In a time when Ofsted no longer grade individual lessons and there’s a move towards demonstrating ‘progress over time’, a new focus for observation, scrutiny and inspection has been identified: marking.
The major problem with this focus on marking is that – like when ‘Ofsted wants to see…’ was the be all and end all of lesson planning leading to VAK learning styles, thinking hats and brain gym (because we all know that without moving around the brain won’t get enough oxygen) – marking risks becoming a tick-box, ‘prove we’re doing our job’ exercise where the primary people involved (student and teacher) aren’t the primary audience for the feedback being given.
It’s worth pointing out that Ofsted do not have a particular expectation with marking, they don’t have a set expectation about the frequency or detail of marking in exercise books, nor do they want to see ‘excessive written dialogue’ with students. This should be an announcement that makes teachers cheer, but it doesn’t because the general message of Ofsted appears to have been corrupted and manipulated into another stick to hit teachers with – namely that in order to show progress over time, your marking has to be excessively detailed with little tricks to show students are acting on feedback.
There are a number of problems with this approach:
- It assumes that the only way that meaningful feedback can be given is written
- If (1) is true, then all verbal feedback must be recorded with verbal feedback stamps (see @TeacherToolkit’s brilliant post about this here)
- That the only way to show student progress is if their response is close to the feedback given
- It risks creating a ridiculous culture of marking martyrdom where the ‘brilliant marking’ is usually the most detailed, most tick-boxy because it looks pretty on a page, thus having a negative impact on work-life balance and staff well being.
Then I’ll explain why I’d like to rediscover a sincere ‘well done’.
1&2 – Meaningful feedback is often more nuanced than what can be recorded.
Never has the phrase ‘not all that matters can be measured and not all that can be measured matters’ been more apt. The EEF found that high quality feedback played a significant role in raising student achievement (Reference). What they didn’t say is that it must be written, must be in a certain colour pen and all verbal feedback must be stamped as proof that you’ve spoken to a child.
One of the things I’m experimenting with is the way I frame success criteria and mark.
In a bid to prove students are making progress, staff can give success criteria that read like recipes: ‘6 wow words, 4 pieces of figurative language, 1 minor sentence, 1 colon for effect’. When we do this, it’s little wonder that students then want to know ‘if I use some similes, would that make it a B?’ The implication from a very prescriptive method of setting success criteria and very limited targets is that students are given the message that there is a formula for high level writing. As a result, some students find themselves frustrated that they’ve used 5 rhetorical devices but still only have a B. Original writing is difficult and students should be aware that it’s difficult and embrace the fact that they need to refine their skills meaningfully – not by tokenistically making superficial changes to their writing. Yes a student can add in a metaphor but if it’s not added any sophistication or flair, then it may look great, but have little impact on future attainment. We need to ask ourselves ‘who is this even for?‘ – us? parents? leadership? students?
There is a time for very specific written feedback. There is a place for targeted SPaG marking. There is a place for questions to be responded to. I’m not suggesting that any of these perfectly good written marking strategies are awful. What I am hoping to do is to broaden out our approach to feedback and marking. Teachers are professionals and the guidance we give our students to promote success is so much more than just our marking. The classroom climate of expectations, the modelling of great examples, the time pupils spend reading each other’s work, looking at exam criteria and even reflecting on their work are form the wider area of feedback that we give to them.
Example: One moment this week, a starter was to re-read a piece of creative writing and consider how effective it may be in light of the learning this half term. One student said ‘I don’t really know what I was trying to say there. Can I do it again?’ – to which the answer was obviously an enthusiastic ‘yes’. They knew how to improve because there’d been huge amounts of teaching input into how to improve so they could work it out themselves. What this student did showed so much more self-awareness and responsiveness to feedback than if I’d simply written ‘You need to rewrite this particular section and add in another 3 figurative language devices’, drawn a yellow box and then they’d made the required changes. The student did a ‘fundamental rewrite’ (the phrase I started using with Y12/13 coursework but have rolled out to all year groups). This means that they have to consider the thoughts and the concepts behind their work and refine their language use accordingly, using the level descriptors as guidance. There is a time and a place for very specific feedback, but it’s not the only way to ensure students make progress.
The most rewarding piece of feedback I’ve received this term was, to summarise, ‘students know where the bar is, want to achieve it and do achieve it independently’. The reason I value that feedback is because it reinforces to me that classroom culture is everything. If we scale learning down into neat little chunks and bite-sized check lists, we’re not creating a culture of independence and conceptual autonomy. Not only does that prevent students from developing a secure subject knowledge base for future study, we’re telling our students that our job as teachers is to make learning as easy as possible for them – which I guarantee will come back and bite us by Y11 as intervention becomes a sticky plaster over the gaping wound of reliance on crib-sheets and heavily scaffolded learning that looks great in a spreadsheet but is functionally useless.
