What if we didn’t mark any books?


Okay, so here goes. It’ll take some courage for me to utter the words – please stick with me. Perhaps my career is on the line for this one. What the heck. Are you ready for it?

What if I didn’t mark any books?

There, I said it.

What if we eventually realise that marking is inefficient and we came up with an alternative?

I have read so many blogs recently – and written one myself – about the importance of marking. Some of these pieces, written with the best of intentions, have even suggested that teachers on a full timetable – after they have finished planning for tomorrow, sitting in meetings, phoning a few parents and filling in data-entry sheets – mark every single book after every single lesson. Coupled with this is the evidence from everywhere you care to glance of the vital role of feedback: to take two examples there’s the Education Endowment Foundation, and, of course, Hattie’s effect sizes.

Please hear me out. This is not an iconoclastic argument against feedback, far from it. This is just an alternative suggestion – discard it if you will. There are three key reasons behind my proposal:

1. Marking is hugely time-consuming. I would say I spend at least eight hours a week on average marking even though I have developed one or two nifty tricks to speed it up. That’s a full day’s work for most professionals. Now, what if I was to redirect that energy into detailed planning? The kind of planning based on research and deep reflection with the sole aim of challenging and moving on students? I am not suggesting that we should be putting our feet up by 3.30, I am suggesting that by reinvesting the time spent marking into planning the kind of lessons, and sequences of lessons, that will genuinely move our students forward we might improve outcomes for young people.

2. Marking tends to happen away from the students, and too few students despite our best efforts seem to make great progress because of it. I can recall few, if any, ocassions when a student has made a giant leap forward as a result of my marking alone. Yes, a few technical errors and misconceptions are resolved, but how much else? The process can feel depersonalised and perfunctory – is it the most effective means of providing feedback on written work?

3. If we are going to work until 68, which is a genuine possibility, we need to find more manageable solutions to avoid our workload consigning us to an early grave.

Still with me? Okay, so the big question now is what do we do about feedback, both of the formative and summative variety, seeing as it has a crucial role in learning? The answer is not to ignore it, but to bring it to the forefront of everything we do in the classroom.

In my utopian, post-marking English classroom the following might happen:

  • The first stage of planning would be the ‘five-minute flick’. I would select a cross-section of books to check through to assess the learning from the previous lesson. Nothing would be written in them, not even a stray red tick. One or two, however, would be photographed.
  • Most lessons would begin with showing example student work from the last lesson. Together we would model the editing process, discuss common misconceptions. Students would be encouraged to edit their own work and ask any pressing questions.
  • Most lessons would involve a period of quiet writing practice and once a fortnight they would have a lesson of private reading. During these times I would see a handful of students individually to discuss the writing they have produced over the previous fortnight. We would agree on targets and ways forward; we would both record this. Over the fortnight, each student would get one-to-one time with the teacher to assess how far they have got and where they should aim next.
  • In my experience peer assessment is fraught with problems – mainly because, however well you train the class to do it proficiently, each student is at the mercy of the accuracy and commitment of the student plonked next to her. Therefore, ‘gallery critique’, where students circulate and critique many pieces of work, would become a regular occurrence. See my post on the strategy here. Students would become trained at assessing one another and as teachers we would have a huge incentive to do it well – we wouldn’t have to do it ourselves.
  • Summative assessment would take place as a holistic grade – or whatever a alternative has been decided upon in the wake of KS3 levels – based on the term’s work. The final teacher-student discussion of the term would be used for this. A decision would be made with the student present, thus ensuring the student is fully involved with the reasons behind the grading.

I have a number of other ideas but I want to keep this post as a short thinkpiece. Our education system worships at the altar of marking, but have we stopped to think about the side effects of its excessive practice? Yes, there would be questions about accountability – human nature means that some teachers might use the extra freedom as an excuse to do very little. Organisation might also be quite tricky at times.

I think there are some serious unanswered questions about the costs of marking. Maybe my proposal is pie-in-the-sky thinking but surely this is an area that could do with some serious thought and research.

Let me know what you think below.

Related posts:

Time-management in education: a ‘win-win’ solution

Why is ‘challenge’ such a challenge?

Strategic marking for the DIRTy-minded teacher


This academic year has heralded a profound change in my approach to assessment. I now mark with feedback strategies in mind. Some classic blog posts have influenced my thinking: Tom Sherringtons, David Didaus and Mary Myatts.

It is not easy to mark and plan simultaneously. If our students are to both respond thoughtfully and ‘close the gap’, our assessment must be detailed, purposeful and strategic. The structure and organisation of the improvement lessons and tasks has to be at the forefront of our minds at the point of marking. Without rigourous planning, these improvement lessons, which are a test of our flexible thinking, can become and I am speaking from experience here a complete shambles. Remember this too: DIRT (directed improvement and reflection time) is dedicated to learning that students have already struggled with. This inevitably has implications on how smoothly the lesson will run.

