Sunday, 31 August 2014

Pointless marking?

This post is written in response to a "Thunk" from @TeacherToolkit - see here.

What's the point in marking?
Perhaps a reason that it seems nobody's answered this 'Thunk' before is that it's a bit obvious; we all know one of the basic tasks in a teacher's workload is to mark stuff. When non-teachers go on about long holidays, only working from 9 till 3 and all the standard misconceptions, teachers will universally include marking in the list of things that take up time around the taught lessons. However, if we put the preconception that marking is just a part of a teacher's being to one side, what is the actual point of it? Who gains from all this time spent? Do we do it because we want to, have to or need to? Also, is it done for the students or for the teacher?

What if we all stopped Marking?
I'm a fan of thought experiments, so let's consider a system where there is no marking at all - what would we lose? Let's take it slightly further for a second - no assessment at all by the teacher.

For the sake of argument, with no marking or assessment the teacher's role would look something like this:

At the end of each lesson the teacher would have to decide what to teach in the next lesson based on an assumption of what's been understood. Here you would need to consider the fact that an intended lesson goes through a series of filters between inception, planning, and delivery, and then again from delivery to reception and recall:

Filters from intent to recall…
1     The original intention becomes filtered to the actual plan by what’s possible given constraints of timetable, school, students, staff, resources, etc.
2     The planned lesson becomes filtered to the lesson actually delivered by real life on the day, something not quite going to plan, students not following the expected route, behaviour issues, interruptions, teacher's state of mind, detail of choices on the day, etc.
3     The lesson delivered is filtered to the lesson actually received by prior knowledge, attention levels, language/numeracy skills, cognitive load, method of delivery, etc.
4     The lesson as received is filtered to the lesson recalled by the influence of other factors such as other lessons/happenings after the event, levels of interest, and so on.

You will also see that I've separated the later 3 stages between Teacher's view and Student's view. This is important - the teacher with deep subject knowledge, knowledge of the original intention and plan, and sight of a bigger picture for the subject is likely to perceive the lesson in a different way to the students. In fact the 'Student's perspective' row should really be multiplied by the number of individual students in the class as the experience of one may well be very different to others. (Also note for reference that if the lesson is observed then there would need to be a whole extra row to cover the observer's point of view, but that's another discussion altogether...) Basically what I'm saying here is everyone in the lesson will have their own unique perspective on the learning that took place in it.

How accurate are your assumptions?
As a teacher delivering lessons with no assessment and no marking you would have to rely entirely on your assumptions of what the students receive and recall from each lesson. An inaccuracy in one lesson would likely be compounded in the next until the intended learning path is left behind entirely over a period of time. I'd suggest only the most arrogant of teachers would attempt to argue that they could keep a whole class on track and keep lessons effective without any form of marking or assessment, and frankly they'd be wrong if they tried.

Open loop control
Basically without assessment and without marking, we are using what would be called an open loop control system in engineering terms. A basic toaster is an example of a device that uses open loop control. You put the bread in and it heats on full power for a period of time, and then pops up. The resulting toast may be barely warm bread, perfect toast, or a charred mess. The toaster itself has no mechanism to determine the state of the toast, there is no feedback to tell the toaster to switch off before the toast begins to burn. To improve the system we need to close the loop in the control system; we need to observe the toast and take action if it's burning. Closed loop control is really what we want, as this uses feedback to adjust the input, which takes us to the Deming cycle...

Deming cycle = Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA)
Dr W. Edwards Deming pioneered the PDCA cycle in the post WW2 Japanese motor industry. His work on continuous improvement and quality management has become prolific across engineering sectors, and he is generally regarded as the father of modern quality management.

PDCA is simply a closed loop cycle, where you Plan something, Do it, Check if it did what you wanted it to, and then Act in response to your checking to develop things further. The ideal is this then leads into another PDCA cycle to deliver another improvement, with feedback being sought on an ongoing basis to adjust the inputs.

As I trained in engineering and became Chartered Engineer in my career before switching to teaching I have always seen a series of lessons as a series of PDCA cycles. I plan a lesson, I deliver it, I find some way to check how effective it was, and I deliver another one. In my best lessons I manage to incorporate a number of PDCA cycles within the lesson, adjusting the content/activities in response to the progress being made.

Marking helps us to create a closed loop system.
The model with no marking or assessment is open loop. It would rely so heavily on making assumptions about what had or hadn't been learnt that it would become ineffective very quickly for the majority of classes.

