I spend a lot of time thinking about marking.
As teachers, we all do. That essential component of our job – looking to see if the hours of planning and teaching have paid off and the students are able to actually do the things we have been teaching them to do; if they actually know something – is also one of its worse aspects.
I teach RE and Philosophy, so for me marking often means long essays. I love my subject. I read philosophy frequently in my spare time. But what I don’t do, ever, is read the exact same piece of philosophy over and over again, thirty to sixty times in a row. That would be insane. Especially if the philosophy essay I chose to read was riddled with errors in both its structure and its content. It would be lunacy to do such a thing: spend an evening, or a weekend, trawling over the same flawed piece of writing ad nauseum. Indeed, Einstein’s famous definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results: this is, in essence, exactly what we do when marking. Then, even crazier, we keep a record of those results on a spreadsheet and show them to people!
Even in a best-case scenario – every student producing sharp, insightful, confident, well-written and accurate essays that demonstrate a true grasp of the question at hand – that would still mean reading thirty of them in any given sitting. The same basic essay, thirty times. I have favourite books I haven’t – and wouldn’t – read thirty times!
And, let’s be honest, such flawless essays are a rarity. Having marked essays written by eleven year olds in their first year of secondary school, GCSE students, experienced sixth formers, and even university undergraduates over my years as a teacher, I have never had a completely faultless batch of work to mark. (And even if I did, management teams and assessment policies being what they are, such work would never get away with mere praise about “what went well”, but would require me to invent more and more absurd ways of advising the impeccable author on “how to improve” or what would make their (already perfect) work “even better if…”)
Oh…did I mention that I teach half of the school? So that’s two sets per year group from years seven to eleven, plus A-level sets in years twelve and thirteen. Being realistic it takes me between five to ten minutes to mark each essay. For the mathematicians out there, that’s twenty-five hours of marking, in years seven to eleven alone, each time I take the minimum five minutes to mark one piece of work from each student. The bare minimum of marking – a single piece of work – in the bare minimum amount of time possible in which to actually read the work, provide meaningful feedback, and log that mark. It would be fifty hours if I were to spend closer to ten minutes on each piece of work, which often is the case.
That’s twenty-five hours of marking when I have only got five free periods a week. And of course, there are other things to do in those free periods than mark. I am a Head of Department, and some of that time is meant to be dedicated to the work associated with that role. I also hold other responsibilities at the school which have no further time allowances and are meant to be taken care of within those five frees too. Then there’s actually planning the work that will ultimately need to be assessed. Creating a new resource. Maybe updating my subject knowledge so I actually know what I am talking about when the exam board throws up a curveball on a revamped spec…
Oh yeah – that’s right. In the last five years, as for all of us, every GCSE and A-level course I have been teaching has changed as we move from modular to linear; pre-Gove to post. At some point in those five free periods a week, I am meant to get to grips with the new specifications and ensure that I not only have a decent course put together to teach my students, but that I have a course actually capable of allowing them to access the highest possible grades (for grade boundaries that don’t even exist yet mind you…)
But forget all that other stuff – marking must take priority. So I’ll do everything else at home and just spread my marking out over five weeks, doing five hours a week across my five free periods at school. Job done.
Except, it isn’t.
Ignoring the fact that each period is actually only fifty minutes, not an hour (so rather than it being five hours it is more like four and a bit), let us also remember that there is usually only about six to seven weeks in a half term. So my five week plan pretty much guarantees I can’t mark more than one piece of work per half term for each student. Especially when you factor in that I will actually have to teach my classes something first to assess them on, so I can’t really be getting anything worth marking in during that first week.
Let’s also remember that this proposed system is operating on a imaginary timetable not subject to the real whims and turbulence of an actual school year. Five periods a week may seem like a manageable level of marking to get on with on paper, but it is still fifty minutes shy of the three hundred minutes needed to actually mark the sixty pieces of work coming in from a single year group if they were each to get five minutes of my time. And this is supposing it could be planned in such a way that I only ever get one year group’s work in per week. Except, the thing is, even if I planned a completely fastidious timetable of marking whereby each week I took in precisely sixty pieces of work, in practice such timetables are impossible to maintain. First there is the unavoidable absence of a student or two due to illness that means their piece of work you wanted to mark will come in the following week instead, tipping next week’s workload over the level of what’s manageable and leaving a deficit in your carefully calculated timings this week. Or there’s the student who just didn’t do their homework, forgot their bag, left it on the bus, etc. And then there are the inset days and bank holidays that knock out a lesson here and there from the calendar, or the trips, or sports day, or house events, or collapsed curriculum days… any number of legitimate reasons why a lesson may be missed one week and work due to be handed in then gets delayed until the following week. The same week another sixty pieces of work were due to come in.
So now there’s 120 things to mark. Six hundred minutes needed at the minimum of five minutes per piece and only two hundred and fifty minutes of free period to do them in.
