Saturday, 15 November 2014

A ragging birthday!

Time flies!
Almost exactly a year ago I wrote my first blog post about RAG123 (find it here) which followed a single week trial of an idea that seemed illogical... Mark more often, but write less, improve feedback and reduce workload. Remarkably it worked - students responded positively, I felt more in control of my marking workload and my lessons were more effective. I still haven't taken a single pupil book home to mark since I started RAG123 over a year ago, but ALL of my books are marked up to date.

I've since written loads of posts on RAG123 (all found here), and tweeted prolifically on it over the past year. I know I am guilty of being a bit evangelical about it, but I do feel justified in my enthusiasm. The evidence suggests that using this approach to marking and feedback (and planning) really does have a beneficial impact both on the students and the teachers involved. I get fantastic feedback like this on a regular basis:

No going back!
As I know I can be a bit biased on this throughout the year using and developing RAG123 I have regularly asked for negative feedback or stories of people that have tried RAG123 but stopped. From the responses I have received there are only a couple of people that have stopped once tried. In these cases it was never because they didn't think RAG123 was beneficial, it was due to some external factor such as illness or a change in role. In all cases where someone said they'd stopped they followed up with a comment that they would start again as soon as their circumstances allowed. I remain open and receptive to constructive criticism of rag123 and want to retain balance on it. To be honest though negatives only really come from people who have never tried it, or haven't really understood the idea. To date the overwhelming evidence is that once you try it you will see such benefits that you won't want to go back. 

Going national and international
As well as individual teachers using RAG123, there are whole departments adopting it, and I know of a couple of schools that have adopted RAG123 as a central part of their marking policies (one has even reported it to me as a contributing factor in their schools journey out of special measures). I'm constantly being contacted by people who are sharing it within their departments, their schools or via teachmeets across the country. In fact it's also gone international, and not just in English speaking countries. I know it's been translated into Welsh (#COG123), and also is in the process of translation into Swedish...

So... a year later what have I learnt?
I've written, thought and learnt a lot about RAG123 over the past year. While the core idea remains exactly as described in the original post, there are a number of subtleties that I have seen and picked up over the last year. I've probably tweeted most of them at some point or other, but it's also about time I shared them all in one place. Along the way there are a couple of confessions I should make too...

Top 10 tips to get the most out of RAG123:
1. There are no strict rules for RAG123! Each teacher should take the core principle and make it work for them, their students, their school, their workload.

It makes no real difference if you use the colours or numbers for understanding or effort. It also doesn't matter if you need more than 3 levels for each aspect to fit with some other system (I know of at least one RAG1234 system being used, and there is also a RAGB123 out there). Actually you could call it anything, ABC123 would work just as well

However I do personally think colours are emotive and therefore can add to impact, which is why my preference remains RAG for effort as that's the bit I want the students to identify with the most (though for a cautionary note on colours see point 5).

2. While the process I put forward for RAG123 involves marking every day, there is no actual necessity to mark every day or every lesson. However without a doubt the more often you can manage it the more effective it will be.

Personally I try to RAG123 between every lesson but don't manage it all the time (still true even now I'm on an apparently empty SLT timetable). What you gain from doing it after every lesson is the opportunity for RAG123 to feed into planning for the next lesson, thereby improving differentiation and the impact of the next phase of teaching (for more on RAG123 as formative planning see here). I now find it much harder to plan if I've not had chance to RAG123 my books.

3. It's the 2 dimensional nature of RAG123 that brings its strength. Separating effort (student controlled) from understanding (teacher influenced) is really important.

If a student is not trying then even the best teacher will struggle to help them learn. Conversely if the student is working as hard as they can but not learning then it is the teacher that needs to do something different. This is why it's simply not the same as a plain traffic light assessment of understanding (more on that in this post). Highlighting the impact of their effort is important to students and makes direct links with other powerful things like growth mindset.

I often get asked how to measure effort, or how I decide exactly what constitutes a "green" "amber" or "red" effort? My answer is always the same - the rating should be scaled to the message you want that individual student to receive. If you think they're cruising then it's amber, if they're going flat out then it's green. It doesn't matter that one student has done half a page vs another doing four pages... If you know from the lesson that the half page struggled and persisted the whole lesson then it's green, if the four pages are all well within the ability of the student then it's amber. The brightest, best behaved students can certainly get reds if they are cruising (and they really don't like it so improve almost instantly!).

4. RAG123 doesn't and can't completely replace more detailed feedback, and I've never said that it should. Students need this, you still need to write extra at times. To help this it's good practice to aim to write an extra comment in 10-15% of books each time you mark. This hardly takes any extra time and after a week or so you can easily cover the whole class. Alternatively perhaps that feedback is verbal - which is fine too, though fails a little fouler of the dreaded "evidence for inspection". For me if you and the students are able to talk to an inspector about the feedback given (verbal or otherwise) and how it helps them to improve then that's perfectly valid feedback, but I do acknowledge that it takes a bit of confidence to fly without the safety net of written evidence. 

