Are we fetishising marking?

//Are we fetishising marking?

When you make something a fetish, ashes and dusts will laugh at you, because they know even the most valuable fetishes will turn into dusts and ashes!

Mehmet Murat ildan

Last night I innocently posted the following tweet:


Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 19.49.28

This sparked something of a debate. A number of people got in touch to tell me this was ‘bonkers’ and a ‘complete waste of money’. Other responses ranged from cautious interest to overwhelming support. But by far the biggest objection was the assertion that marking is an essential aspect of planning: if teachers don’t know how pupils are performing then future teaching will be flawed at best and useless at worst.

Here’s a brief sample of some of the responses I’ve received so far:

“Marking informs planning, difficult to get someone to do it on your behalf.” 

“How will you learn about your pupils? Marking can be a crucial dialogue and relationship – a matching of pupil effort with ours. In fact, if we have a problem marking it – perhaps we are setting the wrong work?” 

“I would happily have someone mark homework in Primary as it only really tells you how much help they had!” 

“Marking is part of assessment and should inform planning. How does that work if teacher hasn’t done it?” 

“Daft. Marking for marking’s sake. Utterly meaningless.” 

“Surely would be better spending ££s on employing more teachers to give more planning & assessment time?” 

“Yes! Teacher can still overlook the work, see where the main misunderstandings were & plan further resources to put them right!” 

And History teacher Heather F has blogged her view here.

Before we heap either praise or derision on the school I think some context may be in order. The school would rather avoid public castigation so the only details I plan to share are that it is middle school and is considered by Ofsted to be ‘good’. I was visiting the school to deliver training on literacy and during a break I got into a conversation with the Headteacher about the EEF’s judgement of primary homework. In short they say

There is some evidence that when homework is used as a short and focused intervention it can be effective in improving students’ attainment (with some studies showing up to eight months’ positive impact on attainment). Overall the general benefits are likely to be modest if homework is more routinely set. There is clear evidence that it is helpful at secondary level, but there is much less evidence of benefit at primary level.

My view of this kind of research is that it would be stupid to say homework in primary schools isn’t beneficial; rather the problem is in the type of homework pupils are asked to complete. My own daughters are expected to make gas mask boxes, dioramas of Roald Dahl books and model castles. In addition they get a range of ad hoc worksheets which seem to be downloaded willy nilly from the internet. This is, as far as I can see, entirely purposeless. But the EEF make clear that not all homework is the same: “Short focused tasks or activities which relate directly to what is being taught, and which are built upon in school, are likely to be more effective than regular daily homework.”

So as I understand it, the school in question has concluded that in a curriculum where children have the opportunity to experience the widest possible range of experiences (they offer horse riding, archery and a whole host of other exciting activities) there is limited opportunity to practice what they have learned during the school day. Therefore, teachers need to set daily homework in which pupils are expected to master skills to fluency. But, mindful of workload issues  they understood this could place an intolerable burden on teachers. Also, there is always an opportunity cost: if teachers are expected to both set and mark daily homework, their ability to plan and teach a rich curriculum may be reduced. Equally, is it reasonable to expect children to complete homework that is not marked promptly?

The solution was to invest £20,000 per year to employ a team to mark homework. Teachers are still expected to mark classwork, but in oder to signal the high value of homework, it is turned around on the day it is handed in and both pupils and teachers are provided with feedback. In addition, markers staff a nightly homework club to ensure that all children have the time and space to complete the work set.

The school explains that nearly all markers are Teaching Assistants who work closely with teachers. Whilst teachers see responses to homework but don’t mark it. Wherever possible, the marker works in class with the teacher, spending time with children to go over misunderstandings. This frees up class time for tasks requiring expert teacher knowledge and also allows teachers to concentrate on marking work produced in class.

The reason I shared this on Twitter was because it sounded like an interesting use of the school budget. My initial reaction was sceptical but there more I heard about it, the more interested I became. I haven’t seen it in action and have no idea how much impact it might have on pupils’ learning or attitudes except that all the staff I spoke to were very positive.

