Professional fictions: marking

My previous two posts on the tragedy of commons rapidly turned into my most-read of all time, which may say something about chords struck… It is tempting to labour the point, but what concerns me more here are the ‘professional fictions’ that are dreamed up by those seeking to raise the temperature in the way that can lead to tragedies of commons. The more I think about it, the more I am becoming convinced that this is the major source of so many of the profession’s problems: the desire of some to advance certain agendas regardless of the resources available to deliver them. The inevitable result is that something – or someone – somewhere else has to ‘give’. And we are collectively driving ourselves crazy over it.

A short while ago, I was very taken with this post by “Ramblings of a Teacher”, which prompted some productive reflection here about the purpose of marking. It strikes me that the current rumpus around marking is another example of an issue being trumped up by the zealous few at the cost of the workloads of the many. What is interesting here, however, is the ‘justification’ given for such moves – which pushes up the stakes further beyond our ability to respond effectively, and which perhaps overall causes a negative impact on education.

When I was at school, marking used to consist mostly of numerical grades and a few short platitudes about the general quality of the work done. I don’t ever remember being dissatisfied with this, and I do remember at least two distinct occasions when I spontaneously asked the teacher for clarification – one of which taught me the meaning of the phrase “the curate’s egg”!

Watching children receive their work back these days, it seems clear to me that what they largely seek is still the affective reward for having done well. Certainly they can be taught to write a response comment, sign and date it and so on – but what they really seek is the feel-good factor. The most common response from those who don’t get one seems to be to grunt/shrug and move on. Maybe I am revealing a weakness in my own practice here, but relatively rarely do I see children carefully noting their deficiencies ready consciously to improve on them next time, even when I instruct them to. Is it a professional fiction that they actually do this?

Perhaps this differs between subjects – I can understand that someone who has clearly not secured a particular process in, say, Maths may well address the deficiency in a more systematic way, but in a humanities subject, as so often, the whole thing is more holistic and subjective, and the opportunities for the direct application of lessons learned, more restricted. Consequently, the approach should be different.

Actually, children’s affective responses to feedback are entirely consistent in terms of child development. It is known that the frontal parts of the brain responsible for critical thought are the last to develop, not reaching maturity until as late as one’s mid-twenties. The emotional parts of the brain develop earlier, and indeed are also able to process information quicker than the rational brain – hence the phenomenon of even grown adults reacting emotionally to a situation, only to have to eat humble pie later. So it should be little surprise that the majority children react to feedback primarily on an emotional basis, and tend not to internalise the rational part. In fact, grown adults do, too – even if they then (sometimes) go on to reflect more rationally.

And yet from somewhere has emerged the belief that detailed critical feedback is necessary at all times, to allow children to make the necessary adjustments to their understanding in order to improve. Well, there may be some who do that – and I suppose there is nothing wrong with encouraging more to do the same. But my experience is that it rarely happens in any sustained manner – and many colleagues I have spoken to seem to find the same.

What we have here is a professional fiction that has been developed in order to justify something that some within the profession want to promote. One can see how this works in respect to some recent feedback I saw that suggested that the majority of pupils strongly dislike peer assessment: the professional response was not to abandon it – but to do more of it ‘so that the pupils learn its value’. Is this a distinctly ratty cargo-cult-like odour I detect?

“Ramblings of a Teacher” caused me to rethink one of those blindingly obvious but increasingly misappropriated issues: whom is marking ‘for’? The present wisdom would have it that it is for the pupils so that they can improve their practice; but can we be sure that this is indeed anything more than polite fiction? The evidence is at best indeterminate.

I was much more persuaded by the argument that marking is, in fact, mainly for the teacher. It is by examining the entire cross-section of work from a class that the teacher gains an impression of the quality of understanding that was achieved, together with clear (albeit subjective) information about how hard each child is trying, in a way that is not always easy in class. It also provides information about issues such as motor skills (handwriting) and even the dreaded colouring, underlining and sticking-in tell us things about a child’s co-ordination or organisation or attention to detail.

It provides information regarding the need for reinforcement of an idea, or the potential for accelerating progress next time. It allows the teacher to consider where to take learning next; it identifies pupils who need to be seen individually for whatever reasons. And it does, of course allow for both the recognition of excellent, and identification of sub-standard work.

When I mark, I do all of those things instinctively. I also do many of them very quickly – and some of them are cumulative, in that they form in my mind an ongoing profile of each pupil, supported by the grade profile I record – purely for my own use. Immediate issues are followed up in the next lesson with the pupils concerned, and rewards (only occasionally) dispensed. All of this is bread-and-butter stuff that teachers have done ever since they first took up red pens, and it forms a very important part of how teachers know their pupils.

What is not so important is the precise format I use, even (within reason) the frequency with which I do it (so long as it is reasonably regularly done – and above all clear to pupils that it will be done). It matters less that data can be retrieved with clockwork regularity than that it forms an ongoing profile of each pupil. It is also less pressing than lesson planning and many other things I need to do.  It may not matter so much whether my comments are of a certain structure or type, whether the pupil has signed and dated those comments, or whether they have promised faithfully to do better next time. It most certainly does not matter what colour pen I write in. All of these things are, to my eye, evidence of the bureaucratic rather than educational mind at work.

In the professional zealots’ ideal world, no doubt all of the things they describe in their marking/feedback model would indeed happen; who knows, maybe they would even result in awesome learning, though to my mind this approach is the product of techo-think that does not have a good grasp on what real learning – as opposed to ‘output’ – really means.

But the real world, once again is refusing to align itself with their shiny technocratic model. Marking (or whatever else we want to call it these days) is indisputably an essential part of our work – but once again it has been misappropriated by those with causes to advance. It has been re-imaged as the latest silver bullet to improve learning (no matter that Hattie’s effect sizes have been increasingly called into question) and in the process the real value within, that which ordinary teachers deep-down know and value, has been downplayed to the point of oblivion.

And the stakes have been trumped up to the point that it has become the major burden of a teacher’s life. Well, it probably always was – but not to the extent that it is taking over people’s very lives, driving them to distraction – and most importantly diverting them from the far more important and pressing task of lesson planning. The supreme irony would be if all those hours spent on supposedly-improved feedback were actually diminishing the quality of teaching and learning.

There remain only twenty-four hours in a day – and no matter what the zealots might think, there is only so much that can be fitted into that time by even the hardest-working, most conscientious teacher. I know a number of them who openly confess that preparation has progressively been downgraded under the onslaught of the marking agenda. In some cases, it is also seriously impacting on both their motivation and health – all so that someone else’s agenda for raising the professional stakes can be met, no matter that the resources simply don’t exist to do so properly.

Once again, the majority ends up, needlessly, worse off.

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3 thoughts on “Professional fictions: marking

  1. Refreshing! I don’t like that nagging feeling that I should be marking more ‘thoroughly’ when the fact is, an evening spent marking means one not spent planning, and when the impact of detailed written feedback is dubious to say the least, I can see the effect of well planned and resourced lessons every hour of the day. Like you say, marking is for us primarily, and in my case one to one follow up and ongoing interactions make for a much more effective feedback tool than my 1am scribbled targets.

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree, planning is a much more productive use of time. I think that realising that marking is primarily a teacher-tool is quite empowering in itself: The problem comes when it is presented as a ‘service’ you provide for your customers – whom you can never satisfy.
      When you think of it as part of your own professional cycle, then somehow one regains some sense of control. And when we do it to meet our own needs, we (in theory) ought to regain more control over the amount, style and timing required. Well, we live in hope!

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