5. There is likely to be a colourblind student in every class group.... This was a big penny that dropped part way through the year, and I give thanks to @colourblindorg for the pointers on this. Clearly this causes tension for a system that has colours at its heart. However there is NO barrier to using RAG123 with colourblind students so long as symbols (e.g. "R", "A" or "G") are used and not simply coloured blobs/dots or even different coloured ink. Colourblindness is a big limitation for the various "purple pen of progress" or "green for good, pink to think" concepts that abound across teaching policies and #chat discussions. Using different coloured pens becomes irrelevant if colourblind students (and teachers) can't reliably tell the difference.
Colourblindness can render unlabelled R,A,G unintelligible to an average of 1 student in every classroom
The key message here is that all RAG123 posters, stickers, guidance must always have a way for colourblind people to distinguish between the colour designations - simply labelling R, A, G does this perfectly. Colours are still powerful and useful for the non-colourblind majority so I'm still in favour of using colours, but it's important we make them accessible to those that can't distinguish between them.
Just labelling R,A,G as shown above retains full accessibility for colourblind students.
6. RAG123 is absolutely a leap of faith, and sceptics take a lot of convincing!
Perhaps my biggest confession here is that despite sharing RAG123 nationally (& internationally) and even having it adopted by whole schools in other parts of the country I have not yet got it embedded across my school, or even widely used outside of the maths department.

The reasons for this are many... Perhaps I have been  being a little more shy about pushing RAG123 within my school with people who may not be actively looking for new ideas (compared to people at teachmeets, on Twitter or reading blogs who are clearly looking for and open to new ideas). There's also the fact that until September I was 'only' a head of maths and my influence only reached so far within school. Even now I'm on SLT there is someone else on the team that has the clear remit of improving marking and feedback and I don't want to step on their toes. I've spoken to them about it and actually they like the idea, but can't quite build it into a whole school position yet due to other priorities. While I do find this a little frustrating I want to emphasise that this is not a criticism of my colleague(s) across my school. They are all working immensely hard and have a real desire to do the best for the children in our care, they simply choose to do this in a different way to me and I have yet to fully do he hard sell on RAG123.

This also in no way suggests that I don't have faith in RAG123. Personally I feel my teaching would suffer massively if I had to stop, and think most people's teaching would benefit from adopting it, but I also recognise that change is difficult and it's not easy to try something like this. I know I'm not the only one that faces this challenge, Damian Benney who is the author of probably the second most read blog about RAG123 is a Deputy Head at his school but has struggled to get colleagues to try it, as detailed here. We're both completely sold on RAG123, and have had success sharing it across the country but changing minds more locally can be really hard.

7. Students need support with RAG123 to make the self reflection aspect meaningful. I've written before about how difficult reflection is so won't go into it again for this post (find more here and here), however I will emphasise that the provision of sentence starters or other scaffolding to prompt more meaningful comments really does help. It's also vital that students are given the time in lesson to review and respond to comments - if you don't demonstrate it's important they won't treat it as important.

8. Relating to the last sentence in the paragraph above... Marking & reviewing books as regularly as using RAG123 allows becomes a really powerful way to demonstrate to the students that you care what they do every lesson. This is a big point and shouldn't be underestimated. There are groups of students who don't like RAG123, when you ask them it's usually because they have nowhere to hide in terms of effort. The vast majority of students REALLY like RAG123, when you ask them it's because they know for certain that the teacher is taking an interest in what they do each day.

9. Even bad RAG123 is still quite good. I'll be absolutely honest, compared to the examples I've seen on Twitter my own practice of RAG123 is nowhere near the level that some people have adopted. In all honesty I don't know where some of the teachers that do this find the time to do anything other than school work, maybe they don't? The detail some go into with RAG123 marking is almost to the level you'd expect from a more traditional marking methodology. For me this is awesome but a little overwhelming and I wouldn't want others to think that if they can't sustain that level they are doing it badly.

What I do know is that my books are basically marked and I know the students in front of me extremely well as a result of talking to them in lessons and using RAG123 with them regularly. I also know that the lessons I plan are tuned to the progress that the students make each lesson, and therefore the marking that I do isn't pointless (see more on my thoughts about pointless marking here). I'll gladly argue my case that the progress students make is evidence that my marking and feedback is effective, even if it only results in a better planned next lesson rather than reams of written evidence in books. This will be a contentious point for many, and some may disagree completely, but that's true of so many aspects of teaching.

10. RAG123 as with all good teaching simply comes down to promoting good levels of effort from the students and good planning from the teacher. Initial users of RAG123 will often ask if a student can get a R1 (low effort, excellent understanding), or a G3 (high effort, low understanding). The answer in both cases is of course they can. For me the effort ratings should provoke the students to question what they are doing (can they try harder, can they maintain their current effort across a sequence of lessons) and the understanding should provoke the teacher to question their support/extension/differentiation for the student or planning for the class as a whole.

RAG123 and the future
So a year in and what's next. For me it's simply keeping using RAG123, I would be a worse teacher without it; I know other users feel the same. 

Sceptics will often ask for evidence that it works before trying it. I understand this but am also frustrated by it. I've tried to put together some evidence (see here) but it gets confounded by other factors, and as a result the relatively small sample size and other influences makes this limited sample ripe for taking shots at in terms of robustness of data. To accumulate enough hard data to support it (with a robust control group for comparison) would take a spectacularly long time and frankly I think it's simpler than that...

  • RAG123 costs nothing - there are no subscription fees!
  • RAG123 can be started and stopped overnight, all it takes is a decision to do it.

As such I'll reiterate the challenge that I issue whenever I present this at a Teachmeet... Try RAG123 with a class for 2 weeks. If you don't see a benefit then stop... If you do stop then that's absolutely fair enough, but please get in touch to tell me why as I'm keen to understand if it has limitations! Similarly if you find it useful then please spread the word by challenging others!

Comments are always welcome, happy Ragging!

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