Tom Sawyer, sunny Saturday mornings, and the Marking Review: what might it mean for you?

The Key

Ben White is the director of curriculum at Highworth Grammar School in Kent. With Ashford Teaching Alliance, he is working on a project to promote awareness, understanding and use of research in the classroom, funded by the Education Endowment Foundation.


Saturday morning was come, and all the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life. There was a song in every heart; and if the heart was young the music issued at the lips. There was cheer in every face and a spring in every step …

… Tom appeared on the sidewalk with a bucket of whitewash and a long-handled brush. He surveyed the fence, and all gladness left him and a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit. Thirty yards of board fence nine feet high. Life to him seemed hollow, and existence but a burden. Sighing, he dipped his brush and passed it along the topmost plank; repeated the operation; did it again; compared the insignificant whitewashed streak with the far-reaching continent of unwhitewashed fence, and sat down on a tree-box discouraged.

Tom Sawyer, chapter 2, p.187

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We’ve all been there – albeit the bucket and brush are replaced with a green pen and a personalised stamp and the fence is a pile of year 8 books. Sadly though, marking can feel like a mundane whitewashing process designed to create a good impression for passers-by.

Spoiler alert Tom, being an enterprising rascal, eventually manages to convince a series of PGCE students  initially sceptical friends that the job is actually a privilege not a chore and successfully farms it out. However, when it comes to marking I think we can do better than that.

The recently published EEF marking review provides an excellent opportunity to engage with research to make positive contributions to the quality of marking in your school. I’m hoping to use it as a springboard for action. Before we get to that, though, here are three quick observations which I think are relevant to the debates around marking and workload.

1People thrive on meaning. What Victor Frankl said in Man’s Search for Meaning, Dan Pink repeated in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Meaningful tasks can be inherently motivating. While marking will always constitute work (something we have to do) it can be meaningful work if we can see a clear link between what we’re doing and what we came into teaching to achieve.

2The converse also seems to be true. Meaningless tasks are soul-destroying, be that Tom’s whitewashing, certain marking practices, or some of the more tenuous forms of data analysis.

3It’s very easy to do potentially useful things mindlessly. In fact Kahneman argues that we are biased towards such limited thinking. The limited impact of potentially promising assessment for learning approaches perhaps illustrates this risk. (Take a look at my last post,‘Beware the Hippos’)

What will we be doing with the marking review?

Firstly, we’ll be reading it. Not just the headlines. Not even just the executive review. We want to have an informed discussion about how we can learn from it. Then we’ll be encouraging departments to have a careful look at the marking they are currently doing. There are no doubt some excellent examples of effective approaches, but if (and this is a very small if) there are signs of less effective practice, they are likely to fall into one of these categories

blue1Marking as whitewashing – completed to meet demands of senior staff in response to perceived demands from Ofsted or other external auditors. We can probably stop doing most of this. The marking review may help provide us with credible justification for such a step

blue2Marking as habit – completed because it is what teachers do. We’ll need to review why we’re doing this

blue3Marking which could help pupils if we designed the learning process more thoughtfully – potentially useful targets and feedback which are given a cursory glance before rushing onto the next lesson in a scheme of work. We’ll need to do this better

Alex Quigley (Research Lead at Huntingdon School in York) suggests:

Be more selective and do it better. If you’re spending x amount of time marking a book and students are not spending twice that amount of time responding to it, then why did you spend that time doing it? Are you doing it for the SLT so there are things written in the book? Are you doing it for parents so that they see there’s some response? Are you doing it emotionally for the kids so they know you’re looking? Sometimes there’s a value in that, but actually that shouldn’t be the principal feedback that you give.

Hopefully, examining what we do and engaging with the marking review will give us a better idea of the kinds of marking which are supported by existing evidence and which work successfully in our own school. There are some intriguing observations in the report, including:

  • Identifying and correcting errors may be no more helpful than not marking at all
  • Grading too regularly can be unhelpful (though this appears to vary in relation to gender)
  • Coded feedback has a similar impact to personalised comments
  • We don’t know if ‘triple-impact marking’ has a significant impact

Hopefully we’ll be able to reduce the marking load to something which is educationally justifiable and professionally sustainable. With a clearer consensus around how and why we’re marking we can start to tackle the challenge of ensuring that ideal marking policy translates into sustainable good practice and positive learning experiences for our pupils.

Mark Twain concludes his little fable with this:

Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do … Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.

If as senior leaders we frame marking as an obligation, a necessary evil, or compulsory window-dressing then all is unlikely to be well. Indeed, Twain would warn that there is a real risk to our teachers – of all gladness leaving them and a deep melancholy settling upon their spirits. Which doesn’t sound good. I’m not sure of the research base, but I’d assume that gladness is an asset and deep melancholy a handicap to successful teaching.

Unlike Tom Sawyer, stuck there on page 187, duty bound to ensure the completion of a burdensome chore, we have it in our capacity to rewrite the whole scenario. Marking can and should be seen as vital meaningful work, less an obligation and more an integral element of successful teaching.

The marking review makes direct reference to the the 2016 Teacher Workload Review Group, which concluded that all marking should be informed by professional judgement and be “meaningful, manageable and motivating.”

That’s a very high bar, which makes it worth aiming for.

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