Responsive teaching, responsive leadership

Based on my presentation at the Medway Network of the Chartered College of Teaching

Inaugural Conference on Culture, Wellbeing, Workload.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve made a concerted effort to question how we do things. Just because something is the accepted way of doing things, doesn’t mean it is the most efficient or effective. The two main things we’ve really changed is how we mark and how we observe lessons.  Reading the research around marking and feedback and reading various blogs quickly convinced me that marking was a very inefficient use of staff time and had limited impact on learning. Similarly, having termly graded lesson observations was an inefficient use of SLT and had limited impact on improving teaching or learning. Instead of marking, we now have responsive teaching; instead of termly observations we now have responsive leadership.

Kluger and Denissi’s research into written feedback found that students often learn less when teachers provide written feedback than they do when the teacher writes nothing.[1] 38% of feedback made learning worse! Yet the marking mania epidemic still has teachers throughout the land double or triple marking work, with teachers, or maybe just their senior leaders, convinced that this is a touch stone of good practice. Assessment for learning has become a ritualised performance believed to magically invoke learning, as long as the prescribed coloured pens, fans, gestures or whatever are used in the liturgically correct way.  No wonder Dylan William declared he wished he had called formative assessment ‘responsive teaching’ instead.

So what is responsive teaching?  It’s really very straightforward. It’s

  • Looking at pupils’ work, either within the lesson or after it, and responding to what you find out.
  • Gathering feedback for the teacher, about the pupil
  • Using this feedback to decide what to teach next

Shorn of its ritualistic associations, we can embrace a simple definition of feedback as ‘information about reactions and/or performance which is used as a basis for improvement.’ So scanning the classroom to see what pupils’ facial expressions are telling us is one commonplace – and very useful – way of gaining feedback. If half the class look clueless, there is probably a problem that needs urgent responding to!

When we look at pupil’s work after a lesson to gather feedback about what to do next, it’s looking for the bottleneck, the main thing holding pupils back in their learning, and teaching that, regardless of whether or not it is on the scheme of work for that year group. If many pupils still can’t use full stops and capital letters correctly even in year 3/5/10, there’s no point in moving onto fronted adverbials or whatever, despite what the official plan says. Fix that first. It’s not going to fix itself. Instead of writing in pupils’ books what their next step is, the next step is…the next lesson. Respond to what pupils don’t yet know by teaching them.

Tom Sherrington outlined 5 ways teachers might respond to feedback. I’ve played around with this a bit and come up with my own version of 6 ways, more geared to a primary context (though I don’t see why these wouldn’t work with secondary pupils too).

1.Reteach – they don’t understand this. I need to reteach with different examples

Sometimes you look at books after a lesson and realise that an awful lot of pupils have got the complete wrong end of the stick. So instead of pressing on with the next lesson in the series, you go back and teach whatever it was again, only better.

2. Revise – they know something about this but we need to go over it again because otherwise they will forget it

Often you pick up either within the lesson itself or afterwards when looking at pupils’ work that pupils have begun to learn whatever it is you are teaching them. However, you don’t have enough evidence yet that this learning is really secure and won’t be immediately forgotten the moment you move onto something new. Better consolidate the learning by going over it again. Resist the siren voices telling you that if pupils can do something a couple of times they need to move on to new learning. That’s just madness. Vaguely understanding something is not the same as really knowing it. Progress does not always involve learning new stuff. Often it involves learning ‘old’ stuff more securely.

3. Redraft – they can do this better. I need to model how to improve it.

This sort of response is typically used when responding to longer writing tasks. But expecting children to be able to make things better without showing them how is pointless.  It’s a bit like rushing to do your photocopying only to find the ‘paper jam’ and ‘change toner’ lights flashing at you. The lights are giving you, the learner, very specific feedback, but unless you already know how to clear a paper jam, where the toner is stored and how on earth you change it, it is not going to be any use. In fact, it will probably just wind you up. Dylan William mentions some written feedback that told a pupil to ‘be more systematic in your scientific enquiries.’ To which the pupil’s response was, ‘if I knew how to be more systematic, I would have done it the first time.’

