If I were going there, I wouldn’t start from here

Today I attended a training session aimed at tackling the marking impasse. The aim was to develop smarter marking techniques, and it had been delegated to a poor sap who is a good colleague and friend, so I will begin by making it absolutely clear that this is not a snipe at him, nor indeed any of those present. My intention is to demonstrate that so-called smart working is in fact nothing of the sort.

I was however left with a deep sense that those in the room divided into two camps, with a chasm of outlook between them. I suspect it goes beyond marking, right to the core of what they think education is, and is for.

The session leader had been assiduous in researching the topic and had assembled a selection of strategies from the great and the good. Most of them involved the use of rubber stamps, green pens or various forms of what one might call enhanced peer and self assessment, the aim of which seemed to be to reduce the amount of input needed from the teacher. A number of them consumed considerable amounts of pupil time in lessons. This is not to say that there was nothing that will be worth trying, but as I said, I left with a deep sense that my entire professional and academic instinct is ever more deeply at odds with what is now being advised.

  1. The point of marking is not to make it convenient for the teacher. It is to give constructive feedback and affective praise (where due) to pupils. Why, on the one hand are we being told that marking is so important for pupils that we must do so much more of it, when the next step seems to involve all manner of contorted ways of writing less in the name of keeping it manageable for the teacher?
  2. I consider my job in the classroom is to ensure that pupils become as knowledgeable and skilled in my subject as they can. I do not see how the use of coloured pens, rubber stamps, printed forms or peer breakout groups will do that. They are a bureaucratic distraction and they swallow vast amounts of time that would be better spent studying the subject.
  3. All these approaches do is divert where time is used. If I were to adopt them, any time saved writing on pupils’ books would more than be absorbed by preparing and duplicating paperwork – and my work would be constrained by the need to access the same. Too often, form-filling makes it impossible to say what one really needs or wants to. The time would better be spent marking properly.
  4. These approaches contort lesson planning for the ends of assessment. They divert pupils’ attention from the wonders of the world around them and focus it on the dullness of paperwork, even at their young age. Maybe it is meant to prepare them for the world of work… The effect is to replace a motivating activity with one that is supposed to monitor motivating activity, but is actually pretty dull. It also has the effect of placing a bureaucratic distance between the teacher and the pupils, thereby muting the immediacy of any communication. And we wonder why pupils lose interest.
  5. Many of these techniques assume that pupils are able to assess effectively. The whole point of intellectual activity is that it deals in the realm of the ‘unknown unknown’ (from the pupil’s perspective). By definition, no one is in a very good position to assess the value of material at which they are a novice – so the chances of missing content being seen are slim.

The chasm I referred to earlier, I am afraid beggars belief. It seems there are those (many?) in the profession who seem earnestly to believe that the solution to the bureaucratic nightmare that presently is marking, is MORE BUREAUCRACY. They seem to think that all this low-grade administrative busywork is the answer to the marking problem and moreover that it can actually improve pupils’ learning. This outlook is precisely why the profession is in the dire workload straits that it is.

What makes it all the more frustrating is that there are those of us – often characterised as mavericks – who can see the solution staring everyone in the face. It is LESS bureaucracy. The only piece of kit needed is the ever-ready red pen. All that is needed is to accept that it is not essential to deep-mark everything that a pupil writes; much routine work is quite acceptably tick-and-flicked. Then we could concentrate, as I did today, on deep feedback of a complex piece of investigative work done by my best year nine class, where there were complex ideas to explore. Much of it was done verbally with pairs or threes, and it will be followed up with detailed, personally written comments in red pen. The pupils seemed more than happy with my constructive criticism and heartfelt praise.

The answer as so often, lies not in complexity but simplicity – and an acceptance of the reality of education rather than the imposition of a theorist’s dream. The fact is, marking cannot be, and does not need to be smart. Or if it can, then smart has to mean simple, not complicated. It is time-consuming but important – but it needs to be kept in proportion as the art of the possible.

I wonder why those who sit there (nationally) in rapture at the sound of all those intricate administrative routines don’t actually go and find themselves a job where they can genuinely release the inner pen-pushing minor bureaucrats that they evidently want to be – and leave those of us who just want to teach to get on with it.

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