Is marking the enemy of feedback?

I’ve written before about the error of thinking of marking and feedback as synonymous. Too often the focus is on the former – perhaps because it’s far easier to measure than the latter.

I’ve written too, about all the hidden feedback that goes on in classrooms. But increasingly I’m coming to think that the focus on marking is not only struggling to have impact; I think it might actually be hindering good feedback.

I think it’s always worth remembering some key overlooked points about feedback from the Sutton Trust/EEF toolkit. The first appears in the “What should I consider?” box on the website, where it states that to be effective, feedback should:

be given sparingly so that it is meaningful

I think it’s important to contrast that with the many policies that require feedback for pupils on every piece of work.

The second, I think, is more significant, and it appears in the first line of the webpage about feedback:

Feedback is information given to the learner and/or the teacher about the learner’s performance relative to learning goals.

The highlighting here is mine, because I think too often we overlook this part. Feedback is not a one-way process; some of the most useful feedback about learners’ performance is provided to the teacher.

Every time we pick up a book and look at a piece of work, we can draw huge inferences about what that child is capable of, what they’re struggling with, what help they might need, or where there might be room for challenge. In fact, I’d argue that the most powerful and valuable feedback occurs in the first few moments of looking at a piece of work. Every moment spent thereafter on combing though, adding red pen, or forming detailed comments, is likely to produce a diminishing return.

Of course, that’s not to say that we should never do it. But we ought to be aware of the cost.

I think that sometimes the focus on the marking is actually preventing good feedback. We are so preoccupied with ensuring that the correct colour highlighter is used, or the learning objective is ticked, or thinking up a comment to ensure that everyone is occupied in ‘DIRT’ time, that we sometimes miss the most important things that would re-shape our own teaching.

Sometimes, the most important feedback from 30 books is that you need to start again. Writing advice doesn’t help; annotating doesn’t make it any better. The feedback needs to lead to actions on the part of the teacher.

As it is, I’d argue that a good proportion of DIRT-type activities – at least at primary level – are busy work. If learning were as simple as telling someone what to do, and then they automatically learned it, then we’d have given up on teacher training years ago.

What if we just changed our feedback policies to say that every piece of work should be seen by a teacher? What if feedback to the teacher was as important as writing comments to the pupils? What if we saved written comments so that we were giving feedback sparingly using specific, accurate and clear guidance once a fortnight? And what if we used the feedback that we gained from looking at work to tailor teaching?

I know what you’re thinking: “It’s all very well saying this, but what about Ofsted?”. And I agree. That’s the real barrier. Because as I’ve said before, it’s the evidencing that’s the problem, not the evidence. And I know that as a deputy of a school currently graded as RI, it would be all but impossible to persuade my colleagues of such a radical departure; I don’t think I could even persuade myself. Because the ogre remains all powerful.

Some schools have gone some way towards this model, through use of things like coloured dot marking. I’ve only seen this is secondary schools so far, but perhaps there are some brave primaries somewhere doing clever things?

But the point remains, that whatever the next Ofsted inspector who walks into your school might think, there’s an important issue here that we ought to be addressing:

Might marking actually be stopping us from making the most of the power of feedback?

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12 thoughts on “Is marking the enemy of feedback?

  1. cazzypot2013 10 June 2015 at 7:42 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. Paul Mulligan 10 June 2015 at 7:52 pm Reply

    If overall results are good or better, children are able to articulate their learning to inspectors and the curriculum is innovative and inspiring, Ofsted are unlikely to be critical of marking. Remember they do not have a preferred house wine!

    • Michael Tidd 10 June 2015 at 8:07 pm Reply

      I agree.
      However, there are two caveats here.
      1. If results are not yet good, then you have to try to weigh up doing what is right (which might be significantly different from the norm), against don’t what inspectors routinely expect to see.
      2. You might still get a dodgy team who aren’t fully on message with the new way of things!
      It’s hazardous ground.

  3. HT Bruce 10 June 2015 at 8:36 pm Reply

    Having worked with some schools on book scrutinies and working as an inspector in primary schools, I have to say that I honestly think that too much attention is paid to marking at times. Not saying it’s not important, but the first and only question on anyone’s mind should be ‘What progress are these pupils making?” Once we’ve established that there is good progress then you can start looking for the drivers of that progress. It’s almost certainly going to have a lot to do with having well-planned, differentiated activities that spark children’s interest them and challenge them. Questioning in the lesson and AfL during a lesson is every bit as important as written feedback after the lesson. In fact if you give me one or the other then I’ll have verbal feedback at the time every time.
    I liken it to training a blind golfer. The only way that they will improve is if they get instant, clear feedback on what happened, what went wrong and what they need to improve it next time.
    Only my opinion though.

  4. HT Bruce 10 June 2015 at 8:37 pm Reply

    Should say “… that spark children’s imagination, interest them…”

  5. theplews 10 June 2015 at 10:42 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Big Blog of Teaching Ideas.

  6. educationbear 10 June 2015 at 10:59 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on EdBearSaid.

  7. barringtonjmock 10 June 2015 at 11:19 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on BlogBJMock – Y Byd a'r Betws and commented:
    Adborth y ddwy ffordd. Rheswm arall dros RAG123. Little and often = less is more … no brainer!

  8. teachwell 11 June 2015 at 5:46 am Reply

    I completely agree with your blog – in fact I felt exactly so this time last year when the marking was at its height pre-Ofsted!! They didn’t care – progress was being made and we were fortunate to get a team that was on message and therefore spent a lot of time on the books but I hear you about rogue teams!

    However, the constant marking meant that something had to give. That something for me was annotating my plans. The year before they were full of changes and precise about the strengths and weakness of the lesson/children’s learning. That all went because to get through the marking was a job that took hours. The level of marking prevents an overview being formed easily as it is so slow and laborious. It also takes time away from revising and updating resources. At the end of the day there are only so many hours in the day and we do need to eat and sleep as well as, I don’t know, spend a bit of time with the family or just relax at the end of the day to recharge our batteries for the next.

    The most worrying development was the need to write down what the verbal feedback I had given was. As you rightly indicate it is powerful and in my experience children want this during the lesson. I was able to give less verbal feedback as a result of writing down what I had just said.

    In addition, responding to marking cuts into virtually every lesson unless you have a DIRT type session. However, this often involved me going through the books and sticking in post-it notes for all the feedback that I had given that had not been acted on. Why is that? Because the fact is that we had to rush through so we could get started on the main lesson. Also I think the children just glossed over it as there was so much of it that it no doubt feels overwhelming. No-one is going to operate well with 4 different targets set each day that need to be met the next. Do we really expect children to respond to 15 – 20 comments about their work each week and take it on board? That is 20 small targets each week. How is this reasonable for an adult never mind a child?

  9. […] happens my best posts have already been written by someone else. In this case, Toby French and Michael Tidd have both written similar posts which are very much worth […]

  10. mrbenney 10 October 2016 at 7:36 pm Reply

    Great blogging Michael. I read more and more that the advice given to people is to mark less often but to go deeper on key bits of work. My worry here is the time taken to do this one bit of marking means that a large amount of pupil output gets missed. Seeing pupil work regularly is the best feedback there is. If we prioritise a few pieces we lose the time to see more work. I’ve never been more convinced that seeing pupil output is vital but combining this with written feedback is not. 3 hours spent on marking one piece of work is a poorer return than 2 hours (spread over 2 weeks perhaps) looking at multiple pieces of pupil output.
    Damian

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