Does Our Obsession With Marking Stop Us Focusing On Learning?

Not long after the publication of the EEF’s Marking Review earlier last year, I was asked to lead CPD with a group of teachers on marking.
Having read the EEF document and realised there was not really any strong evidence that any particular type of marking was effective, I decided the best way forward would be for my group to investigate what might be most beneficial to pupil learning in our school context. I gathered, distilled and shared various research and encouraged faculty teams to plan and carry out disciplined inquiries over the next term. These would be small-scale investigations and would not hold as serious research evidence, but by trying to be smart and objective about what we were doing, using control and treatment groups, we would hopefully be able to identify approaches that looked promising and develop them further. Over this time, I carried out my own inquiry too.
I stopped marking.
To qualify, I still read my pupils’ work and used this to inform my planning, but, I no longer wrote comments on their books. I did continue to use the school literacy marking codes. Other than that, I did not write copious amounts of probing questions in the margins: ‘should this be more than one sentence?’, ‘can you explain how this word/phrase creates that impression?’, ‘what are the connotations of this verb choice?’, ‘what is the writer’s intention in presenting the character in this way?’; I did not write the same two or three WWW and EBI comments on the end of a particular piece of work x 34 exercise books. And, like many edu-bloggers before me have stated, it did not have a negative impact on pupils’ learning. We still had ‘feedforward’ (DIRT) time and assessment data over the last two half terms demonstrates progress. I was able to be more responsive and actually ‘mark’ more frequently as it took me less time (although not the quick 20 minutes for a class set I’ve often read in other blogs – depending on what the work produced was, 34 books would take between 1 and 3 hours, always halving my previous written marking time), and more time went into resourcing and planning lessons.
It wasn’t plain sailing; I struggled with ‘teacher guilt’. My pupils soon got used to the fact that I was still ‘marking’ as I could talk to them about their work (a lot more in fact). However, I would still look at books and will pupils to have a spelling error so I could apply blue highlighter and evidence I had looked at that page for any book scrutiny (even though I had written notes for every batch of marking which I could hand in), and on Y6 Open Evening, I was too chicken to put my classes’ books on show. I have been indoctrinated in the culture of hours spent marking (and marking meaning writing all over pupil work) = I’m a good teacher and it was hard to go cold turkey and resist returning to the old habit. Especially as colleagues, who still marked in written form, feel that way too. Holding my nerve was hard and it was the fact that I could see the learning gains (in the work I was not marking), that helped me to stand firm.
Stopping marking isn’t the point of this blog, though – it was the catalyst to something I found much more profound.
In July 2016 I attended the Collaboration in Education Conference in Leeds and listened to David Didau talking about marking. When he mentioned that there had been no research conducted on the long-term impact of DIRT time, something started ticking away in my mind. I reflected on the work that my pupils produced in ‘Feedforward’ lessons; beautifully improved essays, easy for a book scrutineer to identify in purple ink, demonstrating the same kind of progress that (if I’m honest) a mimicry plenary might illustrate. A couple of weeks later in an assessment, working independently without lots of detailed marking prompts and me on hand to ask, “what do you mean here, Miss?” and me to explain so well that I had spoon-fed the answer; somehow, they would make the same pre-purple pen errors again (or at least not produce anything of the purple-penned standard)! Why hadn’t they remembered what they needed to do?!
Slowly, the light bulb began to glow. Busied in the evidencing of marking and feeding forward, I’d forgotten about learning. Real learning which is embedded and sustained and enables my pupils to become independent. Once I stopped marking, I could focus on that.
I still feedforward but I try to join it up. Framing learning across units and lessons with questions like: what did you need to improve on the assessment? This half term we are going to be studying Jekyll & Hyde, where might you find opportunities to work on this? Look back at your assessment and compare how you wrote about structure there and how you have done it on this piece of work …Use of lists of common errors and asking pupils to return to their writing and identify exactly where the ones that apply to them, are; some whole class or gallery critique (thank you Andy Tharby), or use of models produced or sourced by me (as you might do in any traditional DIRT lesson), followed up with reviews of learning which encourage pupils to consider what they have achieved, ask Qs, connect to previous learning and then provide a point of reference into the next lesson. To us as teachers it is obvious that is what pupils should be doing. It really isn’t to them. We need to spell out those connections in bright neon lights and flash them every time they go near them! The tangled scribble of what learning looks like, means that different pupils will secure that learning at different points and we should never assume what is obvious to us as experts, is for them.
It may seem like a tiny detail. I may seem to have been really dim to not have noticed this. There has been a shift in my approach which has improved my teaching. It would not have happened if I had not been involved in this trial and stopped marking.