What we now do instead of marking longer writing tasks is to devote a whole lesson to whole class feedback. During this, the teacher showcases small extracts – possibly just a sentence or two – where various pupils have done a particular thing very well.  So for example, they might share some well punctuated speech, then some excellent description, a great use of rhetorical questioning and the deft use of a range of sentence lengths to build suspense. Pupils may or may not work together on improving fictional examples where the particular thing is lacking immediately after the good example has been shared. Then teacher will then go on to share (anonymously of course) some examples – probably slightly tweaked, of brief extracts that could do with improving in some way. Usually teachers type up these sentences, rather than use a visualiser because first of all it’s easier to read and secondly it gives the teacher the chance to correct all but the actual mistake s/he wants pupils to focus on. Otherwise, pupils might fixate on incorrect spelling when you want them to focus on mixing up tenses, for example. Pupils then get short examples with similar errors to practise improving (usually in pairs). Finally, after this sustained quality modelling and practice, the children redraft their own work.[2]

This works really well. The children love their feedback lessons. They make great progress. And teacher workload has been cut by at least two thirds when compared to marking, even factoring in the need to plan a feedback lesson. Whereas marking one set of books used to take three hours, the whole process now takes about an hour. And it’s more effective.

4. Practice – they can do this but it is not yet automatic

This is different from revising (see point 2 above).  This is about practising things we know how to do but have not yet learnt to automaticity. So this might include being able to use a standard algorithm to do vertical subtraction, for example, or times tables, or number bonds, or converting measures from one unit to another, or revising key vocabulary or handwriting or a forming a stroke correctly when swimming.

5. Check – I need more information before I am convinced they really have this securely

This is when you want feedback about if pupils really know something securely, at some remove from the initial teaching. So it usually involves giving children questions to do at least a month after that original teaching has taken place. Can they still do fractions now we’ve moved on to area? Can they remember anything about the Romans now we are learning about the Vikings? And if not, what am I going to do about it? (If you are not going to do anything about it regardless, there is no point in checking, unless you like making yourself depressed).

And finally

6. Move on to something new

Sometimes feedback tells you good news. They’ve got it! We can move on to something new.

So that’s a whistle-stop tour through responsive teaching.  Harry Fletcher Wood has just published a book called ‘Responsive Teaching: Cognitive Science and Formative Assessment in practice’ that I would strongly recommend if you want to look at this in a lot more detail. But what does this have to do with the second part of my title? What has all this got to do with responsive leadership? Well it turns out that responsive leadership is a lot like responsive teaching. Like marking, doing termly high stakes lesson observations can actually make things worse, rather than better. The problem with this kind of lesson observation is that they lead to teachers showcasing compliance, rather than their warts-and-all, everyday practice. Instead, you observe lots of all singing, all dancing lessons quite unlike everyday practice that are therefore useless for helping people talk about how they might further improve their teaching. What a monumental waste of time!

Responsive leadership is

  • Looking at teachers’ work, either within the lesson or after it,[3] and responding to what you find out.
  • Gathering feedback for the leader, about teaching
  • Using this feedback to decide what professional development is most appropriate

In the context of lesson observations, feedback used to be something potentially ominous delivered to the observed teacher, some sort of label denoting their professional worth.  This is nonsense. In the same way that feedback about pupils should feed forward into planning future lessons, feedback about teaching tells leaders what should feed forward into planning future professional development. In the same way teachers need to think about what is the bottleneck holding children back, leaders need to reflect upon what it is that is stopping a teacher from teaching as well as possible, and then plan a course of action – usually in partnership with the teacher –  to help them improve.

And guess what, here are 6 possible ways to respond to what you’ve learnt from gathering feedback.

