Back in the days of what I call edu-twitter 1.0 (I. e, when I first started using it), Joe Kirby then of Michaela School, wrote a blog post called “Marking is a Hornet”. The post is about why written marking has little or no impact on learning and takes up time teachers could be spending on more productive things.
It was a paradigm shifting piece of work. At the time it was written many schools, perhaps because of a misunderstanding of John Hattie’s work, had fetishized written marking. At the school I worked in at the time, teachers were expected to mark and provide written feedback at least every two weeks. At some schools things were even worse, with teachers expected to mark the corrections pupils had made to work based on round one of marking, effectively doubling the load. I’ve even heard stories from teachers working in schools that went further, expecting teachers to mark the work of their pupils three times. One acquaintance of mine left teaching after the school at which he’d worked introduced a new policy which required every piece of work a pupil completed to be marked the same day they did it.
The result of this madness (part of a period I am calling The Great Stupidity in the hope it will catch on), was disaster. Teachers have always worked long hours and there was little slack. With nothing else cut, evenings, weekends and half-terms disappeared in a storm of different coloured pens, post-its, stickers and proudteacher hashtags over photos of stacks and stacks of exercise books.
Many were either unable or unwilling to keep up and the profession lost people it could not afford to lose.
Joe’s work was taken up by other talented teachers, including Jo Facer and Toby French, whose ‘Marking is Shit’ posts and talks popularised the idea of whole-class verbal feedback as a more effective and less burdensome way of helping pupils improve their work.
Serendipitously, this flowering of ideas coincided with the emergence of evidence that written marking had no demonstrable impact on pupil outcomes. This, understandably, was a cause of real anger among teachers and leaders in schools who felt our inspectorate had pushed this such approaches in their reports. This, predictably, was denied by Ofsted, which promoted Alex Ford to do some digging. The result of his investigation was this post, which I still don’t feel he gets enough credit for. This post convinced Ofsted, who should be commended on their willingness to engage with robust critique, there was an issue and resulted in them forbidding their inspectors to ascribe any outcomes to either marking, or a lack of marking.
This created a context in which schools felt safer to be more original and creative with feedback policies and, I think, has helped reduce workload for many teachers in many schools.
So far so good. But there is an emerging threat.
I once read a fascinating piece of music journalism which described the evolution in rock and roll music. The article said that new movements in rock and roll are actually very short lived; what starts out as original, exciting and fresh soon ossifies. The Heavy Metal of Black Sabbath and their contemporaries became Hair Metal, just as Nirvana’s originality and sense of danger was corrupted into Puddle of Mudd and the unspeakable awfulness of Nickleback.
I’m worried something comparable may be happening in our schools, with the spirit of Joe’s original work being twisted and distorted into involved time-consuming formats that are actually recreating the issues with the marking polices they have replaced.
I’m seeing PowerPoint slide templates in which every pupil in class is named with each given a different target. I’m seeing overly prescriptive whole-class feedback sheets which must take as long to fill in as marking the books. I’m seeing resurgent ‘marking codes’ projected onto a screen instead of being written in books. I’m seeing starter activities that demand teachers give their pupils feedback from a generic template.
This isn’t happening because anyone has bad intentions. SLT love consistency and teachers sometimes needs protecting from themselves because if they think hard work in itself impresses those above them in the hierarchy, they will quite naturally find ways of trying to show they are willing to work hard.
We need stop this now. Firstly, as Tom Sherrington has said about Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, when we turn anything into a checklist we kill it; those that first developed whole class feedback as an idea envisaged relaxed teachers reading the work of their pupils, jotting down what needed to be retaught and then simply reteaching it. What can be very simple should not be overcomplicated. Secondly we may be in grave danger of losing any ground we have gained in regards to workload.
Let’s go back to the source material. Read Joe Kirby’s post. Read Jo Facer’s work. Untangle. Uncomplicate. Simplify.
In the face of an onrushing storm of school budget cuts, the recruitment and retention crisis, and rising pupil numbers, failing to do so could be a total disaster.