It’s hard to describe to those who don’t work in primary schools the intense satisfaction and pride that comes with watching children transform from novice writers, unable to transcribe a simple sentence, to authors who can pen an entire story, woven and plucked from their imaginations.
Unfortunately, something is getting in the way of that process: marking.
Our role as teachers in nurturing writers is critical: we nourish two key aspects of accomplished writing. The first is the mechanical process, which includes letter formation, correct punctuation and sentence construction. Alongside this, children must acquire a creative flair that allows them to come up with ideas, innovate, organise their thoughts and arrange them on a page for some imagined audience.
Teaching these skills is difficult. Writing is a tremendously complex process, consisting of dozens of sub-processes making painful demands on the pitifully limited working memory that we are all stuck with.
The current obsession with marking in education makes things even harder, for a number of reasons.
It limits time
Overbearing marking policies rob us of time to develop writers, to really engage with what students are producing, forcing us to resort to checklist approaches. Since it is so easy for those who do not teach a class full-time to forget, it is worth laying out just what a rigorous marking policy can cost in terms of time.
An average primary school teacher will deliver at least one maths, one literacy and one topic lesson per day. With a class of 30, that totals 90 books to be marked after the kids go home. If only two minutes is given to read and respond to each book, it will take three hours to clear the pile. That’s three hours of marking. Every single day.
It distracts us from our goal
The obsession with marking means that we forget too easily who we are marking for and why we do it. I have found myself guilty of this. After noticing that a child wasn’t starting a new line for a new speaker while writing dialogue, I explained this convention and told her to follow it for the rest of her piece.
Then, without thought, I scribbled in the margin exactly what I had just told her.
“What are you doing?” the child asked me, rather confused.
“Don’t worry, that’s not for you,” I replied.
“Well, who the hell is it for, then?” I later asked myself.
While overly burdensome marking policies are written by the senior leadership teams of individual schools, the high stakes nature of Ofsted inspections has to take much of the blame.
Although there have recently been some very promising reforms and clarifications – spearheaded by Ofsted national director Sean Harford – schools, desperate to secure a magic “good” or “outstanding” rating from the watchdog, scour recent reports for clues of how to impress the inspectors. For example, a simple search of the Watchsted website returns comments from recent inspection reports like the following:
“Teachers’ written comments in marking do not always give pupils precise enough guidance on how to improve their work.”
“Pupils do not have a clear understanding of what they have achieved or how they can improve their work because marking is not always thorough.”
It is not difficult to see how these comments could mould a school’s marking policy.
It is misguided
Not only do we not have time to engage with a student’s work properly, the time we do give to feedback is spent marking in the wrong way. The “advice” that we are asked to provide means that children aren’t able to stretch their wings as writers and take ownership of their work: instead, they follow a checklist that does all of the hard work for them. Writing is reduced to a dull, generic formula of fronted adverbials and developed noun phrases.
If we want our students to become proficient and motivated writers, then we need to get away from this spoon-feeding. The work of Professor Robert Bjork, the distinguished American psychologist, shows how mechanistic feedback from teachers is damaging.
His work has demonstrated that “desirable difficulties” – ie, not spoon-feeding the student – improves student’s retrieval of important information in the longer term.
It fails to engage
Some might argue: but what of motivation? Surely marking children’s work at least ensures that they are driven to write?
This idea seems plausible enough, but it rests on a mistaken belief about what motivates us.
By rewarding every piece of work with a gold star or written praise, we are laying extrinsic motivators on top of an activity that should be inherently desirable.
In Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn, the American education writer, makes the point more clearly, summarising one of the most robust findings from social psychology: “The more you reward someone for doing something, the less interest that person will tend to have in whatever he or she was rewarded to do.” A more natural way to motivate children to write is to provide them with an authentic purpose for doing so.
So, asking children to write letters to public figures or organisations (and then sending them), publishing articles for a school newspaper, or creating recipes that will feature in a cookbook – which is then sent home to parents – will provide a much greater drive than writing “so I can improve my level” (a genuine response from a child when I asked why we were practising writing letters).
Perhaps one of the most promising uses of technology over the past five years in primary school has been the Pobble website (which was previously known as Lend Me Your Literacy). The site allows pupils to publish their work; it can then be read and commented on by teachers and pupils from across the world. Forgetting to add things such as capital letters, then, becomes something that a student is compelled to check not because their teacher scribed it as a “wish”, or because it features on their target sheet in the front of their book, but because it’s embarrassing to miss them when you have a real audience.
If we take the decision to be bold and abandon the received wisdom that every piece of writing must be post-scripted with obligatory praise and “next steps” that require no reflection or thought, then we might start to see children emerge as real writers, unafraid of making messy drafts but meticulous final versions. They could well actively seek feedback and be compelled to act upon it, rather than teachers enforcing it upon them. They may well begin to flourish and light a fire within themselves that we couldn’t put out if we tried.
Jon Brunskill is head of Year 2 at Reach Academy Feltham in West London @jon_brunskill