For what it’s worth, here’s Ofsted view:

Teaching is good because teachers have good subject knowledge and in the main plan challenging work. The high quality of their marking and feedback to pupils is a particular strength.

Teachers know which pupils need extra help and ensure that they receive it. Teaching assistants are highly effective in this aspect of the school’s work.

The quality of marking and of feedback to pupils is excellent. Marking is frequent, detailed and helpful. The marking includes individual questions for pupils to help consolidate their learning, which they always answer. 

Homework is used well to improve progress. The school has introduced an internet-based homework facility (‘virtual learning environment’) which pupils greatly enjoy using. Parents, carers and pupils are content with the amount and type of homework that pupils receive.

What really surprised me was the result of many teachers who seemed to take the view that unless a teacher marks all the work their pupils produce something is badly amiss. Now, I’ve made several excited claims about marking in the past and while I hold firm to the view that marking is an act of love, I’m increasingly sceptical about how useful it is for teachers to change their planning in light of pupils’ performance, especially if AfL is wrong.

It’s also worth reminding ourselves that just because feedback tops the charts on what teachers can do to improve learning, it doesn’t necessarily follow that more and more marking is desirable. In fact, Hattie says, “Feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement, but this impact can be either positive or negative.” And Robert Bjork claims that “Numerous studies—some of them dating back decades—have shown that frequent and immediate feedback can, contrary to intuition, degrade learning.” So maybe less marking might be beneficial?

There’s a whiff of the hair shirt about the pressure and guilt we feel around marking and I wonder how much this might have to do with the Sunk Cost Fallacy? Could it be that we value marking so highly just because we’ve done so damn much of it and it’s unbearable painful to contemplate the thought that it might not have been the best use of our time? The consensus seems to be that if work isn’t marked it has no value but isn’t a least some of the value in the fact that pupils are practising?

If we become excessively or irrationally devoted to a thing it becomes a fetish; an act or object imbued with almost mystical significance. I’m not for a moment arguing that marking is bad thing or that we should stop doing it, but do we really need to feel quite so protective and precious about it? In a world where stress and workload and a major contributing factor to so many teachers quitting the profession, maybe we should welcome someone offering to should some of our marking burden instead of flagellating ourselves with multi-coloured pens.

Just a thought.

2014-11-14T08:10:13+00:00November 14th, 2014|learning|


  1. […] Read more on The Learning Spy… […]

  2. […] When you make something a fetish, ashes and dusts will laugh at you, because they know even the most valuable fetishes will turn into dusts and ashes! Mehmet Murat ildan Last night I innocently posted the following tweet: This sparked something of a debate. A number of people got in touch to tell me this  […]

  3. Debaser November 14, 2014 at 9:44 am - Reply

    My view is that the fetishing of homework is more of an issue than the fetishing of marking. If teachers didn’t have to spend so long marking pointless homework exercises which are often set in order to fulfill arbitrary weekly quotas then there would be more time for quality marking of class work.

    Schools and Ofsted should put more emphasis on marking quality rather than marking quantity. I would argue that a single fortnightly DIRT-style assessment is much more valuable than two weeks of constant tick, flick and platitudinous response to pointless homework exercises.

    • David Didau November 14, 2014 at 3:54 pm - Reply

      Surely the solution to pointless homework is setting homework that has a point?

      • nmurphy2013 November 14, 2014 at 4:29 pm - Reply

        It sounds like that school is on to something. If we could set focussed tasks daily and if we could be sure all our children would have the support to do it, it would be a great benefit. Alas, at our school, we are unable to support all the children who need to attend a homework club. The result is that we have the children with supportive home environments completing tasks to a high standard and those with less support handing in little. Hardle closing the attainment gap.

        Hattie’s conclusions on Primary homework, as he says himself, tell the story of what IS, not how it COULD be.

  4. Mark November 14, 2014 at 1:13 pm - Reply

    “In a world where stress and workload and a major contributing factor to so many teachers quitting the profession, maybe we should welcome someone offering to should some of our marking burden instead of flagellating ourselves with multi-coloured pens.”

