Done for effect: better feedback in six hours

I’m writing this as I wait for the man to come and unblock my drains. Not a glamorous job by any judgement but one which I’m relieved someone else is prepared to do and one which will yield instant results. My drains are blocked. He’s been before. I’m one of his hundreds of customers. Phil empties the septic tank, rods the pipes, gets my drains smelling sweet and assumes a very droll manner as he goes about it. He turns up, does the business, gets the system back working as it should and life goes on.

Yesterday we helped a school rod its works. We were in like Phil at Tong in Bradford. The school feedback system had become gunged up with well-intentioned initiatives and false starts. It needed clearing out so it could smell sweet again. So we got in and rolled the sleeves up. It helped to have a team of twelve very capable middle leaders. We were set up to develop a more effective student feedback system and do so in less than six hours. We would get to the everyday heart of what the school was about.

Our starting point was to identify some key features of an effective feedback system. So paired discussion led to recording short one line contributions. This, our “prior understanding” is below. The red dots are the subsequent three votes cast by each member of the group on which features they thought most significant. The dots are used to direct the content of the first draft of the school feedback policy.

We then had an input to follow up the reading given out in advance of the meeting. We looked at the research showing effect sizes of different interventions, provided practical techniques from classrooms around the country, modified the ideas with common sense and added a few of our own.

We heard about the work of Marzano, Hattie, Sutton Trust, Black and William. We discussed assertive and other types of mentoring, coaching, target setting, dialogic teaching, enquiry based learning and the SOLO taxonomy. We had a short input on Critique and watched videos of Ron Berger. We were primed, had shared knowledge and were ready to go…

Our first task was to define the desirable behaviours at three levels: school, classroom and student. Groups were asked to take ten minutes to draw and label the key features of effective feedback, one group for each level. We left the products on the top of the table and then groups moved round. At the new table, the arriving group had to discuss each feature before choosing three or four and listing some recommended “delivery” strategies.  For example, a school level feature might be ‘an effective whole school approach to marking’ and a strategy might be ‘to use generic response labels which can be peeled off and placed into exercise books.’

Once we had spent time generating strategies, groups moved around again. At the third and final station they had to look at the features left by the first group, the strategies recommended by the second and then decide on which strategies to prioritise for further work. They did so based on a ranking exercise using do-ability and impact. These strategies would go out for further consultation immediately following our day. The chosen strategies were:

    • Process into Practice – whole school guidelines on effective feedback in different versions to appear in the staff handbook, pupil planner and on the Parent Portal
    • Smarter Marker – separate sample templates which can be provide as peel off labels for generic and subject specific marking
    • Literacy Passport – outline contents for a portable document to record the use of literacy skills in different subjects
    • Display to Develop –standardized classroom display to prompt effective feedback routines
    • Peer Protocols – prompt questions and responses for teacher, pupil and peer

As this is happening I’m busy listening in and based on what I’m hearing I’m re-drafting the school feedback policy. This is what the first draft looked like.

In order to make Process into Practice consistent with what we had discussed we shared the following seven shaping principles. Effective feedback is

    • Participative: feedback involves student(s), Peer(s), teacher(s) and home
    • Iterative: feedback is accessed through a succession of improvement cycles and small adjustments, drafts and re-drafts
    • Understood: feedback  is communicated in an accessible language and/or format
    • Actionable: improvements arising from feedback and/or changes can be made immediately and with minimal effort
    • Timely: feedback is delivered at the points when it is needed
    • Related: feedback is connected to both subject and to whole school assessment criteria
    • Owned: feedback is linked to the student’s personal aspirations, targets or goals

There are now five groups working away at producing the practical guidance and resources for staff to trial. This takes a further ninety minutes and runs over and through lunch. As we work we share progress and re-adjust this helps create a further draft of the school feedback policy.

 After a mountain of bhajis, pakoras and the sort of cakes which are used to support the foundations of large buildings we finish. To conclude we ask each new group to describe

  • What’s been done?
  • What needs to happen next?
  • What do you need to make it happen?

After a further 24 hours, some thinking space and another re-draft. The school feedback policy now reads like this

At Tong High School we have a feedback approach which is accessible to all and which:

    • informs assessment
    • involves cycles of self, peer and teacher evaluation
    • is integral to a shared culture of learning and improvement
    • is built around purposeful dialogue and time effective interventions
    • actively involves students, peers and teachers in both review of progress and planning for improvement
    • fosters student reciprocity, emerges from curiosity and shapes personal growth
    • helps teachers and students locate and reinforce discretionary effort and strategies for improvement
    • is consistent with an easily applied whole school system  
    • derives from evidence-based research and the context of our school

We have begun to get it smelling sweet. Phil would be proud of us.

Thanks to John Turner, Matt Perry, Hayley Duckworth, Matt Campbell, Dawn Theakston, Jack McPhail, Danielle Burns, Ross Towler, Amanda Patch, Simon Ford, Jo Philipson, Victoria Harrop, Lisa Dabrowski – great talents one and all. Thanks also to Phil who emptied my septic tank in 25 minutes for £95.




No one wants to see him miss this!

The England national side’s success rate in penalty shoot outs is currently 18%. For Germany it’s 87% Why is this? Why do some teams and some individuals consistently do better in high pressure environments?

