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  • “Workload ‘pushing young teachers to the brink’” (BBC News, 15th April 2017).
  • “Teachers ‘wasting time on marking in coloured pens’” (BBC News, 21st October 2016) (quoting Nick Gibb).
  • “Inspectors are still looking for detailed marking despite please not to, Ofsted admits” (25th November 2016).

The insidious role of marking in teacher workload and misery has been a growing complaint for some time and with some justification.  Too often an external auditor, be it a senior leader, an OFSTED inspector or parent expects to be able to see evidence of teachers’ work writ clear, ideally in a specific colour of pen.  Of course, simply writing lots of comments on students’ work does not mean that students listen or follow advice, this is well established as the greatest challenge in giving feedback.  Therefore a clear response from the student is called for.  Along with a third pen colour.  Of course this does not fundamentally address underlying issues such as the quality of teacher comments and so many students get easily into bad response habits such as writing “okay”, “thank you” or simply copying out their targets without any developed understanding of their next step.  This doesn’t lead to progress and high quality feedback is known to be the cheapest, high-impact intervention schools and teachers can offer… so clearly more marking is called for.  And so it goes on.

This issue has become serious enough to generate responses from unions, Ofsted and the establishment of a Marking Policy Review Group which specifically addressed the issue of teacher workload, titling its report in March 2016 “Eliminating unnecessary workload around marking”.  Two key culprits stand out: “deep” marking where an extensive quantity of written feedback is given and triple impact marking where a written dialogue develops between teachers and students.  Both generate an intense workload for little proven impact.  But both are driven by the same goal – ensuring that feedback has impact, one of the greatest challenges in assessment, as I discussed in my last post.

This is not just an externally imposed problem.  I have found myself adding more and more to my ‘depth’ marking over recent years; seeking to address literacy, give targets, identify what strengths the work shows, model effective answers and give directives for the application of targets … in short to make each piece of marking the perfect ‘solution’ to student progress.  Too rarely have I stopped to think carefully about what the impact of each piece of feedback was, or which parts of this exhaustive process were actually the ones that best supported students’ learning.  When students made progress it felt irresponsible to tinker.  When they struggled it felt dangerous to step back and reduce my input … so I generally added more.

In a blog post on December 1st 2016 David Didau threw down a challenge to school leaders to let teachers reduce their marking time (the time spent actually writing comments for students) and experiment with other ways of giving feedback, particularly giving whole-class feedback and creating model work based on a reading of students’ work.  This seems very similar to the model advocated by the Michaela school and fits well with Elliott et al’s (2016) finding that dialogic and triple impact marking generate significant workload but lack clear evidence of impact for this work.

At JMS we did indeed pilot this model of feedback across various subjects and key stages in order to reflect on the purpose of feedback and the impact it could have.  There were a lot of positives to it:  once teachers got into the swing it was a dramatic workload-saver.   It drew my attention to exactly how much time I spend rewriting the same comments on several students’ work.  Instead, using this model we produced a single class feedback sheet, which we started terming the ‘Examiner’s Report’ and then focused on how we would ensure that students took the key messages on board.  As with any feedback model, simply telling students what had gone well and what needed improving was not enough.  Modelling helped but even combined both methods rely on students being able to identify which aspects of the general feedback applied to their work.  Those with lower confidence had a tendency to be over-critical of their work and risk focusing on fixing problems which did not apply.  Those with a limited grasp of the assessment criteria could not always see which bits of feedback applied to them.

One-to-one conversations with those students who struggled to apply the feedback were crucial.  I think our openness that we were trying something new and wanted their feedback on it also helped; students seemed more willing to admit early on if they were struggling to understand the feedback.   This may be because ‘problems’ could be safely located with the ‘new’ model, rather than in themselves or the teacher, which facilitated questions and dialogue.

For me, the process has given a new emphasis to the importance of dialogue in feedback.  I am not advocating extended written discussion, or even a specific pen colour.  Workload has to be a consideration, but so does turnaround time if the effort is to pay off for the students.  However  I am convinced of the value to my students in seeing the feedback I give as the first step in a dialogic process where we discuss what went well and how that was achieved, what the next steps are and how they will try to meet these and then a way forward.

This does not have to be a laborious written dialogue built in different colours over several weeks, with books and folders passed back and forth.  Sometimes, often, verbal discussion is quicker and more directly relevant to the student or small group with whom I wish to discuss their work.  Tools such as the ‘examiner’s report’ marking can play a valuable part in this by cutting down wasted time marking repetitively whilst shaping my thoughts on how to move students forward and giving us a clear starting point for dialogue beyond the piece of work itself.  However I have found whole-class feedback to be very much the start of a process, and not sufficient on its own.  In whatever form I need my students to respond directly to my feedback to be sure that it is doing the job.


