – I actually enjoyed reading this academic article, crazy, huh?) literally walked me through the process of introducing peer-assessment into the English classroom. I took the opportunity to implement the strategy (with Bianca mods, of course) with my students and it’s been awesome. I have also been influenced by the focus on feedback in two other ‘hip’ student-centred pedagogies – DT (design thinking) and GBL (games based learning). Both have a strong focus on feedback as a ‘loop’, creatively referred to as a ‘feedback loop’. Now this feedback can be both positive and negative – something that teachers are quite familiar with. But what is different about feedback in DT and GBL is that it is constant throughout the project/mission. This is something that is central to quality PBL as well. How do I know? Because it is one of the 8 PBL essentials as outlined by BIE – revision and reflection. It might just be one that many teachers overlook, resulting in what my mate Ewan McIntosh refers to as ‘low order PBL’. It’s basically just the usual teaching approach with a project thrown in at the end with a preference for product over process.
My approach to PBL is all about the process. It makes it slower, messier and sometimes ‘look’ less successful than those cool videos you see of successful PBL projects on YouTube, but that’s OK with me because my focus is learning … and the process is the learning, right? The scariest thing for teachers when implementing peer-assessment is the time that it takes to ‘perfect’. Students simply don’t have the skill-set to effectively assess the work of themselves or their peers. They need to be taught how to do this … they need support and modelling. They need to be fully involved in the process, but most of all they need to be given time. Time? It’s the one thing most teachers feel they don’t have enough of … but we have to let go of our focus on content and reclaim the higher ground and TEACH SKILLS! Luckily for us English teachers in NSW, we have this built directly into our new K-10 English syllabus. How epic is that? I think my favourite bit of the new syllabus is Outcome 9 (I’ve just linked to the Stage 4 Outcome 9) … it’s cool. We also have three tiers of assessment, with ‘assessment as learning‘ being relevant to this post and self/peer-assessment (yeah, I’ll get to explaining it … I’m sure you’ve scrolled ahead anyway!).
I stole my scaffold for peer and self-assessment from Geoff Petty. I think he’s great because he shares so many wonderful resources for free online. Petty argues that too much of the feedback we give students in BACKWARD looking and often this feedback is quantitative (numerical e.g. 7/10; 70%) but even qualitative feedback (words e.g. ‘You didn’t begin your sentences with a capital letter.’) more often than not looks backwards at what WAS done or, typically, WASN’T done. Petty advocates for a method of feedback that is both backwards and forwards looking … and to do that he uses the ‘goals, medals, missions‘ protocol. It’s really neat because the language is accessible to all age groups and it is non-threatening. Essentially the ‘goals’ are the criteria for the product (be it a short film, an essay or a presentation) and the ‘medals’ are what has been achieved (this is the backward looking stuff) and always takes the form of positive statements, e.g. ‘Your introduction is strong.’ The ‘missions’ are the important part of the protocol – this is ‘feed-forward’ as it is looking at what the student needs to work on to improve the product.
When I introduced the idea of ‘feedback’ and ‘feed-forward’ to my students, it took a little while for them to understand it. So I used a real-world example. Say you’re 5 years old and your dad and teenage brother take you to the park to teach you how to ride your bike without training wheels. Your dad gives you a push, you pedal for a bit and then fall into a bush. Your brother calls out, ‘Er, you loser! You fell into the bush!’ and your dad stands there holding up a sign with the number 3 on it. That is all the feedback you receive – one is qualitative and one is quantitative. (Yeah, I might be using those terms in the wrong context, but it helps me make sense of the two in my head.) What is your response? You kick your bike and you storm off. Screw bike-riding, it’s too hard and you suck at it – the feedback of your loved-ones told you so! But what if the imaginary dad did something different. What if he gave a medal for what the child did (the feedback), saying something like, ‘You managed to stay upright for 2 metres’? What if he then gave his child a mission (feed-forward), saying something like, ‘Next time I want you to pedal a bit faster and I want you to keep your weight in the middle and avoid leaning to the right.’? Sounds like what every dad would do, right? Because this is ‘real-world’ feedback. But it’s not classroom world feedback and my students understood that analogy.
First things first … I don’t call this peer-assessment. I call it peer-feedback. The word assessment is scary and doesn’t reflect the learning that is inherent in this process, rather it focuses more on judgement. I like to get my students to develop the criteria for a product/presentation with me. We write it up on the board, negotiate how to express it and then I add it to the checklist proforma you see below. I make sure that I phrase the criteria as questions and get them to avoid using the word ‘student’ if possible, preferring to refer to students as writers, essayists, reviewers, filmmakers etc. This distances the students from feeling like it is a personal criticism being given. What I’ve discovered is that students need to provide evidence for their feedback – if they only have to check boxes, they can easily do this randomly and without thought. If you look at the example below, you’ll see that beside each point in the criteria (the ‘goals’) has a number beside it. This number is a kind of ‘code’ that students use to annotate the work being ‘assessed’. I encourage students to add a cross or tick beside the number so the writer can identify if they have or haven’t met that criteria in a specific place. I tell students that they must resist writing corrections on the work (such as spelling and punctuation) as we want to encourage thoughtful revision and independence. We don’t want students that need teachers to rewrite their work for them. Students are also required to give written feedback in the form of medals and missions – these must be written in sentences and use the language of the criteria. So I had Year 8 students writing comments such as, ‘The writer uses paragraphs and evidence very well.’ (medal) and, ‘The writer could improve his/her spelling and punctuation.’ (mission). OK, enough reading for you … check it out! I hope I’ve done this feedback method justice … it really was effective with my students. Feel free to use the method and the resources shared but don’t forget to acknowledge/credit Petty and me … that’s our only currency in our cool open-access, open-source world, OK?
Oh, and I realise that this is a system more geared to written work … you’ll just have to watch this space for how my students and I apply this style of peer-feedback to documentaries and short films later this year. We’ll find a way ‘cos we know how important feedback is to learning.