    Couldn’t agree more. One of the major downsides to teaching is that we are expected by some people to be up all night writing paragraphs of prose at the end of pupils work and differentiating to the nth degree. It is unsustainable and is making the recruitment and retention of teachers a losing battle. Some of the comments you quote in your piece come from people who seem to think we are engaged in missionary work and our rights to a family life or social life are non-existent.

    • David Didau November 15, 2014 at 1:44 pm - Reply

      It does seem that way – I think it’s a form of Stockholm Syndrome

  5. nmurphy2013 November 14, 2014 at 4:17 pm - Reply

    Interesting post David. Regarding Bjork’s claim about immediate feedback: can you remember if was he talking about learning involving motor skills?

    In the case of adapting your planning in response to performance, I think there has to be a place for that. I know performance is not a good proxy for long-term learning but it’s one of the few we have! The other extreme would seem to be for us plow on through the scheme of work regardless. What do you think?

    • David Didau November 14, 2014 at 8:58 pm - Reply

      He was talking about both verbal and motor domains.

      ‘Ploughing on’ is obviously pejorative but actually I think this is the best method: plan a properly sequenced teaching sequence which anticipates misconceptions and allows for spaced repetitions and stick to it.

      • Nmurphy November 15, 2014 at 7:43 am - Reply

        Yes that sounds fair enough and I was hoping you’d give that answer. We return to the problem of time pressure which is highlighted in the post. In my school, planning scrutinies tend to focus on short term planning and various boxes being ticked. Tragically, one of the tick boxes is rarely, if at all, ‘does the medium term plan show a clear sequence of learning with misconceptions identified etcetera.’ I think the thing I find most frustrating about my job is not having the time to apply what I’m learning because something else needs doing for management or ofsted. And then there’s this hellish idea of splitting up planning duties (I work in Primary) and having to use other people’s plans to ‘ensure consistency’. Yes I know we could plan together but was anything good ever devised by committee? And it takes much longer… Which brings us back to time… Anyway, sorry, I’m rambling on now. Back on task. It sounds like 20 grand well spent.

        • David Didau November 15, 2014 at 1:46 pm - Reply

          As to whether the money is well spent, I can’t really comment – I just think it’s an interesting commitment of resources.

      • Nmurphy November 15, 2014 at 7:59 am - Reply

        I asked about the motor skills because when you are practising something like shooting hoops you get immediate feedback from seeing what is happening. Also I’ve been sympathetic to the idea that practice makes permanent. So I’ve been wondering how best to resolve the issue of stopping mistakes becoming embedded and delaying feedback. For example, in the case of carrying out a mathematical algorithm. Is it preferable to know you’ve got the wrong answer right away so you can think and adjust what you are doing. Or carry on, perhaps repeating the error, until you get the delayed feedback? I feel I should apologise for turning your post into a self-help session David.

        • David Didau November 15, 2014 at 1:48 pm - Reply

          As I understand it, the research findings on delaying feedback are even stronger in the motor domain but that’s mainly because there’s been more studies. It’s worth looking at Soderstom & Bjork’s 2013 literature review Learning versus Performance for more detail.

  6. […] first is a multiple choice test. I use socrative because I don’t think marking multiple choice is a good use of my time, but more importantly I like the explanation function; the students work through at their own pace […]

  7. chemistrypoet November 15, 2014 at 12:56 am - Reply

    I agree that this is an interesting approach. I guess that the constraints of twitter may have reduced the effectiveness of the debate. It is clear that the school in question has thoroughly thought through their strategy here, and resourced it effectively. Paying for the marking isn’t the main point here. Rather, deciding that effective daily homework would be very beneficial to the students, and then resourcing the implementation of it so imaginatively is. There must be a significantly impressive positive relationship built up between the TA’s, the class and the teacher (?). As I said, twitter didn’t do this justice.

    • David Didau November 15, 2014 at 1:50 pm - Reply

      Does Twitter ever do anything justice? I thought the school’s policy was interesting and was amazed at how happy people were condemn with minimal understanding and evidence. The reason behind this seemed to be view that marking is somehow sacrosanct.

