Just recently I got into a brief discussion with a headteacher who happened also to be an Ofsted inspector (and had been re-trained under the new in-house arrangements). I was suggesting that we know relatively little about what constitutes effective marking, and therefore it’s hard to make judgements about what a good policy might look like.
The disagreement was outright. This headteacher maintained, with some considerable confidence, that they could tell whether marking was effective just by looking at a few books.
And I couldn’t disagree more.
For as far as I can tell, there is relatively little (if any) research easily available out there about what constitutes effective marking. The EEF toolkit offers very strong indications that feedback is an effective tool for increasing progress, but feedback and marking are not necessarily synonymous.
The toolkit itself sets out a definition of feedback:
Feedback is information given to the learner and/or the teacher about the learner’s performance relative to learning goals. It should aim to (and be capable of) producing improvement in students’ learning. Feedback redirects or refocuses either the teacher’s or the learner’s actions to achieve a goal, by aligning effort and activity with an outcome.
none of which requires that feedback be given in the form of written marking.
The problem is, a shared wisdom has grown up around marking that can easily be explained, but not necessarily justified. The explanation is simple: people quite rightly pointed out that if marking didn’t lead to some ‘redirection’ or ‘refocusing’ of the learner’s actions, then it was probably wasted. But rather concluding, therefore, that much written marking was useless, instead the presumption became that all marking would be effective if out led to some sort of action. So the marking load continued to increase, and the complexity with it.
I can’t see anywhere that it shows that that was the right conclusion to reach, but it has now become so widely held a view, that it’s hard to argue against. What’s worse: it’s very easy to go from that perceived wisdom to thinking one can spot effective marking. I can certainly identify marking that meets the expected norms of dialogue and “DIRT” and the like. But that’s not necessarily the same as it being effective.
My personal view – equally unsupported by evidence – is that the vast majority of marking is wasteful. As I’ve said before, there’s a real diminishing return after more than a few seconds of looking at work, and by the time it has been marked in detail and acted upon, that return may well be negated by the effort expended. (See Is marking the enemy of feedback?) A whole host of feedback can occur (both to teacher and student) without a pen ever touching the page.
I don’t suggest scrapping marking, but merely point out that whether I’m right or not is frankly academic.
Because for all the clarification documents in the world from Ofsted, nothing will give me the freedom to demonstrate that I can be equally effective without excess marking all the time there are inspectors who believe that they can tell effective marking just by looking at it. The argument from authority of inspectors is impossible to fight against.
And it’s not the first time it’s happened. I’ve had more than one public ‘spat’ in recent months with inspectors who argue that they know better. And it’s easy for them to claim they know better because they’ve been trained. Or they’re well-qualified. Or they’ve been inspecting for x years.
But what if we don’t know? What if that confidence is false? What if what hundreds of inspectors think is ‘effective marking’ is actually just wasteful annotation, but there’s no evidence to show otherwise?
I don’t know if I’m right. I may well not be. But I’m not yet convinced that people like the inspectors I’ve talked to recently are either. Unfortunately, all the time they have authority on their side, they can maintain their false confidences in what they believe that should see.
And no amount of ‘clarification’ from the top will make the slightest difference, all the time inspectors are free to state without a hint of doubt that they know what effective marking looks like. So woe betide any of us who doesn’t conform to their expectations.