Exploratory Talk

I have been developing the use of Exploratory Talk in my classroom over the last year or so and I feel that it is a powerful strategy which has had a tremendous impact on the achievement of pupils I teach. Through the training of pupils in how to use exploratory talk, a culture of high expectations and the willingness to try – take risks – develop ideas independently, has flourished and alongside it, pupils’ results. For example, 95% of my Y11 GCSE English Literature class are making expected progress (the 5% who are not, refers to one pupil who has never attended a lesson) and 86% more than expected progress. This class have target grades of D-B. I was asked to share my use of exploratory talk in a whole school CPD session in January and have subsequently written this up in the following blog.

Exploratory talk (ET) is not rocket science – it is essentially getting pupils to have high quality conversations where they are sharing ideas and interpretations, asking each other high quality questions and basically thinking out loud. I first heard about it under the ‘ET’ title when I attended some wonderful English and Media Centre training on KS3 and Ofsted, led by Martin Phillips. He showed us clips of pupils using ET and shared a case study where a new Head of English he had been working with, had embedded ET into her department’s curriculum and results (which had been very low) more than doubled. This piqued my interest and I started considering how I could develop the strategy in my classroom and department setting(s).

For more scientific data on the power of ET in transforming the learning in the classroom, I point you in the direction of an OU/ CREET publication: ‘Thinking Together in the Primary Classroom,’ This research initially focussed on pupils aged from 6-13 years old, later concentrating  on a group aged 8-11 years. I am aware that this refers to primary aged pupils and my context is a secondary school one. In my view, the earlier pupils are trained in ET, the greater their capacity to develop their thinking skills and achieve – this is certainly the ideal on which we secondary schools could then build. I have found that introducing ET later, in secondary school is still tremendously valuable (as my opening paragraph illustrates). The OU/CREET research found that those groups of pupils who were using ET, solved problems more successfully due to, “the ‘visible reasoning’ of exploratory talk in their transcripts,” enabling them to do so. Most interesting in the findings, though, was that it was not just in joint problem solving that pupils were achieving more highly: “As a result of taking part in the group experience of explicit, rational, collaborative problem-solving [children] had improved their individual reasoning capabilities. […] Children may have improved their reasoning skills by internalising or appropriating the ground rules of exploratory talk, so that they become able to carry on a kind of silent rational dialogue with themselves.” The potential of ET to improve pupils’ thinking skills across all subjects and for their life beyond school is extremely exciting.

Phillips had used Socratic Questioning as the basis for producing prompt cards to enable pupils to ask each other questions in order to further their group discussion. I really liked this. I have always used group tasks with pupils and to some extent, there has been ET going on in these groups, but, if I am truly honest with myself, this had been a bit hit and miss. Some pupils are engaged and deepening their understanding, some are listening but not pushing themselves to really be involved and some pupils are actively disengaged with the task and chatting/ doodling/ building a tower out of glue sticks … When we use teacher-led probing questioning, we model how to use exploratory talk. Again, when I really think about what impact this is having on pupils’ learning, I have to be honest and say that the best case scenario is that everyone in the room has deepened their understanding and is thinking at a higher level and the worst case scenario is that it has just happened to the pupil I’m directing the question at. It’s most likely that it is somewhere between these two extremes, but, for me, that’s still not good enough – I want everyone to be engaged and learning all of the time. ET seemed to provide a way forward with this goal.

