Saturday, 7 June 2014

RAG123 is not the same as traffic lights

I've written regularly about RAG123 since November 2013 and since starting it as an initial trial in November I still view it as the single most important thing I've discovered as a teacher. It's now absolutely central to my teaching practice, but I do fear that at times people misunderstand what RAG123 is all about. They see the colours and they decide it is just another version of traffic lighting or thumbs up/across/down AFL. I'm sure it gets dismissed as "lazy marking", but the reality is that it is much, much more than marking.

As an example of this uncertainty of RAG123 at a surface level without really understanding the depth I was recently directed to the Ofsted document "Mathematics made to measure" found here. I'd read this document some time ago and it is certainly a worthwhile read for anyone in a maths department, particularly leading/managing the subject, but it may well provide useful thoughts to those with other specialisms. There is a section (paragraphs 88-99) that are presented under the subheading "Marking: the importance of getting it right" - it was suggested to me that RAG123 fell foul of the good practice recommended in these paragraphs, even explicitly criticised as traffic lighting and as such isn't a good approach to follow.

Having read the document again I actually see RAG123 as fully in line with the recommendations of good practice in the Ofsted document and I'd like to try and explain why....

The paragraphs below (incl paragraph numbers) are cut & pasted directly from the Ofsted document (italics), my responses are shown in bold:

88. Inconsistency in the quality, frequency and usefulness of teachers’ marking is a 
perennial concern. The best marking noted during the survey gave pupils 
insight into their errors, distinguishing between slips and misunderstanding, and 
pupils took notice of and learnt from the feedback. Where work was all correct, 
a further question or challenge was occasionally presented and, in the best 
examples, this developed into a dialogue between teacher and pupil. 
RAG123 gives a consistent quality, and frequency to marking. Errors and misunderstandings seen in a RAG123 review can be addressed either in marking or through adjustments to the planning for the next lesson. The speed of turnaround between work done, marking done/feedback given, pupil response, follow up review by teacher means that real dialogue can happen in marking.

89. More commonly, comments written in pupils’ books by teachers related either 
to the quantity of work completed or its presentation. Too little marking 
indicated the way forward or provided useful pointers for improvement. The 
weakest practice was generally in secondary schools where cursory ticks on 
most pages showed that the work had been seen by the teacher. This was 
occasionally in line with a department’s marking policy, but it implied that work 
was correct when that was not always the case. In some instances, pupils’ 
classwork was never marked or checked by the teacher. As a result, pupils can 
develop very bad habits of presentation and be unclear about which work is 
With RAG123 ALL work is seen by the teacher - there is no space for bad habits to develop or persist. While it can be that the effort grading could be linked to quantity or presentation it should also be shaped by the effort that the teacher observed in the lesson. Written comments/corrections may not be present in all books but corrections can be applied in the next lesson without the need for the teacher to write loads down. This can be achieved in various ways, from 1:1 discussion to changing the whole lesson plan.

90. A similar concern emerged around the frequent use of online software which 
requires pupils to input answers only. Although teachers were able to keep 
track of classwork and homework completed and had information about 
stronger and weaker areas of pupils’ work, no attention was given to how well 
the work was set out, or whether correct methods and notation were used.
Irrelevant to RAG123

91. Teachers may have 30 or more sets of homework to mark, so looking at the 
detail and writing helpful comments or pointers for the way forward is time 
consuming. However, the most valuable marking enables pupils to overcome 
errors or difficulties, and deepen their understanding.
Combining RAG123 with targeted follow up/DIRT does exactly this in an efficient way.

Paragraphs 92 & 93 simply refer to examples given in the report and aren't relevant here.

94. Some marking did not distinguish between types of errors and, occasionally, 
correct work was marked as wrong.
Always a risk in all marking, RAG123 is not immune, but neither is any other marking. However given that RAG123 only focuses on a single lesson's work the quantity is smaller so there is a greater change that variations in student's work will be seen and addressed.
95. At other times, teachers gave insufficient attention to correcting pupils’ 
mathematical presentation, for instance, when 6 ÷ 54 was written incorrectly 
instead of 54 ÷ 6, or the incorrect use of the equals sign in the solution of an 
Again a risk in all marking and RAG123 is not immune, but it does give the opportunity for frequent and repeated corrections/highlighting of these errors so that they don't become habits.

