By Aidan Severs
A common question, but countless potential solutions. Aidan Severs explores how to use time effectively when a student has finished their work earlier than anticipated.
You all recognise the scene: a line of children stretching from your desk to the classroom door and then doubling back on itself, snaking its way between desks and chairs, children waiting patiently (alright, not always patiently) to have their work seen and to receive their next instruction. To be honest, many of you will have solved the problem of the eternal queue, but the question remains:
What should I do if a child has finished their work?
Perhaps this is a question that is not often asked due to the fact that many of us have habits and routines, personal or written into school policy, that cause us to act automatically once a child has finished their work.
In reality, there are several viable options for what a child might do when they have completed a task. In order to really think about what will best serve each child who has finished, one almost needs to imagine a flow chart of questions and answers to help with the decision making.
Whenever a child hands over a piece of work, the first step for you, the teacher, is to review it. This should be the minimum expectation in any feedback policy. The main reasons for this being:
- it is demoralising for a child to know that no-one has seen the work they’ve put a lot of effort into and it could cause them to put less effort in next time
- without seeing what they have done, it is difficult for you to plan for future learning
There may be no need to do anything more than read through a child’s work, whatever the subject. However there are several courses of action which can be taken next. It is important to choose the right one if you intend to be a responsive teacher who meets the needs of each child in your class.
Mistake or Misconception?
If a piece of work that you have reviewed contains errors, things that a child might need feedback on, it is essential to work out whether a child has made a mistake or is exhibiting a misconception. The distinction between the two should inform the response from you, the teacher. If a child has made a mistake, and this is pointed out, it should be easy for them to make a correction because they already know what to do. If a child has a misconception then they will not simply be able to correct their error. They will need to be taught or retaught something to allow them to understand where they went wrong, so as not to repeat the error.
It’s so simple to say that the next step is to provide children with feedback, but wrapped up in that one step are so many sub-options. The six ‘question words’ that teachers are quite familiar with, come in handy here: who, what, where, why, when and how. Let’s break those down a bit:
- Why am I giving this feedback? And who am I doing this for? Am I giving this feedback to make my books look good for SLT or Ofsted? Or is this feedback truly for the benefit of the pupil? When thinking about the purpose of feedback, it is important also to consider whether the feedback enables a pupil to improve, or whether it limits them to only improving that particular piece of work. If it is the latter, it has limited potential: correcting an existing piece of work does not necessarily mean that their work in the future will be any better. In fact it may be the case that, even following a piece of work which contains errors, a child would be best served by being set a brand new task which allows them to focus on improving. Sometimes another task is needed simply to provide further opportunities to practice the thing they are learning.
- What feedback is needed? When a child completes a piece of work there could be many aspects that have the potential to warrant feedback: presentation, handwriting, spelling, grammar, punctuation, accuracy, content and so on. It often helps to know what you intend to give feedback on before you get creative with the coloured pens and highlighters and leave a child’s work covered in annotations. Less is more is a useful general rule. In order to do this, it is worth sticking to the provision of feedback based on the lesson’s main objectives, as well as on any non-negotiables you may have set your class, or any personal targets any given child might have. But don’t overwhelm children with feedback if you want them to successfully respond.
- Who needs this feedback? Is this feedback only relevant to one child, or are there a group of children who would benefit? Perhaps even the whole class needs the same feedback? If you recognise that it is more than just one child who needs it, then it is inefficient to provide the same piece of feedback multiple times. Save yourself a bit of time by keeping your feedback for the moment when you can deliver it to as many as need it.
- Where and how should this feedback be given? Should the feedback be given as written comments in the child’s book or should it be given verbally? Typically, written feedback is time consuming for the teacher and often isn’t read or understood properly by the child. It is also hard to communicate all that is needed in a written comment. Some schools use codes to show where and how children can edit and revise their work, which are less time-consuming for teachers to provide. Verbal feedback has much greater possibilities but can be difficult to find the time for (see ‘when should I give feedback?’ for more). The answer to the ‘who?’ question has implications too: if a group or the whole class need feedback then it is best to give feedback as a group/class input, along with some further instruction and modelling.
- When should I give this feedback? Timing of feedback is often overlooked – immediate feedback can allow teachers to catch children in the act of making errors, and these can be put right straight away before children embed any misconceptions. However, there are benefits, and practicalities, in there being some lag between a child completing a piece of work and receiving feedback on it. Certainly, a time lag gives teachers time to consider their response in order to provide the correct response and it also gives children a break (even adults don’t like re-reading and correcting their work as soon as they’ve completed it). If teachers prioritise live reviewing of work then they can begin to build a picture of the class’s needs (ready for a later lesson), at the same time as addressing the most insidious of misconceptions and helping children who are struggling to understand.
Alternatives to feedback
We’ve already discussed the fact that sometimes no immediate feedback needs to be given: sometimes it is best saved for another day, sometimes it is better to re-teach something to a group or the whole class in a follow-up lesson. At other times it is more beneficial to set a brand new task which allows children further opportunities to practice whatever it is they are learning. All of these choices arise from a teacher having reviewed the work that children have done, and making sensible decisions about their response.
But what about those times when you’ve reviewed a child’s work and it just seems perfect? First of all, it is absolutely fine that you might think it is perfect: Well done! You did your job teaching and they did theirs learning – that’s the dream! Does there always need to be a next step? Something more difficult to push a child on to? Sometimes we just need to celebrate a completed piece of work.
If the child still has lesson time left, it is totally legitimate for them to go and do something else – since when did we expect all learning episodes to take exactly 1 hour for each and every child? That extra bit of time could be spent in all manner of productive ways: pursuing a personal interest, practicing something from another lesson, getting stuck into a book, doing a bit of tidying and organising – all of these are valuable in different ways, and may just be what the child needs after putting all their effort into executing a perfect piece of work.
However, there may be other times when it is wise to push a child to use and apply their new-found knowledge, and this is widely done. However, beware the task that is set as a next step which only a handful of children ever get to have a go at. Sometimes it is best saving the same task for the following lesson where more children will get a chance at working at a greater depth in any given subject.
The next best move
Next time a child comes to you saying that they have finished their work, take a moment to consider what, for this child, at this moment, might be the next best move. It won’t always be what your school’s policy dictates and it won’t always be what your first instinct is. Just as you might set different tasks for different children, or support children in different ways to access the same task, so your response to a finished piece of work can differ. Try to take all of the above into consideration as you think about what a child should do once completing a piece of work.