There didn’t used to be any doubt about how to cook the humble chip. Now, even modest establishments offer triple-cooked chips, coated in duck fat, beef dripping or truffle oil then tossed in salt and rosemary/paprika etc. So too with marking. What was once the most benign duty of a teacher now fills the pages of a multitude of blogs and government directives (“Ofsted does not expect to see unnecessary or extensive written dialogue between teachers and pupils in exercise books and folders”, Ofsted 2014). Rather like our tripled-cooked chips, I’ve heard of some schools insisting that every piece of work is ‘double-marked’. Perhaps it’s time to remind ourselves why we mark in the first place.
Marking is important because there is nothing more fundamental in a school than the work produced by students in their daily lessons: have the students learnt what the teacher taught them? It’s right that we take marking seriously, and in doing so, place value on the end product of everything else that we do in schools: work completed by students. Research appears to support the importance of marking: Hattie praises the power of feedback, and feedback also appears high on EEF’s toolkit of interventions which schools can employ to enhance students’ progress.
It seems that our renewed focus on marking has been driven from above, particularly by Ofsted (in practice, if not in writing) and by school leadership teams. From a management perspective, the great thing about marking is that it’s easy to check who’s doing it and who isn’t and – unlike lesson observations – it’s incontrovertible: no value judgements are required to see that a teacher hasn’t marked a book since Christmas.
Yet it strikes me that this concern about marking should also be in a teacher’s best interests, since a broad sample of students’ books surely offers a much clearer insight into ‘typicality’ than snapshot lesson observations. Book scrutiny should allow school leaders to moderate other evidence on teacher performance and reach a more rounded view of the daily diet experienced by students in each class. The challenge, of course, is striking a balance between the need for high quality marking and protecting the precious time of teachers, and this is where I would like to offer a problem and a solution.
The problem with our renewed interest in marking, beyond the burden of time that it imposes on teachers, is that good marking does not equate to good learning. Just like other ‘indications’ of good learning, such as students working in silence, or tightly structured lessons with good pace and high levels of engagement, deep marking does not itself signify deep learning. When we go back to the research of Hattie and the EEF we see that the most impactful feedback occurs in the moment, rather than in the books.
A friend of mine illustrated this for me recently. He was talking to a former student to whom he had taught A Level English. “Our new teacher marks our books loads more than you did sir, but with you I knew exactly how to improve because you would sit down with me and we would go through my essays together”. This is surely the best kind of ‘marking’, and yet no record of it exists for Ofsted, line managers or SLT to check, and I’m not sure that a ‘verbal feedback given’ stamp on this student’s essay would have added any value to the dialogue.
But perhaps within this problem lies the source of our solution, since once we’ve recognised that marking itself does not equate to progress, maybe we can refocus on the impact of marking, not the act of marking per se. So rather than demanding marking every two weeks, or stipulating red pen/green pen dialogue, a school’s marking expectations could be stated thus: “we expect the quality of work in students’ books to improve over time, and we expect timely and informative teacher feedback to support this process.” This shift in ‘policy’ refocuses our energies on the end product: the quality of students’ work. The focus of marking switches from teacher-compliance to student-impact. With luck, teachers will be empowered to focus on the feedback that matters, which leads on to another possible solution.
For any given subject, how many different pieces of student advice can there be? I’m a history teacher, and here’s a few of the questions that I regularly ask in my marking:
- Can you include evidence which supports this point?
- What are the limitations of this source?
- Were any other factors involved?
- Was this the most important reason? Why?
- Can you suggest any alternative interpretations of this event?
Of course, these comments will need to be adapted for individual students. Rather than just ‘can you include evidence?’ a teacher might add arrows to show where evidence should be added, or where a point needs to be developed.
Instead of expecting lengthy dialogue between student and teacher, our focus on ‘improvement over time supported by timely and informative teacher feedback’ allows teachers to home in on the key issue. Posing this feedback as a question reinforces the point that feedback is a means to an end, not an end in itself. I’ve seen so much dialogue between students and teachers which involves a long comment from a teacher followed by ‘thanks Miss’ or ‘ok Sir’ from the student. Such dialogue is a distraction from the desired outcome of student progress.
Using focused questions rather than lengthy dialogue places the onus for improvement back on to the students. Time can then be allocated in class for students to respond to these questions by improving their work. Better still, the questions can be shared with the students during a task, rather than at the end, so the feedback becomes “a recipe for future action” and “a windshield not a rearview mirror” (both Dylan Wiliam, 2011). Marking shouldn’t be a mystery. If the teacher can clearly share the success criteria for the subject and for the task then students are more able to regulate their own progress every lesson.
In short, we should welcome our renewed interest in marking, but we must remember that the point of marking is to support students’ learning. Demanding extensive dialogue between students and teachers is a distraction from this.