Saturday, 16 July 2016

‘Post-mortem Marking’ vs ‘Live Marking’

Again, I am writing about marking. Anybody, would think I have some deep-seated psychological issue with marking books. I don’t, honestly. But, I do have some concerns over how marking is presented to teachers, parents and students. Not too long ago, teachers were viewing the verbal feedback stamp as an alternative to marking books. Now, I am seeing several schools approach marking in terms of no-written feedback, which is fine for them, if they like that sort of thing; however, that is just one approach that a school is using for their specific context. Their school is different to mine. Each school is unique. Just because it works in one specific context, it doesn’t mean it works everywhere. Twitter and the Internet are great for teaching ideas, but they are not the elixir of ‘outstanding teaching’.  Do this and every Ofsted report will smell of roses and be tinted with a lovely lavender perfume. It is what you do with the ideas that is probably the most important thing. Recently, there have been a few ideas that I have thought quite detrimental to the education to children in the classroom.  So, using ‘comparative judgement’, I read something else and forgot about the other crazy, barmy, stick-twigs-up-your-nose idea.  

I am not rejecting their approach, or am I saying it is barmy, but I am taking from my perspective and exploring how it will not work for my school, or my subject. I applaud schools for trying it out, but I also applaud schools who have thought it is not for them.

Issue 1 – self-awareness
I have watched endless episodes of reality television such as ‘X-Factor’ to know that the human being is capable of deluding itself beyond reality. I want to be the next Madonna says a wannabe hopeful. They then manage to sing every note that has been absent from all Madonna’s catalogue of songs.  

Marking is Simon Cowell. It is the dose of reality some people need. It isn’t public or humiliating, but marking is directing the student to see the errors of their way. I have seen endless students write what they think is a brilliant description of something, and the reality is far different. A person’s perspective can blurred, misshapen and vague and they miss out the obvious. Marking is another perspective. A perspective of someone in the know.

Issue 2 – the purpose of the marking
Who do we mark for? Seriously, I need to ask that question again and again. The sole purpose of marking is to improve the child. Then, why is the teacher always at the centre of the marking? Looking at all the marking practices we have adopted over the years, all I can see is that marking has changed because of the teacher’s needs. Verbal feedback and highlighter marking were invented to reduce the marking load of teachers. They were not invented to make the student’s experience of learning better. They were invented to stop a teacher having a nervous breakdown, because an SLT had a ludicrous expectation of what should be in an exercise book.

Giving students no written feedback is about reducing the workload of teachers. It is not about the experience of learning. In some contexts, it might work, but for me it will not. I see the impact of my comments. For me, marking has always been in layers. Layer one: what the student needs to do to improve. Layer two: what everybody in the class needs to do to improve. Layer three: what certain groups of people in the class need to do to improve. Some approaches focus on one layer only and that for me is a problem. Surely, the student with very little self-awareness will think the feedback doesn’t relate to them and so it will not be effective.

Issue 3 – what will you be judged on
Our exercise books are the most important things in the classroom for judging the quality of learning. Now, that Ofsted and SLTs no longer grade teachers, they need something to quantify or check quality. The books are the new measuring stick for learning. Your interaction with a student is evident in the books. Oh, hang on. You did mark their books, didn’t you? What? You did, what? You told the whole class feedback. But, surely, you mark something.

An exercise book shows what the student has done, what the teacher has done, what the student has learnt and what the teacher has taught. Remove the teacher and you put all the emphasis on the results. You will be judged on results and results alone.

Issue 4 – the rewards     
I like that tie. Have you done something with your hair? Have you lost weight? It is amazing the interactions I remember and the interactions I don’t remember. The right comment at the right moment lifts the soul. I know me writing ‘WOW!’ next to a great piece of work has had an impact I can’t measure. The time I have spent writing a comment praising a student has been time well spent as it has secured and developed the teacher / student relationship.

Marking is an individual process. It is between the student and me. It is an interaction. Remove it and you better speak to the student. Even the quiet introvert one or the mute one.

Issue 5 – subjects
Each subject needs a different kind of marking. When there is a clear right and wrong answer to a task, feedback is easy to administer as a whole class. In English, there are so many ways to respond to the one, single question. Presenting this to a class is difficult. You could have done this… You could also have done this… Additionally, you could have done this…

I understand how Maths, for example, could be a subject where marking could be reduced and even removed. Students could mark their own work. Patterns can be highlighted in class feedback. Examples can be modelled. Again, there is a clear right and wrong in Maths.