By reviewing what students have actually done in a lesson we can determine how effective our teaching has been. We can make adjustments to future lessons, or we can provide guidance and feedback direct to the student to correct misunderstandings. (note there can be a vast difference between what has actually been done and what we think has been done both at an individual and a class level)

As a result of this need to close the loop an absolutely vital role for marking is to provide feedback to the teacher on the impact of their lessons. (As John Hattie says - "know thy impact").

Is it regular enough?
Note that if marking is the only form of feedback a teacher gets then it needs to be done regularly enough to have an impact on their teaching. Between marking cycles the teacher is running an open loop system, with all the issues that this brings with it. As such we either need to mark regularly enough to keep the PDCA cycle as short as possible, minimising the time left with an open loop, or we need to build in some other form of assessment.

Other assessment
Gaining feedback within a lesson or within a marking cycle is where AFL in its truest sense comes in. Through assessment that takes place during lessons the PDCA cycle time is reduced right down - the teacher gets feedback outside of the marking cycle, meaning changes can be made either within lesson or for the next lesson. I'm not going to discuss AFL in detail here as this post is about marking, but this is why AFL is so important, particularly if you have a long cycle time on your marking. (note for the purposes of this discussion I'm drawing a distinction here between AFL techniques deployed in lesson with students present, against marking where a teacher is reviewing work when the students are elsewhere - I appreciate there can be and should be an overlap between AFL and marking, I'm just ignoring it right now)

RAG123 shortens the closed loop
You may have seen my other posts on RAG123, if not see here for a quick guide, or here for all of my RAG123 related posts. I'm sure those of you that have seen my other posts will probably have been waiting for me to mention it!

For me the key thing that RAG123 does is to shorten the marking cycle time, and that's one of the reasons that it is so effective. By reviewing work after every lesson (ideally) you augment any AFL done in lesson, and can plan to make sure your next lesson is well aligned to the learning that took place in the previous one. More on RAG123 as formative planning is in this post.

Marking for the student
I'm guessing by now that some of you will be getting frustrated because I've hardly mentioned the other purpose of marking - giving feedback to the student... After all teaching is all about learning for students!

From a student's perspective I think marking can be about many things depending on their relationship with school, that subject or that teacher. Sometimes it's about checking they've done it correctly. Sometimes it's about finding out what they did incorrectly. Sometimes they engage deeply, sometimes they dismiss it entirely (or appear to).

If we go back to closed loop vs open loop control for a moment then a lack of marking leaves the students functioning in an open loop system as well as the teacher. In engineering terms their control system needs feedback, otherwise they could go off in a direction that is nowhere near correct. Just like a tennis player benefits from the input of an expert coach to help them to develop their game, a student benefits from the input from an expert to help them develop their learning.

Hit and miss
In truth though I think marking as a direct form of feedback to a student is far more hit and miss than teachers using it for feedback on their own practice. Depending on the quality of the marking and the level of engagement from the student this could range from really informative to utterly pointless. Sometimes the best students are given poor feedback, or least engaged students fantastic feedback, arguably both are pointless. Also what seems like fantastic and detailed feedback from a teacher (or observer's) perspective could easily be ignored or misunderstood by a student. 

This potential for ineffective marking/feedback is why it is so important to try and establish dialogue in marking; again we're looking for a feedback loop, this time on the marking itself. However I'm keen to highlight that in my view dialogue doesn't always have to be written down. Discussion of feedback verbally can be much more effective than a written exchange in an exercise book, just like a face to face conversation can be more effective and result in fewer misunderstandings than an e-mail exchange.

In summary
To get back to the original question... The point of marking is to give the teacher feedback on their lessons, and to give students feedback on their learning. Both are vitally important.

The best marking has impact on the students so it changes what they do next. Good marking highlights to students that what they do is valued, highlights aspects where they have succeeded, and areas/methods to help them improve. 

However the very best marking should also have impact on the teacher and what they do next. It's not a one way street, and we have a responsibility as professionals to adjust our practice to help our students maximise their learning. For example perhaps Kylie needs to develop her skills at adding fractions, or perhaps Mr Lister needs to try a different way of describing fractions to Kylie so she understands it more fully.

In short, if you are marking in a way that doesn't change what you or they do next then you're wasting your time...

This is just what I think, of course you're welcome to agree or disagree!

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