I had a conversation with Mark Gilbranch (@mgilbranch) today about book scrutinies, and particularly considering the approach to monitoring marking in school. It brought to the fore, in my mind, some of the many issues with marking policies in schools, and particularly the problems with the ways in which they are both implemented and monitored – including by Ofsted!
When I commented over the weekend that I’d happily always plan and never mark, several people commented that they thought marking was an integral part of planning. I’d disagree. I’m not arguing that marking is pointless, but rather that it is not the act of marking work that helps me to know where to go next; it is merely the act of reviewing it. The actual marking should be creating dialogue with students, to allow them to make next steps without my direct presence.
And here lies the rub. Marking isn’t for the teacher, ever. And so we confuse ‘marking’ and ‘feedback’ at a cost. Some of the most important feedback that comes from reviewing work is not in the written comments, or even in the verbal feedback given to students. The most significant feedback from reviewing work should be to the teacher, indicating to him/her where the teaching ought to go next.
Critically, marking policies often overlook this vital element – even when marking policies are renamed feedback policies. The focus is always on the approaches for giving written comments (or verbal) to students. And while this is undoubtedly an important part of the work of feedback, it isn’t the most important.
Many policies now emphasise the need to give children opportunities to follow-up on marking comments – and rightly so. But that isn’t always the most important part of the process either. Sometimes a piece of work shows that more drastic intervention is required, either individually or as part of a class. Sometimes the work is completed to such a high standard that a new challenge needs to be offered than can only be delivered in person, or as part of a group in the follow-up lesson. Sometimes the feedback a teacher garners from a selection of books is entirely unrelated to the learning objective of that lesson, but highlights an unconnected issue. In all these cases, a comment – in whatever colour pen the policy dictates – won’t achieve what is really needed. In these cases the feedback to the teacher, providing indications of where to take the teaching next will be far more important than any cursory work a child could do in response to the mighty red pen.
But if policies don’t recognise this – and many don’t – then how much energy will be expended by both teachers and students on evidencing marking and responding to marking in order to demonstrate that the policy is being implemented, at the cost of real learning opportunities in the next lesson.
Re-naming marking policies as feedback policies isn’t enough. We need to be explicit in the aims of our marking & feedback policies (and, yes, they should have aims!) that feedback is provided both to teachers and students through the reviewing of work completed, and that the professional judgement of the teacher should guide the response, which may be individual comments, may be group interventions, or may be whole-class teaching to tackle a wider misconception. Not all of these can be evidenced in red pen and follow-ups, and nor should they be.
It means that when scrutinising marking – as Mark Gilbranch was talking about – we need to be explicit about what is being looked for. In some cases it may be appropriate highlighting; in others it will be specific red pen comments; in others it will be action taken by students. But most importantly, we should be looking for evidence that an intervention by the teacher, based on the review of the work completed, has had a formative and positive impact on learning. And that might not be so easy to spot – especially to an Ofsted inspector taking a quick flick through the books. We need to be clear in our policies about our approaches, and ready to demonstrate their effectiveness to all comers.
Marking is an essential part of the job… but it shouldn’t be so essential as to get in the way of teaching and learning.