Teachers: We Should Read More.

In a recent Twitter poll, I asked whether it is ‘unreasonable for school leaders to expect staff to read edu-books/research outside of school hours.’ Luckily, the majority (53%) of the 477 respondents said no.

Let’s talk about the 47%.

At the very least, in this country right now, there are 224 teachers in this country who consider it unreasonable for school leaders to expect their fellow professionals to better themselves as practitioners, by reading around the profession that they have chosen to pursue. Even without thinking of the 33,600 students under the care of the professionals who hold this view, this is inexcusable.

In a thread that followed the poll, @adamboxer1 explained that his father is a doctor of 40 years who still reads the British Medical Journal, as well as others, in his spare time. Adam went on to make the point that practitioners of jobs such as ours-jobs that play a vital role in the proper function of society- should make a concerted effort to be the very best they can be. And I agree with him.

The fact is, the school day, doesn’t give us time to read research and peruse pedagogical texts. Not with all that data to input. What’s more, often those in charge of schools prefer to spend what CPD time is available, discussing data, behaviour management, and resilience. The fervent determination and effort in getting the kids to read, is rarely, if ever, applied to staff.  And so, if we want to be better, we have to accept that reading about pedagogy, reading about our subjects, reading about how the brain works, is something that must be done in our own time. It just must.

What concerns me is that I don’t think I’d be stretching it to say that many of the teachers who think that reading is an unnecessary encumbrance on one’s leisure time, see no problem spending hours on end marking books during evenings and weekends. This is despite the fact that a recent report by the EEF has shown that ‘the quality of evidence focused specifically on written marking is low’ and that ‘few large-scale, robust studies, such as randomised controlled trials, have looked at marking’. Furthermore,  of those studies that have focused on marking, ‘very few have identified evidence on long-term outcomes.’ I’d argue, that the endless hours spent marking, would be better spent reading. And here’s why.

The Sutton Trust’s report, What Makes Great Teaching outlines 6 components of great teaching. Number one on the list is Pedagogical (Content) Knowledge:

The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning. As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions.

In fact, despite the seemingly obvious  opening sentence the wider research picture is a little more complex. Actually, research by Baumer et al has shown that the effect of basic Content Knowledge-that is, teachers’ knowledge of the subject they are trained to teach-has close to zero effect on the quality of teaching. (Of course, from an English teachers’ perspective this cannot be the case. Knowledge of the content of the books you teach is essential to effective teaching of those books). However, as the second half of the above statement from the Sutton Trust states, Baumer has shown that 30% of variation in teacher quality is attributable to variation in teachers’ levels of pedagogical content knowledge. In other words, teachers who know more about how kids learn, how the brain retains information, and how best to avoid-and rectify- subject misconceptions, are better than those who don’t. So, teachers need to make a decision: do they want to rely on the two days of pedagogy based CPD they get a year and hope that’s enough for the kids under their care? Or do they want to actively seek out books that, like rich garners, can provide them with the full-ripened grain of pedagogical content knowledge which is available, right now, for them to access whenever they want.

We also need to consider the move towards a linear system of assessment centred around terminal exams. Currently, all students of English Literature and will be examined on the following:

  • 1 x 19th Century novel
  • Any two of 18 poems from the 18th-21st Century
  • 1 x post-1945 text
  • 1 x Shakespeare play

Students will be expected to know all of these texts-and memorise quotations from them-because unlike in previous years (WJEC aside), the exams will be closed-book. That is, students will not have the texts in the exams with them. This means, that to achieve the top grades, students will need to commit to memory a wide array of quotations from twenty one different literary works spanning three hundred years. And this is just one subject among many. A Twitter poll that is ongoing, 81% of respondents who have recently trained as teachers have not been trained on cognition and how the memory works. This is appalling. There are adults sending students into exams where they will be expected to remember lots of information off the top of their heads, without even a basic understanding of working and long-term memory; with no idea about the spacing effect and the testing effect; with no idea about chunking and retrieval practice. If you are someone who does not know what these terms refer to, are you willing to pass it off as SLT’s responsibility? ‘It’s their job to give me some CPD on this stuff.’ Because, right now, there are teachers all over the land, who aren’t being given CPD on this stuff, but they know it because they’ve sought it out, in their own time and of their own accord. They’ve bought books and they’ve read them.

Reading books builds empathy. Studies such as the this one have shown that reading improves ‘a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling.’ In his excellent blog on teacher-student relationships, Carl Hendrick cites research that suggests that teachers who share common ground with students could potentially get better results than teachers who don’t. In his excellent, ‘Reading Reconsidered’, Doug Lemov makes note of the fact that the brain doesn’t discriminate between actual lived experiences and read experiences. That is, reading about an experience or subject, in terms of how the brain processes the ‘memory’ of that experience or subject, is no different from having actually experienced it yourself. So, unless you want to spend your evenings playing Minecraft, trampolining, or bottle-flipping, reading about these things (although flippin’ dull) could help you to better understand those students you teach who are doing these things (not necessarily at the same time) day-in, day-out. And teachers who understand their pupils- and reading is a gateway to better understanding, remember-could get better results than those who don’t.

