Tag Archives: marking

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

Marking ≠ Feedback

This has been something of a bugbear (who knew that that was a single word!) of mine for some time now.

Every time feedback gets discussed, many people go out of their way to emphasise how they have found more effective ways to give feedback to children. There seems to be widespread agreement that written comments are not the only way of giving feedback, and everyone has their method of reducing workload without sacrificing the quantity of feedback given to children.

But the focus is always on ways to reduce marking workload. It never addresses the other aspects of feedback.

Andy Tharby explains this much better in his blog than mine (so do go and read the link at the end!), but the EEF toolkit also shares some important points here.

Firstly, this most undervalued statement is its opening offer on the role of feedback :



Nobody ever seems to mention the second object in that sentence. And yet feedback given to the teacher is, I would argue, of far more value than that given to the pupils. After all, the teacher is both the expert, and the one in control.

More to the point, teachers spend so much time worrying about the feedback they’re giving to children that they can too quickly neglect the feedback they could be collecting themselves. Certainly it can become undervalued.

Any teacher who has observed a trainee will recognise the number of occasions in a lesson taught by a novice, where valuable information is provided by the students, but missed by the trainee teacher. That information could be in the pupils’ questions, their answers, their first attempts at a task, or even in their facial expressions or body language. Much of the art of excellent teaching is the skill of responding appropriately to this feedback. That information “about the learner’s performance relative to learning goals” is invaluable in helping the teacher to reshape the lesson.  Often, the feedback a teacher receives leads to feedback for the pupils on their progress and next steps. (Although not always in the form of marking, as mentioned in my previous blog “Hidden Feedback“)

A good teacher might respond to hundreds of pieces of such feedback in  a day.

And then there’s the marking. Or rather, there’s the opportunity to look at the work the students have completed.

Naturally sometimes there are opportunities for further feedback to be given to the children, and so written comments, or codes, or videos, or highlighters – or all manner of tricks of the trade might be useful. But the most important feedback here, once again, is for the teacher.

A first glance at a piece of work can tell you a huge amount. A closer reading, or scrutiny of the calculations can indicate a mass of information about the progress students have made, their misconceptions, their areas of strength and future needs. It can help to shape teaching, planning – even the whole curriculum in some cases.

But if the priority is to provide feedback for the pupils – written or otherwise – then some of these opportunities can be lost. If the teacher seeks information that can be converted into childspeak, or highlighted in some way, there is  a risk that they might overlook some of the valuable insights that are available.

Worse, if the demand for evidenced feedback is too great, then a teacher may put off even looking at the work until time allows for greater depth marking. A whole opportunity to obtain feedback has been lost. Even where shortcuts can be found – and many of them have much to recommend them – the most important aspect of feedback to be obtained from a teacher looking at books, must surely be that gleaned by the teacher that allows him or her to ensure that:


And if written comments, or sticky dots, or pink highlighting, or a video clip, or a QR code allow you an opportunity to provide further feedback directly to the student to allow them to redirect their actions, then all well and good.

But there’s a lot more to feedback, than marking – written or otherwise!

The post was inspired in part by a #PrimaryRocks chat on Twitter, but also by the excellent post on a closely-related theme by Andy Tharby of Durrington High School, Worthing:



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.

What if some inspectors… are wrong?!

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.

Herding cats would be easier.

When I posted yesterday, I genuinely wanted my post to be about the important aspects of feedback as opposed to marking. I only made a mention of the challenges of Ofsted because I knew that otherwise that would be the response I’d get.

However, as so often is the case, far from being the hidden elephant in the room, Ofsted is fully on display and always up for discussion.

It’s only fair to say that I really appreciate the direction in which the inspectorate appears to be moving, and I genuinely believe the intentions of those at the helm. But it’s the troops that worry me. For just as there are bad teachers (and probably more than many of us would care to admit), so there are bad inspectors that wield more power than any of us would care to have to deal with. And there are many, many inspectors.

Following the post, Sean Harford pointed out the clarification document (which I think is great), and Paul Garvey tried to persuade me that I should have the courage of my convictions. But as I said yesterday, I just don’t. I can’t. And I’m in the fortunate position of being only deputy – imagine how hard it might be for a Head to have such courage.

For the reality is, for all its claims about not having preferred marking styles, and not expecting detail dialogue and many other things, it’s hard to see change on the ground. I wrote only recently about one inspector who proudly tells audiences that they should stick with levels. Any school inspected by him can hope that he follows the guidance about not prescribing a system – but he made equally clear what he’d be looking for. Why would any head of an improving school take the risk of not providing it?

