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Markopalypse Now

AHT VAL: And once you’ve finished marking your students’ books and they have responded IN DETAIL to your DETAILED comments, you must take them in again and mark them a second time using a different coloured pen!

AHT HARVEY: A page that’s marked in only one colour is a useless page! 

NQT BENJAMIN: Erm, if you say so. But why?

AHT VAL: It’s basic Ofsted-readiness, Benjamin. Without a clearly colour-coded dialogue between teacher and student, how can we prove that the student has made progress as a result of teacher feedback?

NQT BENJAMIN: But I’ve only got this red biro…

AHT HARVEY GRINS UNPLEASANTLY AND OPENS A CABINET FULL OF PENS OF MANY COLOURS.

AHT HARVEY: In this school we wage a constant battle against teacher sloth and indifference!

(With apologies to The League Of Gentlemen)

I have been a teacher for more than 26 years and I tell you this: I have never marked as much or as often as I am now. We are in the throes of a Marking Apocalypse — a Markopalypse,  if you will.

And why am I doing this? Have I had a Damascene-road conversion to the joy of rigorous triple marking?

No. I do it because I have to. I do it because of my school’s marking policy. More to the point, I do it because my school expends a great deal of time and energy checking that their staff is following the policy. And my school is not unique in this. 

Actually, to be fair, I think my current school has the most nearly-sensible policy of the three schools I have worked in most recently, but it is still an onerous burden even for an experienced teacher who can take a number of time-saving short cuts in terms of lesson planning and preparation.

Many schools now include so-called “deep marking” or “triple marking” in their lists of “non-negotiables”, but there are at least two things that I think all teachers should know about these policies.

1. “We have to do deep/triple marking because of Ofsted”

No, actually you don’t. In 2016, Sean Harford (Ofsted National Director, Education) wrote:

 [I]nspectors should not report on marking practice, or make judgements on it, other than whether it follows the school’s assessment policy. Inspectors will also not seek to attribute the degree of progress that pupils have made to marking that they might consider to be either effective or ineffective. Finally, inspectors will not make recommendations for improvement that involve marking, other than when the school’s marking/assessment policy is not being followed by a substantial proportion of teachers; this will then be an issue for the leadership and management to resolve.


2. “Students benefit from regular feedback”

Why yes, of course they do. But “feedback” does not necessarily equate to marking.

Hattie and Timperley write:

[F]eedback is conceptualized as information provided by an agent (e.g., teacher, peer, book, parent, self, experience) regarding aspects of one’s performance or understanding. A teacher or parent can provide corrective information, a peer can provide an alternative strategy, a book can provide information to clarify ideas, a parent can provide encouragement, and a learner can look up the answer to evaluate the correctness of a response. Feedback thus is a “consequence” of performance.

So a textbook, mark scheme or model answer can provide feedback. It does not have to be a paragraph written by the teacher and individualised for each student.

Daisy Christodoulo makes what I think is a telling point about the “typical” feedback paragraphs encouraged by many school policies:

[T]eachers end up writing out whole paragraphs at the end of a pupils’ piece of work: ‘Well done: you’ve displayed an emerging knowledge of the past, but in order to improve, you need to develop your knowledge of the past.’ These kind of comments are not very useful as feedback because whilst they may be accurate, they are not helpful. How is a pupil supposed to respond to such feedback? As Dylan Wiliam says, feedback like this is like telling an unsuccessful comedian that they need to be funnier.

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Whither Edu-blogging?

The task of an author is, either to teach what is not known, or to recommend known truths by his manner of adorning them.

Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, 27 March 1750

I regret to say that, for me at least, blogging has become a habit that has been more honoured in the breach than in the observance. And, judging from a conversation or two on Twitter, I haven’t been alone. A number of edu-bloggers also seem to have hit a dry spell.

Some ask: what’s the point? What have we actually achieved? In a typical school, how many teachers actually read any edu-blogs? Outside the edu-Twitter bubble, has anyone ever changed anybody else’s mind, ever? Humans can generally change their location easily enough, but as Horace observed mordantly many years ago, “Who can change their mind?”

