DIRTy Work

Excuse the cheap pun of a title. With all the public furore about the Daily Mail I couldn’t help but be mindful of a tabloid headline! DIRT, if you didn’t know, is an acronym. Apologies if you are tired of acronyms, but admit it, sometimes they are just plain useful. DIRT stands for ‘Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time‘. It has become a useful short-hand for checking, drafting, proof reading and for labelling the age-old process of students spending crucial time on improving their work.

I originally came across its use in Jackie Beere’s book, ‘The Perfect OFSTED Lesson‘. In the two years hence it has gradually become a staple feature in our English department. After a short presentation to the whole staff last year, it has begun to slowly spread as a language to harness time to enhance the standard of students’ work as well as using it to give quality feedback. DIRTy work then is that old fashioned stuff – getting students working really hard to ensure that the standard of their work is the best it can be.

Time is the thing. Too often we spend a great deal of time marking student work and giving them excellent feedback to improve. Crucially, however, students often spend a relatively short amount of time scanning the feedback for a grade or a level and then move on. Similarly, with a draft of their work they give the feedback a cursory glance, but they hurry on with supposed improvements and make the same mistakes once more. DIRT is about redressing that issue.

When I came across the acronym is was at a similar time to reading Ron Berger’s excellent book, ‘An Ethic of Excellence‘. Ron used the following to describe the essence of DIRTy work and its value:

“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. Every student walks around with a picture of what is acceptable, what is good enough. Each time he works on something he looks at it and assesses it. Is this good enough? Do I feel comfortable handing this in? Does it meet my standards? Changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school. How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort” (P103, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’)

Essentially, DIRT is about having the highest expectations of students and them having the highest expectations of themselves.

This week, in our whole staff training on DIRT, we shined a light on the excellent practice already existing in different subject areas. In Food Technology they used booklets which scaffold student understanding helpfully, step by step, with the expectation that students act upon their feedback using DIRT – writing appropriate comments in response to teacher feedback. In History they have invested in a bulk purchase of green pens which signal a drafting and proof reading focus in their exercise books. Their books are regularly daubed in green and a clear signal is sent that improving their writing is a basic, but crucial expectation of their learning. For the History department, DIRTy time is about improving extended writing and ensuring students proof read their work automatically. In Maths there is a real focus upon reflection and responding to precision feedback. There is a forensic analysis of their own work, question by question, with DIRT providing the impetus for such reflection in real terms.

Through our experiences and the shared expertise across departments, I was able to define a top five tips list for DIRT.

1. Keep it focused.

If you simply hand back work to students and tell them to improve it all then the response will invariably less than successful! Other than the few students whose work was lazily hashed together at the last minute, most students’ work is faulty because they don’t know how to make it better. They need specific support and to avoid overloading students we need to focus in upon specific improvements to sir work.

In English, this often includes drafting and proof reading their extended writing. To ensure students can best manage their improvements, we would often narrow down the focus, such as reflecting upon spelling strategies and/or punctuation usage, then ask students to make improvements in these specific areas. Given this learning focus, students then need a really clear focus in terms of time. With clear task instructions, including timing and outlining exact expectations, students can be more focused in their DIRT time and considerably more effective.

2. Model and scaffold.

Once more, letting students loose for twenty minutes to overhaul their work to reach new heights doesn’t simply happen. Chatter and disruption is more likely! A range of models and resources to scaffold their understanding are required. In English, our focus is mostly concentrated upon literacy standards. That requires the obvious scaffolded support of the teacher, but it can be supplemented by tools, such as a dictionary and thesaurus, literacy mats, their school planner etc.

Models of work, with specific strengths or weaknesses, are crucially effective in determining what Berger describes as the assessment going on inside the head of students. Seeing an outstanding exemplar of a particular genre of writing, for example, helps lessen the load and gives students a high standard to reach for with their work. Reviewing a faulty example, picking apart its flaws with the teacher, or improving upon a weak example of work also helps scaffold their understanding about what is required to improve their own work. DIRT time may seemly be about independent work, but in actuality there is a great of reliance upon scaffolded teacher expertise.

3. Targeted feedback.

If students are receiving regular quality feedback that is targeted and precise in each of their subject areas then cumulatively they should learn clear patterns regarding how they need to improve in specific subject areas as well as recognising common patterns. Marking is therefore crucial – it determines teacher planning and it can be a defining factor for successful DIRT.

The evidence about the importance of quality feedback is well founded. Put simply, feedback and DIRT are essential bedfellows. If we give great feedback, with specific targets to improve, then DIRT is the crucial next step to deal with that feedback. As a rule of thumb, we can expect students to spend twice their time reflecting on their feedback as we devoted to giving feedback. Otherwise, really, what is the point of marking work and giving oral feedback?

4. Make oral feedback matter.

Oral feedback is too often relegated as the ugly step-sister to written feedback; however, we shouldn’t neglect using it. As proven for us in our ‘one to one oral feedback’ matched trail, oral feedback works. It is simply a staple of good teaching. If we establish a really clear focus for DIRT, with quality models, scaffolds and targets for improvement, then students should be sufficiently focused to allow the teacher to undertake quality ‘one to one feedback’ whilst DIRT is taking place.

We have moved to recording oral feedback sessions, such as using stamps, with students noting their feedback around the stamp, or using an A5 pro forma, to ensure that such feedback is recorded so that students can respond to it fully and to ensure no advice is simply lost because they have forgotten.

5. Exploit the power of peers.

Peer assessment is often derided or done badly, by both students and teachers. For students it can be a poor substitute for teacher feedback. What we can do is use peers as a positive support tool during DIRT time. If my year 8 group are working on spelling and punctuation, then working in pairs is often an effective strategy to lighten their load and help them make minor improvements.

Once more, any peer work needs real focus. If we have peers analysing the work of one another for spelling, punctuation and grammar improvements, then guidelines and expectations need to be explicit. Small details, like getting pairs to sign their feedback can be a small, but powerful way to get students to fully engage in the task. Any pairings of students needs to be carefully considered of course, like any good seating plan.

Useful resources:

The following blog posts helpfully relate to effective DIRTy work:

The inimitable ‘Learning Spy’, David Didau has a really useful DIRT archive: see here.

On ‘making your marking policy a feedback policy‘, with an explanation of how we use DIRT in our English department: see here.

A post outlining a range of strategies for improving written feedback: see here.

A post detailed a range of useful oral feedback strategies: see here.

Alex Quigley

I am an Assistant Headteacher and English Subject Leader at Huntington Secondary School, York. I like to read, write and talk about teaching and learning. I blog regularly about my main interests: successful teaching strategies, coaching, teacher improvement, with some political arguments and miscellany along the way. I am currently writing a book for new English teachers, to be published next year.


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