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.