How to implement conferencing in your classroom

You don’t have to mark!

Scroll to the end for a link to a policy you can adapt for your school.

Last week, my blog about conferencing instead of marking gained a lot of attention. I was asked about how to implement conferencing in the classroom and how to get your SLT to engage with this instead of traditional marking. Here’s a link to my previous blog post about why my school put the pens down and stopped marking children’s books.

Conferencing is a conversation about learning. It’s not just providing feedback; it’s also an opportunity to provide challenge. As it is ‘in the moment’ and specific to that child, you are able to give highly personalised feedback that is acted on immediately. Of course, it’s not just down to the teacher. Conferencing is the responsibility of all school stakeholders. Everyone has an equal part to play and when they do, the impact is phenomenal.

You may find it useful to have a notebook or journal to take notes during the conferencing sessions. When I first started, I had a folder with notes about each child and the conversations we had. Whilst this did provide me with focus for the conversation, I did find that it was still too formal. Did I really look at those notes again? No, I remembered the conversation I had with the child. I know their targets and what is going well for them. After a while the folder became redundant and I stopped using it. However, I know that other teachers in the school have a notebook where they jot a couple of notes down. Some also have a class book where the child can add a note if they want too. They can then be supported by their peers when working towards their target. The key message here is that it is the verbal feedback that is important; if you want to make notes, make sure they are serving a purpose.

In order to focus the discussion on feedback and challenge, having a bank of questions to get you started can be useful. I have these in my classroom and refer to them. The children also use them when discussing their work with other people too.

So you’ve trialled conferencing in your class and now you want to take it school-wide. The key component to making this a success is training the children. Explain to them what you are doing and why. Model the responses you expect to see. When talking to the children about conferencing, consider the following points:

  • What will conferencing look like in your classroom?
  • How will the children ask for a conferencing session?
  • How will the adults ask for a conferencing session?
  • How will conferencing be timetabled? Will it be timetabled?
  • How will questions be used? What kind of language are you expecting?
  • Do the children know why books won’t be marked anymore?
  • Do the children understand that conferencing will be used for all subjects, not just English and Maths?
  • How will you develop the children’s language skills so that they can articulate their thoughts clearly?

The key thing is to tell people that this is what you do as your feedback policy. Some people still expect to see triple marking. Don’t wait to argue your point. When it comes to visitors:

Tell them what they are going to see.

Show them.

Tell them what they saw.

Click here to find an example conferencing policy to adapt for your school.

You don’t have to mark

Be bold. Be brave. Put those pens down!

Here’s one of the main reasons I’m still a teacher.

When I tell people that I don’t mark any books there are gasps of disbelief and jealousy. Friends in other schools have cute trolleys or suitcases that they wheel out at the end of the day filled with books and the marking toolkit of every pen colour under the rainbow. I walk out with my notebook – no heavy lifting for me!

So what do we do instead? We talk to the children and they talk to each other. We constantly give feedback but there isn’t a verbal feedback stamper in sight. Who would I be stamping for? The children know we talked about their work. They’ve acted on my feedback and the evidence is shown in their work.

Why did we change? Workload was an issue, but everyone is willing to do whatever it takes to give the children the best education possible. But endless marking and pen switching wasn’t having as much impact as the effort required. We found that we were writing all of these comments then having to read them and talk about them with the children the next day anyway – so what was the point?

How did we implement it? We decided on some key language that everyone would use. We called the feedback ‘conferencing’ and it could take many forms. You can conference about your learning to an adult in school, a peer or with your family. Parents were informed of the changes and invited in to see it. We held lots of short feedback sessions as a staff to see how it was going and the impact it was having on the children as well as the staff. Teaching assistants felt that they were having more impact in the classroom as they are equally responsible for providing feedback. Teachers felt that their impact was instant because they gave feedback that was acted on straightaway. Gone were the days of writing a next step comment for the child to improve their work the next day.

