Mark smart – cheats on getting it done.

cheating-at-cards

Someone asked me the other day how I manage running a class full time plus phase leadership and assessment; this was on a week where I had long meetings on three out of the five days after school, plus I had lost a large chunk of PPA to a sick cover teacher. Just how do you get the marking done, let alone everything else?

Well, ‘I’m not gonna lie’ as they say, – it’s pretty damn hard, but I do look back and think ‘God! What did I do when I was just class teaching?’

Part of the trajectory to getting increasingly smart with your time as a teacher is experience. Remember being an NQT and marking thirty books took three hours? Well, those days are long gone – maybe an hour at the most these days. And, my marking is probably ten times better now. The trouble is that it’s easy giving tips and ideas, but it’s impossible to pass on years of experience. Teaching is like juggling and we know that takes a while to get good at and even then you still drop the ball.

However, when I sat thinking about just how much smarter I work than even five years ago, I can point to a few strategies that really help. Firstly, getting smarter with marking is essential and is one of the biggest obstacles to teachers feeling on top of things. It has to begin with following your school marking and feedback policy of course, but from what I can see, most schools are taking workload into account and not expecting in-depth marking of all children’s learning. So, step one: do you need to mark everything in detail? Is an acknowledgement tick OK for some pieces and if so can your TA help here drawing your attention later to any misconceptions found? Delegate any way you can – but always ensure you know what’s going on with your children and act on it – that’s the bottom line. No point in getting a TA to mark if you don’t share what he or she found out.

So, we agree that every piece of learning should be acknowledged and looked at by an adult – even if this is during the lesson, immediate feedback is the most effective of course. It is just not acceptable to have page after page of learning with no indication that an adult has ever seen it, even worse if the pages are full of errors and there is no evidence of the next lesson attending to these. It used to annoy me if I saw my children’s books like that – and I did quite often. Still, times have changed.

Whatever we think about accountability, we have to accept now that children’s books are pretty much public documents as well as their own workbooks. They are a record of a learning journey which includes the interaction between the child and their teacher and, whether we like it or not, showing learning and progress is how schools and teachers are judged now.  If teachers want to be judged on performance over time and not just on fleeting lesson observations then we need some tangible record of this. Sure, I could rant all day about the rights and wrongs of having to prove children’s learning to others rather than getting on with it all… Oh the frustrations of accountability swamping the endeavours of authentic education, but other people need to know children are learning and they need some form of evidence. Pick your battles – whether we should mark books isn’t one of them, but how you manage your marking might be.

So what about this in-depth marking? I know that lots of people debate whether the time spent on this is ever really worth it because some of the time you might as well just put all that into planning the next lesson.Yes, this is true, so that’s why in-depth marking everything is not productive- but careful planning is.  Also, if you open the books and everyone has made the same grievous error revealing a painful misconception then you’re better off teaching that concept again rather than wasting time marking all thirty books in the exact same way. However, in my experience that rarely happens – unless you mucked up the teaching in some way, then why didn’t you spot this common error during the lesson and change course then?

Mostly what happens in lessons is that 30% of pupils fly along with the concept and you’ll need to stretch their application of it (all that Blooms stuff), 50% will make the odd error, but just need deliberate and varied practice of the concept before applying it elsewhere and then there’s that 20% who just haven’t got the links to the concept yet and you need to deconstruct the process into smaller steps. I’d like to think that eventually everyone masters it – but hey, let’s get real – the spiralling curriculum and intervention groups have to apply now and then.) Hopefully, after a few sessions, that 20% have moved into the deliberate practice club and a lot of the 50% are ‘Blooming’ along synthesising and evaluating etc.

