I had a situation last year in which a much younger teacher who, judging from his dress, was in a position of authority over something or someone, sauntered into a lesson. He was not a colleague, but was (shudder) “from the MAT”. After the lesson, which was rock solid with a light sprinkling of sexy, he started to do this thing called giving ‘feedback’; or as it is known to a certain breed of drab non musicians, making formless noise.

I had much the same reaction a disgruntled granny might have on being forced to listen to Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’ on a loop turned up to eleven. Metaphorically, at least, I put my fingers in my ears; metaphorically, at least, I starting singing gibberish to further block out the noise.

Apparently, the person I couldn’t really be bothered to offer any of the palliative veneer of respect to was in a position of authority over me (who knew?), and I didn’t last much longer in the school. But I wasn’t able to listen, as it was pointless. The person in the suit had not been teaching very long at all. They didn’t know anything I could learn from.

The incident unveils an aspect of feedback that is rarely considered: the fact that, generally, it is almost entirely unwelcome – particularly if it is coming from the perspective of little knowledge on the subject.

A lot of teachers have this issue: they are expected to pay some form of lip service to the expertise of the person guiding them to be better but have an evidence based lack of respect for it. “You are not fit to review me, Mr Lesson Inspector.”

White noise

And herein we start to locate problems with peer assessment. As I’ve written, in Rules for Mavericks, “Feedback is only valuable if the person giving it knows what they are talking about; feedback from an idiot is white noise that will damage you and from which you will learn nothing.”

The views of ignorant others cannot and could not ever move you forward and, as such, are merely a management function writ obvious. To benefit from peer feedback, first of all, you’ve got to have peers, but, moreover, you’ve got to have peers who are a higher level of knowledge than you. In which case, they are not peers: they are ‘experts’.

Glance over any peer feedback on work in English that is done without reference to a rubric and it adds up to the sum total of “You need to use more adjectives in your writing.” Now, of course, this says something about the kids’ previous education, their paltry command of the meta language of the subject, their abysmally nascent grasp of the complexities of the word and world. But it also says something about the value of the process being undertaken. 

Clueless drivel

Generally, peer feedback is little more than ‘busy work’. It gives an observer the impression of something valuable being undertaken, but no one learns anything from the process and we are all just wasting our time really.

The inexpert feeding back to the same is of negative value: it reinforces misconceptions, flattens out and infantilises the language and forces children to grasp at something – anything – profitable to say, leaving them grappling for any words that might satisfy a teacher who is probably not interested or strict enough to point out that what the kids have written on each others’ work is clueless drivel.

What is of value to them is feedback from an expert: someone who knows the right target to move them on from the point they are at, someone who has travelled through their current stage and has accreted the hard yards of practice that are required to exist in a landscape far, far beyond that stage. This person is called a teacher.

Assessment for learning was always laudable, but where we are told that a practice recommended by high-level academics, which is clearly a bucket that fails to carry any water whatsoever, has only the one big hole at the top, It remains sensible for practitioners to value their own conclusions. Now where did I put that bloody red pen?

Phil Beadle is a teacher, and the author of several books including Rules for Mavericks: A manifesto for dissident creatives (Crown House).