English is much harder, and I think MFL is too, to reduce marking. Experts pick up on the expert things. Novices aren’t experts yet, because they have too many gaps in their knowledge or they haven’t been through all the processes fully. John, read Tom's Spanish writing and correct all the mistakes. John can’t do it because he doesn’t know all the spellings or verb tenses.

My solution
So, what have you done? My solution, and it is something I have done this year with numerous classes, is a bit old-school but it has reduced my marking considerably outside the classroom. I still mark assessments every term and I occasionally mark books outside the classroom. That is where I feel the solution is: outside / inside the classroom.

This is what I do. I set students to write and while they are writing I mark their books. To be fair, I don’t get to every student, but I get to about five or ten, while they are writing in one hour. And, it makes a huge difference to the final output. I sit at a student desk and read the work and mark it with the student. They are next to me and I do quite a bit of chatting with them and I write comments as I go along. It goes something like this:

That first sentence is a bit pointless. Get rid of it. Try starting with something more abstract. Now, that paragraph there is brilliant. Repeat what you are doing there again and again.  I see you picked up there what I said last lesson. Look, you are not developing your ideas here. Remember, that’s the problem with your writing: you start off well and then you forget to develop and extend you thinking. Use this sentence structure to develop this idea. It could also mean…
I think you get the idea. Their book is awash of marks, scribbles, ideas and directions. It was fun. When I have seen two students or more, I might spot a pattern and stop the rest of the class and teach them or remind them about the aspect. With this approach I have had my best improvements in student progress.  Why?

1.       Students engage in the feedback there and then.

2.       The feedback is relevant and immediate.

3.       The feedback is given at the point it is usually needed most – when the student is working.

4.       The feedback is personal.

5.       The feedback includes examples and I can model, if necessary.

6.       The feedback can be used to develop the whole class.

7.       The feedback is appropriately differentiated.

I could go on and on about the benefits of this approach, but I use it again and again with classes. All you need is a pen and a desk. Oh and students.
Our problem with marking is how it affects teachers. They sit on their own reading books and marking them. They watch the pile slowly dwindle and they count them down. The marking always happens at the end of the process. We mark the product and not the process. What if we shifted the marking to the process? Mark the process and not the product.

We want to change the way students think, yet we offer them advice post-mortem. They have had the thought. They have done the thinking. Is it any wonder students don’t improve? We don’t tell them at the right time.  Telling a student he got the wrong end of the stick, after the work, isn’t very helpful to him or her.
I haven’t taken many books home this year, but I have marked quite a lot of books. I get around five students in a lesson, but over the term I get to all students at least twice. I love marking now that I am focusing on teaching. All too often, it was focused on reactions. I reacted to their work. They reacted to my comments. I then reacted to their updated work. I am engaging with their work in a meaningful and constructive way. I can see when they are getting it wrong and what I need to do to correct things. Next week, or next lesson, isn’t the best time to tell a student when they are going wrong. The best time to ensure change is when they are thinking. After all, how often as teachers have we moaned about students not acting on our guidance.   

Because things aren’t real until it has a name, I have called it ‘Live Marking’. You can stick with your old ‘Post-mortem Marking’ and I  will keep my ‘Live Marking’ – it smells so much better. Oh if you are part of the highlighter clans such as  'Yellow Box Marking' and 'Tickled Pink Marking', you can still use them - this time you are not painting a corpse!   

Thanks for reading,

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Why teaching things in topics ‘might’ be bad? The Path to Academia or making students ‘cleverer’ – Part 2

In my quest to improve students I have, recently, jumped onto the glittery bandwagon of the Knowledge Bus and started looking at our curriculum from a knowledge basis. Rather than sit on the top of the bus and enjoy the view, I thought I’d stay near the door and see where the driver was taking me first. For me, the bus was going too, too fast. Knowledge is good, but I like to rationalise the use of it.  So, instead of cramming the little vessels with everything under the sun, I wanted to go with a more structured approach. Yes, I could teach about Jane Austen’s favourite cross-stich pattern or about Charles Dickens’ secret door, but I want the knowledge to be meaningful and with purpose.

Often the first questions teachers have asked when planning for knowledge are:

What knowledge does a student need to understand a text?

