Negative Marking Is Realistic Marking

The cult of so-called ‘positive marking’ is one of many ways in which educationalists have created a bubble for themselves and cut themselves off from reality. The idea is that it is much better to look for the good qualities of a piece of work and ignore its faults. That way we can award pupils for what they can do, but avoid penalising them for what they cannot do. All very nice and kind, to be sure, but is it realistic, or helpful?

Consider a job interview. The candidate says lots of positive and thoughtful things, but about twenty percent of what he says is thoughtless or just plain inaccurate. Do you ignore that twenty percent? Of course not, because you’re in the real world where people actually have to perform consistently to succeed.

Then there’s the performing arts. Will an actor get far if he forgets even one percent of his lines? Will a dancer succeed if he regularly misses steps? Are musicians forgiven when they frequently hit wrong notes? In none of these pursuits is anyone troubled by the dogma of positive marking, because they are truly focused on excellence.

Even within schools, teachers quickly drop the positive marking ethos when they’re dealing with the school production. Those lovely kind ladies who will always look for the good points in your child’s writing can quickly turn into perfectionist dragons as the night of the performance approaches. The school’s reputation is on the line, and reality is getting a rare look-in. Might they take a similar approach to arithmetic if times tables were publicly performed?

And yet, to penalise essays when they contain a significant amount of confusion and inaccuracy is forbidden according to the principles of positive marking. Instead, we are supposed to hunt around for something they got right. Well, if they carry on for long enough, they might well say something that’s correct . . .

Picking people up on their mistakes, and ensuring their mistakes have consequences, proves that we really care about what we are teaching, and we really care whether our pupils have understood it. Ignoring or minimising error for the sake of self esteem is patronising and does not benefit our pupils in the long term. After years soaking in the tepid waters of dishonest praise, they are likely to find reality a particularly shocking inundation of icy cold water.


5 thoughts on “Negative Marking Is Realistic Marking

  1. I’m with you. I finished my IPP reports (for my special needs students) and was told that my tone was too negative. I thought my tone was objective and matter-of-fact. No, your child did not grow a whole grade level in reading this year. Why must I sugar coat that?


  2. I agree – most fundamentally because it does not seem to have the effect of raising self esteem at all. This is why the progressive argument is essentially circular – mark positively, etc = build self esteem, self esteem is not build so mark MORE positively until it is. Except for the fact that it doesn’t work!! In the end it is a sign of utter madness to keep doing the same thing over and over again in the expectation of a different outcome.


  3. Thanks for this, Anthony – and I don’t disagree. But I started teaching in 1980, and it seems to me looking back that in the early years of my teaching career (and I’m an English teacher who has done a lot of marking), pre the concept of positive marking, the emphasis was ONLY on the negative. Marking was about finding the mistakes. It wasn’t about balancing that with giving credit for strengths and evidence of improvement.

    It isn’t just about self-esteem, I don’t think. But it’s human nature – we need some encouragement as well as criticism if we’re to be in the right frame of mind to benefit from the criticism.

    Thanks again for the post, which did make me think!


  4. I agree with the sentiment of this post and
    I recently wrote this
    On the other hand (and to add balance to the debate) thee are set of kids eg the ones in yr 7 who still haven’t got secure level3 ( in old money) who can end up receiving a very negative message several times a day. It’s amazing that they keep on turning up day after day for the school (as an institution) to tell them how crap they are. I am not placing this criticism on individual teachers but on the target culture I’m which impossible ,’ personal’ targets are created really to make the school look good.

    Liked by 1 person

Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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