Some 40 years ago, driving home from school, I was stopped by a police officer. After a conversation about how the rusty corners on my battered Ford Cortina might prove a hazard to pedestrians, he asked “So, are you a teacher?"
In those days, new cars were expensive, old cars rusty, and teachers were, with inflation raging, even harder-up, I think, than nowadays. Feeling sorry for myself, I replied, “How can you tell? Is it the crappy old car?”
“No,” he responded. “It’s those exercise books on the passenger seat.”
Back then, many male teachers still wore tweed jackets with leather elbow-patches. That’s changed: but, even now, the trademark of countless teachers of both genders travelling between home and school remains the pile of books they carry in one kind of receptacle or other.
Researchers and educational visionaries frequently observe (accurately) that the fundamental nature of the classroom has barely changed in a century, notwithstanding the occasional whiteboard: the same is largely true of marking. It is the teacher’s bugbear: while lesson preparation involves some inspiration and creativity, as teachers devise original ways of tackling thorny topics, there’s little in marking except sheer grind.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to move on. We humans are creatures of habit, and marking is something that we’re used to, as teacher, school leader, parent or student. It’s a kind of comfort blanket, too. Each constituency knows there’s some check being made on what’s being learned, even though everyone knows a simple mark out of 20 is pretty crude and uninformative.
Get out of the marking mindset
Thus those who think deeply about feedback have long preached that children need encouragement, constructive criticism, targets for improvement: all true, all adding to the teacher burden. Surely there’s a 21st-century solution to the problem of assessing students’ understanding, learning and progress and reporting back? Enough work has gone into the long search.
The problem has to be tackled from both ends. For a start, all of us, including parents who take solace in that mark on the page, should abandon the mindset that only a fully and regularly marked book can demonstrate progress. Moreover, we need to be cleverer about the homework we set, and be clear about what it’s designed to achieve.
I can see the logic in setting some (not too many) questions testing a new maths topic learned in the lesson. But I see limited value in sending children away to research something from first principles, let alone those tasks that involve the parents of conscientious pupils spending all Sunday, and shedding tears, getting that big project done for Monday morning. How many metre-high papier-mâché volcanos do we really need, filling up geography cupboards or parental lofts?
Let’s also tackle the problem from the other end. What is homework for: and is it worth the marking burden it engenders?
Next, we need to pause as a profession, take a deep breath and – instead of tinkering, or indeed jumping on particular bandwagons which come along even more regularly than government initiatives, query how we assess, and even why. There’s great research out there and Professor Dylan Wiliam has long led the way.
There are exciting alternative approaches out there, and some fantastic practitioners promoting them. By contrast, marking is a treadmill: instead of leaving alternatives to a (relatively) few visionaries, the teaching profession as a whole should seek ways of assessing understanding and progress and feeding it back to students (and their parents) that actually justify the effort required. In short, to quote an irritating cliché, to work smarter, not harder.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist and musician. He is a former headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, and past chair of HMC. He is currently interim headteacher of the Purcell School in Hertfordshire. He tweets @bernardtrafford
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