School improvement and taming the ‘marking monster’?

9 February 2018

Author: Alex Quigley, Director of Huntington Research School

Ask any teacher the following questions:

  1. How many hours have you spent marking pupils’ work in the last week, month, or entire school year? 
  2. How much of an impact has that marking had in helping your pupils to *really* develop their learning?
  3. How much of that marking served little use and was not much more than box ticking and following policy? 

For many teachers and schools, the ‘marking monster‘ is alive and well, leaping onto the backs of weary teachers as they lug bags of books home to tick, flick and label with comments.

We know that the marking monster affects teachers in lots of ways. It is issues like this that we need to be tackling when we are considering school improvement. ‘Real‘ in the classroom and ‘take home from work’ issues. These are the hard, knotty issues that can draw into question our work, our leadership and management, our habits and even our deeply held beliefs.

We need to think about improving our school by getting marking and feedback right. We also need to think about school improvement through a lens of teacher workload. Can we do that without compromising on the learning of our pupils?

Defeating the ‘marking monster’ and getting implementation right

Today, the Education Endowment Foundation released their new Putting Evidence to Work: A School’s Guide to Implementation guidance report. It is a powerful guide for putting a plan into action. It offers a straight-forward language for school improvement that can help us face complex issues like ‘how do we improve feedback whilst managing teacher workload‘.

The guidance report offers what the author, Professor Jonathan Sharples calls “uncommon common sense”. In short, it makes us think harder about how we do things.

I really like the stages of implementation – that is to say, what we need to do to make things work:

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Let’s undertake a worked example for changing the marking policy:

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So what are we looking to do? Increase the quality of feedback, but reduce marking. Right then. What does the evidence say? The EEF and Oxford University collated the available evidence on marking in ‘A Marked Improvement‘. The answer: the evidence is skimpy. We are likely marking too much for too little reward.

Now, let’s examine why marking is so ingrained in teacher practice. Reason one: habit. Teachers can feel marking is doing something. Parents see marking as teachers doing something for their child. Senior leaders can see teachers are doing what they should if they are doing lots of marking.

Here is a little thought experiment: if every teacher in our school instantly halved their marking, would students fare any worse? Would parents see their children as any less valued? Let’s explore that very question. Let’s evaluate. Let’s question students, parents and teachers about their marking.

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Having explored parent attitudes, teacher habits and student views (alongside perhaps auditing teacher time and how marking is wedding to data inputting and the time spent there), we can now prepare a “clear, logical and well-specified implementation plan”.

What are the key ingredients? Well training teachers, training students and parents, about the value of feedback over marking is typically a great start. We need to reassure all parties that this isn’t about a dereliction of duty, but a better distribution of effort. This takes a clear communication plan. This takes a shared understanding of exactly what we mean by feedback as being more than just marking – with adaptations and alternatives like ‘whole class feedback‘.

This all takes communication – training – more communication and more training. Just for one significant change.

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Have you noticed that half of this school improvement plan to change practice in marking has been undertaken and ‘doing the thing‘ hasn’t even begun? As Sharples analogy goes, the garden needs careful tending months in advance for the flowers to grow. For marking to be reduced, careful preparation and communication is required.

Is there a team who are driving this reduction in marking and improvement in feedback? Is the training reinforced and carried on? Or is the new idea for ‘whole group feedback‘ floated by school leadership and then quietly dropped when a few parents grumble that their child isn’t getting the marking attention required?

The evidence in the guidance report suggests good quality coaching is crucial. Is there follow on coaching? Is the time to revisit the issues and re-evaluated progress? Are we adjusting our brilliant plan because some bits simply weren’t brilliant at all?

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Every school leader has implemented a ‘flash-in-the-pan‘ school change that they quietly buried. What is yours? I’ve got a few. Too often, we didn’t prepare the ground well enough because we were simply too busy planting lots of new seeds. And yet, the new seeds crowd out the seedlings. We simply have so much to do that sustaining our efforts on one school improvement is rare.

To reduce marking whole school and improve feedback in every classroom, it may take two years, perhaps more. Is our plan actually built to be sustained over such a time-period? How do we navigate the inevitable short-term pressures?

Take a look at the plan – or ‘Implementation logic model‘ from Leon Walker, at Meols Cop Research School, who has carefully considered how their system-wide marking project would be best planned. Can we explore a similar logic model if we are looking to grapple with the ‘marking monster’ in our school, phase, or department?

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We don’t offer all of the answers – schools are more complex than that – but with tools like this guidance report, we are getting better at asking good questions. I suggest every school leader should park a small corner of an evening or their half-term to brush up on implementation. If we want to make real changes that affect teachers and students positively, then this work really matters.

Posted on 9 February 2018
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