  8. mrbenney November 15, 2014 at 7:54 am - Reply

    (Perhaps) a good use of an “additional marker” would be to have them as markers of tests rather than homeworks. They could be trained (if necessary) on inputting data so each set of tests produces item level data to inform the teacher both for how they teach the same topic next year and for any further interventions with the class (particularly building up to an exam for instance). This could be a huge time saver for the teacher but they would still get feedback from the results beyond the raw score. Just a thought..

    • David Didau November 15, 2014 at 1:51 pm - Reply

      Yes, that sounds worthwhile – would probably benefit from a study. Maybe the EEF would fund one? 😉

  9. heatherfblog November 15, 2014 at 12:56 pm - Reply

    My initial gut feeling is actually of of support towards the policy of the school you describe. Thank goodness they are valuing the importance of practice and it is a neatly pragmatic solution to the problems you describe. All things being equal it is indeed better that the practice happens and is marked given the excessive workload otherwise.
    However, apart from a genuine concern that this is the thin end of the wedge, I have other concerns. Practice should be the central activity, not peripheral. My kids’ primary schools use vast amounts of teacher prep time and precious lesson time on ‘lovely’ activities that are incredibly time inefficient. The trendy sorts of lesson activities focus on engagement and understanding and as you suggest, don’t major on fluency. As a parent I would actually be really angry at the self indulgence of a school that is farming out yet another of its primary purposes to parents so they can spend the day they have with the child on activities more ‘important’ than what is actually essential, practice to fluency. I have already written a blog criticising the way primary schools farm out their core function, the teaching of reading. This is more of the same. If practice is important (it is indeed essential) it is what children go to school for. As an activity of central importance it is what teachers should be most engaged in monitoring themselves.

    • nmurphy2013 November 15, 2014 at 1:24 pm - Reply

      The school doesn’t teach phonics systematically on a daily basis and have daily guided reading?

      • David Didau November 15, 2014 at 1:41 pm - Reply

        I have no idea.

        • nmurphy2013 November 15, 2014 at 1:56 pm - Reply

          Sorry, I was asking Heather!

    • David Didau November 15, 2014 at 1:53 pm - Reply

      I do get the concern about homework encroaching on family time – this is something I resent as a parent. But parents have to agree to supporting this policy when they apply to send their children to this school so they’re probably more supportive than otherwise.

      • heatherfblog November 15, 2014 at 5:22 pm - Reply

        The encroachment on family time is peripheral to the main concern, that what should be central to curriculum time is a tag on.

  10. heatherfblog November 15, 2014 at 1:14 pm - Reply

    I should add that I don’t mean to heap condemnation on a school that is actually moving in the right direction. Perhaps this school does do plenty of school based practice and the HW is supplementary. However, I do think the real question is what on earth is going on with the priorities in schools generally? Why is other marking more important than feedback on essential practice? Why are other activities prioritised over daily practice? If HW is actually when this school fits in practice, why is it left to parents? Surely that way those most in need of it won’t get enough?

    • nmurphy2013 November 15, 2014 at 1:28 pm - Reply

      I think that’s why they have a daily homework club for those children who don’t have support at home.

  11. Orso Bruno November 17, 2014 at 10:38 am - Reply

    US – very few books marked at all – surprising from Brit perspective – standards of literacy high in classes observed – so…..

  12. […] Didau did this recently when he wrote about a school that has recruited people to mark homework, freeing teachers from this task. The reaction could not have been much stronger if he had come out […]

  13. […] with the marking theme, @LearningSpy asks; “Are We Fetishising Marking?” and Why Triple Marking is […]

  14. […] Dr Becky Allen, director of Education Datalab, suggests there may be some benefit to schools outsourcing marking; outsourcing is cheap, reliable and would go some way to alleviating teachers’ crippling workload. But from the torrents of abuse showered on the suggestion, you could be forgiven for thinking she’d actually recommended that children should be ritually dismembered. I can sympathise. I got much the same response when I wrote about a school which employed a teach of homework markers. […]

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