And did you notice that I haven’t been including A-level marking in all this? Those long, complicated twenty-five mark essays with heady titles such as “Mind Brain Type Identity Theory provides a more plausible account of the mind/body relationship than Substance Dualism”. The ones that take a little more than five minutes to mark.
Remember also that this is just trying to fit in the bare minimum marking of one piece of student work per half term, marked in just five minutes. In all likelihood these numbers will be doubled as a report or a parents evening is due and we realise we might need some more recent data on which to base our feedback than the grade given five long weeks ago.
The point of this is not to complain, but simply to acknowledge. We teachers may seem like we have a great deal with all the long holidays and the ability to clock out and go home several hours before those of you outside of the profession would be able to leave your desks, but in practice we seldom go home to live our lives; rather we move to another desk and continue our work elsewhere. The holidays too, often become a time in which to try and catch up and get our heads above the water. I am not saying that I don’t get to live a life, but I am saying that such a life is carved out carefully in the corners of the never-ending demands of the job.
When half-term arrives next week, I will be creating the resources for a new GCSE module and developing revision resources for our sixth formers. I will be marking assessments coming in from the class annoyingly timetabled for period six the last Friday of the term. I will be doing the paperwork for an upcoming trip.
When Easter comes, I shall be marking the constant stream of practice questions being emailed to me by conscientious students getting ready for their looming GCSE and A-level exams.
May half-term I will be writing reports for the lower school, forgotten until now in the flurry of pre-exam panic. This summer, I will be making new study notes and resources for the updated Philosophy A-level I will begin teaching in September.
We teachers are Sisyphus, locked in an endless errand which, once seemingly completed, only marks the start of another. We roll the books up the hill, and roll them down again. One set finished, another set handed in.
At this point I would love to tell you that we do it because we love it. But we don’t. The teaching – yes, of course we do! Nothing beats it. But not the marking. That we do because as a society we still haven’t quite figured out how to quantify the unquantifiable: have our students learnt anything? We mark because Ofsted, head-teachers, parents, all believe in the power of a colourful pen, two stars and a wish, and demonstrable evidence that something is going on in that classroom. We mark because we are told we need concrete substantiation of all progress taking place in our classrooms that may, in fact, be intangible. We mark to see the numbers go up, no matter how arbitrary those numbers are; an obsessive compulsive disorder enabled by management structures desperate for shields of graph and data to wield against the league tables and Department for Education.
We certainly don’t mark for the children. Most of them won’t read the comments I gave up my evenings and weekends to write. They’ll just skip straight to the grade. Or if they do read them, it will be once, and never again. They won’t refer back to them when revising for the next piece of work, even if they have been told to transform the feedback into an actionable and achievable target for themselves. They play their role just as we play ours: saying and doing the things they know we want to hear and ticking their own boxes so that they don’t get in trouble. They have six different lessons a day. Six different teachers all telling them six different things. Six sets of feedback five times a week. It’s too much to take in, and there are Playstations to be played. Not to mention the internet; forums full of wise strangers with far sager advice to give on all aspects of an upcoming exam than that of their teachers.
The only thing with less impact and audience than a teacher’s written feedback is an academic journal.
Students need feedback. Of course they do. But that this feedback needs to be handwritten, sixty times, in each individual book, rather than given verbally, or as part of an overall lesson objective, is not at all obvious. That they need more grades than three a year – one per term – is not well-supported either. If we base an entire future on a single exam taken at the end of two years, it seems reasonable to argue that we might base our predictions of that future on three solid assessments across a year instead of six, or nine, or twelve, rushed but regular smaller pieces.
I learn more about my student’s understanding from discussing ideas with them in a class debate, or from walking from table to table as they get on with a task, than I do from a piece of homework done quickly and carelessly so they can get it out of the way and get back to the more important things in their lives; or a classroom test they have been unable to properly revise for because they have five other tests that same week, plus a part in the school play, a music exam, and a rugby fixture. They certainly get more from me when we engage in dialogue within a lesson than by quickly skimming my barely legible comments scrawled across their work at 11:30pm after a full day’s teaching and an evening of power-marking.
And I say this not as a teacher who is criticised for their marking. In all work scrutiny exercises I am consistently rated as outstanding for my feedback and assessment. It is not that I cannot do the sort of marking that makes the powers that be pleased, it’s that I question the wisdom of putting so much effort into something with such questionable impact. Is it worth what is gained at the cost of what is lost?
No, I say this as a teacher who finds spending an evening without doing some work an alien concept, and who can’t remember the last weekend I had two full days off without doing at least some preparation or marking. I say this as a teacher who has been praised for their marking in the same breath as I am warned about burnout. And I say this as a teacher who has watched colleagues crack under the pressure, taking mental health days off to catch up on their marking and, in some cases, leaving the profession which once was their dream job because they could no longer sacrifice so much of their lives for something which was arguably so unnecessary.
So yeah, I spend a lot of time thinking about marking. I wish more of us did. Especially those who write the marking policies; usually those with the least amount of teaching – and thus marking – on their timetables.