Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Sorry, marking: it's not you, it's me.

Wherein our hero, trying to make a change, starts with the man in the mirror.

I have a problem: I am addicted to marking. I'm not proud, and I fully appreciate how wrong it is, but, when I get that purple (has to be purple) pen, green highlighter and orange highlighter in each hand, I can't stop. And, I've only just realised, that is the problem: it's me. I'm the problem. (The absurdity of such a simple task requiring more tools than I have hands is for another time.)

It might be that I'm the only person with this problem, and, if you're lucky enough to not suffer then there's no need to read any further. However, I suspect that I'm not the only one so, here are some thoughts which have inspired me to deal with my marking problem. 


I've realised that I have this problem for a number of reasons, and none of them are particularly good reasons for maintaining the status quo. The main one is a desperate need for praise or validation or something to cling to when I feel like a dreadful teacher. When I was training someone once told me, most likely because there was nothing good to say about the lesson they'd observed, that my marking was good (or, actually, if I'm honest, they said it was "Good", which, at the time, seemed very important). I'd spent hours on those books. So, I kept spending hours, because I'd been told I was good at it, and I really wanted to be good. I still do, but I should know better what that means by now.

It has also occurred to me that I mark the way I do because of guilt. Or, more accurately, as a preemptive strike against possible future guilt. What if correcting that particular their/there error is it? That's the one which convinces that child that it's important that it's their coat over there? If I ignore it, will they forever be trying to get over their? Over their what? Over their disappointing exam results directly caused by their lazy, good for nothing teacher who didn't correct every SPaG error?!?

That fear is almost certainly completely misplaced. But, it isn't the only fear driving my over-marking. I'm also afraid of work scrutiny. Of someone whose job title involves an acronym walking into my room, flicking through a book and not seeing clear evidence of hours of my work. Now, I've been teaching for five and a half years and I'm only really just beginning to realise how ridiculous that fear is. Why should they be looking for evidence of my work? Surely they're not, and, if they are, surely they're not doing whatever it is they are doing when they scrutinise work correctly? If anyone looks through the book of a child you teach and comments about that child's progress or the quality of their work by reference to what you have written, then consider very seriously whether you spend much of your time listening to what they have to say. The focus must be on the stuff the children write in their books, not what I write. If their work appears to be better half-way through the year than it was at the beginning, then maybe (although I'm afraid it's no better than maybe) whatever feedback strategies you're using are effective. If their work seems to be getting worse, then take a look at what you're doing and think about how to try and make it better. 

Reasons to change

A lot has been written about the effectiveness, or not, of marking and I don't plan to go through that here (other than to quote this from this recent David Didau post "no one knows whether marking is particularly effective and they certainly don’t know the best way to go about it"). However, and this is the really embarrassing bit, I actually know for a fact that most of my marking is a waste of time. I wrote my Masters dissertation on the effectiveness of written feedback. I did action research on actual pupils which showed they hated responding to my comments. The only time they did like it, was when it happened during the process of their work, not afterwards (sometimes days afterwards) when they'd mentally put that piece of work away. So, why am I spending so long writing comments which I know they won't read? Aside from the causes above, I honestly don't know.

What I do know though is that it's important to be clear about one reason not to change which isn't a reason not to change at all: my school's feedback policy. These policies get a lot of stick and often that is perfectly valid. I set out my idea about what a sensible feedback policy would be here (spoiler alert: it's one sentence which does not contain any words describing colours). However, my school's feedback policy (unnecessarily rigid though it might be) is not the enemy here. Marking is not the enemy. I am the enemy. I am the one writing all this stuff in their books. Marking books can be a positive, even uplifting process, and I am certain that, at least some of the time, some of the children actually do benefit from reading some of the comments I write. However, some of the children benefiting some of the time from some of the comments is not a great return on the time I'm currently investing. I have a family, a social life (barely) and a place in a ludicrous sporting event in June for which I must start training properly. Moreover, my teaching will be better if I spend less time marking, more time planning/reading/sleeping/doing other things. The pupils won't learn any less if they receive one thoughtful, useful, relevant piece of advice they can immediately put into practice than if I make them search for multiple comments scattered through their book which they'll need to remember in a week's time when we do a similar task again. Most likely, they'll get more from it. So, I'm going to train myself to mark less. To focus more. There are lots of things which could be improved about the education system to make my life as a teacher better, but I need to remember that one of those things is me. Hopefully, it is the easiest thing to change. Make that change. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Teaching English is not teaching Reading

First, an anecdote. There was once a rich and highly successful man, who enjoyed a fabulous lifestyle afforded him by his well paid and very glamorous job. He was, however, troubled and unhappy because he knew that, behind all the glitz, his life was a shallow and unfulfilling one. The reason: he was a poor reader. He never really understood what was going on around him. Determined to help children avoid finding themselves in a similar position, this man decided to use some of his money and fame to set up a school. 

