DIRT – a short enquiry into impact on children’s learning behaviour and progress.

Some of you, those few who know me, will be aware I am taking part in a leadership course led by my LA, Norfolk, this year. One of our responsibilities as part of the course was to do a small piece of action research. So here is mine. Please comment, critique, but mostly, I hope, enjoy.

‘If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you have arrived?’ – Lewis Carroll


In my new role as Curriculum Leader in September 2013, I found myself wading through the new and continually changing National Curriculum documents. A difficult task made harder with the news that levels will be made redundant. I felt I needed to go back to the grassroots, the children, and work my way through the books, research and government documents.

Assessment for Learning has long been recognised as the most effective way to plan and teach in schools and where it is embedded – children have a good grasp of their strengths and what they need to do to make further progress.

In 1998 Dylan Wiliam stated, ’The ultimate user of assessment information that is elicited in order to improve learning is the pupil.’ If children are not given access to their assessment how can they improve? This led me to Jackie Beere where the acronym DIRT originated. Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time, according to Beere, ‘redresses the issue of students scanning marking comments and moving on.’

‘This is properly trained peer assessment or self-assessment where students measure their progress against the original objective in mini plenaries and think about how they have learned – what worked and what didn’t. They spend time on improving their work, amending it and responding to feedback.’

So what is DIRT? More research led me to a list of blogs, where ideas and strategies overlap. Basically the idea is that the teacher plans marking in a way that allows the child time to respond. Some teachers suggest not writing out comments in thirty books, but creating symbols with comments written on the board once. The child receives a symbol in their book which is best fitted for their level and/or work, and they write the corresponding comment in their books the next day and respond to it. This is DIRT – given in the first five minutes of the next lesson. Wiliam stated that the pupil should be doing more work than the teacher in good feedback and Hattie (2012) suggested that “feedback aims to reduce the gap between where the student ‘is’ and where he or she is ‘meant to be’.”

So I decided this would be my focus. I want to find out whether having DIRT really does have an impact, whether the children like it, respond to it and make progress. When I was placed in my internship school, I was concerned to discover it was a federation of schools, and was unsure how I would conduct research across three small schools. But I like a challenge; and on meeting the acting Head, I realised it was going to be an interesting challenge. We discussed the question and I was interested to find out that the schools, although good or outstanding, have all had comments about marking and feedback from Ofsted.

The head and I decided to split the three schools into ability groups. I would work with four children in each school from years five and six, and split them into twos. After conversation with the children and teachers I would leave them for two weeks; two children would receive traditional ticks and praise and two receiving dedicated feedback with DIRT time to respond. Two weeks hence I would return, and the children would be swapped. My hope was to find that the children were more committed to their own learning and progress as a result of DIRT time, and less engaged with traditional marking. Ron Berger (An Ethic of Excellence) asks how we can affect the children’s learning behaviours by teaching them different ways of self-assessment, ‘Most discussions of assessment start in the wrong place. The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to students but goes on inside students.’ (Berger 2003) It seems to me that allowing them time to reflect will show them that we too value their work.

First visit – meeting the staff and children, outlining the project

During my first visit I was able to discuss my idea for research with all three teachers across the federation of schools. The marking policy was familiar and they were happy to trial different systems for my research. Teacher X is new to the schools and has ideas for marking from his previous school using green pen policy and stickers; he stated this was very time effective. Both teachers Y and Z found marking to be unwieldy but absolutely essential:

‘The children get a lot out of it which makes me feel happier about it,’’ Teacher Y.

‘It is time-consuming and I tend to mark on an ad hoc basis fitting it in when I can,’ Teacher Z (appendix B – first visit teacher discussions)

The children had a good understanding of how the marking system worked and liked the green pen system. They knew what they had to do and it was clearly embedded in their learning. As we looked together through their books, however, they couldn’t all identify what the symbols meant, though some knew how to find out. They understood the next steps to mean making corrections in most cases, and did not see the marking and feedback system as a way of being challenged further.

Another comment that cropped up, once we had looked through the books was the lack of time they had to respond to the marking comments. Overall all the children liked the marking system, they felt it helped them to improve and most of the children would change nothing about the system except being allowed more time to respond. (Appendix A – first visit responses)

The next step is to consider whether the children being given DIRT, enjoyed having that time to reflect, and how this has impacted their learning behaviour.

In Mick Waters’ ‘Thinking Allowed on Schooling’, he discusses Carol Dweck’s research on theories of ‘mindset’ in which she concludes that “people with a ‘growth mindset’ will approach learning in a different way from those with a ‘fixed mindset’…. They are less afraid of failure and much more resilient.” This is how I see DIRT, potentially having an impact on learning behaviours, the children becoming more confident when having their first attempt in learning, their ‘FAIL’, which in turn will lead to their successful attempt in learning or ‘SAIL’ (coined by a year 6 girl in my class!)