My first attempts with ET were polar opposites of each other. The first class I attempted to use it with were a Y11 MAP (middle ability pupil) class. We were working on GCSE English Literature and studying An Inspector Calls in preparation for controlled assessments. I was trying to get pupils to write developed evaluations of Mr Birling’s character. I needed to move them beyond brief and superficial comments to deeper, more complex interpretations. ET seemed to be the perfect method. I had had them selecting quotes that they thought were of interest in relation to Birling’s character, I then gave them a selection of Socratic questions from Phillip’s training. I used those which were to ‘probe and reason,’ plus ones to come up with ‘alternative interpretations’. I gave them a sample response and the mark scheme, asking them to grade it and use the questions to help them develop their discussion of why the candidate had got this grade, and then to look at their own quotes and use the questions to help them explore and develop their evaluations of them. Pupils were in groups of 6. The lesson built up to the different tasks – it wasn’t quite all at once, as this description might suggest, however, there were too  many bits of paper and activities planned in. All I succeeded in doing was confusing everyone. Pupils then ignored the question prompts and had a go at the tasks without them with the usual varying levels of engagement and success. I learned a lot from this failure, however.

Later that week, I tried again. I was working on Romeo and Juliet with a high ability Y9 class. This time I selected a couple of questions to serve as prompts for discussing what they learned about a key character (for my middle ability pupils, within the context of the group) from a speech in the text and for a key theme for the more able in the group, from a different section of the same scene. They had an overarching question of exploring what they learned about the character/ theme and the prompt cards were there for them to use to develop their ET if they needed them. The higher ability pupils (within the context of the class) had a couple of prompts to do with alternative viewpoints to encourage a range of interpretations too. There was one task and the questions were chosen carefully. Pupils then had plenty of time to explore and develop their ideas collaboratively. The work fed into independent analytical writing in the subsequent lesson, with pleasing results. I now knew that there was mileage in the strategy for my pupils.

I find that it is best to use groupings of 2-4 pupils ideally. With my Y7 group of lower ability pupils, I find pairs is the best way to go. If there are more pupils in the group then there is more chance that one of them won’t be involved as they can hide behind listening to the others. No doubt they could still pick things up from listening. Responding to and asking each other questions, however, is what is crucial to pupils embedding the ET skills and developing the way they think and learn independently too. Within my classes, I have found that putting the highest ability pupils (within the context of the group) and those with a high target grade, who may be under-performing, together in one or two groups and then using mixed ability groups across the rest of the class is most successful. An example of work done on Macbeth with my Y7 group, using ET: In pairs, pupils were given between 2-4 lines from 1,1 or 1,3 from the play. My ‘more challenge’ group were given 8 lines. All pupils were given the overarching question of, ‘why are the Witches in the play?’ and then were given the prompts of, ‘what is happening?’ ‘Why are the Witches saying/ doing this?’. The more able pair were also asked, ‘are there any words you think are interesting?’ and ‘what does it make you think about Macbeth at this point in the play?’. What was interesting, however, was that most pairs began to focus on specific words as they talked anyway. Pupils went from notes before working through this task, where they were saying the Witches were scary, to really close analysis, “I think the Witches are evil. They are, ‘wild,’ which makes me think of a wild animal. They make predictions to Macbeth and I think they are not to be trusted.”. I’ll just throw into the mix here that this pupil arrived in September working below level 3 from the Y6 reading SAT. Here, they are making some obvious points perhaps, but this is pinned to language analysis and interpretation. They would not have got there without having the analysis broken down in this ET task and being given the space to try out interpretations – having their view valued and feeling safe to say what comes to mind and then talk about why and try to link it to the play’s plot. In the past, I would probably have read the scenes with a low ability class, asking questions and interpreting out loud myself. This is good modelling, but there needs to be a point where you let go – pupils need to approach analysis/ evaluation of texts independently in order to have the confidence and the skills to do so at GCSE.