Questions that helped me to reflect on student responses to feedback:

  1. How widespread is this error and is it something I need to address with the whole class?
  2. Is this something the students can fix themselves? If so, when am I going to give them time to do that?
  3. How will I know if this feedback has ‘sunk in’? What am I expecting students to do with it or how am I expecting their thinking to develop?  When am I going to give them time to do that?
  4. What is the most time efficient way to work with the student on this development point?

Reread Didau’s original post here:

When I started at JMS there was a directive that every member of the teaching staff had to go to the staff room at least once a day.  Current policy states that teachers must check their emails once a day.  Ostensibly each policy has the same purpose; but what a difference in practice.  Regular visits to the staff room meant that you’d encounter most of your colleagues at some point in the week, even those remotely positioned in the furthest corners and darkest reaches of the school. Views would be exchanged, messages passed and the collegiate feeling of being part of a team reinforced.

On the other hand, email is by its nature a solitary activity.  Sat alone in their classrooms and offices, many of our team time their arrival to ensure they have time to log on or use their break and lunch times to catch up on the messages.  Responses are crafted alone and, if dialogue or discussion arises it quickly spirals into a torrential outpouring of emails, the reply all function spinning off sub-chains and new lines of thought until one break time isn’t enough to read all the relevant correspondence, let alone formulate a response.

At a seminar earlier this year Jane McNicholl discussed her research into professional development within subject departments in schools.  Her colleagues identified several factors that were key to effective professional development within subject teams particularly the leadership of the department, the physical space that departments share and the dispositions, habitus and personal histories of the individuals.   There is a virtuous cycle of professional development that can be constructed with good leadership in a shared space; teachers as we all know, tend to talk about teaching, and if gathered together in a shared faculty space will, over coffee and biscuits, almost inevitably discuss teaching and learning. This leads to the sharing of good practice, tips for dealing with difficulties whether with resources, curriculum or individual students and other useful advice and support.

Research conducted by the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University for the Strategic Schools Partnership Board in 2016 suggested that  a collegiate atmosphere of professional  collaboration helped NQTs to cope with the demands of their first years of teaching and increased staff retention.  However McNicholl’s work emphasises that a collegial professional atmosphere benefits all teachers, including the most experienced some of whom might otherwise stagnate in their teaching without exposure to new ideas and collaborative working.

So how does email come into play here?  Inevitably the discussion turned to those schools and departments who did not manage this collegiate environment, where teachers are balkanised, and rarely spend time working with their colleagues and peers.  There may be only so much a department can do about the space it has (or lacks), especially in the short term, but what are the limiting factors on sharing time together and communicating regularly.

Alas, there is a vicious cycle for every virtuous one.  And email plays its part in damaging professional collaboration and collegiate working. The more messages that come in the harder it is to find time to talk to colleagues in person, to leave the classroom at break and lunch and spend time with fellow team members.  The less people do that the more formal communication (email and meetings) are relied upon to connect team members.  The more formal communication is used the less time people have to spend talking to colleagues in person and so they click on the handy ‘new e-mail’ button and… you see where this ends up.

Of course email can be a great communication tool used well, but after McNicholl’s talk I reflected on how often I have not used it well and could have promoted a more collegial atmosphere by stepping away from the computer and talking to people instead.  Not to mention how often I’d felt the urgent need to reply to an email immediately to the point where it was a distraction from any other task or focus.  This was pattern I recognised in other team members.  But what can be done about these patterns?

A little in-house research showed how much power we actually do have over this as individuals.  For one week our head teacher announced that she would not be responding to email during the day, but wanted to use the time to talk to people in person instead.  After the first day the contents of her inbox dropped dramatically and far more time was spend talking to colleagues and students.  As a middle leader I sought to test whether I could generate a similar impact by controlling my own email output and so over a two week period reflected carefully on the emails I was about to send and tried to cut my output considerably.  I also put aside specific times to respond to email and times to turn it off, get out and speak to my colleagues in person instead.  My weekly average of sent and received emails through March was 438 received and 184 sent.   I saw an instant drop as I took control of my outflow.

I extended my trial to a third week and during this week sent ‘only’ 109 emails.  My inbox dropped to 357.  And at break and lunchtimes I was able to leave my office and speak to more colleagues and students than I had for a long time.   The impact of change from adjusting my own personal bad habits was noticeable and greatly liberating.  But 357 emails coming in is still quite a lot.  Even those that require very little action take time to read and delete and stack up in the inbox to be waded through.  Next term our middle leaders are therefore going to embark on a collective project to reduce the flow of email.  We’re going to challenge ourselves to reflect carefully on the emails we send out and to spend more time interacting in person and less through the electronic filter.  Perhaps if we work together we can cut the email traffic even further and spend a little more time away from our desks and where we belong.