Of course, school leaders have a responsibility to make things easier for us. As I’ve said before, SLT should abolish onerous marking policies. I even think theirs a case for making flawed Marking practices- such as spending inordinate amounts of time ticking and flicking through books- something to looked at- and dealt with-quite seriously.

 And yet, we have a responsibility too.

Doctors do it. Lawyers do it. So why not us? Without us- and forgive me for blowing our collectively owned, albeit metaphorical, brass instrument here- there’d be no doctors and there’d be no lawyers. It is our duty to better ourselves and it is our duty to do so because if we ain’t getting time (and we’re not by the way), we need to make time. We need to make time for the students who will one day become the doctors that cure cancer and the lawyers who fight for the needy. 



We’re Marking Too Much

Here’s the full article that ended up in the TES earlier this year. The link to the TES version can be found here, although this is the article in full:

We’re marking too much. Or, at least, we’re doing too much of the wrong sort of marking; the sort of marking that keeps pencil cases open, and mouths and hearts shut. We’re spending too much time ticking, flicking and dicking about in the kids’ books and it simply isn’t fair. On us or them.

According to the DfE’s Workload Challenge Report of 2015, 53% of teachers stated that marking was something that took ‘too much time’. In fact, according to the report, some teachers are spending twenty hours a week marking books. 

Worryingly, these same teachers deemed marking to be the second most ‘unnecessary and unproductive’ task they undertake. This perverse absurdity has presumably been caused by the more earnest among us wrongly taking ‘feedback’ to mean ‘spending loads of time writing comments in books that kids will spend loads of time not reading.’

Last year I decided I wanted to have more time to do fun things like eating, sleeping and gouging my eyes out. And so, apart from the once half termly assessment which gets the credit of my cursive, I have abandoned written marking. In fact, I have devised a scheme that ensures not a single book gets touched.

It works like this: Twice weekly, midway through the lesson, once I’ve set them off on an extended writing task (18 minutes minimum), I haul a desk to the front of the classroom and sit myself down on a chair under the white board, facing the students. Once the pupils have marvelled at the ease and skill with which I have lifted what must surely be a heavily cumbersome desk, they start working, and I start calling them up. 

One by one, students ‘come up’ and talk me through some of the work in their exercise books. They turn the pages and read sections of their efforts to me. More often than not, they beam with pride as see my eyes widen with wonder as I listen to them read aloud a piece of work that demonstrates genuine skill. And yes, occasionally they cower in shame when I spot a piece of work that has been left incomplete. But that’s no bad thing. They never make that mistake again. Whatever happens, as this conversation takes place, I’ll always indicate my respect for the other party by doing any one or more of the following things:

Ask questions about their work.

Suggest ways in which their work can be improved.

Interrupt the rest of the class with excited proclamations of the student’s greatness.

Once this sincerely heart-warming exchange – sorry, dialogue – has taken place, the student then sits there, right in front of me, and improves the work based on the verbal feedback I’ve given. Now that’s the sort of marking I like: it’s personal, it’s interactive, and sometimes it’s even interesting. 

In eighteen minutes I’ll generally manage to see about 4 or 5 students, but it depends on how many pieces of work I want to look over. Sometimes I’ll have students write for longer so I can give more feedback. (It wasn’t long into the academic year, because of the personal interactions this method necessitates, that I got a sense of which students needed calling up more often and who I could leave for a week or two.) Over the course of about three weeks, I’ll see everybody and after doing so, have a very good idea of where students are in terms of their progress. 

Sometimes I do get off my arse. This is where a decent highlighter comes in handy. Snape-like, I circulate the room invading the personal space of students with my neon wand. If I spot a punctuation error, or a mis-spelt word, or even, if I’m feeling particularly efficient, an adjective that I simply find infuriating, I’ll swipe at it with my highlighter (always pink), leave their work branded and walk away, mysteriously silent.

Strangely, the students grin with delight as they see me frowning over my shoulder at them like the pantomime villain whose hypothetical garments become me so well.

“Lordy Lawks, why’s he gawn and ‘ighlighted that? What’s wrong with it?  Have I spelt ‘impecunious’ wrong again? Silly me!” 

Kids just love solving mysteries. And solve them they do. For the times when they’re simply stumped, I’m just a raised hand or eyebrow away.

So why do I favour the verbal feedback method over innumerable hours spent bent over books? There’s a few reasons, actually:

Marking is not an efficient use of my time

Time spent marking can always be better spent doing other things that better affect the educational outcomes of the pupils under my tutelage. Like reading books, for example. In the Sutton Trust’s Report,What Makes Great Teaching? it is stated that, “the most effective teachers have a deep knowledge of the subject they teach”. The way I see it, every two hours spent marking thirty books (and that’s a conservative time estimate), is another two hours where I have actively chosen not to make myself more knowledgeable in my subject area. It’s two hours where I could’ve read a new specification, annotated a copy of next term’s text, or read a Dickensian description of some fog in preparation for a lesson on periodic sentences. 