What knowledge is needed for a student to achieve the highest grade / score?

Now, this is fine for most people. But, for me, I am bothered about information retention. As I stated in my previous blog, I feel that students have built up a cognitive structure of ‘store, test and dump’ structure for knowledge. As a process, it isn’t a bad one and for some it is necessary for success. However, it isn’t helpful for converting short-term memory to long-term memory. The repeated pattern in education has meant that students have seen knowledge as ephemeral and fleeting. Knowledge isn’t necessarily seen as benefitting the person. It is just a hurdle to overcome.

I think part of the problem of knowledge is the teaching of topics. Because of our desire for clarity and order, we present our subjects in themed areas or topics. We do it for ease. We do it for security. We do it for clarity. We do it for the students. We do it because someone more important than us tells us to. We teach students a body of knowledge and then test students at the end of the teaching. Then, the topic is over and students purge their brains of the knowledge stored. It isn’t needed for them, because they know the next topic has a bank of new knowledge for them to learn. They need to make room for that knowledge. Bang goes the short-term memory. This is repeated, probably, six times a year. That’s where interleaving comes in. But, do we interleave knowledge? Or, are we reinforcing the idea that knowledge is easily compartmentalised. Like a ‘Trivial Pursuit’ counter, the different wedges are needed for success.

In registration time, we have been quizzing students on their general knowledge. Individually and collectively we have been testing them. The results are interesting. Students are not very good at general knowledge. Culturally, we have changed how we do things. Look at what students can do now. They can watch the things that only interests them. They can read things that interests them. When I was a child, I had to watch what my parents had on the telly. I sat through some rubbish, but my parents exposed me to different bodies of knowledge or contexts of information. By a process of osmosis, I picked up information. But, today the focus is on the individual and choice. They are in control of their experiences at home. Because we are creatures of comfort, students will select and go for a safe context of experience. A girl will choose a Jacqueline Wilson novel over a novel by an author she is unfamiliar with because it is safe and comfortable.

If we look at how we teach, we teach topics to build safety for our students. The experience is consistent and not scary for the student. This term, you are going to be looking at ‘newspapers’. They know what to expect.  Even AQA have provided GCSE exam style question papers for Years 7, 8 and 9 so students feel safe.  There lies a contradiction in education at the moment. On one hand we want students to have more ‘Grit’, yet we are at the same time mollycoddling a large amount of things for students. We make things too comfortable for them.   

Teaching in long termly topics shows students that there is no urgency to learn knowledge. In plain words, it is telling students that the main body of learning needs to be done at the end of seven weeks. The structure of learning has a far greater impact on behaviour and attitude of students than other things.   

One of the biggest areas hit by this topic teaching is writing. I cry internally when I see non-fiction taught in topics. The non-fiction writing is context dependent. Each piece of non-fiction is a product of one particular context. Right, you have to convince an audience that you think Britain should leave the EU and you have very few facts. What will you do? Imply a threat. Be ambiguous. Focus on the emotions of the audience. Refer to a bleak future. Exaggerate the alternative. The choices are based on the context. Yet, we teach students to write on the basis of a set number of pre-set writing choices. A persuasive piece of writing must have A, B and Y and Z. No it doesn’t. Because we have been led down a path to teach writing in topics, we have stifled the fluidity and fluency of writing. I love blogging, because there are no rules for me: I sit at my computer and type.  I make a number of choices and I play around with things and experiment.

We are breaking the narrowness of topic teaching in our department. We have done it in stages. Last year it was poetry. This year it is non-fiction and writing. Now, I have seen models of ‘interleaving’ units which focus on a set number of lessons a term on a range of aspects. It is a great principle but hard to put into practice.  Instead, we are doing the following things:

·         Every Friday is a writing lesson. Students will compose a text and the context will vary each week. The best on written will shared with the class. The work will be peer assessed.

·         Writing only taught as a discrete unit when comparing for stylistic choices – Travel Writing / Gothic Horror

·         A set number of poems are to be taught over the year. Teachers can select when they are studied.

·         Each term staff are to use several non-fiction texts. They can be related to the topic, but most will not be about the topic.

·         In books, students will write notes and answer questions on the left page and write prose and extended pieces of text on the right side of the page.    