 Try asking these questions:

·         Which is most suitable – a redraft of the original task or a new approach to the learning?

·         How much curriculum time do I realistically have available and how can this be best used?

·         How will I model and scaffold the learning again (taking into account that we have identified weaknesses and not strengths)?

·         What will I do if the initial improvement task is unsuccessful?

Below are some strategies I am developing in my English lessons.

10 minutes of gritty editing. The first thing I always do – the ‘starter’ if you like – is that I get my students to respond to spelling, punctuation and grammar errors which I have circled and coded. I insist on complete silence (to avoid 25 helpless cries of ‘Sir’) and ensure that dictionaries, thesauruses, green pens so that I can easily identify their editing – and post-its are available. They must edit alone. If students want to ask a question – only one each – then it can be written on a post-it note and stuck on my desk. I also highlight any words I feel they could find a better alternative for and indicate with questions and symbols where they need to elaborate. My colleague, Kate Bloomfield, uses asterisks in the margins to indicate the number of errors per line this encourages students to seek and rectify the mistakes themselves.

gritty editing

Redrafting. If we just ask students to redraft, they will inevitably rewrite their original with better handwriting. A pointless waste of time. First we must model the editing process carefully. Some students may need help with concision. David Didau’s post this week – here – on encouraging his students to cut 20% of the content is a great strategy. Others struggle with elaboration. My colleague, Gav McCusker, asks his students to edit creative writing in layers – add a layer of similes, a layer of vivid verbs etc.

When can I find the time for redrafting? Time in our modern curriculum, unfortunately, does not allow for redrafting everything. Instead, we can quickly redraft at paragraph or even sentence level (see my post on the sentence escalator here for some ideas). Setting DIRT as homework has been incredibly successful I have found, especially if I mark the first draft only for improvement, withholding levels for the final draft produced at home. My less-able year 11 group use our fortnightly Friday, period 5 lesson to type up and improve a piece of work I have marked from the past two weeks. The line “the weekend does not start until you have improved” has become my refrain.

Creating new tasks focused on target areas. Allowing ourselves to become completely blinkered by the power of the redrafting process might be a mistake. If a students work is based on poorly conceived ideas, or simply does not cut the mustard, starting from scratch on a new or similar task creates a useful clean slate. New tasks show students that writing knowledge must be remembered and transferred to new contexts; they also enable us to manage the process in a  faster, sharply-focused way. After feeding back on a Y9 creative writing task written from the  perspective of a WW2 soldier, I asked students to write a descriptive paragraph in response to a wartime photograph using the following improvement targets (I had written the ‘t-numbers’ in their books):

 DIRT targets

Modelling and scaffolding.  This is where DIRT gets hard. How do we model and scaffold improvement strategies with a mixed-ability class who may need signposting in a multitude of directions? How can we simultaneously  provide 30 students with the individual guidance needed to ‘close the gap’? You will notice from the above slide that I have found one way of solving this. The improvement task is linked to the targets as well as 10 italicised scaffolds.

Another strategy that I have mentioned in a previous post is DIRTy modelling. The teacher writes a paragraph or so with the whole gamut of improvement areas covered and shares it with the class – students identify how they can improve by seeing how the teacher has met their targets in the model.

Reflecting on what went well. If you double-tick excellent passages and sentences, students can reflect and write analytically about why you have ticked here. It is a great way not only of helping students to reflect on positives, but also of reinforcing  analytical writing techniques – the analysis, in this case, is of their own writing. Comparative writing techniques can be worked on through highlighting a good and not-so-good sentence and asking students to write a comparison of the two, explaining why one is more sophisticated or accurate than the other.

Drills. Certainly not fashionable, but probably very effective. Write out your spelling mistakes 5 times. Write out 5 sentences with a correctly used semi-colon. Write out 5 sentences beginning with an …ing verb etc.

Re-teaching. Why are we so frightened of repeating ourselves? Why not just go over all the learning once more, irrespective of who got it the first time round? The research that Hattie and Yates have surveyed convincingly argues that we should repeat learning, that students should over-learn. If we repeat something that some students already know, we are reinforcing and strengthening this learning, so that it is not forgotten. Cognitive science research demonstrates this, yet many of us are frightened that repetition means no learning. As long as this kind of feedback is speedy and focused, surely it has a place, particularly when we need to feed back quickly.

