My mum was a teacher. When I was a child she would come home from school with a big carrier bag full of books and I would beg her to let me help her mark them. I was desperate to be allowed to ‘play schools’ by putting red ticks or crosses on the kids’ books. (We also played ‘teddy schools’ on the stairs; clearly I was destined in my genes to be a teacher.) Fast forward about twenty years, and I am teaching my first top set GCSE English class. They write a lot – their essays are four or five pages long. Each night, I sit with my pen and go through their essays, leaving comments, noting errors, scribbling questions. I spend half an hour or more on each essay. There are thirty two students in my class, so I spend a LOT of time marking essays. My partner starts to wonder out loud when I am going to stop marking and pay him some attention. A kind of fever of joyful marking has come over me (yes, I know this sounds weird but I was young and very, very interested in their writing.) Marking these essays is not just about providing feedback; it is not even about getting my students to respond to the feedback I’ve given. It is about getting to know my students and how they write. It is about finding their areas of weakness, their strengths, hearing their voices, knowing how and what they think. It is about building a relationship, having a conversation, acknowledging their effort, and finding out whether my teaching is working.
Fast forward a couple of years and I sit down to write my first book: How to Survive your First Year in Teaching. When I get to the bit about assessment, I talk about three different types of marking: ‘tick and flick’, ‘close marking’ and ‘marking for specific errors’. This section is still there, almost two decades since the first edition of the book was published. I’ve left it pretty much untouched, as a kind of historical record of how things used to be in the heady early Ofsted, pre data days. I did bung in a sentence about highlighters but that’s about it. To me, this section still makes a lot of sense. The thing about marking is, it takes time. There is no getting around that fact. To quote myself: “Marking is a job that expands to meet the amount of time you are willing or able to devote to it.” It has, and will always be, a balancing act. Not something you should feel you have to do to excess, but still one of the many ways that you can have a conversation with your children.
Over the past few months, I have read many blogs about marking (or ‘feedback’ to use the fashionable term). Since we moved away from stressing about Ofsted giving lesson grades to teachers, stressing about the quality of feedback has taken its place. People are tangling themselves up in knots, trying to prove that one approach works better than another, based on research ‘evidence’ and on providing ‘evidence’ for inspectors. I’ve read about using different coloured highlighters, about book checks as part of teacher appraisal, about not marking at all, about new assessment systems that reduce marking workload by doing it via a computer, about verbal feedback, and video feedback, and what feels like a million other alternatives. I’ve seen a lot of people worrying about ‘what Ofsted wants’ from the marking of books. Everyone is trying to second guess the situation. When I work with trainees, one of the things they are most stressed about is marking – are they doing enough, do they have the right evidence for Ofsted? People scour research to decide what kind of feedback has the most ‘impact’ on progress. They ask what the ‘opportunity cost’ of marking is, as though we can measure an education in minutes and hours and days.
You know when you accidentally look at the sun and you end up with those spots in front of your eyes? That’s how this debate feels to me now. We have got so focused on the black spots in front of our eyes, that we have forgotten that the sun goes on shining in the sky. Teachers have always marked. Not because of the amount of impact it might have on their children when they sit down to take an exam. Not because of what Ofsted does or doesn’t want. Not because of what the evidence says about the ‘best’ kind of feedback for learning. Not because it is or isn’t the most time efficient way to improve results. Not even because the parents expect it (although you’d struggle to find a parent who doesn’t want to see their child’s books marked.) No, we mark because it is part of the job of being a teacher. Marking is how you get to know your children’s work. Marking is how you assimilate information about how well your teaching is working. Marking is how you figure out which bits of learning you still need to cover. Marking is how you tell your children whether you are happy with the amount of effort they are making. Marking is how you acknowledge the hard work your children have done. The question ‘how much time should I spend on it?’ is impossible to answer, and one that I suspect is best left to the judgement of individual teachers. But strangely, of all the things I miss most about being full time in a classroom, the chance to make marks on books is still near the top of my list.