With my high ability Y11 class, who I tend to group in 3s or 4s, I have used ET since Martin Phillips’ training and so they have had about 18 months of working in this way. I began by using the Socratic prompt questions – having learnt from my earlier mistakes, I kept these slimmed down to only 2 or 3 at a time, often giving higher ability groupings (within the context of the class) 2/3 questions and my mixed ability groups 1/2. I often look at the key assessment criteria which we are trying to build skills for and build this into the prompt questions. What I have found with this group now though, is, I only need to give them a general focus – ‘What do we learn about the character here?’ (this could refer to a very focussed passage or entire chapter/ section of a text) and they are so well used to probing and interrogating, that they will just get exploring and come up with all sorts of fabulous and intelligent ideas. These pupils have embedded the skills. They make copious notes as they talk, so they can refer back to their ideas. Whilst these pupils are a high ability class, they are the fourth set out of eight and they do not have A/A* target grades. Several pupils are on track to achieve these though. The moment when the success of the ET strategy with this Y11 class really hit home to me, was when a pupil who I had regularly spoken to about  brushing her hair/ applying make-up/ getting her phone out, in the first month or so of our time working together, had a few minutes to spare having completed what I had asked everyone to do, said, “Miss, I just had a few minutes there, so I had a little think”. She proceeded to show me the notes she had made as she had come up with a theory about Jekyll and Hyde which demonstrated the ‘perceptive evaluation’ required of the mark scheme.

I have used ET with groups to explore their writing too – trying out different pieces of punctuation and evaluating the reasons for their choices and the effects. It is not solely a tool for textual analysis. Indeed, I really believe that it has the potential to transform learning across the curriculum. As my examples show, as long as it is planned carefully, it has impact with all abilities of pupil. Following my initial success with ET, it is widely used across our English department and the strategy has now been shared in a CPD session with the wider school.

Reading and evaluating

Over the last few months I have been reading various educational blogs and looking at resources. In particular, I’ve found David Didau, Mary Myatt and Ross McGill, to be really interesting and useful. From reading them I have found information from many other teachers/ education experts and this is what has influenced my thinking and led me to experiment with the ideas relating to developing writing skills in my previous blogs about Personal Learning Checklists, Triple Impact Marking and Verbal Feedback; how to write about their evaluation of texts in Beautiful Sentences; and in the ideas I discuss below.

I have found it quite tricky to help my Y7 pupils (a low ability group) to understand how to move beyond basic understanding when analysing language. This is something, again, which isn’t uncommon, not just for LAPs (low ability pupils) but for MAPs  (middle ability pupils) too. I found using the analogy of a fashion show helped. If you see an outfit that looks good; it doesn’t just look good – it’s how it has been cut, sewn, styled, the colour etc – it’s in the detail. I then linked it to talking about the words we’d picked out of Miranda Hart’s first paragraph in her autobiography. I felt that it helped. Exploratory talk also helped here. It needs to be paired (rather than in larger groups of 3 or 4), ideally in my Y7 class and really specific. I differentiated for my pupils with a 4c starting point and made their prompt questions more challenging, but, even with them, they just had a couple to support them.

The Y11 class I talked about in my, ‘Beautiful Sentences’ blog were struggling to reach the Band 5 Literature criteria. It is quite hard to unpick what ‘perceptive evaluation’ really means in terms of breaking the skills down which pupils need to demonstrate.  I came across the ‘zoom in – zoom out’ A/A* strategy from Didau. It is invaluable to the Lit assessment criteria. Precise detail and then looking out at the whole text to evaluate – what we teach anyway? Yes, but a really simple way to get pupils to understand what will make the A* stand out and how an A* needs to think.