  1. Reteach

You know that feeling when you’ve delivered some inset on the latest whole school initiative and then you go and observe lessons and realise that almost everybody has either got the wrong end of the stick, or isn’t implementing the initiative at all? (No? Maybe just me then). Anyway, should that happen, here are some things to reflect upon

  • Maybe I didn’t explain this initiative properly
  • So either they don’t ‘get’ it…
  • Or don’t understand why it is important
  • Or possibly both
  • So I need to explain it better and persuade people why it is important
  • Did I explain what they can now stop doing?
  • If anyone is to blame, it is me
  • (Or maybe it’s an unworkable initiative or a seriously bad idea)
  1. Revise

This time when you see how the initiative is working out in practice, you find out that some people who were doing this really well seemed to have forgotten all about it. So ask yourself…

  • I need to remind them about this, and why it is important, before it fades away, like so many previous initiatives that were quietly forgotten, rather than explicitly stopped. I need to emphasise that this one is important. I really mean it this time!
  • Ask why it is fading? Forgotten? Not useful? Tricky? Logistics?
  • Spend quality time going over it again in a staff  or departmental meeting
  • Pupils aren’t the only ones who need time to work on remembering things. Retrieval practice is useful for teachers as well as pupils!
  1. Redraft – they can sort of do this, but it could be better.
  • They’ve half got this
  • We need to provide modelling of how to do it better and supportively coach people as they learn how to do this
  1. Practice

There are some techniques in teaching, such as giving clear explanations, specific behaviour management techniques, and various ‘Teach Like a Champion’ techniques such as ‘no opt out’ ‘cold calling’ etc. that are highly amenable to improvement through deliberate practice. With specific, deliberate practice, things become habitual, and no longer need conscious effort to remember to do. Some schools devote the first 20 minutes of staff or departmental meetings to deliberately practising specific techniques.

  1. Check

We need to ask ourselves about key initiatives

  • Is this really embedded across the school 3 months later, 6 months later, a year later?
  • Is this as secure as I like to think it is?

And finally

  1. Move on to something new

A cherished initiative is now part of the life blood of the school. Everyone does it, and does it well. If we need to, we could now introduce something else, without worrying that this will fade away.  But we need to remember newcomers to the school who missed out on the concerted effort it took to get everybody to understand why this was important and how to do it well. If it took a year for staff to really get this, don’t expect new staff to get it after a 10 minute briefing.  When something is automatic, or obvious, remember those who join the school sometime after the initiative was introduced. It probably won’t be obvious to them.

In the same way that ‘You need to be more systematic in planning your scientific inquiries,’ is not terribly helpful to a pupil who doesn’t know what this actually involves, teachers who aren’t doing the sort of things we want them to be doing probably just don’t understand what we mean and need some modelling and coaching, opportunities to observe others alongside someone who can provide a commentary, and time to practise.

And instead of termly high stakes lesson observations, try using more frequent, low stakes, developmental observations that are all about genuinely helping staff get better at what they do, rather than finding fault. Our model is as follows:

  • Senior leaders do low stakes, 10 minute ‘drop ins’ most weeks
  • Subject leaders do lesson-long modelling, team teaching and coaching
  • We bring books to staff meetings a lot
  • Also look at books in SLT meetings
  • Staff meeting timetable flexible and responsive
  • We revisit previous inset a couple of months after (spaced practice!)

I’ve written a blog about our approach before for thirdspace learning.

When I started in headship, in somewhat inauspicious circumstances, someone told me to remember that your staff team is just like your class. You will have well behaved ones and challenging ones, people who learn things really easily and ones that need more support and so on. Using feedback to help children learn is not really very different from using feedback to help adults learn.  Don’t rely on ritualistic responses; seek evidence with an open mind, have a good think about it and plan the best way to respond.






























[1] Kluger A, DeNisi A. The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin. 1996;119(2):254–84.

[2] The process is a little more complicated than I’ve explained as for brevity’s sake I’ve left out the finer details. We usually divide the lesson into a proof reading part (changing those things that make our writing harder for someone to enjoy reading) and then a longer editing session (making our writing even more interesting for a reader). In ks1, we mainly to proof reading with a hint of editing. In year 1, in the main, pupils proof read fictional ‘work’ written by the teacher rather than their own.  We also give fictional work to pupils of any age who have something very specific to work on, that few other pupils need (or are ready for).

[3] By looking at work and/or by talking to pupils

Responsive teaching, responsive leadership