What has the impact been? Teachers are planning more adventurous lessons and challenging the children because they aren’t exhausted from marking. They are exhausted from teaching though! There’s far more writing at length going on because teachers know that they don’t have to plan in long marking sessions around the rest of their workload. As we aren’t marking to a specific learning objective, the children are making more rounded progress as all aspects of their work is being reviewed with the adult. The quality of the work is improving as the children work collaboratively to make better word choices or improve their artwork.

How often is it used? I’m often asked how regularly I conference with the children. Unfortunately, I can’t quantify it. I move around the room giving feedback throughout the day. My TA also does this. The children give feedback to each other too, so it’s an endless cycle. I have regular meetings with the children where we look together at a broader spectrum of their work and make longer term goals. We do not write any of these goals down. The children know their goals because we’ve talked about them and that has far more impact than reading (or trying to read) a note in a book.

What do outsiders think? Of course, people are worried about visitors and what they think of it. Our feedback policy states what conferencing is and how it’s used and that marking will not be seen in the books. From the visitors that we have had since implementation, the feedback has been positive. Conferencing is embedded in all of our classes from Nursery to Year 6 and visitors can see it in action. The children can articulate their learning, what needs improving, how they know and what they are doing about it. Our school also happens to be in the top 3% for progress in England, even though we are not in a leafy green area.

The biggest question people have though is about OFSTED. What do they think of it? Well, we are the proof (and I’m sure many other schools are too) that you don’t need evidence of marking to prove impact in the classroom. They were fully onboard with what we are doing and acknowledged and approved of what we are achieving. You don’t have to mark!

What’s next for us? Conferencing is embedded with the children as part of our teaching and learning. We’ve also been using it with staff as part of professional conversations. It’s having impact; it makes the conversation less personal and more about the job. People are able to disassociate themselves from the feedback to some extent and think objectively. It helps to take some of the emotion out of a situation. However, teachers put so much of themselves into teaching that it is impossible to take all of the emotion out of feedback. Some members of staff have felt it patronising at times to use the same language with staff that we use with the children. This is something for us to work on, as when it has worked, it has been very successful.

Conferencing has relieved the pressure on teachers. TAs feel empowered to support teaching and learning. Professional conversations are less personal when using the conferencing model. But most importantly, the children are empowered, articulate and progressing.

So go ahead. Be bold, be brave and put those marking pens down.

3 Elements of Reading

When I joined the school, they were using a carousel or Daily 5 approach to reading that we are all familiar with. The teacher was reading with a group, the TA would hear individual children read and the other groups would be listening to reading, working on writing or word work. These independent groups were difficult to manage, particularly lower down the school, but the children working with an adult made progress. However, the teachers were finding this ever more difficult to manage and had become disaffected with the teaching of reading. There were murmurs of wanting whole class reading, but rather than jump in, I read as much as I could on blogs, in books and on Twitter. If we were going to break away from the Daily 5 set up, then I needed to ensure the following 3 elements were in place:

Everyone signed up to this new approach but we needed a framework for the whole class reading element. For this, I implemented elements from Jane Considine’s Book Talk.

Already in our school, we had stem sentences for maths, so it made sense to use stem sentences in our reading too. For those that don’t know, the Reading Rainbow has 3 layers with 9 lenses (or reasons to read) in each layer. Each lens has stem sentences to frame our talk about a text. We don’t follow the system religiously; we trialled and found out what works for us. Currently, we read a book (or part of a book) with the class; allowing the words to wash over the children as they hear a book read as it should be. We then pick a lens from each layer and use them to frame our discussions about the text. In each year group, it looks likes this:

The impact of this has been huge. Children are discussing books with their peers at much deeper levels than before. Reading comprehension sheets haven’t been seen. Teachers are engaged in the teaching of reading because they can focus on choosing good books rather than planning a carousel of activities. Speaking and listening has improved as the children are orally rehearsing all of the time. Something that I’m most proud of though is that in our reading journals, we have a detailed analysis of novels considering a range of lenses. Our children are more articulate than they once were.

I’m sure there are things to tweak and we still need to get the balance right with 1-1 reading, but using this approach has definitely improved our outcomes.