It's a charming and heart-warming story, made only slightly less charming and heart-warming by the fact that it's made up; it's a story about a character called Derek Zoolander, and his school was the Derek Zoolander Center For Kids Who Can't Read Good. Now, the reason for telling you that, or reminding you about it, is because I thought about Derek Zoolander today. I was thinking about teaching reading after spending a brilliant day at the ResearchEd English and MFL conference on Saturday. It occurred to me that a lot of the answers my pupils give to reading questions are a bit like Derek: they look great superficially, but the Blue Steel exterior masks insubstantial and feeble foundations. And it's because many of those pupils can't read good. I scaffold and I model and I give them sentence stems and quote banks and, eventually, with practice, they can produce answers which are decent. But, when that is all taken away, and it's just them and a piece of text, they can't do it. They can't understand what they are reading, so they can't make sensible inferences. They can't analyse the language. They can't tell me what the effect on the reader is (or, they could, but they don't want to hurt my feelings by writing: "nothing").

As a secondary school English teacher, I can honestly say that I have little or no idea how to teach basic reading skills. I'm skeptical, and a bit baffled by, phonics (despite volunteering for some basic training on it earlier this year); I'm very old, and I don't remember how I learnt to read, but I know it wasn't like that. Nevertheless, I am staying open-minded and am happy to believe those more qualified and experienced than me who say that it does work. However, that doesn't mean that I'm currently in a position to teach someone who is struggling to read how to do it. Most teachers I know across different subjects will happily acknowledge that "literacy" is a whole school responsibility, and will commit to including reading in their lessons. Nevertheless, I suspect that they believe, really, that the English department are, or should be, teaching the pupils to read. But we're not. We are teaching them English, not Reading. We have specific subject knowledge and content to teach them, the same as every other subject. We have exam practice to do, the same as every other subject. We have exactly as much time as every other subject to teach children to read: none. And I think it is time that we recognised that no amount of literacy across the school initiatives, expectations that pupils read at home and repeatedly telling them to read for pleasure ("just keep trying different books - you'll find one you love!") is going to teach pupils who can't read how to do it.

Talking about this dispassionately is hard because it often seems to degenerate into a blame game between primary and secondary teachers, ending up with an exchange you might hear in a nursery school: secondary teachers whining that "it was broken when I got it" and primary teachers responding, "it was fine when I left it. And anyway, you touched it last". But these children aren't damaged toys to be thrown away. This is too important for us to not work together to try and help them to read better. Because, and I don't claim any evidence of causation here, people who are poor readers die younger. They have diminished life chances. And that isn't fair. 

So, although I can't speak for anyone else, here is a promise: primary school teachers, I don't think it is your fault if a child comes to my Year 7 class and can't read. There could be multiple reasons why that has happened. But, the fact remains that they can't. So, I need some help to teach them. If phonics is the best way to teach children to read, there should be phonics specialists in every secondary school. Children in Year 7 (and beyond, if necessary) need to have timetabled Literacy lessons, which are separate and distinct from their English lessons. If children come to secondary school as good readers, does anyone seriously believe it will harm them to also have a dedicated Literacy lesson? There was apparently a wonderful session at ResearchEd, which I didn't manage to see, on teaching Latin to improve literacy, so perhaps they could learn that?

There is a bit in Zoolander when Derek, looking at an architect's model of his proposed school, flies into an apoplectic rage because it is too small: "It needs to be at least three times this big!". When I first watched that film, before I was a teacher, I thought it was funny. Thinking about it now, it really isn't. It's really sad. But it is a decent metaphor for many attempts to improve literacy in secondary schools: they need to be bigger! At least three times as big! Making sure that everyone who passes through our schools can read confidently and accurately should be a fundamental obligation on all teachers, school leaders and government ministers. We should stop pointing fingers at each other and start trying to get this right. It is too important for us to keep getting it wrong.