X… and Y… and Z (and every other letter) mark the spot.

Several conversations had in recent days revolved round the amount of time that people are spending marking. The consensus seemed to be that marking now occupies the largest share of a teacher’s non-contact time.  I must say that I don’t share this experience, as I still spend more time on lesson preparation, though this may be a product of the need to keep my ever-changing subject matter up to date.

I’m genuinely unsure what to make of this development, though I certainly know that marking really does represent the low-point for me, in terms of job-satisfaction.  That said, there is a difference between plodding though pile after pile of lower school books (which is mostly sheer drudgery) and marking a set of ‘A’ Level essays, which I often quite enjoy, so long as there aren’t so many that it just become yet another production-line job. Both the nature of the interaction and the stakes involved change as the pupils age.

I accept that marking is an essential part of our work, but whether the current fetish for deep-marking is really justified, I don’t know. There seems to be some evidence(?) that regular marking does make a difference to pupils’ knowledge, though whether it is constant across all subjects, again I don’t know.  I can see that this might work where one is practising and refining critical skills and procedures – but whether it is as necessary in a knowledge-based subject is less clear. There is also evidence(?) that suggests that such a ‘progress’ based approach my even impair deep learning and lead to too-rapid subject coverage. Again, I suppose it is possible to train pupils to work back through their alterations and corrections assiduously, but in my experience it assumes a level of dedication that is not seen in the majority of pupils, other than when one is standing over them. Is this just another educationalists’ perfect-world dream? And I wonder whether the unremitting pressure on even young children to perform, let alone the constant reminder of targets, might be counter-productive, if not downright cruel.

There are larger questions raised by this issue too, starting with the assumptions that it makes about the nature of learning. Is it really necessary for students to correct the minutiae of their previous work? Again, if they are clearly getting a procedure wrong in a subject like Maths, I can see that the answer is probably yes – but whether the same can be said for more subjective subjects I’m not so sure. I have a niggling suspicion that this approach is driven more by the fill ‘em up, score-more-points-get-better-grades conveyor-belt than anything to do with my more holistic and long-term understanding of learning. This is not to say that knowing stuff isn’t important – and clearly correct stuff is better than incorrect (where such distinctions are possible) but I’m still not sure that in the case of real learning taking care of the pennies necessarily leads to the greatest accumulation of pounds. It’s just not that logical or linear a process.

Finally, there is the issue of time – both mine and the pupils’. In some senses, last lesson is water under the bridge; while it may of course be worth revisiting key issues from past lessons, there’s not a lot that I can do about what happened then, whether good or less so. What I can do is make sure that next lesson is as good as it can be. That has implications for both how I spend my finite non-contact and home-working time, and indeed whether I decide to spend time in that next lesson raking over the embers, or trying to start a new fire. I’m really not convinced that the considerable time required to ensure at all pupils have not only seen their grades, but written them down in a progress chart, then writing their own comments on my comments and signing and dating it – all in a special colour of pen – is really the best use of lesson time. Wouldn’t we be better actually doing some new geography? And do pupils – particularly the younger ones – really learn in such a refined and precise way that this is actually necessary?

There are, of course, all sorts of wheezes to speed up marking, from stickers to stamps to pupils writing their own targets. They all risk compromising quality for the sake of quantity; they all risk becoming mechanical, tokenistic gestures whose purpose  increasingly becomes the legitimation of the teacher rather than the education of the child. If they work, then fine – but they all lack one thing: the personal touch of a hand-written message from a real teacher to one of his or her pupils. Subliminally, that may mean far more than any disembodied target to improve.

I admit, I’m biased by the fact that I find most marking crushingly tedious, and certainly the task where I’m mostly likely to engage in displacement activity (such as writing blog posts). I also accept that this is not an adequate reason not to do it. But whether it is so important that it warrants the downgrading of the much more rewarding (and I would argue important) activity of devising new lessons is another matter – and if, in the process, (despite myself) it affects my motivation, then that is significant. Where the demand for marking starts to compromise other important parts of the job, then a sensible balance is being lost, and the question is surely worth asking.

I’m fairly expecting to get shot down for these comments – but this fad for deep marking seems to me to be yet another imposition by the bureaucrats, another way of turning a creative, stimulating and affirmative activity into just another exercise in paper-pushing.

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4 thoughts on “X… and Y… and Z (and every other letter) mark the spot.

  1. Thank you for a very honest and considered post about this difficult topic. I’m not sure what the answers are but I do feel that the benefits of good quality marking may be outweighed by the excessive amounts of time demanded by some school’s marking policies. I have some sympathy with schools as a lot of this is driven by the perception of what Ofsted are looking for. A school I worked in recently are asking that just about every lesson has work recorded in books and every piece of work was fully marked with feedback, and this in time for the children to respond in the next lesson. Children were expected to respond to each piece of work and the teacher to at least initial their responses to say they had been seen. I don’t think this is particularly unusual. The time this takes is hugely energy sapping and severely restricts time to do other very beneficial things like high quality planning, running after school clubs, reading up on research about teaching, investigating/making resources or even having some sort of life outside school so you don’t ultimately burn out.
    One of the saddest things in many schools today is that teachers are able to spend so little time engaging with each other. They often eat and drink coffee in their classrooms whilst trying to keep on top of the marking load. When I started teaching (admittedly in the eighties), break and lunch times used to be welcome lulls in the busyness of the school day, when I could swap stories of difficult children or disastrous lessons with colleagues – both a safety valve and a learning experience as it was often then that I would pick up tips on managing behaviour or approaching a tricky area of the curriculum. Ideas were shared, problems discussed, sympathy offered when it was all getting a bit too much. For teachers starting out today, these opportunities are much more limited because of the work load.

    • Thanks for your comments. I’m sure you’re right, that a lot of this has been driven, as with so much else, by Ofsted. I can even see that from an accountability point of view, focusing on the one thing you know is many teachers’ Achilles’ heel is logical. But it also seems typical of the ‘beatings will continue’ mentality to pick up the part of the job you know many teachers hate most and then make them do much more of it – and for questionable benefits at that.

      Too often, the system calls for more horsepower without ever noticing that the accelerator is already flat on the floor. A classic example of that is the not-uncommon blanket marking policy that totally disregards the different contact patterns that different subjects experience. I can’t see the logic in the idea that you make children learn better by working their teachers harder. I would hope it’s *too* cynical to see it as simply another form of management control – though it can feel that way when people start quibbling over what constitutes an acceptable target…

      Like you, I’m not sure that the benefits really outweigh the costs, particularly with the younger ones, which is where the bulk of the workload tends to be. I suspect that the real value of marking for the pupil is simply the knowledge that the teacher has individually seen one’s work – the very personal dialogue that recent strategies have down-played. And I also agree that the cost to teachers has been greater than openly identified.

      In many cases the response seems to have been to do anything that will keep the bosses at bay – hardly the best of reasons for marking books. Yet another example of the system cutting off its nose to spite its face.

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