Learning Objectives: a waste of time.

Recently, I posted the following tweet:

A few people have been asking the reasoning behind my scorn for learning objectives, and I felt it prudent to outline my thinking here, in a blog. So here’s why I think learning objectives are ridiculous:

1. They’re Clunky

Learning is complicated. Really, really complicated. Take metaphor for example. A full and proper grasp on the complexities of metaphor takes years to achieve. It requires  understanding-and retention- of a wide range of abstract concepts and domain knowledge. (Don’t believe me? Look Here).

The idea that learning can be reduced to a single lesson target perpetuates the myth that learning is something that can be visible within the arbitrary units of time we call lessons. 

Take this learning objective for example: 

To understand what a metaphor is.

That’s your aim is it? To have all students in the class ‘understand’ metaphor? Okay, so…

  • What do you mean by ‘understand’?
  • Do they all need to ‘understand’ it today? 
  • What if they don’t?
  • You’ll need to revisit this concept again and again in upcoming lessons- will this be the target then, too? What about other targets? 
  • Do you have enough space on the board to keep writing this learning objective-and new ones- up?

The fact is, the accumulation of knowledge in the Long Term Memory takes repetition, testing, interleaving and spaced practice. These are solid principles based on cognitive theory and the single lesson learning objective does not take these into consideration. 

2.They’re limiting 

As a trainee, I became obsessed with the learning objective. Once I’d spent a disproportionate amount of time coming up with an objective (Does ‘To understand how Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter for effect’ actually mean anything?), I’d then fly into a blind panic whenever a discussion or activity went in a direction that diverted from the learning objective.

What’s rhythm? We don’t have time to talk about that today! We need to understand iambic pentameter! 

What other words feature the prefix ‘pent’? We don’t have time to talk about that today! We need to understand iambic pentameter! 

What does ‘effect’ actually mean and how can you write about it? We don’t have time to talk about that today! We need to understand iambic pentameter! 

3. They facilitate the abomination that is differentiated learning objectives 

‘Must, should, could’; ‘Tricky, Trickier, Trickiest’, ‘Green, Amber, Red’. 

Differentiated learning Objectives are an abomination. They suggest that what is good enough for some pupils, is not good enough for others. They encourage low expectations. Johnny, I want you to do the trickiest objective, but Joe- you probably won’t be able to do it so you stick with the tricky one yeah? Good, stupid boy. 

They also encourage students to take the easy way out. After all, why would you do the trickiest option, when you could do the tricky one and still have time to piss about?

The fact is, you should have the highest expectations of all your students. You just need to accept that whilst Sarah may have a grasp of the root causes of the Wall Street Crash within 10 minutes, for Matthew it may take a while longer. Like, six weeks longer. Learning Objectives- particularly differentiated learning Objectives- by definition, are contrary to this understanding of how learning actually works.

4. They’re a waste of time.

Time spent coming up with a learning objective for your lesson is time you could’ve spent reading something clever.

Time spent writing a learning objective on the board is time that could be spent writing something interesting on the board.

Time spent writing learning Objectives in books is time that could be spent doing punctuation drills. 

5. They’re a stick to be beaten with

You’re being observed and your learning objective states that all students must understand how to use dynamic verbs to create pace in their writing.

Your observer is someone that doesn’t know what a verb (verbs are doing words) is, let alone a dynamic verb and yet, you see them frowning as it quickly becomes apparent that a number of other students don’t know either. But the learning objective says all students must understand. And clearly, they don’t. Not yet, anyway.

Thing is, your observer is only here for twenty minutes and they want to see progress against the learning objective. You’ve set yourself up for failure. Go easier on yourself- abandon the objective. 

Okay, so what?

Hattie said that targeted lessons have a positive impact on student attainment. This does not mean Learning Objectives. What this means is, teachers knowing what they want students to understand within a given time frame (lessons, incidentally, are not a suitable timeframe with which to measure understanding). 

In other words, don’t just rock up and teach anything. Lessons that have been designed with a bigger picture in mind, that have a purpose and a place within a wider scheme of work, are more effective than those that aren’t. So know why you’re teaching metaphor.

Yes, it helps students if they know why they’re learning iambic pentameter. Or the causes of the Wall Street Crash. Or quotations from Genesis. But, rather than wasting time with Learning Objectives, just tell ’em. 