And yet. Reading blogs and engaging in Twitter conversations has changed at least one person’s mind: mine. And one of the most important things it taught me was: I was not alone.

I wasn’t alone in thinking that group work was over-emphasised as a panacea to the point of absurdity. I wasn’t alone in thinking that Learning Styles seemed a bit dodgy. I wasn’t alone in believing that a teacher should, on occasions, be an unapologetic sage-on-the-stage and not a permanently-muted guide-on-the-side.

And, in my opinion, a number of things have indeed changed for the better. Ofsted still has issues but it isn’t the educational Thought Police which brooked no dissent from the One True Path that it was a few years ago. A significant part of the credit for this should go to the edu-blogging pioneers who pointed out that a number of its policies had no clothes, and did this using evidence and reasoned argument rather than merely relying on a set of appeals-to-educational-authority as was the style at the time. I would single out @oldandrewuk, @tombennett71 and @daisychristo as being particularly influential in this regard, but there were many others.

I agree with @larrylemonmaths‘ comment that “When the stonemason hits the rock, the first 99 times, it seems like nothing is happening, then suddenly, on the 100th blow, the rock breaks apart. It’s important to keep blogging and talking and arguing, even if it seems like nothing is happening.”

So if we are to continue blogging, what should we blog about? Whither Edu-blogging? in other words.

If I was to highlight some current issues that I think would benefit from more people blogging about them, they would be:

1. Markopalypse Now: why are most teachers in most schools marking so much? When did insane amounts of over-marking become the new normal? Do people realise that written marking is not the same as feedback and that the majority of marking is being undertaken to comply with school policy and a misguided idea of “what Ofsted wants”.

2. The Bonfire Of The Greyhairs: why are so many experienced teachers leaving the profession? Are some of them being forced out because of budgeting pressures with manufactured “performance issues”? Is there any other profession where the wisdom of long-serving colleagues is not only sidelined as an irrelevance but actively rejected?

3. Accountability Roulette And The Culture Of Fear: research suggests that the “teacher factor” is responsible for between 1 and 14% of educational outcomes. Why, then, are teachers judged as if they are accountable for 100%?

No doubt I will blog on other issues besides the ones above (assuming that I blog at all!), but I will try to contribute to the tap-tap-tap of stonemason’s chisels on the adamantine rock of these problems at least.

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Physics Limericks: Some Classics

The following two are, I believe, by famed textbook writer A. P. French

There was a young fellow named Cole
Who ventured too near a black hole
    His dv by dt
    Was quite wondrous to see
Now all that’s left is his soul!

Ms. Farad was pretty and sensual
And charged to a reckless potential
     But a rascal named Ohm
     Conducted her home.
Her decline was, alas, exponential!

I came across this one recently, and I like its subtle cleverness.

Relatively Good Advice
by Edward H. Green

Dear S’: I note with distress
The length of your yardstick is less
     And please wind your clock
     To make it tick-tock
More briskly. Your faithful friend, S.

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A Classicist Writes

My lovely wife Laurie has started her own blog called A Classicist Writes.

She writes on Ancient Greece and Rome (she has an M.A. in Classical Studies), cats, Ralph Waldo Emerson, more cats, more Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other topics.

Hope you enjoy!

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Knowledge vs. Skills: Big-endians vs. Little-endians?

My take on the knowledge vs. skills debate…

e=mc2andallthat

Gulliver’s Travels contains the memorable episode where two peoples are engaged in a long war over which end of a boiled egg to break first, the war of the Big-endians vs. the Little-endians:

[T]wo mighty powers have … been engaged in a most obstinate war for six-and-thirty moons past. It began upon the following occasion….the emperor … commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. … It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole…

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Samuel Johnson vs. Michael Gove

Michael Gove suggests that schools who enter GCSE students early in order to “bank” a C grade are, essentially, cheating. Some school leaders have criticised the tone of his announcement. Keven Bartle says they have a point: “The one element of twitter and blogging reportage critical of the announcement by our less-than-beloved Secretary of State for Education with which I wholeheartedly agree is the dismay that met the tone of the piece, particularly with the repeated use of the word ‘cheating’.”