Of course, the reality is that the majority (probably the vast majority) of inspectors are excellent professionals. But we ask them to do a mammoth task. Not only must they judge the current success of a school, they must also ascertain whether or not it is improving, and if not, what is holding it back. All in the space of a few hours. Inevitably there will be obvious places to look, but they’re not always the right places.

I’ve been at my current school 9 months and I’m now confident that I have a grasp of what its needs are as part of its school improvement journey. They’re not the same things that I thought back in September, and they’re certainly not the same things the Ofsted team recommended when they visited before I arrived. Of course, now my colleagues and I have to strike the right balance between doing what is right, and doing what the last team said we must do.

The trouble for inspection teams looking for areas for development is that 2 days is no time at all. It inevitably leads to the obvious conclusions. As I explained to Paul Garvey, in my experience curriculum development and structure is massively undervalued in schools and so means that children don’t make the progress they might. But when was the last time anyone ever saw that in an inspection report? It’s much harder to pin down. Much easier to stick in a statement that says marking could be improved. Who could ever argue with that?

Paul’s argument was that it would have to be supported by evidence; mine is that such evidence doesn’t exist. We cannot possibly point to a causal link between any form of marking and resultant learning/progress. Of course you can ask children, or look at books, or speak to teachers, or a whole host of other things. But the reality is, unpicking why children do or don’t make progress is hard. As David Didau says: we’re using a metaphor to map a mystery whenever we make such judgements.

So when a lead inspector decides that marking should be blamed for poor progress – or even in an excellent school is a good reason for withholding the Outstanding grade, how can anyone argue? If the inspector chooses to state that infrequent, or imprecise or brief feedback is to blame, what possible evidence can you provide to contradict it.

It is easy for a lead inspector to draw the conclusion that if marking were “improved” (of course, without stating how), that progress would also improve. Yet we actually know next to nothing about the link here. We talk about feedback as a great intervention, yet we know little of the detail of what that should look like. I have never seen any report, review or research state how often written feedback should be given, or in what style. We simply cannot be that precise.

But Ofsted reports imply that we can. If an inspector has a preconceived idea of what marking should look like, and doesn’t see it, then there is nothing stopping him from putting that as a recommendation. It would be easy to find evidence to support it, since any such evidence is inevitably subjective; it’s much harder to prove that it’s wrong.

It’s worth stating again, I think Ofsted is trying to change. I also think they usually get inspection judgements right. But the recommendations – that’s much trickier, and yet has such an impact on the profession as a whole. So our whole system is built upon the recommendations of the best intentions of inspectors who all have their own opinions – and years of experience – of what marking (and many other things like it) should look like.

And trying to change that? I’ll stick to herding cats.

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?

The trouble with Ofsted and marking…

Alongside other news on education research in the press today, comes an article in the TES about marking. According to the TES blog, in it Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) argues that we cannot wholly blame Ofsted for the current demands on workload of marking and feedback in schools. I’ll confess that I’ve not yet read the article in the paper, so I don’t intend to challenge this directly, but I do want to explain why I think Ofsted continues to be a driver of workload in this area, and perhaps how this reflects some of its deeper flaws.

Firstly, there can be no doubt that increasingly Ofsted reports have identified marking or feedback as an area for improvement in their recommendations. In fact, it’s quite hard to track down an Ofsted report which doesn’t recommend an improvement in marking and/or feedback, harder still to find one which praises quality of marking. Even among Outstanding school inspections, feedback on feedback is mixed at best. Of the 18 schools currently listed on Watchsted as having a recent Outstanding grade (including, therefore, Outstanding Teaching), just four list marking/feedback as a strength, with a fifth indicating that it is “not Outstanding”.

The limitations of Watchsted meant I could only look at the 10 most recent reports for other categories but in every case, all 10 examples showed that feedback was a recommendation, rather than a strength. It seems that even where schools are graded as Good or Outstanding, it’s difficult to get inspectors to praise marking.

One Outstanding school is hit with both praise and criticism on the matter:

Pupils are given clear guidance on how to improve their work or are set additional challenges in literacy and mathematics. This high quality feedback is not always evident in other subjects.

Ofsted report for Acresfield Community Primary School, Chester

The school is challenged to raise the standards of marking in other subjects to meet the high quality in the core areas.

Another school’s report, which praises the quality of marking in the recommendations, also contains a sting in its tail:

Marking, although not outstanding, promotes an increasingly consistent, and improving high-quality dialogue between teachers and pupils.