96. Most marking by pupils of their own work was done when the teacher read out 
the answers to exercises or took answers from other members of the class. 
Sometimes, pupils were expected to check their answers against those in the 
back of the text book. In each of these circumstances, attention was rarely paid 
to the source of any errors, for example when a pupil made a sign error while 
expanding brackets and another omitted to write down the ‘0’ place holder in a 
long multiplication calculation. When classwork was not marked by the teacher 
or pupil, mistakes were unnoticed.
With RAG123 ALL work is seen by the teacher - they can look at incorrect work and determine what the error was, either addressing it directly with the student or if it is widespread taking action at whole class level.

97. The involvement of pupils in self-assessment was a strong feature of the most 
effective assessment practice. For instance, in one school, Year 4 pupils 
completed their self-assessments using ‘I can …’ statements and selected their 
own curricular targets such as ‘add and subtract two-digit numbers mentally’ 
and ‘solve 1 and 2 step problems’. Subsequent work provided opportunities for 
pupils to work on these aspects. 
The best use of RAG123 asks students to self assess with a reason for their rating. Teachers can review/respond and shape these self assessments in a very dynamic way due to the speed of turnaround. It also gives a direct chance to follow up by linking to DIRT

98. An unhelpful reliance on self-assessment of learning by pupils was prevalent in 
some of the schools. In plenary sessions at the end of lessons, teachers 
typically revisited the learning objectives, and asked pupils to assess their own 
understanding, often through ‘thumbs’, ‘smiley faces’ or traffic lights. However, 
such assessment was often superficial and may be unreliable.
Assessment of EFFORT as well as understanding in RAG123 is very different to these single dimension assessments. I agree that sometimes the understanding bit is unreliable. However with RAG123 the teacher reviews and changes the pupil's RAG123 rating based on the work done/seen in class. As such it becomes more accurate once reviewed. Also the reliability is often improved by by asking students to explain why they deserve that rating. The effort bit is vital though... If a student is trying as hard as they can (G) then it is the teacher's responsibility to ensure that they gain understanding. If a student is only partially trying (A) then the teacher's impact will be limited. If a student is not trying at all (R) then even the most awesome teacher will not be able to improve their understanding. By highlighting and taking action on the effort side it emphasises the student's key input to the learning process. While traffic lights may very well be ineffective as a single shot self assessment of understanding, when used as a metaphor for likely progress given RAG effort levels then Green certainly is Go, and Red certainly is stop.

99. Rather than asking pupils at the end of the lesson to indicate how well they had 
met learning objectives, some effective teachers set a problem which would 
confirm pupils’ learning if solved correctly or pick up any remaining lack of 
understanding. One teacher, having discussed briefly what had been learnt with 
the class, gave each pupil a couple of questions on pre-prepared cards. She 
took the cards in as the pupils left the room and used their answers to inform 
the next day’s lesson planning. Very occasionally, a teacher used the plenary 
imaginatively to set a challenging problem with the intention that pupils should 
think about it ready for the start of new learning in the next lesson. 
This is an aspect of good practice that can be applied completely alongside RAG123, in fact the "use to inform the next day's lesson planning" is something that is baked in with daily RAG123 - by knowing exactly the written output from one lesson you are MUCH more likely to take account of it in the next one.

So there you have it - I see RAG123 as entirely in line with all the aspects of best practice identified here. Don't let the traffic light wording confuse you - RAG123 as deployed properly isn't anything like a single dimension traffic light self assessment - it just might share the colours. If you don't like the colours and can't get past that bit then define it as ABC123 instead - it'll still be just as effective and it'll still be the best thing you've done in teaching!

All comments welcome as ever!

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