Over the next half term I plan to continue developing and evaluating this work, and that covered in my earlier blogs, with my pupils. I’m also looking forward to a bit of action research on exploratory talk (which I think is probably the strategy which has had the biggest impact on developing learning in my classroom over the last year), which will feed into some whole-school CPD. Perhaps I will summon the courage to blog about how this all goes too…

Beautiful Sentences

Over the last few months I have been reading various educational blogs and looking at resources. In particular, I’ve found David Didau, Mary Myatt and Ross McGill, to be really interesting and useful. From reading them I have found information from many other teachers/ education experts and this is what has influenced my thinking and led me to experiment with the ideas relating to developing writing skills in my previous blog about Personal Learning Checklists, Triple Impact Marking and Verbal Feedback, and in the ideas I discuss below.

I teach a high ability Y11 class. They are an intelligent and motivated group of pupils. I’ve taught them since the start of Y10. We have a good relationship. I would say that even if English isn’t their favourite subject they enjoy the experience of it and regularly comment on the fabulous level of challenge I provide for them, “I can’t do this – it’s too hard”! These pupils are capable of high marks and many of them have already achieved them through early entry GCSE English. BUT I am still looking at their use of punctuation, tenses and sophistication of expression (just as I was with my MAP (middle ability pupils) Y10 class from the previous blog): it’s coming up in the PEEL (point + evidence + explore/explain + link and repeat) paragraphs we are writing in preparation for their Romeo and Juliet controlled assessments (and SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar), is important in this mark scheme too) and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve given apostrophes homework or revised when and how to use them in lessons … So it’s not just MAPs (issues with their writing skill development and how to secure this were explored in detail in my previous blog), it’s HAPs (high ability pupils), too.

Pupils regularly have ‘response time’ to marked classwork. I have spent hours marking and giving really focussed feedback, only to find most of my pupils have spent the 15 minutes I set aside, underlining in purple pen and then correcting spellings, when I wanted them to engage with the more focussed comments I gave on their work! I’ve fallen foul of this a couple of times – got to be specific in the instructions on how to use response time even though the feedback in pupils’ books is detailed – back to the butterfly! I’ve started splitting it. With a low ability Y7 class, I told them to ignore the spellings in the first instance. We spent a lesson on developing our writing and then a lesson on spelling – personalised to them but with discussion of strategies, use of orange vocabulary books (all KS3 pupils have an orange notebook that they carry around school and have at home, for the recording of interesting/ advanced vocabulary, definitions and their experiments with using it and, also, for spellings personal to them) and personalised homework. With Y11 I say 5 minutes on spellings and then move into a dedicated time slot in which I get them to engage with the actual reading/ writing skill. I also think it’s important to be prepared to give the whole lesson to response time when it’s clear it’s needed – sometimes you plan it like this, sometimes you realise as it’s happening – but if they are making a bit of a breakthrough I think you’ve got to give them the time to get there.

My Y11 pupils have gained a lot, from exploratory talk particularly, in how to deepen thinking and interpretations of text(s). The majority of them struggle to get it down on paper clearly and as deeply. This is not a new phenomenon and is true of most pupils I have taught over the last 16 years. The difference is that the Literature mark scheme is tightening up on this area and it’s something we really need to address. I’ve modelled, played with the assessment criteria, self, peer and teacher assessed and used response time. Some pupils have improved and some pupils always struggle and ask for help. I read about Didau’s ‘Beautiful Sentences,’ ideas – breaking it down into cause and effect, and adapted this into a Y11 lesson. One pupil who asks for help every time we have response time, didn’t ask for help. She walked out of the room at the end saying, “Finally I understand how to do it!”. This was fantastic. I had given so much detailed marking to this pupil, many times, and she still couldn’t get started – finally something has clicked.

We continued to use ‘Beautiful Sentences’ in conjunction with ‘PEEL paragraphs’ and I am so proud of the achievements made by this class – the progress evident in their books is impressive and the controlled assessments they completed in controlled conditions, did them all tremendous (and well deserved) credit.

I think the ‘Beautiful Sentences’ idea is very simple and can be adapted to other classes. My Y7 LAPs (low ability pupils) have benefitted from using it to help them comment on language used to describe and present Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. It isn’t dumbing down or restricting to my Y11s as it is a way of expressing complex ideas and, obviously, their complexity is relative to ability and context.