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,

1 comment:

  1. 'I set students to write and while they are writing I mark their books.' - I'm an English teacher, and doing this is okay, but I find I get distracted having to tell off students who are talking and lose track of their work. I find if marking alone I can concentrate more, then make better comments on their work. I appreciate this might be a reflection on my behaviour management/concentration.

    'Next week, or next lesson, isn’t the best time to tell a student when they are going wrong.' But surely if I do one lesson on persuasive writing, I mark their books, then next lesson they do more persuasive writing once I've told them their key mistakes?

    'Who do we mark for? [...] The sole purpose of marking is to improve the child.' I couldn't agree more. If I had a pound for every time someone had said words to the effect of 'You need to mark their books or, when Ofsted come round...'.


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