“We’re learning about X today because it’s going to help you with Y next week and one day you’ll be able/need to use it for Z.”

That takes 20 seconds. 

University: Probably the Worst Time of My Life. 

Lying naked, face down and crying onto the scuffed linoleum of the room I refused to call home, I knew then that University was never going to be a positive experience for me. 

I knew then that this thing-something I now take to be a ‘nervous breakdown’- was never going to be the beginning of the end; it was never going to be the lowest point on a road to personal epiphany or glory or intellectual triumph; it was always going to be just that: an eighteen year old boy lying naked, face down and crying tears and snot onto a scuffed linoleum floor.

University was probably the worst time of my life. In the three years I spent there I had a nervous breakdown, ballooned from 14 to 17 stone (in just 8 weeks), and found myself in trouble with the law.

I think that my schooling prior to University was largely responsible for the inadequacy I felt during my time there. In a (yes-cathartic) effort to ensure that other students don’t experience what I did, I’m going to to outline the reasons (as I perceive them) for my time at University being so stupendously shite, before going on to offer a few suggestions as what teachers and schools can do to better prepare students for the kind of University Life that doesn’t make its way onto Facebook statuses and Snapchat Stories.

So firstly, why was it so crap?

  1. The Class Issue

Whether I’m actually working class or not, I identify as such, and my experience at University played no small part in the class sensitivity I feel everyday, in my occupation as a teacher. 

In the four hour car journey from home to University, I went from a world of Tesco Value Basics and Bailiffs to a world of Jack Wills and Gilets. University was a distinctly upper middle class environment and it was entirely new. If 90% of the world’s red trousers are worn by the 10% wealthiest people in the world, then that 10% went to University with me. 

Signs of the enormous chasm of wealth between me and my fellow students were found everywhere: in the brand new sports cars they drove around campus; in the invites to birthday parties held at Scottish castles; in the countless sports society trips to far flung destinations. Even in the lighting. How much money did people have to spend on fucking fairy lights?  

Everyone, everywhere seemed to be richer than I was.

(Of course, this wasn’t true;  I’ve since found out that actually, 68% of my University cohort were from state schools just like me; the rest were from independent schools. However, it should be noted that this is still an unacceptably low percentage, in comparison to national data.)

My own feeling of socio-economic inferiority reveals itself most clearly in my recollection of how my manner of speaking instantly set me apart from everyone else.  Growing up in the suburbs of London, when Guy Ritchie gangster movies and Geezer culture was at its peak, me and my friends all spoke in the Mockney accent that made us feel like the geezers and gangsters we saw in the films we watched and the pubs we frequented. We couldn’t afford the 13 quid it’d take to get us to Waterloo, but we spoke like we’d been born ringing those Bow Bells. At home, calling a fiver a ‘lady’ and a suit a ‘whistle’ like made me feel like Ronnie Kray. At University, it made me feel like Ronnie Corbett. My manner of speaking made me into a caricature: a figure of fun (the working class clown) to be patronised and called upon to invoke raucous laughter by a simple greeting of “Alwight mate?”

I’m not saying that everybody from privileged backgrounds at University actively sought to make me feel worthless. But, what comes with wealth, is a arrogance of a kind that isn’t intentioned. I couldn’t stand the fact that I worked in McDonalds to pay my way, whilst they spent Daddy’s money. I couldn’t stand the pitying looks when I told them I went to Devon during the summer break, and not the Dordogne. I couldn’t stand the way they wore Ralph Lauren shirts as Pyjamas. I hated the way I turned up to every single lecture, and every seminar, regardless, for three years straight, whilst the rich kids mocked me for doing so, proudly boating about the fact they got a first on their latest essay without even reading the book. And still, in spite of their bragging apathy, they seemed to embody a kind of success I could only dream about. 

It was all too much, and my Secondary Education had simply not prepared me to face this level of class difference head on.

