Saturday, 15 October 2016

It's your time you're wasting; why schools should stop drowning teachers in marking



Of course, it's optional
One does not simply walk into Mordor, and one does not simply pop into IKEA for a packet of napkins and an Ottoman. The Scandinavian elves play a voodoo on your flimsy aspirations of frugality, and by the time you're supping on a hot dog in the car park of Valhalla you're dragging a caravan of Billy bookcases, tea candles, picture frames and a rug that doubles as a shoe tidy. And you forgot the Ottoman.

We've all done it; started out with one plan and ended up with another. That's fine when Plan B is also something you want (cf: Professor Mickey Flanagan's seminal  'Out/ OUT-out theory of organic incremental decision decay' for details). But not if you put your hand in your pocket for a Swiss knife and pull out a Swiss roll. And not if you planned on teaching kids, but ended up doing something else that looked a bit like teaching, but wasn't really.

I was reminded of this recently when I heard of a colleague's experience in a struggling school in the Midlands. The school was staring down the barrel of Special Measures; its previous visit from MiniLearn saw their pockets picked of their previous Good rating, downgraded to RI. Alarms bells they no longer knew they possessed blew like Louis and the walls came tumbling down. Action Stations. Dust blew off the Burgundy book. Steam Engine Time. Something must be done was the whole of the law.

But what? Sadly, the answer was 'triple marking', because as we know, nothing animates and activates deep, deep learning like spending all day on one piece of work, endlessly batted between the teacher and the taught in a show trial of pedagogy, with as much measurable impact on progress as a fruit fly trying to push the Moon out its orbit. And homework; reams and reams of it, marked to a metronome in a fool’s rubric. Never mind that this simple edict suddenly took up around a third of the teacher's total- not free- time. That' s gross, not net. Imagine if I said to you that a third of your career would now be spent, not teaching, or having meaningful conversations with students, or reading up on your subject, but flicking, ticking and wondering when Morpheus was going to show up so you could scarf both pills.

At a previous school I taught humanities to 10 or 11 classes of approximately 25 kids apiece. So let's say 250 pupils. Then they announced the expectation was weekly homework set, with marking. Even a speedy romp with a red pen would easily see that converted into 250 minutes per week- if all I did was turn the pages and make a mark to say 'I was here.' Anything more than that meant 5 minutes a book, or 1250 minutes. A sixth form essay with comments? Christ, you need a Tardis and a magic lamp to get that polished off

Not waving, but marking

250 pupils flick and tick- 250 minutes, or 4 hours 10 minutes
250 pupils flick and an end comment- 500 minutes, or 8 hours, 20 minutes
250 pupils with substantive comments- 1250 minutes, or 20 hours and 50 minutes
250 pupils with substantive comments and spelling/ grammar correction- haha you're kidding mate who do you think I am, Ali Bongo?

And I've seen teachers try to match this, because schools ask them to. Bye-bye weekend and every evening and your marbles.

All that time has to come from either you, or the students. Now the standard response from anyone foolish enough to demand this in the first place, is 'Set homework that doesn't need much marking; or can be marked by peers.' And I would agree, which is why we now see rainbows of pen colours indicating 'marked by a peer/ marked by myself/ marked by a unicorn with a lisp' etc. Problem solved? No, problem shifted, because that kind of marking doesn't really show progress, or the Holy Grail of book marking: progress as a result of teacher intervention. So, you have no option but to triple, quadruple, octuple mark, or devise tortuous exercises where children fill out sheets designed to capture comments like 'I now understand this activity because.....and I have achieved this by....' Ghastly.


I have a simple attitude towards time management in an enclosed system: the investment has to be worth the dividend. If I'm asked to spend a third of my time on activity x then I expect that activity x should account for an equivalent third of their learning. In a school, opportunity cost is all; if we're doing one thing, we're prevented from doing another. And time, like land, is the one thing they aren't making any more of. Triple marking simply doesn't produce anything like a result that can match its cost. In fact, I'll argue that most homework has the same problem, especially if it entails marking.

'Just a couple more sets to mark lads!'
Three are many other displacement activities we could do without: poem tasks when the subject isn't poetry; art and design tasks when we're studying religious food laws; colouring in; making volcanos.; puppet shows and role plays. I know many teachers are prepared to fight to their last breath defending these things, and they may at times have merit as pace-regulators or pauses between content. But too often they represent a disproportionate investment of time in a system where time is a treasure chest. And when workload is the lash, the goad and the rack of possibility, spending each second wisely is no longer a luxury.

These damnable chronophages are designed to make teachers  prance on command for fear of a real or imagined Grendel. I once wrote that the best thing to do on the day of an Ofsted inspection was to get your Free School Meal kids to perform 'Consider Yourself' from Oliver! With their target grades painted on flat caps. I didn't know that in a few years reality would render my satire useless.



Mungo just pawn in great game of life

Just as teachers wind up- if their nerve isn't strong or their hearts true and pure- teaching to the test rather than teaching brilliantly and letting the test discover it, schools can easily fall into a pit where the appearance of progress becomes more important than the progress itself. I see many, many schools where the directed activity of the teacher has nothing to do with actual learning, and everything to do with showboating. There’s a wonderful scene in Mel Brooks's genre opus Blazing Saddles where the Sheriff and the Waco Kid animate a moribund citizenry of beleaguered settlers to stand up to a pack of desperadoes by building a fake town for them to plunder instead. I think this is how many schools approach an inspection; see our beautiful data and our books of interventions and can we interest you in a jelly baby? Look how we've grown since last we spoke!

Enough. Enough. Ofsted have been quite clear that they don't require any particular scheme of marking, any preferred assessment regime, any particular liturgy of when, how often and how books are marked. There is no activity or strategy or teaching style beloved or scorned to which teachers should aspire. Wilshaw, the present Prospero of Ofsted, is quite clear on this. And yes, I understand why schools do this. In desperation, a rat will chew through it's leg to escape a trap, and dogs will bark at cars. But that shouldn’t be policy. The inspection regime is partly responsible for this of course. But if we ever want to be seen as a profession and not an army of complainants, it’s time we took action at a level we can affect.

We've found so many lovely ways to fill our time that we've forgotten what we came to do. The tragedy is that sometimes we can forget there ever was anything else we did, and the tragedy squared is when kids start to think like that too.

5 comments:

  1. Wow. Love it. If we don't know where our children are in their learning from interacting with them, just talking to them, how will endless marking make a difference? Great article. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wise words.
    Marking has become the bane of my life. I totally agree if what we invest in time does not produce the desired outcome then why do it
    Students not policies should be at the heart of what we do

    ReplyDelete
  3. Yes, I think you have made some really pertinent remarks here.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Fantastic. Made me laugh in all the right places. Tom Bennett for education secretary

    ReplyDelete