Why we’ve got planning and marking all wrong (part 1)

I carried out a poll on Twitter this week – partly just because I got the function at last. The results were not at all surprising to me, but rather confirmed my fears about the use of time in schools


Many people responded directly, stating that they considered marking to be part of planning, or some even quoted the “marking is planning” phrase that was once shared by David Didau. (It’s interesting to note that David has shifted his view over time, as reflective practitioners are wont to do)

But I think they’re wrong

I absolutely agree that looking at books, seeing what children have done, is key to assessment, and assessment is key to good planning. However, as so often, marking has been given credit for things which are not within its effect.

I tend to think that the process of marking is an excellent example of the law of diminishing returns. We know well that marking comes under that heading of feedback, for which we all now aim to strive given its prominence as an effective intervention. However, as I’ve written before, the evidence on feedback is rarely linked directly to evidence about marking. And when we look at the advice from the Sutton Trust/EEF Toolkit about what makes effective feedback, we see slightly unexpected statements, like:

research suggests the feedback should be about complex or challenging tasks or goals


Research suggests that it should […] be given sparingly so that it is meaningful

When was the last time you saw a school feedback policy that stressed the need to be sparing in its use of feedback? Or to limit feedback to complex and challenging tasks? Often the reverse is true. There are still many teachers who expect, or are expected, to mark every book every lesson, including formative comments for follow-up in the next lesson. It doesn’t take me to tell you what a workload that is for a teacher on a full timetable

Perhaps the most undervalued statement in the toolkit is the first. The opening paragraph describes feedback well for us:

Feedback is information given to the learner and/or the teacher about the learner’s performance relative to learning goals.
Feedback redirects or refocuses either the teacher’s or the learner’s actions to achieve a goal.

Once again, how many policies about feedback clearly stress that feedback can be for teachers as much as for students? (If not more so) Many schools have re-labelled their marking policies as ‘feedback’ policies, yet the whole policy is then about written marking. Only the title has changed. I know it happens: I’ve done it!

Despite everything we learn about formative assessment, we still tend to prioritise written feedback at pupils (note my use of that preposition), rather than the plentiful valuable feedback to teachers.

Which brings us back to those diminishing returns. I’d argue that in the first few moments of looking at a piece of work, a good teacher can take in a fantastic amount of knowledge and understanding about how a child has understood a given taught concept. In the next few moments of reading or reviewing in greater depth, they gather much more. By the time they come to write the comment, they have probably exhausted the task’s usefulness to the teacher, so the only further impact to be made is on the pupil.
Many people would argue that DIRT time solves this conundrum; that if pupils are responding to feedback then Good is being done. But is that really the case? If we ask a child to re-write a paragraph using three adjectives, have they therefore learned to improve their use of adjectives? Or have they simply learned that whatever they do, there’ll be more work to do next time? And if every task comes with a follow-up, how do they know when the follow-up is administrative or unique to this task, and when it’s a key point for learning that will be useful again and again? And each time we craft a good follow-up task that really hits the nub of learning for one pupil, how many others end up with a time-filling task, or something out of their reach, or that misses the point?

The fact is, formative written marking is a high-demand task for the teacher, and one that is very hard to make into a high-impact result for every student.

It’s interesting at this point to note one of my favourite quotes from that master of assessment, Dylan Wiliam, who – when asked if he’d ever learned from a mistake – provided this gem of a tweet:

I think it hits the nail on the head when it comes to ‘feedback’ and related matters. The feedback that an expert teacher can garner from reviewing a piece of work (or talking to a child, or marking a test, or a myriad other things that we rush through) can be massively powerful, particularly if teachers have the time and energy to use it to make a difference to their teaching. That responsive teaching can happen in every moment of every lesson. Certainly I would expect any good teacher to be responding to feedback frequently in a lesson. If we think of feedback as being part of responsive teaching, then suddenly written marking appears like the poor relation. Why would anyone wait until a whole other day to redirect focus or attention?

But we have become in thrall to the marking behemoth that has arisen. We equate the all-powerful feedback with the clunky and slow written marking process. And with teachers spending so much of their time on marking, its clear that they are not spending as much as they might otherwise be on planning.

