‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow
I shot the Albatross.
Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
‘Is it he?’ quoth one, ‘Is this the man?
By him who died on cross,
With his cruel bow he laid full low
The harmless Albatross.
The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.
Marking is an albatross
What makes education different in the age of digital reproduction? One of the success stories is blogsync. This month, it has focused education bloggers nationwide on the challenge of marking.
The marking paradox
So here is the marking paradox: although it’s one of the most important things for pupils, it’s one of the most difficult things for teachers. Education blogs testify to this paradox:
‘Marking kills teachers. I don’t know anyone that looks at a massive pile of books and thinks way-hey! … but teachers that don’t mark frequently, often have books full of dross… Students think, why bother if no one is looking?’
Head of English Alex Quigley says: ‘We have all been in that position where we are marking each book and like Groundhog Day we are repeating ourselves ad nauseum!’
Ofsted inspector Mary Myatt says that in inspections, she sees: ‘Lots of books have lots of ticks, the odd comment and no expectation that any thing should be done as a result of that comment.’
Guilt is a predominant feeling among teachers about marking: ‘I’ve always felt guilty about marking. There’s always something to mark and when you’re tired and stressed it’s often the first thing to go.’ Half-term is where the guilt trip most often sinks in for teachers. Most of my colleagues take home stacks of marking in a desperate attempt to catch up. For those that teach subjects with one lesson per class per week, like R.E., the workload is heavy. One colleague in R.E. has 350 pupils and is expected to mark all books intensively every two weeks. It begins to look unmanageable.
There are other ways of looking at the marking paradox. Here is Tom Sherrington’s take on it:
‘A fundamental paradox of marking is this: the students who need the most help and the most feedback, are those who are least able to engage with written comments in order to secure improvement; the students who need the least help are those best able to engage with written comments.’
And here is Stephen Lockyer’s:
‘Parents LOVE marking. SLT LOVE marking. Inspectors LOVE marking. No teacher LOVES marking. Pupils rarely read the comments. Why is it that the two most vital people in marking get the least from it?’
The big questions
Tom Bennett asks, ‘How much of what you’re writing is actually sinking in to the student?’
Shaun Allison says, ‘I spend, on average, an hour a day marking… or in other words over 8 full days an academic year. Could I claw back precious time, yet have an even greater impact on student progress?’
Some potential solutions
So what are some of the best solutions from the blogosphere?
Mark Miller reminds us: ‘There are no quick fixes when it comes to marking. You can’t cut corners.’
Tom Sherrington suggests marking should be ‘selective, formative, effective and reflective’ and ‘close the gap between the work they have done originally and a higher level of work suggested by the feedback they receive: acting on feedback.’
Alex Quigley suggests marking should be ‘focused, modelled, targeted, actioned’, and that time should be dedicated by pupils in lessons to improving their work: Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time (DIRT).
David Didau suggests that ‘marking is planning’; ‘marking is differentiation’; ‘marking is an act of love’: with DIRT, ‘what was once an endless, dreaded millstone hanging around my guilty neck has been transformed from chore to, if not a pleasure, certainly a highlight of my working routine.’ This strikes me as the big question: How can we get more teachers on David’s trajectory: from guilt-ridden chore to highlight-of-the-week?
How can we improve our marking?
Here are my three principles of effective marking: it must be timely, regular and actionable.
1. Feedback must be timely, because otherwise by the time they get it back, pupils will have forgotten all about it. Marking must be given back by the next lesson after the work was done.
2. Feedback must be regular, because the more often pupils get quality feedback, the more they’ll understand how to improve. For instance, pupils who get effective feedback once a week are likely to learn more than those who only get feedback once every two weeks. So what about pupils who get feedback every lesson…?
3. Feedback must be actionable, so that pupils can immediately put into practice the advice and guidance they are given on how to improve, and because otherwise, the feedback can get ignored.
That’s it: three simple litmus tests to ask of your marking. Is it timely? Is it regular? Is it actionable?
The rationale behind closing the feedback loop comes from Doug Lemov’s Practice Perfect, which is well worth a read.
But how can we make timely, regular feedback work? Isn’t it too time-consuming? I want to share an example of how a few of us are applying this approach.
Every Book Every Lesson: The Ultimate Marking Strategy
What about this question: what if we marked every book, every lesson? What would be the resultant impact on learning, motivation and effort? It seems impossible – a pipe dream. But it’s within our reach. In fact, Katie Ashford has been marking like this for the last half-term. Hannah Cusworth, Katie and I are teaching Oliver Twist next term, and we’re piloting this approach. My hypothesis is that its effectiveness will depend on this:
Minimise Labour-Intensitivity, Maximise Visibility
To mark every kid’s book every lesson, you need a strategy that reduces the typical 60 minutes or more that it takes to mark 30 books. Icons (or numbers) is that strategy. I’ve explained how to use them in a previous blogpost, and other teachers are starting to use them (another example here). With icons, 30 books can be marked in 30 minutes or less. But there’s an even faster way, a way devised by Katie Ashford.
Katie came up with the idea of marking each lesson’s exit ticket (Lemov’s technique 20), paragraph or piece of work with the colour code of traffic lights. Green is if the objective has been mastered; Amber is if the objective has been tackled, but not yet mastered; and Red is if the pupil has misunderstood, confused something or not yet got it. Katie’s idea was then to display three questions on the board at the start of the next lesson as the ‘Do Now’ (Lemov’s technique 29). Pupils see their colour in their books and answer the colour-coded question. Here’s an example:
This only takes a teacher 15 minutes to mark 30 books. All you have to do is scan the piece of work and choose a colour: green, amber or red. Then display the three questions next lesson: simple.
This minimises labour-intensitivity: what about visibility? Katie and I decided to combine her traffic light approach with my approach to tracking. I have posted on this before, but the basic idea is to use the power of peer pressure and show all pupils how much effort they’re making. It’s hugely motivating.
For visibility, use a spreadsheet as a tracker. Each week, add a colour for each pupil: red if they have any reds unresolved, green if they have all greens, and amber if they have any anything else. You can share this with pupils online via googledocs or a blog, or just keep it to yourself for your own visibility of your pupils. But it works best when shared with your class, so that the power of peer pressure to achieve and succeed kicks in.
Every Book, Every Lesson and a Visual Online Tracker
Hannah, Katie and I are piloting this approach in the next few months. We will evaluate it together by Christmas and I’ll post again on the effects on learning, motivation and effort. If anyone has any ideas as to how to make this evaluation more meaningful, let me know.
It’s time to cast off the albatross.