Ofsted report for Waddington All Saints Primary School, Lincoln

Later in the report comes that recommendation that the school “Accelerate pupils’ progress even more by ensuring that the marking of pupils’ work consistently promotes even higher quality dialogue between teachers and pupils in all classes.” And this is not an old report; the inspection took place this month!

Is it perhaps the case that marking and feedback has become the ‘go-to’ recommendation for inspectors when needing to justify an outcome, or to find a recommendation to make. Can it really be the case that only 4 schools of the last 200 primary and secondary schools inspected have sufficiently high quality marking and feedback to note it as a strength? Or that it is near impossible to find a school that doesn’t need to significantly improve its marking & feedback?

Here lies the problem with the recent clarification document from Ofsted: it’s all very well saying that inspectors won’t expect to see “unnecessary or extensive written dialogue”, but how does that sit with the recommendation that a school needs to promote “an increasingly consistent, and improving high-quality dialogue between teachers and pupils”. Where do we draw the line between the two?

The reality here lies perhaps somewhere deeper. Are we asking too much of our Ofsted teams? It’s very easy to spot that a school is not achieving results in line with predictions or expectations; its surely much harder to diagnose the causes and recommend a cure.

My own most recent experience of Ofsted was an inspection in which I recognised the outcomes (i.e. area grades) as accurate, but the recommendations as way off the mark. As has become commonplace, alongside our overall grade of Good, marking and feedback was raised as an area to improve, despite the fact that I – and colleagues – felt that other things should have been more pressing. Nevertheless, the nature of system demands that feedback then became a focus of the school, perhaps at the cost of other more important matters.

The problem is exacerbated for schools which are in need of improvement. The race to complete a report in 2 days doesn’t allow thorough diagnosis of the needs of the school, and even then the needs are seemingly reduced to a few bullet points. Any nuance or detail is lost, and it is left to a completely separate HMI to review progress against the targets set. And what better way to show an HMI that marking is improving than to ramp up the quantity?

In discussing this today, Bill Lord (@joga5) quite rightly pointed out that the EEF Toolkit emphasises feedback as one of the key areas to support progress (particularly in relation to Pupil Premium funding, one presumes), and yet even their page quite clearly states on the matter that:

Research suggests that [feedback] should be specific, accurate and clear; encourage and support further effort and be given sparingly so that it is meaningful; provide specific guidance on how to improve and not just tell students when they are wrong; and be supported with effective professional development for teachers.

In his article, Alex Quigley mentions “stories of teachers being forced to undertake weekly marking, regardless of the stage of learning or the usefulness of feedback“. In primary schools it is now common to expect that books are marked daily, and in many cases feedback given as often. The focus here is clearly on the expectations of Ofsted, rather than on the value of the process.

Alex Quigley might be right: we can’t blame Ofsted entirely for this; school leaders do need to take some responsibility and be brave enough to stand up to inspectors who get this wrong. But at the moment, the power is all rather on one side and the consequences fall rather heavily on the other.

It’s a brave school leader who sticks his head above the parapet.

Teaching today: not enough evidence; too much evidencing.

The Department for Education are consulting at the moment on the causes of teacher workload, presumably with a view to implementing some sort of effort to reduce it. While I want to laud the department for its efforts, I also feel that they’ll be largely fruitless. Not least because very rarely is the department itself responsible for matters of workload.

Of course people will point out that changes to the curriculum and examination boards come with the own workload, and I don’t disagree. But I also can’t see any value in arguing that these things should never change. And true, perhaps the pace and frequency of change is at fault, and so well worth reporting to the DfE.

However, as far as I can see, the real drivers of workload are not policy decisions from the department, but rather the practices of the inspectorate, and particularly its determination to see evidence.

There has been plenty of talk over the last couple of years on evidence in education, from Ben Goldacre to Tom Bennett’s ResearchEd. New approaches to evidence should be welcomed in our profession. But what I’d really like to see is a new approach to evidencing. That is, I’d like to see a change to the current situation where the action of providing evidence for actions is valued more highly than the impact of such actions. The act of evidencing work has become more highly rated than the evidence itself.

Across the country, schools implement policies to protect themselves from the wrath of Ofsted by demonstrating actions. Differentiation is not just based on the needs of the class, but on the need for it to be seen by observers. It is no longer enough for a teacher to adapt their teaching to the needs of pupils; rather it must be evidenced using 3 or 5 differentiated tasks, or sections on a lesson plan.