But I’ve rambled on too long, so my thoughts on where we’re going wrong with planning will have to wait for another day…

Part 2 of this blog focussed on planning is now online here.

For a fascinating insight into an alternative way, it’s well worth reading Joe Kirby’s blog post: Marking is a hornet. Actually, it’s just worth reading Joe’s blog, full stop.

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15 thoughts on “Why we’ve got planning and marking all wrong (part 1)

  1. cazzypot2013 5 November 2015 at 8:55 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. julietgreen 5 November 2015 at 9:10 pm Reply

    ‘Verbal feedback given’ stamps are to be avoided, but what about a ‘make sure I come to you today to give you verbal feedback’ stamp?

    • Michael Tidd 5 November 2015 at 9:15 pm Reply

      You mean a sort of cuddly “See Me!” stamper? 😉
      I definitely think some useful shortcuts like that are good. I sometimes just have a handful of books on my desk that don’t get given out. Those people can catch up with me before starting.

  3. cmoyse 5 November 2015 at 9:21 pm Reply

    Spot on. Marking in my opinion is one of the most overrated activities a teacher undertakes – its worth is quite often minimal but ‘experts’ especially bloody inspectors go hunting it down believing it to be the hallmark of effective teaching.

  4. joiningthedebate 5 November 2015 at 11:08 pm Reply

    From a secondary teacher
    This post was very helpful to me (that the problem is seriously recognised)

    I cannot sustain my marking workload…weekends have become a time to catch up with what didn’t get done in the week day evening. Something is going to have to give.
    On that note even today a senior person gave me permission to complete a task over the weekend rather than on Friday night which was the soonest I said I could do it (as long as it was ready for Monday).

    Anyway The OFSTED clarification is not helpful to the ordinary teacher…

    Ofsted does not expect to see any specific frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback; these are for the school to decide through its assessment policy. Marking and feedback should be consistent with that policy,

    “for the schools to decide” – ie for management to decide…we can only try to persuade them to see reason
    “should be consistent with that policy” so tough luck – ordinary teacher!

  5. […] I carried out a poll on Twitter this week – partly just because I got the function at last. The results were not at all surprising to me, but rather confirmed my fears about the use of time in scho…  […]

  6. Beth Budden 6 November 2015 at 12:29 pm Reply

    Another great blog Michael! Teachers have become confused about who they need to be ‘responsive’ towards. It shouldn’t be the DfE, SLT, or parents, but children’s learning! We have spent too long ‘responding’ to accountability requirements (or demands) rather than children’s learning. This is where the whole ‘levels kafuffle’ has come from. Too much time quantifying learning and proving teaching rather than getting on with the business of it all.

    • Michael Tidd 6 November 2015 at 5:28 pm Reply

      Yes exactly… as I wrote once before: not enough evidence, too much evidencing!

  7. […] Source: Why we’ve got planning and marking all wrong (part 1) […]

  8. Anthony Radice 6 November 2015 at 10:21 pm Reply

    This, along with so many other bugbears, arises from a system designed to meet the needs of bureaucrats, not children.

  9. theplews 7 November 2015 at 2:25 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Big Blog of Teaching Ideas and commented:
    Love this view of responsive teaching, not just writing in books for the sake of it!

  10. Primary teacher 9 November 2015 at 11:23 am Reply

    As a member of SLT and the only member of our school SLT to be in the class teaching! I totally agree – my books look lovely all highlighted pink and green with feedback from me and responses by children and then me again! But I spend far too much time doing obvious evidencing – actually thinking with colleagues about how to be a better quality practitioner and making my teaching (and marking) better simply does not happen.

  11. […] Thursday I published a post that largely focussed on why I think we are expending too much effort on written marking. Today I […]

  12. T&L Resources | Pearltrees 1 October 2017 at 12:08 pm Reply

    […] We were considering whether the best strategy would be to ask the question again, what we at TPF call, ‘anchoring’ (‘So, is the mind the same as the brain?’) Why we’ve got planning and marking all wrong (part 1) – Ramblings of a Teacher. […]

  13. […] written before about the law of diminishing returns when it comes to marking books. Put simply, the most valuable feedback that comes from marking […]

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