Second visit – mid-point progress visit

The second visit for me was not as successful in terms of what I had hoped to see, mainly because of time constraints of the visits; however in one school there were clear differences within the two pairs of children. Children E and F came to share their books with me enthusiastically, talking about the time they had been given to respond to the marking and stating that the teacher’s comments, “give me more confidence,” and “it’s nice to have a conversation with him in the book.” Both would still like specific time to work on their responses but felt that there had been good changes.

Children G and H in the same school, whose work had mainly been ticked and stamped didn’t notice anything different; didn’t feel like anything had changed. When I pointed out there were no ‘next steps’ they hadn’t noticed but were relaxed about it because ‘I don’t like next steps’ because they take so long but I know they’re important.’ On the other hand child H had enjoyed watching ‘Austin’s butterfly’ and could see the value of drafting and improving his work.

In the third school the more able children whose work had not been marked in depth, did not notice any difference until we looked at their books, then they recognised the difference. I asked if it had made a difference either way to their work and they said that it had neither helped nor hindered them, but that they would prefer to have had a comment.

What strikes me from this shorter visit is that if the children are to be expected to respond to any targeted feedback it must be catered for. So I have now asked each teacher to give all children specific DIRT for any targeted marking in the first five minutes of the next lesson in that subject. I am hoping that the children will notice a difference and it will guide them into positive learning behaviours; and as a result eventually have impact on progress.

I have also set up a survey which I have sent out via my own personal learning network to fellow primary teachers to see what other schools are doing regarding DIRT. I hope this will support the research I am doing as I believe the short time frame to collect results would otherwise not give a reasonable overview.

Third visit – evaluating the impact with staff and children

My third visit provided some changes in the way the children saw their work being marked, particularly when they were given time to respond; they felt they had time to consolidate their learning and reflect back on what they had done. It seems to have had the most impact in Maths as these lessons have a quicker response time than a long piece of writing. In the first school where I had worked with children in lower ability sets the children were far more confident in Maths and were even talking about enjoyment of the subject.

‘My teacher has left me work to do in my book and it helps me because it stays in my head.’

They had enjoyed the more formal introduction of peer assessment alongside the teacher marking and feedback changes, they enjoyed helping others and it helped them to look at their own work, particularly written work, reflectively as well.

Teacher X stated that ‘The DIRT system, or giving them opportunities to respond gives them a system whereby they consolidate, are challenged, and where their self-esteem is raised.’

Teacher Y could also see an impact ‘It’s made a massive difference, learning behaviours have improved. If you show that you’re taking an interest in what they’re doing, then they work harder.’ Two children in Teacher Y’s class felt they were being challenged in a positive way. ‘You don’t get caught up in next steps you haven’t done. The feedback or challenge is harder to make sure I understand, it help me be a better learner because I can see if I’ve got anything wrong or I’ve been repetitive.’

‘What the child can do in collaboration today, he can do alone tomorrow.’ (Lev Vygotsky, in Claire Gadsby – 2012)

Responses to my online survey were limited, only 22 people responded; 95% of those who answered use peer and self assessment but only 53% use DIRT or similar quality time given for the children to respond. Of those who do, many are still in the learning process themselves but can see impact for engagement with children, including self-improvement and awareness of next steps. Some find it time-consuming, and still want the child to experience verbal dialogue. There were also differences in opinions as to whether it was more effective in Maths or English.


From this brief study I have come to the conclusion that DIRT is a quality style of feedback. I believe it takes time to embed and the schools I have worked with are keen to try it. I felt that for the children I worked with it was more immediate than next steps, as they weren’t sure when they would have the opportunity to try out the next steps but having time to reflect on previous work consolidated and embedded it for them. There was not enough time for me to see a huge impact on the children’s progress but I was aware of a change in attitude. The enthusiasm I saw from the children by my third visit was extraordinary. They were desperate to tell me how things had changed and how they felt it had helped them; they wanted the time to look back at what they had done and they appreciated the dialogue and personal time their teachers were giving them.

Ofsted’s criteria for outstanding teaching states that:

‘Teaching promotes pupils’ high levels of resilience, confidence and independence when they tackle challenging activities.’ (From Good to Outstanding)

Children need opportunities to become resilient and confident learners. The use of DIRT in the classroom can be just one of many tools to support this crucial element of learning. It will work for some subjects but possibly not all. My suggestion is focusing on the keys skills of English and Maths.

It needs to be implemented appropriately, allowing time for the children to make gains in their learning and their learning behaviours, particularly younger or less able children. It is also important to remember that in depth marking does not need to be the marking style for every piece of work, it isn’t possible, but DIRT (particularly with use of symbols) can be used each day. In this way the children are given the opportunity to reflect back on previous work or on their targets and thus internalise their learning. As with the introduction of any new policy, time will be needed for the effective execution of DIRT but I feel my research shows that it will be well worth the effort.



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