In this situation, in-depth marking, with each pupil spending time responding to it, does result in progress and, whether we like it or not, this interaction between you and  pupils needs to be evident to others. We’ve argued for years that it’s children’s learning that should be the focus rather than how teachers teach so now let’s try to make the most of it.  However, how we do this is what seems to be causing teachers problems.  So here are some ways to ‘mark smart’:

  • Mark while you teach – get those colour coded pens in your back pockets and after the children have got going, get round and dive into their books. Tick things that are on the right track, highlight things they need to spend more time on, then pop back to that child in a few minutes. This way you’re making your immediate feedback evident too. Why not write down a quick question for them to think about there and then – draw a fill-in bubble next to it for them to show their response. If they respond to marking in a different colour, ask them to here.
  • Self marking during the lesson– for some maths and some SPAG focus lessons, half way through the lesson stick the answers on the board and get the kids to mark their own in response pens. Then when they go back – travel around and pick up those who tripped up. Why not get a peer who got it correct to explain how to a child who got it wrong?
  • Self marking at the end of the lesson – this will you save time so you can focus on the more in-depth responses rather than working out who got what. Even a correct answer can be in-depth marked remember.

Marking outside the lesson:

  • Story time marking – so you have a meeting after school and there is no time to mark. What are your priorities? How will you know what the pitch is tomorrow too? Don’t take books home – that’s madness, 7am – 5pm is enough of a working day thanks. So get your TA to read a story for half an hour while you mark. If you haven’t got a TA, then get some quality CD stories; stick them on while you mark. Any school leader who frowns on this then I ask why? Of course putting on a DVD of Mulan for the eighteenth time is wrong, but why not let Roald Dahl do a bit of the work and let him tell them a story while you prioritise? My children love listening to stories and drawing at the same time at the end of the day.
  • Mark during independent afternoon sessions – Sometimes you look around the room and everyone is merrily getting on with things. It might be an art lesson for example, the music is playing and the children are enthralled in cutting up bits and making a collage. Again, you have a meeting after school (or something you need to leave early for) and it’s time for some in-depth marking. Grab five books and sit next to child who could do with a little support now and then. Multi-task and while you’re sat there mark those five books. Go back get another five books and move to another child if need be. This is like mum or dad helping with the homework while cooking dinner – nothing wrong with it now and then. Of course doing it every lesson wouldn’t be right at all– but use the children’s independence at times to help you manage things.

Now the next issue is which pieces should you in-depth mark then? As said, sensible marking and feedback policies won’t ask for every piece to be marked in detail, so which to choose? Well, here your knowledge and intuition as a teacher comes into play. Sometimes it’s a good idea to in-depth mark at the start of an area of learning so that misconceptions are hammered out, although often this isn’t the best place because the start is often the messy stage with errors all over the place that can be ‘quick ticked’ and fed into the next lesson. The middle part is a good place when children are getting to grips with a concept and right in that zone of proximal development  so some in-depth feedback and marking might drag them across to the that place they would have not otherwise got to. Then again, this might be at the end of unit or area too. Only you can really know the answer to this from the feel you have for the learning that’s going on. One thing is for sure – in-depth marking say ‘every Wednesday’ kind of loses the point – in-depth mark when it’s going to help children go further, not because it’s Wednesday.

Also – remember that writing long messages is a waste of time. Research has shown that children don’t read it all and the time it takes to do that doesn’t match the learning gain. I’d say never write much more than one or two sentences and think about effective marking: focus on the learning intention and don’t fall into the trap of marking every error, less is more. Also think about the range of types of marking: scaffold, inform, prompt etc.

So – I do think teachers can get smarter with marking and there are ways they can help themselves, not just with the colour codes and brightly coloured pens, but also with the physical plate spinning of it all. School leaders should support this too.  I expect some of this is deeply patronising and will cause some teachers to roll their eyes, but some teachers I know need to give themselves permission to get smarter and it will serve them and the children better if they do.

The good, the bad and…crackers.

Illustration re corporal punishment of s

Conversations about our jobs often pop up around the table at Christmas time, but I didn’t expect a whole family debate on intelligence to rage across the crackers and cranberry sauce, but it did. I came away feeling that intelligence isn’t so much misunderstood, but rather terribly misapplied.

Anyone who reads my blogs will know that assessment is my thing, with a particular focus on  factors that promote or prevent formative assessment working well for pupils and teachers.