We can name the moments when top performers choke. Their collapse is often spectacular. Over the years we’ve seen it in different sports: Don Fox in Rugby League, Jana Novotna in tennis, Jimmy White in snooker, Roberto Duran in boxing, David Bedford in athletics, Greg Norman in golf, Eric Bristow in darts. The list goes on…

What happens when a top performer loses mental toughness and chokes? Can a coach make an athlete mentally tough?

Researchers cite the links between arousal and performance. They talk about managing attention and about coping strategies. Some causes of choking are said to be stable – for example personality and self-consciousness. Others are labeled unstable – such as expectation, the perceived reward, the audience or the competition.

For some time now I’ve worked with footballers to help them improve the mental side of their game. Accommodating the stable and managing the unstable causes. There have been some successes and some failures. All performers have ups and downs. Everyone will ‘choke’ now and again. For a performance coach it’s how to help the player manage this to reduce its likelihood and then deal with it should it happen.

Why bother with mental toughness?

Elite performers have the edge. At the top-level in every sport, elite performers use mental toughness strategies. Some are learned and some are natural.

Chris Hoy worked with his psychologist prior to the Athens Olympics 1000 metre sprint to mentally rehearse every possible thing which could go wrong so that they were perfectly prepared. The kilo was the hardest sprint event of all. With Hoy going last, he watched on as three of the four competitors before him successively broke the world record. He required a personal best to take the title. He won gold by 0.185 seconds.

When pro basketball players mentally rehearsed throwing shots for 15 minutes prior to practicing, their success rate went up by 9%

The beam in gymnastics is only 10cm wide and is 125cm above the ground. You could walk along it with confidence. How confident would you be if the same beam was placed 25 metres above the ground?

Adrenaline and cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rate change when you are anxious. Your anxiety levels are determined by your thinking. Control your thinking and you control your body and your performance.

Brain scans show that mental rehearsal stimulates and sends messages to the muscles used in the real experience. This means that you can speed your recovery from injury by visualisation. Slalom skiers improved performance by 12% through regular visualisation sessions before racing.

I tell players to take 10 to 15 minutes before you train to go through what quality in training looks, feels and sounds like.  Give yourself an edge – the body follows the mind. Using the techniques improves the quality of preparation and remember nothing replaces hard work in training

A key part of mental toughness is to use the techniques to train at a better quality level. If it’s all about the match day then it’s too late. Performance psychology is not about a rousing speech! Produce quality in training. Mentally rehearse performing at your very best, particularly in areas in which you need to improve.

My strategies for developing mental toughness in top performers – or at least, the first few strategies

1. Learning about arousal up and down. Focus on managing your emotional state so that you can lower their heart rate and blood pressure and experience what the difference between anxiety and calm is like. Use visualisation and relaxation techniques. Do so regularly during the week.

2. Mental rehearsal. Prior to training take ten minutes to go through how you will produce quality in training. Mentally rehearse performing at your very best, particularly in areas which you need to improve upon.

3. Directed Practice – suggestions for Technique improvement. Take areas of your game where you feel you must be even better. For example a centre forward might focus on:

  • Holding the ball up
  • Positioning for diagonals
  • Winning headers
  • Getting across your man

4. Benchmark against a higher or desired standard. Watch the people who are the best and use training as an opportunity to practise the techniques and do what they do. Again, mentally rehearse in detail the performance improvements

5. Competition. Use competition in training to hone skills and build belief. Competition in training sharpens your competitive instinct and plays a big part in building confidence. Competing against yourself and your own Personal Best in skills sessions also builds self-belief.

6. Showing off! Showing your individual skill, doing what you are good at and letting everyone see it can be another way of giving your confidence a little boost. Do it in warm ups, after training and every now and again as a reminder to yourself of how good you are. Showing off what you can do improves your confidence.

7. Set ambitious targets. No-one ever got better at anything by staying in their comfort zone. To have a big impact, set targets for yourself which are at the edge of your ability level. Work towards these demanding targets. Share them with others: until you do so it is easy to cheat!

8. Scaffold the challenges. Don’t try too much too early! Set demanding targets and work towards them. Build up the basics as you go. Top athletes keep performance diaries and are interested in monitoring their own progress.

9. Demand specific useful feedback. Ask coaches, team mates and your family in the stand for specific role and technical feedback. Find out what you could do differently or better.

10. Recovery rituals. Have a simple gesture for recovering from mistakes. Try to focus immediately on the improvement needed and not the mistake. Your performance goes when you are distracted. You suffer 35% in performance losses when you become distracted. It needs up to 40% more mental energy when you lose focus and have to recover. Have a simple gesture for recovering from mistakes. Try to focus immediately on the improvement needed and not the mistake. Dwelling on failures is unhelpful and will destroy your performance.

11. Parking errors. Leave any errors behind. If you are a goalkeeper and you make a mistake you are not going to correct it by dwelling on what went wrong. Park the error up because you know you will be going over it later.  Use your recovery rituals to help you stay sharp. Some keepers do things like drink from the water bottle and spit the mistake away, kick the post with their studs or rub mud on the gloves. Little things which tell your brain – we’ve moved on…

Sport is full of  cliches. Over a life time of sport, top performers have heard them all. The real work in preparing to perform takes place away from team talks, from motivational speeches, from crowds and stadiums – it starts early on in life. Some of it is learned along the way and all of it is learned at the very edge of what’s possible.