Successful success criteria

There has been a lot of confusion over success criteria since their wide adoption, probably because of influences such as Shirley Clarke. Let’s be clear about what they are not:

They are not an inverse of the learning objective. I once observed a Y2 lesson where the LO was (I kid you not) We are learning to partition two-digit numbers and the success criterion was I can partition two-digit numbers. While this is a statement of the blindingly obvious and the teacher could argue that it is a criterion of success, what would be its purpose?

Many schools use ‘steps to success’, to describe success criteria, others refer to them (and I think this is very helpful) as ‘remember-tos’ (that looks odd without an apostrophe but the English teacher in me does not allow me to add one!).

This makes the point that the purpose of the remember-to is to remind the pupils about the sequence of processes they need to follow in order to complete the task successfully. So, instead of being a statement of the blindingly obvious, they become the road-map, the recipe to follow. Shirley Clarke uses the over-simple example of making a papier mâché bowl:

  • tear up the paper
  • cover it with the paste
  • smooth it evenly round the balloon…

…etc etc. It illustrates the idea.

It is a Vygotskian principle that learning should be scaffolded and success criteria provide part of that scaffolding. Like the map we don’t need when we know the way, pupils won’t use SC when they know how to do it. But they are there if they get lost.

Practically speaking, it’s probably too hard to write SC for every lesson in every subject. This is about helping pupils to consolidate their understanding as they seek to apply new concepts. Some teachers like to set them out in advance, some like to differentiate them according the differentiated task – but this has to be making work! My preference is for pupils to work them out for themselves based on a learning dialogue. Thus, after the introduction and modelling phases of a lesson, pupils could be set to work collaboratively on applying the relevant concept(s). Then the teacher can stop the lesson, refocus pupils by asking them what they have found out that they need to do to complete the activity successfully. This can generate the steps to success that pupils can use for their individual work.

There is evidence that the most effective success criteria are those that pupils work out for themselves, because they have ownership of their learning and can identify the steps that they found helpful. However, sometimes the teacher will simply want to say ‘do it this way’.

Don’t get hung up on success criteria. They are a useful tool that supports pupils’ learning and you should use them when you can. Sometimes you can’t – and that’s okay too.

In the next blog we will think about bringing together all the elements we have considered so far in the plenary.


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