Marking madness and weak leadership

I suspect this is going to be quite an angry post so I will start by nailing my colours to the mast. I think that if you are a school leader who is insisting that everyone mark their books every two weeks you should resign. Here’s why. 

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Teacher Tapp’s poll of secondary school teachers

I have written before about my love of Teacher Tapp but I am not sure it is good for my blood pressure. When it isn’t telling me that 54% of teachers still believe we should be teaching 21st century skills like “problem solving” it is revealing that over half of secondary school teachers are being directed to mark books at least once a fortnight. This shows abysmal leadership for a number of reasons.

It shows a lack of understanding about your own curriculum design. Saying that books should be marked every X number of weeks is utterly bizarre when different subjects have different curriculum time. Why are English books being marked every 8 lessons and Geography books every 3? In some schools RE books may be marked after every lesson. What is the rationale for this? I would suggest there isn’t one and it is just lazy leadership.

It shows a lack of understanding about workload. Teachers in non-core subjects can easily have 10 different classes on their timetable. To fulfill this policy the teacher would have to mark at least one class set of books every work day and sometimes more than one. Even on days when they are teaching all 5 periods. Even on days with a meeting after school or Parent’s Evening. It simply isn’t possible to keep up with this directive for long and the pressure to try is driving people out of the profession.

It shows a lack of understanding about feedback. Feedback is vitally important. It may be one of the most important elements of successful teaching. Feedback is not the same as marking. Writing written comments in a book may at times be the most effective way of giving feedback but it often wont be (See Making a fuss of feedback for more on this). The problem with insisting that books are marked with written comments every two weeks is that other forms of feedback don’t happen as everyone is worrying about complying with this one. Giving immediate written feedback may actually be harmful to progress and it prevents pupils developing self regulation (see Giving Feedback).

It shows a lack of understanding about the “Why”. This is another example of the ritual of teaching where we focus on a practice and not a reason. A policy that states how often books should be marked inevitably ignores why books should be marked. The purpose of feedback becomes lost as people desperately try to keep up with the workload. Comments become generic, feedback not acted upon, as a result, teaching doesn’t respond . We end up going through the age old ritual of marking books and the original reason for doing so goes unexplored.

It shows a lack of understanding about professionalism. The reason for a policy stipulating how often books should be marked is to make it possible to check it is being done. Marking is therefore done for an audience that isn’t the pupil. It becomes yet another “non-negotiable” on a checklist to use to monitor teachers. This isn’t how you treat a professional. If a leader had any faith in their staff they would spend time exploring the why of feedback and then leave their professionals to ensure that effective feedback was given. A policy insisting that books are marked every two weeks reeks of distrust and a belief that teachers can’t work out how best to do their jobs.

I don’t think that anyone whose understanding is so lacking should be leading schools. If you are one of these people please realise that you are a big part of the problem and do the profession a favour – hand in your notice.

Teach Like Nobody’s Watching: The essential guide to effective and efficient teaching is available for pre-order now

 

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10 thoughts on “Marking madness and weak leadership

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  2. Argghhhh! Yet another article by people who aren’t SLT slagging off SLT who can’t do their jobs. Don’t you think it’s really odd that perfectly rational HoDs get promoted to SLT and then do totally irrational things? Or do you think you haven’t actually got the experience yet to understand why a great deal of the decisions made by SLT are made? I’m guessing I know which one it is. Stop criticising what you clearly don’t understand, or get yourself promoted to SLT and do it yourself as it appears to be sooo easy to do. The profession is haemorrhaging quality leaders because they cannot and will not put up with crap like this whilst we try to do our best. Life is too short.

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    • Nonsense. Which point in this post do you actually disagree this? Can you make any kind of defence for a whole school marking policy which insists that all books are marked every two weeks?
      There are some amazing school leaders out there making brave, sensible and well thought out decisions and they are not helped by the craven and cowedly few who get themselves promoted beyond their competence.
      I don’t doubt it is a hugely difficult job – and so we need people who are actually able to do it. Not huge, sprawling management teams of people unable to get it right.

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  3. An interesting post about which I would give a few of my own reflections.

    1 What I believe you refer to as weak leadership appears to be strong leadership. If managers are able to get teachers to do this nonsense that indicates strong leadership to me, weak leadership would surely not achieve this.

    2 I work in an international school in the Middle East after working in the state system, UK private sector, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. I currently work in a school that delivers the IB curriculum. As an international school we have a number of students join and leave and my experience has been that learners coming from a “21st Century Skills” curriculum where it has been well taught are educated to a much higher level that those from an impoverished curriculum such as UK/US.

    For me, 21st century skills are misnamed. 21st century skills are just the 20th century skills in a changing context. I believe that these skills are more useful as manual jobs disappear. One could be a manual worker and manage a living in the past but this will increasingly be less possible. When I see some extraordinary rants against 21st century skills (not here I am glad to say) I am unsure whether it is the “21st century” that is the issue or the “skills” that is the issue.

    I see learners applying knowledge to gain new knowledge every day of the week without the intervention of a teacher and when this happens I feel I have done my job well.

    3 I believe a number of the issues you raise are a bit muddled. I believe you start with your perspective and world view and then shoehorn the issues you favour into the mix. Schools are just like any other organisation and requires leadership and management to achieve it’s goals which are sometimes to do with efficiency/effectiveness and sometimes to do with intended outcomes. Both of these are important in my view and both are different roles and need not be conflated. SLT give strategic leadership while teachers an HODs provide management. When the two meet we often get the perfect storm in my experience.

    Teachers do not have to be necessarily be professionals. My view would be that the more prescriptive the methods and the material the less professional a teacher needs to be. Those who work at Michaela are for me technicians. I regard myself as a professional (rightly or wrongly) and I believe that autonomy, reflectiveness and outcomes are key to my practice. When we look at Charted schools I see technicians who are good at implementing procedures within close scrutiny.

    Education is similar to other industries (it is after all an industry just like the automotive / fast food industries). I believe a knowledge/skills approach to creating autodidacts requires professionals whereas a knowledge (without skills) oriented approach requires technicians. I think that the “knowledge rich” approach is a move towards impoverishing learners rather than empowering them.

    The workload issue are for me failures in management and the inevitable consequence of a technician focused approach in a context of insufficient resources. I am not suggesting that workload issues will not arise in a context of sufficient resources but I do feel that it can easily be avoided.

    The above post for me is an example of the results of a “knowledge oriented” curriculum. It takes a number of issues that you present as a series of facts. I believe you are guilty of exactly that you accuse other of. I believe you have a limited understanding of the issues about which you present facts in support of your assertion that some people should resign.

    “I don’t think that anyone whose understanding is so lacking should be leading schools. If you are one of these people please realise that you are a big part of the problem and do the profession a favour – hand in your notice.”

    The misunderstanding that you exhibit here are exactly those which the “21st Century Skills” approach as you describe it, or the “knowledge balanced with skills” approach as I might describe it is intended to resolve.

    Whether school managers are sufficiently knowledgeable or skilled in the practice of management is another issue. On this one I would tend to agree. This one can only be resolved by giving educational managers at all levels professional management training and then to accept that given the current levels of funding UK society should not expect a top notch education for their kids at all times. For me it is teachers and HODs who exhibit poor leadership as well as SLT and Heads.

    Professionals can be judged by refusing to do what they believe is unprofessional. Technicians tend to do what is required of them with a bit of moanery about how bad their lot is. Teachers are trading off their work/life balance and their health for their salary and holidays. That is their choice surely.

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