Flexible curricular. If we are serious about improvement, we must centralise the feed-forward process thanks to David Fawcett‘s post for introducing me to this term – in the curriculum, streamlining superfluous subject content where we can. Our ruthlessness will be to our students’ benefit. Not only should our short-term planning be directed by assessment, so should our long-term planning. The next unit of work we plan, and even next years curriculum, must be informed by our findings. Over-prescriptive curricular and schemes-of-work can be the enemy of learning.

Ultimately, the planning and management of improvement tasks is more challenging than it first appears. I am very much a novice. My hunch is that the more strategies we have at our fingertips, the more skilful we can become at ‘closing the gap’.

Related blog posts:

My post – Marking: minimum impact for maximum pleasure.

Harry Fletcher-Wood – Slovenly language and foolish thoughts: howcan I help my students get better at writing history essays?

Canons Broadside – DIRTy ToEs – Differentiation by Assessment

Shaun Allsion – Marking Matters

Mark Miller – Revision Before Redrafting

Belmont Teach – Fast Feedback

My butterfly: the sentence escalator

This week’s post is my response to two excellent blog posts I read last week: Alex Quigley’s – here – and Tom Sherrington’s – here. Both posts discussed Ron Berger’s ‘ethic of excellence‘, pointing out the incredible potential of Berger’s approach to redrafting, feedback and resilience. Both posts also urged readers to watch the ‘Austin’s Butterfly’ video which exemplifies Berger’s approach:

‘Austin’s Butterfly’ was a revelation to me, the equivalent of a teaching epiphany. The gauntlet had been thrown down – I knew I had to respond right away in my own classroom. Much of my thinking at the moment revolves around two interrelated areas: how to guide my students towards making conscious decisions about sentence structure choices, but also how to help my students develop an academic register during verbal feedback.

So this week I have invented and developed what I am going to dub ‘The Sentence Escalator’, a way of transforming unstructured verbal feedback into lovingly and diligently crafted sentences. The chart below shows how it works, from bottom up (you will probably need to click on it):

 sentence escalator

The initial verbal comment is moulded into shape, extended-upon – or both – in a way that involves the whole class. The teacher’s language expertise is also important: at times a sentence must be scrapped or completely reorganised. “A sentence is never finished,” has become my new mantra (in fact, this week I have also banned the word ‘finished’ from my classroom). Ultimately, the long-term aim of this task is to ‘close the gap’ between the original verbal comment and the final written sentence, which is why it is important to reflect on the process for next time.

Here is how my year 9s ‘escalated’ a sentence when writing from the perspective of a WW2 soldier:

1. Verbal comment from Student A: “He’s drinking alcohol to calm his nerves.”
2. Verbal sentence from Student B (written up on the board): “I am drinking an alcoholic beverage to calm my nerves and desperation to stay alive.”
3. Written improvement (after extensive class critique) from Student C: Trembling in fear, I picked up a bottle of whiskey, my hand shaking like a boat.
4. After more editing on the board: Trembling, I grasp a bottle of whiskey, my hand shaking like the boat we stand in.

Here is how my year 11s extended an idea when analysing the effectiveness of language in an extract from Jessica Ennis’ autobiography:

1. “The word ‘pluck’ is like she’s lucky.”
2. “The word ‘pluck’ could have connotations of luck.”
3. The verb ‘pluck’ could have connotations of luck because she has been chosen out of many, yet also could have connotations of talent because she has been specifically chosen.
4. In a student’s book: The verb ‘plucked’ could have connotations of luck, perhaps suggesting to the reader that Ennis is very fortunate to be in the situation she is in; however, this is actually very much contradictory with the truth about athletes (concerning how much effort and hard work they put in to achieve their goals). This illustrates Ennis’ intention to make herself seem like any other girl her age in an effort to appear modest, which links into her description of herself as being ‘ordinary’.

Aside from its beautiful simplicity, I see a number of advantages of this strategy:

• It begins to instil Dweck’s ‘Growth Mindset’ – the perfect sentence must remain elusive and as a result we can all write a bit better (teacher included).
• It allows for the seamless integration of language skills and knowledge. As basic concepts are built-upon, so the sentence (or sentences) are extended or scrapped in favour of more complex alternatives. Imagine a lesson, or series of lessons, where a simple sentence containing a simple concept was gradually built upon. It certainly has a cross-curricular appeal.
• It allows for swift and immediate teacher-facilitated feedback on writing skills.
• It encourages the teacher to hone the language skills required for their subject. If the teacher is unable to model the academic ‘genre’ of their subject, how can students – especially those who are not exposed to such language at home – be expected to write well in this genre?

So, there you go. My mini-butterfly has taken wing…

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My friend Gav McCusker has been utilising a similar strategy called layered writing when helping students to elaborate on their ideas.