Success Criteria: the Middlemen or Highwaymen of Writing?

“Success Criteria are middlemen, couriers between teaching and learning.”

Two weeks ago I bore witness to the actual utterance of this slightly ridiculous phrase.Since then there has been some discourse on Twitter about the damage that AfL can do to genuine learning. This is an attempt to add to that debate.

Some time before Christmas, I was observed teaching a Year Three class the delicate art of writing instructions. I did what I have done countless times previously in similar lessons developed, grown and improved over many years. When I later sat down to mark the writing, the children had done what I’d expected of them; their outcomes were of a high standard. Cutting out some of the detail of the feedback subsequently given, my observer explained that she felt that the children had achieved accidentally and not by design. The reason for this assertion? I had not provided ‘procedural’ Success Criteria before the writing commenced.

Since that meeting, I have sought to demonstrate (if only to myself) that although Success Criteria may be essential in gaining command and mastery of a style of writing, they are prohibitive once that level of expertise has been achieved.

This week, I have taught very similar lessons in a different Year Three class. In my quest to prove that procedural Success Criteria place limitations on achievement in writing, I asked the children to write two sets of instructions for the same activity: one following a set of Success Criteria, the second not.

The briefest of scans of the initial, Success Criteria-informed writing, revealed instructions which were functional but little more than that.

The second batch of writing was of a markedly different quality; it was less constrained and more natural by far; children had applied their knowledge of the text structure but also added elements of what they knew to be good writing per se.

Will I be using procedural Success Criteria in the future, lesson observation or not? Yes, but perhaps only in the early stages of immersion in a particular text type. My question is, are Success Criteria the Middlemen of Writing, the couriers between teaching and learning? Or are they the Highway Men of Writing, forcing us to abandon our jewels and riches?

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