3. Students are more than capable of responding to feedback somewhere other than right next to where the feedback was given.
I’m a fan of redrafting time, DIRT, acting on feedback, make it better time or whatever else you want to call it. I really do believe that redrafting is useful for students to think about where they are, where they want to be and make changes.
Where I draw the line is the idea that students must respond close to the feedback otherwise it’s been useless, so instead of writing a target, there’s a trend towards a question which students must answer next to the question or the redraft must be immediately underneath. Most of us wouldn’t suggest our students are incapable of remembering what their target is from when they read it 20 seconds ago, so it comes back to the original question ‘who is this for?’
Anecdotally, there appears to be a move towards endless drafting and redrafting of pieces of work to show progress but when that happens, something else is lost. If you’re looking at a poetry scheme of work, it’s worth considering whether you really do need a redrafting lesson for an exercise or whether you just recap the skills and do some targeted intervention input when you study another poem and students can refine their skills with new content. This builds subject knowledge and demonstrates progress, if you actually read the work rather than superficially flicking for evidence of redrafting.
The pressure to prove that students are responding to feedback is everywhere, which is why despite the fact that I think altering your books to prove something to an observer who doesn’t know your classes is ridiculous, I do still put a highlighted box around all the redrafts I mark. This gives me the flexibility to consider when/how I use redrafting time as a valuable process within a medium term plan. I also get students to spend 15 seconds writing the target from their last piece of analysis at the top of the next one or get them to use level descriptors to reflect and set their own targets. I find that students get more from the process because by setting their own targets, they’re demonstrating to me that they’ve taken on board the general classroom feedback (see high expectations and culture in #1). There’s no point cutting your nose off to spite your face, so for me these two tweaks have been my way of achieving a sense of purpose and balance, whilst still meeting the needs of book checks.
4. Marking is planning. Planning is marking. Neither should have a negative effect on teacher well-being.
Planning and marking go hand in hand. If we don’t know where students are working, we can’t see misconceptions and we can’t plan appropriately engaging lessons. But if we’re going to get marking right, then marking expectations have to be in line with what is reasonable for a full-time classroom teacher to do – without sacrificing huge amounts of their home life. At this point, I would argue that middle and senior leaders have a duty to not hold up the ‘perfect’ books of colleagues who they know burn the candle at both ends as a sign of ‘dedication’. When that happens the implicit message – intentionally or otherwise – is ‘well soandso cares about their students… why don’t you?‘ and ‘for the good of the students‘ risks becoming shorthand for an ever increasing workload that is unsustainable for anybody who wants to be a happy, healthy teacher with a balance between a hugely rewarding profession and a life outside of school. That’s why it’s really encouraging to see discussions about marking, assessement and feedback coming up on #SLTChat, ResearchEd and other Twitter facilitated CPD. It’s a sign that responsible, responsive leaders are making changes to marking expectations that allow staff/students to flourish and focus on what matters.
Finally, it’s not all doom and gloom. I want to carve a space for a simple ‘well done’.
As adults, we can all recall moments where we’ve felt like something we’ve done just hasn’t quite been good enough. Picture yourself as a student. Each day you get work back; you’ve worked hard and achieved your target, but now you’re told on target isn’t enough – now you have to do it again to be above target. And it goes on and on and on.
I’m sure that the ‘everybody-must-make-above-average-progress’ brigade will argue that what I’m going to say is the epitome of low expectations, but what I’d really like to see is a place where you can say to a student ‘You’ve worked really hard. I love what you’ve done. Well done.’ That’s it. No EBI, no next steps, nothing. Just time, to feel they’ve achieved something.
I’ve taken a risk with my Y10 class on this. A few of them started the year lacking confidence in English. They’ve worked hard and we’ve had ups and downs. But last lesson, I said we were all going to be on target by the end of the lesson. We had paired analysis, whole class discussion which moved into a whole class pick n mix essay framework. As they completed the plenary, I had a 1-1 chat with every child and graded their work (perks of a small class). Every child was on target. They were, rightly, thrilled by this. I wanted to ring home for one student who I felt would benefit from a praise phonecall home. By the time I called at 4pm, her parent thanked me and told me that the student had already sent a text home in capital letters full of optimism and one of her many happy texts was ‘I know that if I put my mind to it, I can be really successful.’ It comes back to what I fundamentally believe: most students really want to do well and deep down, they do care about what we think and they do seek praise for genuine achievement.
That conversation was the inspiration for this blog post. I have no doubt that my smiley faces, happy scribbley pictures, shooting stars and big ‘WELL DONE! You did it!’ will be showcased as the height of sophisticated marking. But for those students, in that lesson, it meant the world. And that’s who we’re marking for.