2. I Knew Nothing

When I got to University, I had no idea what Socialism was. Nor did I know what Communism was. Or Capitalism. I didn’t know why Right or Left Wing meant. I’d no idea who George Orwell was. I didn’t understand a word of Latin and Homer had all but passed me by. University is both an academic and a political experience. My own Secondary education, or my upbringing, had left me deficient in both these areas. During seminars, I was frightened into silence as fellow students and professors talked to each other using words I could not fathom and allusions I could not access. Everyone seemed to know what everyone else knew, and I remained throughly on the outside. My GCSEs and my A Levels didn’t matter. What mattered was a very specific domain of knowledge- of Cultural capital imbued me with. 
I felt deficient in two areas: wealth and knowledge. As I referred to briefly earlier, this had a hugely negative impact on my mental health. I became depressed and my refusal to seek help eventually ended up in me taking off all my clothes and laying on the floor of my bedroom for six hours crying into myself. I put on lots of weight and I started fighting. Lots of fighting. I was a mess. 
People say that anger is a weakness, but that’s not true. It was anger with my lot, that got me off that linoleum floor and into the gym. It was anger that got me through those three years. I’m still angry now.
I’m angry that my school didn’t given me the cultural capital I needed to compete intellectually with those students from independent schools who seemed to breeze through University life. Even my vocabulary was deficient. At the most basic level, I didn’t even have the words to engage with people on their level. 
I’m angry that I didn’t have the strength to just give up. I was too proud. I didn’t want to let my family down. I didn’t want to admit to all my mates that never went to University, that I’d made a go of it and failed. 
I’m angry that nobody-not a single person, myself included- took it upon themselves to ‘google it’ and read the litany of internet blog posts and articles that routinely condemn the University for the Sloane Square Play Pen it’s notorious for being. Surely someone must’ve known what it would be like.
As teachers in state schools, it’s important that we give students the vocabulary and the knowledge that allows them to compete with their more privilege peers. It’s important that we don’t peddle this poisonous idea that your University years are the ‘best years of your life’, because the truth is, they ain’t , always. Not really.
Personally, my own time at University is still something I look back at with loathing. There’s no sense of ‘being glad I endured it and got through it’. I’m still ashamed of how rubbish it was. As a person, I didn’t cut it there and that’s my failure. 
But, as I teach, one thought drives me. The thought that the kids I teach- the kids in the tracksuits; the kids for whom football is the sport of choice; the kids with the Formica work tops- willwalk into University with a swagger-an arrogance even- that allows them to compete with the ‘best’ of those gilet-wearing, ski resort visiting, gorgeous people who wear the (red) trousers at University. 

A Simple Timeline for English Teachers

The Essential Timeline for English Teachers.

Above, is a hastily drawn Timeline that all students of English Literature could do with knowing. I’ve found that giving my students a basic understanding of the literary periods- and the rough (okay-very rough- a discussion regarding dates etc can be found by accessing this Twitter thread) times during which they occurred has proved valuable, particularly when it comes to context questions such as the Eduqas poetry anthology exam, in which candidates are expected to know the contextual information of 18 different poems, spanning 3 centuries.

Here’s an explanation of each of the movements:

The Industrial Revolution

It’s important that students know that in the mid 1700s, Britain began to become industrialised. The invention of the steam engine, and mechanised textile units, meant that Britain saw a surge in factory buildings and of course, factory workers. Whereas Britain had previously largely been an agrarian society, the Industrial Revolution saw a surge in people moving to cities which is where factories were being built. This, of course, led to a more rigid class system: after all, you needed someone to own the factories (Upper Class); someone to run the factories (Middle Class), and someone to work/be mutilated in the factories (Lower Class). 

The industrial revolution, with all its technological advancements also saw improvements in science and medicine. This was known as ‘The Enlightenment’ and saw a move away from religion and beliefs previously considered outdated towards scientific reasoning and though.  The world was becoming more transparent…

The Romantic Poets

…which really pissed off a group of chaps we now refer to as The Romantics. William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, John Keats, and William Blake really hated all this technological stuff. John Keats believed that technological advancement and the scientification (I literally just made that word up) would ‘clip an Angel’s wings / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line’ (Keats, Lamia). That is, in getting to know how everything works, we are ruining the beauty of it. Kind of like students who used to love books until you made them take part in endless ‘Quotation Explosion’ sessions. In reaction to the Industrial Revolution, the Romantic Poets wrote lots of poems about feelings and nature. They believed in the awesome sense of inferiority one gets when faced with the brutal power of nature. They called this the ‘Sublime’. They believed that getting in touch with nature was the only way people could get back in touch with themselves.

Notable Writers: William Wordsworth, William Blake, John Keats.

