There was, as Squealer was never tired of explaining, endless work in the supervision and organisation of the farm. Much of this work was of a kind that the other animals were too ignorant to understand. For example, Squealer told them that the pigs had to expend enormous labours every day upon mysterious things called ‘files’, ‘reports’, ‘minutes’, and ‘memoranda’. These were large sheets of paper which had to be closely covered with writing, and as soon as they were so covered, they were burnt in the furnace. (George Orwell, Animal Farm).
Marking exercise books has become the bane of many teachers’ lives. A colleague saw me in the staff room with a pile of books recently, and commiserated. I replied that I do not find the pile depressing, because of the way that I mark.
I check that everything has been done. If it has been done poorly, it must be redone. If it has been done decently, it gets a tick. If it has been done well, it earns one or more merits. I also highlight spelling and punctuation mistakes. So this is what I actually write, beyond the ticks:
- ‘1M’, ‘2M’ etc;
- ‘P’ (for punctuation), and the mistake corrected;
- ‘Ask’ for anything more complex (such as style / vocabulary);
- Spelling corrections, for pupils to write out five times.
That’s it. When pupils get the books back, I allow some class time for writing out mistakes or redoing work, but for those who have a lot of this to do, because they have been careless, it becomes extra homework to complete the corrections. Pupils only use the left hand page in their exercise books, so the right hand page is always free for them to write their corrections.
The only time I write longer comments is on more extended pieces of work, which are done in class. They are done in class so that I can provide guidance beforehand and control the conditions under which they are done. In this way, I know that I am actually commenting on the pupil’s work, and I can be reasonably sure it will be on task and of sufficient length and quality to merit more detailed marking. Pupils do these extended pieces four times a term.
Just as with the exercise books, when the pieces are returned, class time is devoted to acting on advice. With a piece of extended writing, for example, I do a simple error count and write it next to the grade. If there is a high error count (twenty or more) then the whole piece must be written out again with all mistakes corrected. If the error count is lower, pupils rewrite a paragraph, focusing on improving a specific aspect of their writing, such as vocabulary or sentence variety.
I’m not offering this as a perfect system, but it is a sane and sustainable one. I teach a full timetable. I do take marking on the train with me, but I do not spend evenings and weekends doing it. I have family duties to occupy me then, with five young children at home, and I could not do a job which left me no time with my little ones. I’m not surprised when I hear of teachers leaving the profession because of the unreasonable marking demands placed upon them. If I were in their situation, I would have to find another school, or leave teaching completely.
Aside from issues of sustainability, there are many points to be made about the effectiveness of spilling red, purple or pink ink all over pupils’ work.
There is no proof that elaborate marking of exercise books leads to improved learning. It drains teachers and prevents them from doing things which would definitely improve their effectiveness, such as long term planning and resource creation.
Elaborate marking moves the focus away from what is in the pupils’ heads (the knowledge they have mastered) to what is written on pieces of paper. The two are not equivalent. What we have in books is a performance, not learning. And if it is homework, it is likely that it is not even the pupil’s own performance.
Why are we wasting so much time writing elaborate comments on these performances? Instead, we should be focusing on fine tuning teaching methods that build mastery. Likewise, school leaders should be building mastery in their staff, not picking over marking performances produced more for the sake of management than for the sake of education.
Like Squealer’s bits of paper, those exercise books will end up being disposed of. But what our pupils store in long term memory will stay with them.