Feedback has ceased to be about “information given to the learner and/or the teacher about the learner’s performance”[1], but instead has become about evidencing feedback through marking dialogue and endless volumes of red pen. Verbal feedback might be most effective, but is only permitted if evidenced by a stamp or annotation (or increasingly, both!)

It’s not enough to manage behaviour effectively and deal with misbehaviour appropriately when it arises; the process must now be evidenced for inspectors to examine should they wish.

Progress is no longer a matter of ensuring that children achieve the most from their learning, but rather of evidencing that they have completed more of the long march through the sub-levels. The new consultation on performance descriptors serves only to show that all the talk of school-led assessment is soon replaced by the need for evidenced outcomes.

Of course, whether or not any of these things are intended by the department is beside the point. All the time Ofsted are criticizing schools for failing to evidence things, or praising those schools who excel at producing evidence, other school leaders will feel compelled to continue to demand that work be evidenced.

Regardless of what the educational evidence says.

[1] This is the explanation of ‘feedback’ at the very useful EEF Toolkit page, which also states that feedback should be given “sparingly so that it is meaningful”. Not sure how that fits with Ofsted’s current approach!

What purpose marking?


Marking – for the love of it?

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.

Effective marking: a primary slant

This blogpost is part of the October #blogsync initiative. You can read other blogs from the set at blogsync.edutronic.net

I love the #blogsync project, and always look forward to reading blogs on the theme. However, too often I find myself nodding along, agreeing, and then wondering how much of the wisdom really applies to my own students. Already this month there is a balance of blogs which reflects the more secondary-based balance of bloggers. It’s inevitable, and I certainly wouldn’t want to discourage any blogging, but there is sometimes an issue when the focus is largely on students at the upper end of that phase. As such, my blog will be less about specific examples of making marking work, but more on the generalities of how it applies to primary level teachers and their students.

There has been a great deal of advice and ideas about how to make marking more effective, and the use of focussed feedback and DIRT time is certainly recommendable. However, as students get younger, so the challenges of these approaches become greater. I teach Year 5 at the moment, so am in something of the middle ground, but you can imagine how difficult it might be to expect a Year 2 child to read and respond to written feedback in a meaningful way.

Does that mean that marking is less important in KS1/LKS2? I would argue not, but that its focus is necessarily different.

The nature of development of both students and teaching means that we rightly expect more independence of older students. When I taught KS3 I found marking feedback could often be reasonably complex and still be understood and acted upon by students. For example, when marking Year 7 history essays, I could comment on the need for a clearer explanation of a point, and expect the student to be able to consider that for themselves and edit appropriately. The challenge is very different when the main area for feedback is the need to use paragraphs appropriately, or to use the column method of subtraction.

Often with younger students the focus of marking is necessarily more on the work of the teacher. Interestingly, this seems to be a key area of assessment that is too easily overlooked. It also seems worthwhile to note, therefore, a tweet posted by Dylan Wiliam this week, when asked for an example of a mistake he had made which led to learning:

For primary teachers, particularly those with younger students, a lot of the process of marking needs to be about responsive teaching.

Take an example from my own recent assessments. I have used some processes not unlike those suggested in other blogs, such as formative use of a summative test (as suggested by @headguruteacher, Tom Sherrington), and the use of symbols and DIRT time (as championed by @Shaun_Allison). In some cases that has allowed students to act for themselves to improve their work or their understanding. However, the most important outcome of those processes has been my own awareness and understanding of what has been understood.

If I take a shortlist of key things I’ve taught so far this year, I can very quickly use my marking (and elements of my feedback) to identify my own areas of success and development. Column addition and perimeter have been well understood; multiplying/dividing by powers of 10, less so. Most of the students are confident with text-level structures of the non-fiction genres we’ve studied, but structuring paragraphs is going to be a target. The majority can recall the French subject pronouns in ‘order’, but fewer can correctly select the correct one on demand.

These aspects of feedback are not part of my written comments on students’ work – they are far too broad for that. They are elements which form my own feedback; the aspects which must guide my teaching over the coming weeks. They are areas which will benefit from re-visiting as a class. Alongside those are some more specific areas for individuals and small groups. Some of these can be tackled in brief discussions, others will need more focussed intervention, but all of these decisions should be outcomes of the marking process.

Sometimes I appreciate the superficially easier process of marking the work of younger students, but it’s clear that the younger the students, the truer Wiliam’s words are that formative feedback is as much about responsive teaching as it is student responses.

It’s perhaps worth noting at the end of this blog that the real challenge for me now is the management of these necessary interventions in a way which supports those who need it, while continuing to allow those who have secured the necessary learning to continue to make progress. Answers on a postcard?