The Regency/ Victorian Period
The Victorians thought the Romantics were a soppy bunch. In fact, in reaction to the sensibility of the Romantics, the Victorian Period came just after what I’ll call the Regency Period. This literary epoch saw the introduction of what is known as ‘The Novel of Manners’. The Novel of Manners, rather than being a literary construct focused on the magical and supernatural (such as might be found in the works of the Romantics) was a realistic novel focusing on the social codes of the Victorian period. High on the agenda was social restraint; feelings were a no-no; etiquette and refinement were in. Think anything by Jane Austen. 

Shortly afterwards, came the The Victorian Period proper. This, of course, also saw Charles Dickens’ rise to superstardom. His novels were an angry reaction to the, now all too evident- impact of the Industrial Revolution: poverty, injustice, and crime. 

Notable Writers: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens

The Modernist Period

Victorian literature was all about structures: education, law, government. Those things which make the world run as they should (or shouldn’t be). Then, in 1914, a war started that messed all those structures up a bit. All of a sudden, your government would lead you into war. Your education couldn’t protect you from being shot through the head. And what good was the law, when the crime of war was perfectly legal? The world was turned on its head. Everything people believed was turned on its head. This is reflected in the literature of the Period. Reliable narrators? What good were they before. Get rid. Punctuation? What good was that before? Get rid. Society? What good was that before? Get rid.

Modernist literature saw writers experimenting with weird and wonderful forms. Stories told in reverse. Stream of consciousness. Strange mixtures of prose and poetry. 

And most striking of all? The cynicism. Love was no longer wonderful; it was dangerous. Family was no longer reliable. They f*ck you up your Mum and Dad. The law would no longer protect you; it would kill you.

Notable Writers: James Joyce, F.Scott Fitzgerald, T.S.Elliot

Once kids know all this, ask them to place some unseen poems, or extracts from texts, within a Timeline. May I suggest:

Love is Not All, Edna St Villay. (MODERNIST)

Ode to Autumn, John Keats. (ROMANTIC)

Chapter 1 of Bleak House, (VICTORIAN)

Hope this helps.

The Value in the Big Read

It took 7 months, but I’ve just finished George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

When my daughter was born, 9 months ago, I was often left wide awake, in the middle of the night, having just completed a feed. This is where the Kindle Paperwhite came into its own; I could read (for free), great works of literature, without turning on the bedside lamp and waking my partner.

I went with Middlemarch for myriad reasons:

  1. It was long (I anticipated a lot of sleepless nights)
  2. It was free
  3. I’d often heard it cited as one of the greatest novels ever written
  4. It was a ‘classic’; as I’ve said before, I try and avoid pop fiction where possible, instead preferring to put myself on a level playing field with the cultural elite.
  5. It was written by a woman. I want to read more books by women.

If you’d asked me, at any point, over the past 7 months, how I was enjoying Middlemarch, I would have replied with an unenthusiastic, “It’s alright, yeah. Not bad.”

I mean, I wouldn’t say it thrilled me, or blew my mind. In fact, if I’m honest, the only thing that kept me going, was, among the multitudinous plots contained within the novel,  a plot concerning unrequited love which is not resolved until the penultimate chapter of the novel. I love a love story, me. 

However, as I wrote ‘Middlemarch’ on the ‘Reading Wall’ in my classroom the other day, I surprised myself by scrawling, alongside it, 4 stars. That’s out of 5. That’s an enjoyment rating of 80%. That’s a “You should definitely read this book” rating. 

All for a book that is largely about legal disputes and discussions about border estates and medical practice. 4 stars. 

The 4 star rating isn’t all down to the love story. It’s down to something else.

Daniel Kahnemann makes a distinction between two types of happiness, which I will call (because I can’t be arsed to Google Kahnemann’s nomenclature) ‘Experience Happiness’ and ‘Post-experience Happiness’. The first type is the happiness we are privy to as we experience an event. For example, the thrill that one might experience as one completes a sky-dive. Post-Experience happiness, on the other hand, is the happiness one experiences after the fact. For example, you might absolutely hate sky-diving, and the actual experience may have been a horrendous mess of defecation and despair, and yet, the fact that you completed it, without dying, and the fact that you can brag about how brave you were (lying), brings you happiness.

