What if you never marked another book?

Whenever I speak publicly, I always highlight my key message for teachers:

Do less, but better.

It’s a principle that serves me well, and an effort to tackle the workload behemoth. And it often requires a different approach to thinking. Rather than asking ‘what can we change about what we do?’ when trying to find workload solutions, I prefer to take a more extreme starting point, as demonstrated by my tweet yesterday:

We all seem to be trying to find ways to cut corners and shave minutes off marking, without going back to the starting principles of why we bother in the first place.

My reason for posing the question was not to suggest that we do it (although I’m still not persuaded that marking has anything like a worthwhile benefit for the time cost), but to start the discussion from the opposite direction. What if marking didn’t exist? What bits would we decide to introduce because they’re so valuable?

It was partly prompted by a recent poll I did where I asked people how much of the progress their children make comes down to marking. The answers varied – perhaps unsurprisingly – between 0% and 100% and were pretty evenly spread across the range. But I quickly realised that many people were interpreting my question about “never marking” to mean “never looking at books” – which is very different.

When I posted the question in the tweet above, some people responded with joy, focusing on the time freed up for other things (notably all things that people thought would benefit children; no-one said they’d be at the pub more). But some defended marking, and these defences fell into a few common camps, which I’ll illustrate – and then challenge – with reference to a few (semi-anonymous) tweets.


Marking work shows children that you care about their work

I think marking is just about the worst way to do this. It reminds me of being told once to be more effusive in my praise in my marking. I tried, and children in my class found it “weird”. They didn’t recognise ‘me’ in the marking. And when I pushed them on it, they pointed out that when I think something is amazing, I read it aloud to everyone. I do that during lessons as I spot things, but also in later lessons. Occasionally, when everyone has done something fantastic, we make an effort to share those things more widely. That shows that I care about their work. My constant badgering as they do things shows that I care about their work. My marking doesn’t, any more than the written feedback I receive from an observation shows that my headteacher cares, more than the verbal feedback does.

Marking is about making sure they do the work to the standards you want.
(Else, most children would think “why am I bothering?”)

Again, marking is too late to do this. Looking over their shoulder in the lesson is the time to pick up on this – not after the event. Especially not when sometimes it can be days after the event. And are we really still so far from growth mindsets and intrinsic motivation that we believe that without feedback our children will sign out completely? Is there any greater failure in education if that’s the case?

They’ve taken the time to do the work, so I should take the time to mark it

This is a non-argument for me. I took the time to plan the lessons  so they should do the work set in it. Schooling is not about quid pro quos, and teaching shouldn’t be about offering kids rewards for playing their role. I’m only interested in spending my precious time and effort on things that will benefit the children, not appease them.

Children like to have their work marked

I agree to an extent on this one – although it’s far from universally true. I think more often kids like the praise. They also learn that the correct answer to give when asked is that “marking helps me to know how to improve”. Ask upper KS2 kids and that’s what they’ll tell you. Ask them secretly if that’s what they really think, however…
Children are essentially teacher-pleasers in many cases, and if they think we value marking, then so will they. When I was at school we valued the work that went on the wall more than what went in our draft books. It’s just what we’d been trained to value.


Interestingly, nobody said “children would make less progress”, or that learning would be affected or anything like that. And plenty of people – perhaps a small majority – offered arguments on the other side of the coin:

[stopping marking] would have almost zero impact on pupil progress. I genuinely believe that.”

“As long as you look at every book and then make notes/adjust planning for the next lessons, no loss would be had by no marking”

“My children would still make and show progress, even without the evidence of marking and feedforward”

“Planning would improve and consequently so would outcomes for children.”

“I would still give all the verbal feedback I do now and kids would still learn. I would have more of a life.”

“I probably wouldn’t be on my way out of teaching. It’s the biggest pain about the job. There’s too much & most is pointless”

I would add, that I don’t actually think I’d argue for never marking a book again. I think there is benefit in using written recording sometimes – particularly with older children – for conveying messages about learning. Most of the benefits are about practicalities of conversing with all children. There are also some advantages of recording feedback to children in a more concrete form.

However,  I do sometimes wonder if we’ve gone so far to the other extreme that the negative impacts are actually worse than if we had no marking at all in many cases. If teachers were forced to mark less and plan more, I think the curriculum would be more effective and then outcomes would be stronger all round. I think if teachers were expected to spend time looking at, rather than writing on, work and using that information to adjust teaching, then progress might be better in many areas. I think that if teachers were allowed to focus on real scrutiny of a smaller number of pupils, then we might find disadvantaged pupils more able to close the gap.

And what’s more, I think that if teachers really had to prove to me that marking in their books was clearly having impact – not just “making kids do stuff”, but actually lead to gains in their learning – then many would struggle, despite reams of dialogue and coloured pens.

But if we’re trying to reduce workload and marking is an area of focus, then why not imagine all marking were scrapped… and then think which bits would you be arguing to bring back in, rather than trying to shave edges off what we’re already doing. We might be surprised.

Do Less, But Better.


Thinking of pointing out to me that the EEF says feedback is the most important/effective approach? Read my other recent blog: Marking ≠ Feedback

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8 thoughts on “What if you never marked another book?

  1. cazzypot2013 20 January 2016 at 7:49 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. joiningthedebate 20 January 2016 at 9:48 pm Reply

    I know it’s not a literal question but …
    If I never marked another book, the world would not end.
    I am stating this obvious fact to anyone reading this (and also to myself) to remind us all that the world would keep spinning and students would keep learning.
    I would like to apply the same to another obsession (on which I commented here http://www.learningspy.co.uk/leadership/big-data-is-bad-data/#comment-64238)
    What if you(r school) never set a target grade?
    If there were no target grades, the world would not end.
    The world would keep spinning and students would keep learning.
    ..
    There is no laziness in any of these views. Who knows, if the pressure of these things was taken off teachers, they may well do more marking (out of the sheer pleasure!) and ‘target setting’ type conversations would be a lot more meaningful. I am not contradicting myself here.

  3. madeupteacher 21 January 2016 at 6:54 am Reply

    This blog is music to my ears, Michael!

    Our school used to have ‘ Impact’ stickers. These stickers simply had the word ‘Impact’ on them. They were not your usual sticker but they were quite large.
    These were placed in the books when you could show that your feedback ( verbal indicated as VF or written….including response from child) had an effect. Usually short term effects.

    This went against every grain of logic I had in me and was so transparently designed as a scrutiny tool ( primarily for Ofsted and SLT).

    This is an extreme example of marking being for anyone other than the child.
    Now that we have had Ofsted, the stickers have disappeared…..funnily.

    It really doesn’t matter how many times one is told not to do anything for Ofsted, when that visit is no longer imminent, the hoops left behind linger and we are left with an SLT that is obsessed with evidence ( scrutiny, tracking progress and any other data) rather than the real business of T&L.

  4. Jose12 21 January 2016 at 7:32 pm Reply

    I turned to this post as in a serendipitous moment it appeared on my email, from Twitter, after I had this very same thought…what would the impact be if I didn’t make a mark in a book? Would children still make the same progress? Would their outcomes remain the same or improve? Would my teaching be better? How much do the marks in the book evidence, inspire or encourage progress? Who are the marks for? It would be so exciting to have a chance to see what the outcomes would be!

  5. theplews 22 January 2016 at 5:20 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Big Blog of Teaching Ideas and commented:
    Exactly!

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