James Richardson and Robbie Coleman, say they’d be happy “if people took the current lack of evidence on marking as the key finding of the report.” So would I. Unfortunately, I don’t think that will be the case.
Teachers and school leaders are desperate to have their views validated and some will, I fear, latch on to the weakly evidenced “findings” the report offers. Now of course, absence of evidence is not at all the same of evidence of absence. I made clear that it may turn out that the advice offered is sound. The trouble is, we don’t know enough to take that chance. Richardson and Coleman say they had a choice. They could have said, “Sorry, we don’t know any more than you do, but here’s some research we looked at.” Or, as they chose to do, they could say. “We don’t really know anymore than you do, but we’re going to offer some advice anyway.”
They defend this choice by saying the alternative would have been a waste of time. Would it? Who’s time would it have wasted? The fact that there is very weak evidence on marking comes as something of a shock to most teachers. When I talk school leaders through the research you can see their pallor spread as they feel certainties shift beneath their feet. This is healthy. Far from being a waste of time, the clear and unambiguous message that no one knows how best to mark – or even if marking is worth the effort at all – could have ushered in a coming of age for education. Instead of compelling teachers to mark in ways which are definitely inefficient and potentially nugatory we might have had to stop and think. The review, and the evidence it discusses is quite valuable enough without making such weakly supported recommendations.
The second pillar of their defence is the assertion that they didn’t want to “underestimate the ability of schools to deal with imperfect information”. Honestly, I don’t think it’s possible to underestimate the ability of schools to deal with imperfect information. I can’t think of any research, proposal, or fad which hasn’t been jumped on with wild abandon as the solution to all of education’s ills by at least someone. Look at the mess we made of assessment for learning. Look at the way Dweck’s research on mindsets is currently being mangled. Even where evidence is pretty strong, schools fall over themselves to misinterpret it to the point of meaninglessness. This may not be a popular message, but we just aren’t mature enough to handle this much ambiguity… yet.
But it’s this statement that really staggers me:
Clearly, the findings are not strong enough to make decisive contributions or to undermine particular policies that schools have carefully considered and believe work well. But it does not follow from this that time spent engaging with the existing evidence-base is a waste of time.
It does not follow from anything I’ve written that I believe “engaging with the existing evidence-base is a waste of time.” This is very lazy reasoning. The time spent engaging with the existing evidence base was hugely valuable and I’m very pleased that the EEF undertook to do so. But it really does follow that making weakly supported recommendations is not only wasteful, but irresponsible and potentially harmful.
So let me be clear: I’m really glad this review was undertaken. Finding out that we don’t know nearly as much as we thought we knew is fabulous. Hopefully this will herald in genuinely useful research into how teachers should best give feedback and how schools can best support these process. But, please, no more well-intentioned but dubious assertions on what “clearly” follows from a lamentably weak evidence base.