Mark my words

Any economist knows that people respond to incentives. Senior leaders in schools should bear this in mind when they seek to hold teachers to account. Pay attention to a behaviour and generally you’ll see more of that behaviour over time. We need to therefore be sure that what we spend time looking at is really what we want more of, and be aware of what we may get less of as a result (the opportunity cost, as economists call it).

Let’s take the example of marking books.

Marking is generally regarded as a ‘good thing’. Parents want to see it. Students expect it. It shows that good work is recognised and mistakes corrected. It is hard to disagree that marking is at the core of good teaching.

Therefore more marking must be even better.

Policies which specify the frequency of marking practice inevitably lead to accountability mechanisms which reinforce the ‘lots of marking’ desire. This approach definitely causes teachers to work harder, but does it cause students to do so, let alone prompt higher standards of work?

In response to the call for ‘impact’ policies may start to highlight the need for students to respond to the feedback or do something with it. (As an aside, I recently saw a student respond in the way required – green pen as instructed – with the pithy reply to some extensive teacher commentary of ‘you don’t say?’. Well you wanted a response.)

And so students respond with the inane (‘thank you for your feedback’) or the required answer. Sometimes they will even do a few more practice questions, redraft a piece of work or correct their mistakes. But what, we might ask, do they learn? Do they learn to wait for a teacher to tell them how the work could be better, rather than work this out for them self? Or do they just do what they could have done anyway if they’d really tried? Will they remember any if this in three months from now?

We should remember the following:

  1. Everything has an opportunity cost. Could the time spent marking in such detail be better spent?
  2. Giving constructive feedback to students is perhaps the less important part of the marking process. Teachers learning from the study of students work and adapting their teaching accordingly is quite possibly much more important, and means less time is spent writing comments and more time planning lessons.
  3. If we accept that the most powerful feedback to students is immediate and delivered face to face, with the opportunity for students to ask for clarification, then should leaders pay at least as much attention to live, verbal feedback ?

To get to the point, what we want is a teacher with a well formed rationale for how they are engaging students in learning. It is not about what they are doing, but why, and whether the teacher has a scooby about whether it’s working! In short, an informed, deliberate and reflective practitioner.

What accountability system will promote this?

Here is my suggestion. Why don’t we start by asking teachers to articulate their approach, their rationale for this approach and how they will know if it is working? It’s not perfect but it’s got to be better than counting the number of ‘verbal feedback given’ stamps, mark my words.




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