The basis for some of the changes here is simple: we are breaking up the ‘experiences’ in English. Creating more experiences of texts is paramount for me. Students need lots of experiences in the classroom. They don’t benefit from experiencing the same thing for seven weeks on the go. Plus, there is no point, personally, starting GCSE work in Years 7, 8 and 9. KS3 should be about making many meaningful experiences in the classroom. What will help students with the new GCSE structure is reading hundreds and thousands of texts and then more. That will only happen if we stop focusing too much on topic teaching. Instead of searching and finding texts that link, we should be just finding texts and getting students to see the links. We have structured our curriculums to be tailored, neat and tidy and understandable. Maybe, we need to have chaos, anarchy and disjointed curriculums. Our students have compartmentalised learning and so have we. What if we shake up the structures we currently use?

We want student to combine and link knowledge, yet curriculums feature walls between bodies of learning. An academic student will see across those walls and see connections, but a less academic student will define learning by those walls.  

Thanks for reading,


Disclaimer: any reference to anything relating to science or cognitive theory and behaviour is purely anecdotal and provided by Brian down the pub.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

The Path to Academia or making students ‘cleverer’ – Part1

Yesterday, I spoke at Anne William’s fantastic Teaching and Learning Conference in Leeds. This is just a part of my talk.

Sadly, people don’t play ‘Trivial Pursuit’ anymore. My childhood was often punctuated by hours spent playing the game as a family, or with friends. I always seemed to be good at the brown questions and terrible with the orange questions. But, unfortunately, the days when many a family would sit around a table would play this game have gone. Instead, the games, and especially, board games, have become personal and all about the experience. Look at how we have changed with our attitude towards things. We want a 3-D film experience. We want surround sound in the home. We want to be living and breathing a game or film. It is all about the experience.

If we look at how teaching has changed recently, we have focused too much on the experience. The obsession in lessons was on the experience of the child. It got so silly that learning was kind of forgotten and we focused on what the child was experiencing. Therefore, if a lesson was perceived to be boring, but the child was experiencing a good learning, the teacher was given a bad grade. The recent shift in knowledge has made me think of the old ‘Trivial Pursuit’ game (See other bigger and better bloggers to see justification on that one argument – you won’t get it here.) For those youngsters unfamiliar with the game, here is a brief explanation of the game:

Each person has a counter. The purpose of the game is to move your counter around the board and on each square your counter lands on, you have to answer a question. If you get a question right, you are awarded a wedge. When you have collected all the different coloured wedges, you had to beat all the players by being the first person to get to the middle.

The great thing about ‘Trivial Pursuit’ was that it tested a person’s knowledge in all areas. The ultimate general knowledge quiz. I was always bad at getting orange wedges because of my lack of sporting knowledge. How am I supposed to know who won the Grand National in 1983? The emphasis, however, was on knowledge and not the experience. Now, education has suffered from the compartmentalising of knowledge. This is science knowledge. This is art knowledge. This is English knowledge. Each a different subject a wedge for students to achieve.

Due to the new GCSEs, I have evaluated how students learn and, in particular, what they learn in English. I have concluded that there is a clear problem with knowledge learning in lessons: students are trained to store and dump information after a clear period of time and students associate knowledge in one particular, fine and narrow context. Take Bob, for example. Bob learns knowledge in lessons. He works hard to learn that knowledge because he has an assessment coming up soon. Bob then revises for the assessment. Bob has a test. The week after that test he has forgotten the knowledge previously stored. Then, when the teacher asks a week, month or even a year later about some of that knowledge, Bob looks blank and vacant. Why? Well, simply because he has trained himself to store, test and dump knowledge. The knowledge was, for Bob, only to be used in that one context. No amount of knowledge organisers are going to undo this damage while Bob is in this mode of ‘store, test and dump’.  Does the focus on bigger and higher staked assessments force students to adopt this method to cope in education?

Recently, one of my colleagues made all KS3 students participate in an inter-tutor general knowledge quiz. Aside from proving that students don’t have any general knowledge, it proved that students struggled to recall ideas, facts and knowledge in a different context. Some of the things I knew they had the knowledge of, but, sadly, they couldn’t recall the information in that one, different, situation. Why was this happening? I like to think that it is happening because we don’t use the recall of knowledge that often in lessons. This got me thinking about how we use knowledge in English. Yes, we have adopted the use of knowledge organisers and they are brilliant in making knowledge consistent in lessons, but I think more is needed. That’s when I thought about the different types of knowledge in English.