The written word is flawed

Have you ever tried correcting a student’s misunderstanding of Iambic Pentameter through writing alone? It’s impossible. Correcting a student’s misunderstanding of Iambic Pentameter needs lots of smiling and lots of sympathetically soft utterances of “You with me so far?”. Sometimes, the things that kids get wrong, simply need to be talked through. And if only one kid has got iambic pentameter wrong, then why stop the whole class to talk through it all again? Verbal feedback during the practice period eliminates this problem. 

Short-term, actionable, targets work best.

The EEF’s Marked Improvement report cites evidence that improvement is greater when students are given short-term goals that they can act on quickly. Because of this, lots of schools make use of Directed Improvement and Reflection Time (DIRT), where a section of the lesson is dedicated to students acting on targets set during the most recent written feedback period. I dread to think how much valuable curriculum time is taken up by DIRT activities, especially for students whose teachers are dedicated advocates of the written marking method. But also, the thing with DIRT is, it’s not real-life. It’s acting on targets out of the context of the usual lesson format. This isn’t the case with the verbal method. What’s more, verbal marking allows the teacher to give a student an instant target that students can work on right there, right then, during practice, without the need to take time away from the subject matter the students should be learning. 

Lack of Evidence

Considering ‘acknowledgement’ (tick n’ flick) marking is so popular, the EEF state that “no strong evidence suggests that acknowledgement marking contributes to progress”. As for the frequency of marking, the EEF say that, despite trying to find some, “no studies on the frequency of marking were found”. So why would I waste my time ticking and flicking every spare minute I get? For the pupils’ morale and confidence? I boost their morale and confidence, but I do it by looking them in the eye, smiling and saying, “That’s a great piece of work you’re doing there.” 

I have come at this from an English Teachers’ perspective. But the verbal feedback method lends itself well to other subjects. Take PE for example: imagine a student completely misunderstands the way a hinge socket works. What’s going to be a more effective way of correcting this misunderstanding? A tatty drawing in the margin of their exercise book, or a spoken explanation complete with gestures that point to-yep, you guessed it- a real life hinge socket? History teachers: are two lines of A4 really enough to elucidate student’s sketchy understanding of the complexities of the causes of the Wall Street Crash? And Primary teachers: there’s no need to waste reams of paper with written feedback on Year 5’s Waste and the Environment project- use the verbal feedback method instead!

Of course, some people will argue that this approach displays a lack of respect for the students in my care. They write for me and, therefore, I should repay their efforts to do so by marking their books. Surely, it’s the least I can do. 

And yet, what is a bigger indicator of the respect I hold for my students: a clumsily articulated comment that tries to both praise their efforts, explain misconceptions and make suggestions for improvement, dished out simply because that’s what teachers have always done? Or a conversation? A conversation with the facial expressions, eye contact, and the rhythms and cadences of speech that exist only in an interchange between two people who are involved in the creation of something that could be great?

The written marking method says, ‘I write over your work because what I think is all that matters’; the verbal feedback method says, ‘This is what I think about your work; what do you think?’ 

Others might argue that the verbal method is lazy. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As I’ve already mentioned, the time saved from not rigorously writing comments in books that students will ignore, can be better spent doing other things that have been shown to improve the educational outcomes of students. Try practicing, in front of the mirror, for an hour, explaining how osmosis works, again and again, until it’s word, gesture, and content perfect. Ticks and ‘Well dones!’ are easy. This isn’t. 

And let’s not forget the assessment that I am marking, using the written-method, once per half-term. For a teacher with 6 classes of 30 students, that’s still 23 essay-length assessments being marked, per week, based on an 8 week term. In a 6 week term it’s 30 per week. Some might argue that considering the lack of evidence on written marking, even this is futile, but I’m not completely de-institutionalised; I still see the value in written marking. However, I believe it’s not that we need to be marking more; we need to be marking more intelligently. I ensure that my marking of written assessments is rigorously undertaken, and that students are given a SMART target they can act upon in next lesson’s assessment DIRT. Because I’m not dishing out written marking every week, when I do, it hits home. The students know that anything I do commit to writing, because I do it so sparingly, must be important. 

For those of you who worry about student and parent reaction to such an approach, I urge you this: speak to them. Read the flimsy evidence base that surrounds marking and tell the kids and their parents about it. Go further and tell them what you will be doing instead of spending hours writing hundreds of different targets all over hundreds of different books: Practicing explanations of difficult concepts in front of the mirror (I love this); annotating next term’s class reader; writing model answers for student scrutiny. Tell them you’re going to make them better and you’re going to do it with honest and frank conversations; not cold and impersonal scrawlings.