Sunday, 25 June 2017

A marked improvement

In November last year, my school was kind enough to let me go, along with our Deputy Head, to visit Michaela Community School. On the way down, we talked about what we were hoping to get out of the trip, and I told him that I was interested to learn more about their claim that they didn't mark books. Our Deputy Head is a PE teacher so, after I'd explained to him what marking was, he smiled politely and then carried on talking about behaviour policies or Pupil Premium funding or some such. The visit was overwhelming and incredibly thought-provoking - so much so that we didn't really talk much about the marking (or, rather, feedback) policy on the way home and I figured that would be the end of that.

I was wrong.

A couple of weeks ago, my school embraced the future. While it isn't quite the golden utopia of the greatest marking policy in the world ever (written, incidentally, by me: “There should be clear evidence that pupils and teachers have considered, and taken action on, pupil work on a regular basis”. See here for more on that), it is pretty close. Essentially, each department has been told that we can develop a policy of providing feedback which best suits our subject and our classes. There are some general, best-practice guidelines, but they are not prescriptive, and we have been encouraged to be as creative and flexible as we can. The guiding principle is that, whatever we do, it needs to be sustainable for teachers, and make a tangible difference to the pupils we teach. 

Honestly, it's brilliant. Our Head of Department was part of a pilot scheme involving a small number of teachers working on different ideas, and her approach, which she has adapted over a term, is the one we have adopted. And, the funny thing is, it's very similar to the way they approach feedback at Michaela (on this, read Joe Kirby here and Jo Facer here). We read the pupils' work, make notes and then, in the next lesson, tell them what they have done well and what they can do to improve. Making comments in their books is not forbidden, so if a pupil is making a particularly idiosyncratic mistake, I'm at liberty to provide more detailed, individual feedback but, generally, written comments are at a minimum (handy if your handwriting is as bad as mine). It's simple, and, as far as it's possible to tell after a couple of weeks, really effective. I also take photos of excellent examples of work and talk through them in the follow-up lesson to break down why they were so good. I tend not to announce whose work it is on the screen and the pupils love trying to guess who produced it, and the looks on the faces of the authors is priceless. It has created a lovely atmosphere in the room as we talk about what makes a good piece of work and they then have a go at improving what they have done. 

Marking a full set of books used to take me at least four hours. Some of the other teachers in my department have been completing a full set of books, and the prep for the response lesson, in less than an hour and a half. I haven't quite got down to that level of efficiency yet (see here for evidence of my marking problem), but I think that is partly due to the fact that we have been preparing for our end of year tests, and we have been covering a wide range of material. Nevertheless, last week I read the book of every pupil I teach, which I don't think I've ever done since I started teaching. And it was clear that, as I walked round my classes during their response time, they had a much better idea of how to make their work better than has been the case previously. It really does seem to be a better way to do things.

Although it is early days, I am confident that this approach will improve the quality of response work my pupils do, as well as making a fundamental change to the quality of my life and teaching, such is the reduction in the time is takes to complete my marking load. Having more time for myself and my family will make me a better teacher. Having more time to read up on my subject will make me a better teacher. And I believe that, by focusing more on what I really want the pupils to know, and planning for these regular feedback sessions to assess whether they know it, I will become a better teacher. I am excited about structuring schemes of work next year so they build to one of these feedback sessions (weekly, fortnightly, whatever makes sense); I am even more excited about getting more sleep, reading more books, doing more exercise and spending more time with my family.

I don't know what exactly prompted our Deputy Head to rethink the way we approach feedback, but I'm very glad he did. If you are still struggling under the load of a more prescriptive marking policy, I'd encourage you to mention it to whoever is in charge: there is another way.