One of the biggest bees in my teacher bonnet here is mind set and how both pupils and teachers view intelligence or ability. During some action research I carried out a while ago, I was surprised by just how prevalent fixed mind sets are amongst pupils and how far this appeared to prevent them from taking hold of their own learning. Many of us will have read  Carol Dweck’s research into this, but I wanted to see how this might manifest in my setting.

I found that some pupils had created in their minds a kind of pecking order of cleverness within their class and ranked themselves within it so that they could quite literally order themselves and their peers in  intelligence with phrases such as ‘really clever,’ ‘quite clever’, ‘sort of brainy’ and ‘not that smart.’ This was despite a strong emphasis on choice in learning and mixed ability groupings in the class. It seemed that many of the children had long established ideas about intelligence that had not shifted with our work on learning how to learn or collaborative class ethos.

There were undesirable outcomes from these seemingly fixed views of intelligence, not least the palpable fear of revealing misunderstanding or ‘being stuck’. For pupils this meant revealing their ‘ranking’ in the intelligence order compared to everyone else and running the risk of being seen as ‘dumb’ (their words not mine). The result was that when some pupils needed help, or would have benefited from further explanation, they didn’t ask for it and preferred instead to sit ‘surviving’ by either copying or appearing to write lots of ‘stuff’ and look busy. Ring a bell with anyone?

Of course, some of the nifty formative assessment techniques seek to combat this secret survival thing kids do by forcing them to show their hands right there in the lesson. Using things like hinge questions on white boards and generally responsive teaching that will pick out this kind of quiet ‘wallowing’ well before you find the grim evidence in the books later when you mark…and when it’s really too late. Nevertheless, a teacher’s job shouldn’t be about finding out how far children can hide their misunderstanding; in the end, we’re doing our job really well when we teach children to recognise and use their misunderstanding and deal with ‘getting stuck’ positively. After all, that sticky point, that cognitive discomfort (posh word: dissonance) when learning, should be where learning begins, not ends.

It was no coincidence to me that the children who made the most progress in that class were the children who were never happy secretly surviving and actively sought out help whenever they needed it. “I don’t get it?” was and is a sign of a learner going places, as long as something is done about it of course.  That in itself seemed like an ‘ability’ that took the learner far: doing something about feeling challenged, not shrinking or hiding. When I talked to these few children about what they thought about being clever and ‘intelligent’ they seemed to think about this differently. Their ideas about intelligence lent more towards it being something to be built upon and cultivated rather than something endowed and fixed inside. These children weren’t always confident or optimistic or even enthusiastic in every lesson– things we always count as important factors in learning, but instead, they seemed secure in their feelings about learning itself– this was their confidence in effect: that with help and time, they could always improve, even if it seemed impossible at the start. Like this, their identity and self image did not seem attached to the tasks they undertook.

At the same time, these children could talk about another child being more intelligent, but they did this in a way that was more like talking about a journey when someone is ahead rather than about someone who possesses more of something. It seemed to me that these few children understood ability as an active process while many others, most in fact, engaged with it as a finite endowment or a fixed asset, just as Carol Dweck described. Both these ideas also appeared innate in that they were revealed to me mostly by the way the children were when operational in class rather than when they had rational conversations about intelligence.

This brings me back to the beginning and all that debate about ability. What is it then? What is this thing called ability that teachers still call high, low or middle? We’ve talked about it so much in education and for so long surely we must all know? Well, the more I teach and the more I watch children learning I know that views about intelligence are a potent force when it comes to learning. While on the one hand we all know that children learn, brains grow, connections are built and meaning made, we also know that not all children are the same or can do the same things at the same time, but how pupils and importantly teachers interact with this thing called ability really matters. It is all about how we apply our knowledge of these differences.  Without doubt some brains are quicker, synapses work faster and there are stronger connections; however, the salient point is that all healthy brains can build connections: intelligence is an active process not an entity. This means that defining pupils by ability is problematic and threatens to limit their prospects because no matter what we say, humans suck up self image like a sponge; we carry an image of ourselves that is shaped by what we and others think about us. The moment definitions come into play we start pinning them to ourselves. Defining those children who are further ahead as ‘high ability’ limits them because we all start to think of them as ‘children who always succeed’: a terrible burden for everyone. Pinning ‘low ability’ to a child all too often means they and others see them as low achievers for the foreseeable future.