Questions that helped me to reflect on the value of email:

  1. What is the best way to respond to this email? Would it be suitable to have a conversation with this person instead of communicating electronically?
  2. Does this email actually say anything new or useful? Will the recipient really feel ‘thanked’ by my two word response or might I be better off making the effort to mention my gratitude when I see them and saving them from an extra ‘ping’?
  3. How urgently do I need to respond to this? Is it an issue that desperately needs my immediate input or does it just feel that way because it popped up on my screen?  Is it more important than what I had planned to do with this time?
  4. Who needs to be copied into this email? What am I expecting them to gain from it or contribute at this point?

Further reading:   Childs, A., Burn, K. & McNicholl, J. (2013) What influences the learning cultures of subject departments in secondary schools? A study of four subject departments in England.  Teacher Development 17 (1), 35-54.)

I hate teaching and learning information.  I don’t like tests, word lists or “boring” factual learning.  I like a creative classroom where students think, discuss, argue and research, to reach their own ideas and conclusions. To me a successful lesson is one where they think differently about something at the end, much more so than when they know something specific and new.  I have always been  greatly drawn to Bloom’s hierarchy of thinking skills, not least because it matches my own prejudices.   Perhaps there is a secret post-modernist in me and I don’t really trust in the immutable value of ‘knowledge’.  Or perhaps I just find learning information boring.  Perhaps it is because I am an historian … or perhaps it is why.

However, I recently reread Brown and McIntyre’s Making Sense of Teaching for the first time in many years.  In Chapter 4 they argued that most teachers have a strong sense of what they want pupils to be doing in lessons, which they termed a ‘Normal Desirable State of Pupils’ Activity’ or NDS.  Teachers’ individual NDSs could vary greatly and might well involve different states of activity in different lessons, but for most teachers it forms quite a clear vision.  It may be that pupils working quietly and independently within a structured lesson framework is one teacher’s NDS, whilst another’s is a noisy, chatty, creative classroom.

I’m not sure that I fully accept the idea of a single, dominant NDS in my practice; there are some topics, times of year, classes and key stages that may lead me to vary my NDS for a particular lesson.  Perhaps I have two or three versions of an NDS.  But other than that, the idea certainly resonated with me.

And reading Brown and MacIntyre drew my attention to how little I have reflected on, much less grown or developed by NDS recently.  But what a useful reflective tool it has been since my attention was drawn to it.  It has helped me with planning, to step back from the immediate objectives of the lesson and reflect on my NDS.  Sometimes this has given me a new insight into how to tackle a difficult lesson or unit, at other times I have recognised that it has been a barrier and that I need to step outside of my comfort zone to make the best job of teaching a particular topic.  At times it has helped me with classes that I have been struggling with.  Thinking about the lesson in terms of the skills they lack that have prevented them from attaining my NDS and how I can help them to get there or to rethink my approach to meet their needs; both valid responses in different circumstances.  It has also helped me start to tackle that tricky area of sound mastery of factual information, so heavily emphasised in the new GCSE and A-level courses.  Daisy Christodoulou amongst others has made a powerful case for the importance of factual learning and my growing clarity about my own NDS has helped me to identify where I need to fight my prejudices and ensure that factual learning is thoroughly and effectively integrated into my teaching.  In so doing, I have been experimenting with ways to make such learning ‘fun’ and have a lot of gratitude to Richard Marshall who introduced me to which made a great starting point.

This reflection has also related to my work with other teachers as it has made me think carefully about my feedback to them; how much am I helping them to achieve their NDS and how much am I too fixed on my own.  Recently an increasingly clear message is emerging from research, HMI and other sources that there are many different ways to teach well and that the best way to support teachers can be to help them achieve and build from their NDS, rather than to try and change this.  Do I even understand what their vision of a desirable state of pupil activity is, and can I really offer meaningful support or input if not?

Of course, the starting point here has to be a reflective dialogue; with myself and my colleagues.  What are the key assumptions I carry about desirable states of working for pupils?  When should I seek to achieve this and when should I adapt my vision and how can colleagues with a different NDS help me to achieve this?  And when working with colleagues, what can they tell me about their NDS and how can I help them to realise this?  This reflection does not demand radical change but for me it certainly supported the development of my teaching, encouraging some experimentation and new ways of thinking about the learning I planning.

Questions that helped me to reflect on NDSs:

  1.  What is my “Normal Desirable State of Pupils’ Activity” and how do I set up my classroom culture and plan lessons to facilitate this?
  2. What skills do pupils need to successfully achieve my NDS and how do I enable them to acquire these?  How successful am I at overtly teaching these skills (for this I asked my students; always a source of interesting feedback)?
  3. Where pupils are not achieving my NDS what are the barriers to this and how can I overcome them?
  4. For which lessons and activities is my NDS not the best way to achieve learning?  Where can I find colleagues approaching a similar challenge in a different way from whom I can learn?reflection-2169596__340