Kahnemann says thinking of happiness this way should influence the way we prioritise our spending. He says that it could change the way we book holidays: I, for example, would never enjoy a skiing holiday. It would not bring me ‘Experience Happiness’. And yet, as my more senior colleagues rattle off the names of French ski resorts the way pubescents rattle off expletives, I realise that in years time, when I’m parking in the space closest to the school building, and teaching 6 lessons a week instead of 600, I could well revel in the ‘Post-Experience Happiness’ of that holiday. My memory of that skiing holiday has enabled me to bore people to death with tales of black runs and reflective glasses which has facilitated my dizzying chair-lift ride to the top of the educational piste.

Reading is just the same. Middlemarch-or, more specifically, the act of reading Middlemarch, whilst tedious to read at times, has actually given me ‘Post-experience Happiness.’

 I can now:

  • Enjoy the satisfaction one gets from being faced with a monumental task and getting through it.
  • Brag about having read it to colleagues I know haven’t.
  • Make witty references to it at dinner parties in order to make my superiors feel inferior to me.

So, the next time you’re sloggig your way through a lengthy tome that you’re really not enjoying,  think: 

Will finishing this book benefit me in a way that will make me feel happy long after it’s been consigned to the dusty depths of the charity shop’s book bucket? If the answer is yes, plough on my friend! Plough on! 

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.

Too Many Saints.

Once upon a time, in a meeting long, long ago, when I dared to suggest a strategic change based on what ‘OFSTED want to see’, a colleague kindly reminded me of the following: “It doesn’t matter what OFSTED want- it’s what best helps the child that matters.”

Now, of course, what this colleague actually meant was, “I only think about the good of the children whereas you are clearly only concerned with trivial matters such as performing to government standards, and because of this, I’m going to have to remind you, in front of everybody in this room, of where your priorities should truly lie. You are the devil and I am a saint.”

Needless to say, I was fuming. Reminded, once again, that ours is a profession dominated by sanctimonious, holier-than-thou, isn’t-everything-so-Enid-Blytony, do gooders, determined to make the rest of us- the actual humans- look like a bunch of tossers who couldn’t care less about darling little Johnny and the rest of his pubescent cronies.

These do-gooders are those who go on about educating ‘the whole child’ as opposed to the rest of us who presumably only care about the elbow bit of the child. Or the bit between the nose and the upper lip that everyone says is called the septum, but doubtfully so, worrying that they might have got this mixed up with the perineum.

These do-gooders are those who bang on about Pastoral this and Pastoral that, looking upon any teacher who shows the faintest interest in academic achievement as a Gradgrindian monster whose sole purpose in life is to enforce suffering and subjugation. 

These do-gooders are the ones in at 7am until 7pm just to tell people that they were in at 7am till 7.30pm.

They’re the teachers who rail against those who sell resources for money on TES, exclaiming ‘education should be free for all!’ without considering that actually, you know, some of us are bloody poor and could do with an extra few quid.

These do-gooders; they’re the ones who moan about the ‘factory model’ of education without actually considering the metaphor: factories are bloody efficient. And they have high standards. In fact, they have the same high standards for all and do everything they can to ensure that every thing is in place to ensure that every thing processed in that factory becomes the very best product it can be. 

These do-gooders, they’re the ones who frown at you when you swear about little Johnny in the staff room, as if you actually meant it when you called him a feckless shite, when in fact, of course you didn’t mean it. But, you’re human, and sometimes, slagging someone off makes you feel good. 

I understand that there’s an argument for modelling good behaviour; that, as teachers, we should be paragons of virtue for all and sundry. 

But I disagree. And so do the kids. They know what’s real and what isn’t. Why do you think they constantly criticise those teachers who change the moment another teacher is in observing? Kids value authenticity. And the Mother Teresa act just ain’t genuine.

There’s a mental health crisis in our schools. We’re overworked and we’re stressed and we’re crumbling. Many of us are leaving work feeling worthless. This saintliness, exhibited by so many of our colleagues, is not on. It’s an act designed for their own apotheosis at the cost of others’ denigration. 

So, please, for the sake of our students. Actually, no, this time-sod the students. For the sake of us- the colleagues who come to work to get the job done and occasionally hate it a little bit-for our sakes…can we stop with the mother Teresa act? It’s not doing anybody any good.