This creates a problem for teachers. How can we talk about where children are without pinning these things on to them? And how can we really break down this thing that causes children to feel so self conscious about their image in class? Teaching a few lessons on the growth mind set and telling children they need to challenge themselves just isn’t going to touch instinctive ideas that children have developed and that are confirmed not only outside school in myriad ways, but often in school by peers and also teachers who might talk about growth mind set, but have the most fixed ideas of all. It is imperative that teachers think careful how they talk about children, even in the staff room because mud sticks and labels are hard to shift. We all declare we have high expectations for all children, but do we? Believing that all children can improve and build intelligence is not only essential, but I would say it is as imperative to being a teacher as elegance is to being a dancer.

Over the past few years, since that action research, these are the practices that I can say have made a difference in breaking down some of these problems with image and learning. For many these are probably old hat, but nevertheless, they’re worth noting:

  • Celebrate when pupils ask for help when they need it – deliberately create an ethos where questions are welcomed and enjoyed. Don’t forget that teaching is very much about creating the right atmosphere for learners to thrive – it’s not just transferring skills and knowledge (that would be easy).
  • Model being a learner who makes mistakes yourself – a lot. Scratch your head and get confused sometimes and ask your TA or another adult for help.
  • Be gracious when pupils point out you’ve made a mistake, show gratitude and humility rather than defensiveness – show that everyone is up for errors!
  • Watch how you praise pupils – avoid ‘good boy,’ ‘good girl’ type phrases that tickle the ego rather than focus on learning. Mostly, there’s too much praise of pupils in lessons which creates this image focused atmosphere we need to avoid. Think carefully about what you are praising? It is the ‘finishers’? If so is finishing always the same as achievement? Is it the ‘neat and tidy’ pieces? If so, is all learning neat and tidy? When you stop and check, you’d be surprised what and who you praise and how often. When I’ve checked on myself  – I’ve often cringed! What and how you praise contributes massively to how pupils feel about themselves and their peers. As far as you can, qualify your praise by making it clearly task focused, describing what the child did that  was positive. Remember: when you say things like: ‘excellent work’ or ‘well done’ often children have no idea what was ‘excellent’ or ‘well done’ at all and it just becomes another ego badge.  Stars and smiley faces are out  for me too, sorry! (In fact, I think the whole rewards thing needs a re-think… another blog perhaps.)
  • I know it’s been said before, but use the word ‘yet’ a lot. If I ask a child a question, I encourage them to say ‘I’m not there yet?’ rather than a plain ‘I don’t know’. I use it all the time too, ‘you’re not there yet’. It’s a small word that helps keep the doors open so it’s worth getting it well embedded into the class vocabulary.
  • Ban the phrase, ‘it’s easy,’ which children seem to like to say when they get something and see that others don’t. It’s designed to make children feel inadequate so stamp it out. Look out for all the other little gibes that mean the same thing. Talk about it and discuss these things as a class too – bring the bogey man out the cupboard!
  • Lastly, really drill home that struggling is the first sign of learning. Celebrate cognitive conflict and turn it into something you and children look for and prize. I’m not saying allow kids to sit in utter bewilderment either, that’s too far the other way. Vygotsky was clear that we need to take children to that special place where learning becomes possible and this isn’t a place where it’s easy, because you’ve already learnt it, or a place where it’s too hard for any meaning to be made. Get kids to recognise that place for themselves: not easy and not impossible.  Get them to look for it and want it.

These things have made a big impact on  the children I teach. I don’t always get it right and it’s easy to slip into ‘label talk’ so we need to be mindful of it all the time. It’s taken hundreds of years to embed this concept of ‘praising the good child who gets it right,’ so it will take a while to break it down – remember once it was OK to stick a child who got it wrong in the corner with a dunce hat on; my Nan used to get hit with a ruler for wrong answers. Ethos change needs work, time and reflection, but it’s worth it.

Happy New Year!