I think I agree. As Samuel Johnson said (and I am not quoting him as an authority here, rather I simply adore his turn of phrase):

Sir. It must be considered, that a man who only does what every one of the society to which he belongs would do, is not a dishonest man. In the republick of Sparta, it was agreed, that stealing was not dishonourable, if not discovered. . . . I maintain, that an individual of any society, who practises what is allowed, is not a dishonest man.

And it must be conceded that any school that entered students early — either in the hope of banking the magic C grade, or starting a borderline C/D student on the treadmill of resit after resit in pursuit of the same goal — was not, in the technical sense, dishonest in terms of breaking rules: they were simply practicing “what is allowed”.

And what about their motives? That’s a more difficult question. Some schools, no doubt, did the deed out of a genuine desire for the best results for their students. Others, perhaps, could be likened to the “lions-led-by-donkeys” generals of World War One, heedlessly throwing underprepared cannon-fodder into the bloody fray in order to “move their drinks cabinet five yards closer to Berlin” (as Blackadder might put it), or improve their league table score by two tenths of a percentage point.

And therein lies the rub. Although early entry (or repeated entry ad nauseam) might be in the interest of a small minority of students, an over-reliance on them smacks of gaming the system

Sir, I do not call a gamester a dishonest man; but I call him an unsocial man, an unprofitable man. Gaming is a mode of transferring property without producing any intermediate good. Trade … produces intermediate good

And there (although he was speaking of gambling rather than GCSEs) I think Sam Johnson nails it once more. The frantic pursuit of exam grades for their own sake is an empty pursuit, and all too often the chancers, gamers and gamblers of the whole byzantine examination system have done their students a disservice, and been (in my opinion) unfairly lauded and feted. The “intermediate good” that their students were deprived of is hard to identify precisely but could include: the luxury of time to prepare (and be taught properly) for their exams, understanding that the exam is part of the process and not the point of the process, and that panicked random cramming (either on their own or as part of teacher-led “intervention” cram-fests) is not the way to understand complex and subtle ideas.

Gove’s latest animadversion apparently signals an end to “unsocial” and “unprofitable” gaming of the exam system.

I hope. As with many of Gove’s more sensible announcements (and there have been one or two), it’s not the animating spirit of the idea, but the inflexible, procrustean, peremptory finality of the rule change that could make it a change for the worse, rather than for the better.

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Not The-Perfect-Sphere-Assumption-Chicken-Joke

Farmer Jenkins was justly proud of his free-range chicken farm, and particularily of Griselda, his prize layer. So, it came as no surprise (at least to him) when he placed highly in the All-England Free Range Egg Taste Challenge. “Don’t you worry, lass,” he cooed to Griselda as his Range Rover purred through the warm summer night, “next year we’ll come first, I promise.”

Griselda continued sleeping in her carry case, seemingly comforted by the presence of the garish gold-painted plastic statue by her side, which featured a chicken contorted to form an approximation of the numeral 2.

On a whim, Farmer Jenkins locked the award in his office safe when he got home, and returned Griselda to her roost with reverential gratitude.

The next day he unlocked the safe to retreive the award. He had a fair bit of trouble opening the door. “That’s strange,” he murmured, bending down to examine the obstruction. It appeared that the award had somehow moved in the night and jammed part of the door mechanism. “H’mmm, how did that happen?” Farmer Jenkins shook his head. The award appeared . . . bigger, somehow. But surely that was impossible. However, what troubled Farmer Jenkins most of all was the fact that the plastic chicken, what he could see of it, at least, now appeared contorted into the shape of the numeral 3.

As he telephoned his friend Brian to share his puzzlement, he heard a metallic tearing. He stared dumbfounded at an apparition of a plastic chicken rearing above the torn remnants of his safe. And now the wings and body of the plastic fowl appeared to form the numeral 4.

“Did anyone touch it?” asked Brian urgently over the crackly landline connection

“No, no-one,” said Jenkins with certainty.

“Ah, that explains it,” said Brian.

“It does?”

“Oh yes,” concluded Brian. “You see, in an isolated system, hen trophy will always increase.”

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