Core knowledge – What is an adjective?

Knowledge used often in lessons. The information is needed for most if not all lessons.

Topic knowledge – What is a Volta in poetry?

Knowledge used over short period, relating to one narrow aspect.

Multipurpose knowledge– What are the causes of civil unrest?

Knowledge that is used in various other contexts in school.

General knowledge – Where was Shakespeare born?

Knowledge that has no immediate connection to the learning but might be necessary during one specific lesson or moment.

I think your topic knowledge is easily covered by the knowledge organisers in lessons and I think it is the one aspect of knowledge that teachers are comfortable with. But, are we clear about the core knowledge? Are we clear about the basics? Course we are. Then, why do we repeat the following conversation again and again in the classroom?  

Teacher: What do we call that?
Student:   Dunno.
Teacher:  Remember we did this last week.
Student:   Dunno.
Teacher: You know it’s a …
Student:   Dunno.
Teacher: It’s describing the table.
Student:   Dunno.
Teacher: A describing word?
Student:   Dunno.
Teacher: Begins with an A?
Student:   Dunno.
Teacher: It’s an adjective.

The core knowledge isn’t committed to memory. It isn’t long-term memory. The student has adopted the ‘store, test and dump’ model of learning. You could say that I haven’t given an incentive to store the memory. Surprisingly, when I tell them that learning the difference between 'their' and 'there' will add 10% to their future earnings, they still don’t store that knowledge long-term.   

The one thing I have a major influence on is what happens in the classroom. So, is there anything I can do in the classroom to change this issue with core knowledge? Simply, yes.

1: Decide on what the core knowledge in the subject is.

2: Change the approach to using core knowledge in the classroom.

This year we have done that. We have decided, by committee, what is the core knowledge we are going to address in lessons. For us, it was mainly the knowledge of different grammar terms and literary devices – something that is becoming apparent with the new GCSEs. We made a list. We shared that list with students and staff.

Then, we thought about how we could restructure the use of knowledge in the classroom. Inspired by James Theo’s use of symbols and icons to teach terms at GCSE, we decided to use simplified images to help secure the some, but not all, terms. Lessons start with the images. Lessons include particular images, if the lesson is related to the aspect. Students are given new texts in lessons, and, then as a way to help students spot techniques, they have the images on the board to help them.

Terms going from left to right in rows:

Contrast / lists / pairs / close detail / colours / imagery / omniscient narrator

Simile / triplets / repetition / symbols / dialogue / conflict

Sound / verbs / adjectives / setting / religious imagery / violence / pronouns

Light and darkness / animal imagery / mirroring / foreshadowing / oxymoron / hyperbole / rhyming couplets

Emotive language / personification / metaphor / soliloquy / dramatic irony

Somethings here are not in the glossary because we wanted to use this as a tool for analysis, but by being on it, we still refer to it as core.

We keep referring and testing the terms. The hope is that the knowledge is committed through regular use and constant reference.

The next thing we are doing is building a structure around the core knowledge. The pattern goes like this.

Start of year
Introduce core knowledge – Year 7s have more time to secure the knowledge
Quick test

Quick test on core knowledge.
Revise missing knowledge.
Final core knowledge test.

Quick test on core knowledge.
Revise missing knowledge.
Final core knowledge test.

Quick test on core knowledge.
Revise missing knowledge.
Final core knowledge test.

The score is out of 50, so students can easily convert it into a percentage. The quick test at the start is to ascertain the long-term memory and identify gaps in the knowledge. That then helps students to prepare their revision.

Here is an example test.                                                  

We produce a department reading log and it contains the core knowledge information so students have it all the time and in every lesson.

Our core knowledge isn’t mind-blowing and over the next few years it will change and develop. We operate like a committee and we have already talked about add verb tenses and structural techniques to the core knowledge. There will be a point next year where we will integrate them into curriculum. The core is core so it is always a consistent part of teaching. You don’t have to save it to all the usual major changes in September. We decided to hold back verbs and structure to a point where we are more secure about the new GCSEs. You want to be confident with your core knowledge. Now, we are clear about the core knowledge and what we are teaching. For too long in teaching, there has been an assumption of the basics, an assumption of the core knowledge and now I feel that if I am clear about the basics, then the students will be clear about the basics. And, maybe, they will be on the path to being ‘cleverer’.

Thank you for reading,

Next time: Non-core knowledge