Saturday, 15 March 2014

We need to talk about Kevin's work

I find it incredibly funny that English teachers often moan about marking, yet put them in a room for a bit with some other English teachers and the conversation soon enough gets on to marking. Yesterday, I had that exact conversation. We were supposed to be gathering resources and tips in preparation for the AQA Unit 1 exam. Instead, marking featured heavily in the discussion. Furthermore, there are endless blogs about marking, and funnily enough a lot of them seem to be by English teachers. This blog too is about marking.

Recently, I had to do a book scrutiny for the department and I was presented with a dilemma: do I scrutinise my own marking? The answer: yes. I scrutinised my marking and my exercise books. I had to look at things as an outsider. And, what an interesting activity it was. I had to look at the learning over time. I had to ponder the comments I had made in response to a piece of work. I had to work out the story behind the work. So, what did I see? Lots of targets. Lots of work. Lots of marking. But, what I didn’t see was a clear dialogue.  A conversation. A chat. An interaction. A two-way relationship about making work better. I saw little engagement with the work. Don’t get me wrong: the student did engage with the work, but the student was not engaging in the development and the progress of learning.

Like last week, I want to address an underwritten rule in teaching that has seeped through everything we do. Last week I mentioned how effort has masked progress. This week I want to explore the dialogue in books. You call it marking. I call it a conversation. And, if I want to get all new-age, I might insert the word ‘learning’ before the word conversation.  Yes, I want to look at the learning conversation. It pains me to use that phrase. It feels as if I need to wear a pashmina or something as I write it.

A long time ago somebody decided it would be good to adopt a business approach to education. Like workers in business, a student would know their pay-bracket (level), their incentives to do better (targets), and expectations (targets).  Along the way, some business words have slipped in too. I now have appraisals and my performance is managed in performance management meetings. I have had the lucky (or unlucky) experience of working in the business world. I sold things. I made money for other people. I helped some lazy people make lots of money so they could have an extension to their already nice house. (I promise, I am not bitter – far from it, to be honest.) So, therefore, I can see how education has got is so wrong. In my whole time, in business, I usually only had three targets. Three clear-no-grey-areas-no-vagueness-no-questionable-targets. These are the kind of targets I had:
·         Average profit margin = 6.1%
·         Total sales per month = £100, 000
·         Sales= 10 sales a day

My focus was clear.  I didn’t enjoy the business I was working for, but I was clear as to what I needed to achieve. Any meeting or discussion was focused on those targets. I never forgot them. It was clear.

Look at our exercise books. Look at them in every classroom. They contain hundreds and billions of targets:
vary how you start sent
vary punctuation use
avoid using commas instead of full stops
avoid using commas instead of full stops
longer sentences and paragraphs
vary how you start sentences
longer and more descriptive paragraphs
vary punctuation use
accuracy especially spellings
avoid using commas instead of full stops
vary punctuation use and sentence openings
vary punctuation use
development of ideas or alternative ideas
vary punctuation use
add detailed and precise description
vary punctuation use
add adjectives before a noun to add detail
be more accurate with you use of punctuation
add detailed / precise description
present ideas in an original and creative way
to make sure the style of writing suits the task
to vary the start of sentences and add extra detail to writing with adjectives

Each piece of work generates a target. Each subject generates their own target. Then, to add a garnish to this packed hamburger of targets, we add a gherkin: a literacy target. Why don’t children get better? Why don’t they progress as much as they should do? Well, could it be the fact that their brain is filled with targets that they can’t remember the important stuff? Like, the stuff that will really make them better.

Again, the problem is ingrained into the way of thinking in schools. Look at performance management. How many targets do we have? Wouldn’t it be better if someone just gave us one simple target? Make X better. Improve Y. Instead we are try to fix several cracks in the dam at once. Why don’t we fix the most important one first? Give us a direction and a focus. We all want to be better, but the direction for improvement is watered down – sorry for extending the metaphor.

One step at a time. One target at a time. We are at that dangerous exam time. Every second in a Year 11 counts. We chuck everything at them with the hope of them retaining it. This year, I have slimmed down my targets.  They have one key target to work on. They don’t get another one until that target has been accomplished, because I would be only be preventing them from getting that first target fixed.

Gwen  – vary how you start sentences
David– vary punctuation use
Joe – avoid using commas instead of full stops
Pete -avoid using commas instead of full stops
Kate  – accuracy
Carolyn – longer sentences and paragraphs
James - vary how you start sentences
Adam  – longer and more descriptive paragraphs
Kerry - vary punctuation use
Anne  – accuracy especially spellings
Phil - avoid using commas instead of full stops
Linda  - vary punctuation use and sentence openings
Tom - vary punctuation use
Kathy – development of ideas or alternative ideas
William - vary punctuation use
Percy  – accuracy
Lisa – add detailed and precise description
Harry - vary punctuation use
Frank  – add adjectives before a noun to add detail
Maude – be more accurate with you use of punctuation
Enid – add detailed / precise description
Bette  – present ideas in an original and creative way
Mark  – to make sure the style of writing suits the task
Tommy -  to vary the start of sentences and add extra detail to writing with adjectives
I have a ready-made PowerPoint of their targets and I will show this slide over the term. They see it up large to highlight how important it is. It is the message I want them to keep in their heads. Also, I might highlight a few to show to students that the learning of that lesson is especially pertinent to them. As soon as a target is completed or I think it has been achieved, I replace it. Furthermore, I might get students to put a post-it note on the board to show how confident they are at that skill.

Then, comes the all important thing. The marking. This one target one student policy changes the way I mark. Yes, I still keep the progress, no progress or some progress grading, but the conversation in books looks different. It is exactly that. A conversation.  

Me: Well done, Mark. You are still varying how you started the start of sentences. However, on the last piece of writing you did this more effectively. Look at that last piece of work and see how you could improve on this recent piece of work.

Mark: Hey, Mr C. Yeah, I just didn’t think about it. I found it hard for me to change the start of sentences in this kind of writing.

Me: You could use ….

Sadly, and honestly, marking tends to follow the pattern of: grade; positive comment; target for improvement. That cycle is repeated again and again. And, if we continue with this model, we are just providing a conveyer belt of targets. Next, please! Surely, we should be moving to having more of these phrases in our marking:
       You haven’t remembered your target from last time.
       You were able to X last time so why didn’t you do it this time?
       Look at the target last time.
       We were working on X at the start of the year and you still are not ….
       You can do X, but check how you did it last time.
       You can’t get to the next stage unless you are consistent with this target.

Our conversation with students is always about a new topic and never about the past. Our marking is focused too on new and different things. It is always focused on the next thing. It isn’t focused on the last thing. It isn’t even bothered with the piece of work that was produced before the most recent one. That’s what we have to work towards. It is not quite ‘the sins of the father’ but it is in the similar vein. We shouldn’t let students forget the work sins of the past. That should be the starting point for all work. Stop starting all pieces of work as if this is a new beginning.

Progress isn’t measured in the number of targets we have. Progress isn’t improved by having lots of targets. Progress is made when a student learns to do something. It is the skill that we should be focusing on. Get the skill developed and refined before giving a new one.  

Thanks for reading and thanks to people on twitter for inspiring some of the things here,


Teacher: Xris, a lengthy piece of work. This shows me a lot of passion on this topic. What happened to being concise?

Xris: I did try to be concise, but I find it difficult. All I seem to do is just scribble out a few words.

Teacher: Try writing it first and then delete paragraphs that are unnecessary.

1 comment:

  1. It is a very informative post regarding English punctuation, spelling and writing. The punctuation has been considered as an integral factor of English grammar and students must pay core attention to it.