The fetish of marking – Words by David Didau The Learning Spy


“Even the most valuable fetishes will turn into dusts and ashes!”
Mehmet Murat Ildan

Fetishism hasn’t always been about rubber and high heels. The word originates from the Portuguesefeitico, meaning an object or charm of false power. When explorers first encountered native religions in West Africa, whatever talismans or totems the locals revered were dismissed as fetishes.

A fetish has since come to mean an object or practice onto which power has been displaced from the original source. Marking seems a good example. At the most basic level, marking is a totemic symbol for the power of feedback. What we want is for students to receive feedback on how to improve, so we domarking in the hope that it provides feedback. But it goes further than that; marking also stands for hard work, professionalism, caring, motivation and all manner of other desirable outcomes. But is marking the best way to get these things?

Ask any roomful of teachers if their marking load has increased in the last five years and you’ll be deafened by the grumbling. Effective marking is time-consuming. Increasingly there’s an expectation that teachers should be prepared to give up every evening and weekend in order to keep marking up to do date. I think there’s something very wrong with this.

Dr Becky Allen, director of Education Datalab, suggests there may be some benefit to schools outsourcing marking; she says 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 team of homework markers.

First up to bat was the general secretary of the ASCL, Brian Lightman. He said:

Marking of pupils’ work is an integral part of the professional duties of a teacher. Whilst we would agree that technology can, in appropriate cases be used to process some assessments, I would have serious concerns about outsourcing routine marking. Teachers need to see pupils’ work themselves so that they can fully understand the degree to which their pupils have understood what has been taught. Schools must be resourced adequately to provide them with the time to do this.

On the face of it this seems measured, but the underlying assumption that marking is, always has been and always should be ‘integral’ to a teacher’s professionalism is curious. I have three questions about this assumption:

  1. Does all work need to be marked by the classroom teacher?
  2. Do teachers actually need to see pupils’ work for themselves in order to fully understand how well teaching has been understood?
  3. Do teachers actually need to understand – fully or otherwise – how well teaching has been understood?

You may think the answer to each question is a resounding YES, but I’m not so sure. There are many parts of the world where teachers spend far less time marking and students’ results are at least as good (or in many cases significantly better.) Dylan Wiliam says,

In most Anglophone countries, teachers spend the majority of their lesson preparation time in marking books, almost invariably doing so alone. In some other countries, the majority of lesson preparation time is spent planning how new topics can be introduced, which contexts and examples will be used, and so on. This is sometimes done individually or with groups of teachers working together. In Japan, however, teachers spend a substantial proportion of their lesson preparation time working together to devise questions to use in order to find out whether their teaching has been successful (Fernandez & Makoto, 2004).

So with that in mind, here are some brief answers to the question raised above:

  1. We already accept that students produce some work which class teachers shouldn’t mark. The marking of most summative, externally validated examinations is already outsourced. And the expectation that teachers should mark coursework and controlled assessment has always seemed little more than a way for exam boards to cut costs. But if the bulk of students’ work has been accurately and efficiently marked by someone else, this would leave teachers free to spend their time on something potentially more productive. Hell, it might even allow them an evening or weekend off once in a while!
  2. Whilst we may want to argue that teachers need to understand how pupils are grappling with tricky concepts, there seems little justification for requiring teachers to wade through exercise books to find this evidence for themselves. The sort of marking Dr Allen advocates provides teachers with a summary of pupils’ progress and misconceptions. As longers teachers are aware of the impact of teaching, there’s little actual value in the hours it takes to mark the books themselves.
  3. If you accept that learning is invisible, then the picture presented in pupils’ books will only provide evidence of performance. Were we to put the effort into producing a curriculum which spaced and interleaved the troublesome threshold concepts of our subjects then misconceptions become predicatable and performance data misleading. If we’re serious about long-term retention and transfer between contexts, regular marking might actually get in the way.

But of course we’re not simply interested in understanding how our pupils are doing. Marking also builds relationships; it is motivational. So, scratch everything I’ve said so far, right? Wrong. Just cos markingcan result in motivation, doesn’t mean it will; it doesn’t mean classroom teachers have to do it in order for it to be motivational, and it certainly doesn’t mean marking is the only or even the best way to motivate students.

This table shows just how easy it is for marking to result in demotivated students:

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All too often the time we spend loving crafting well-intentioned comments results in students aiming lower, giving up, or deciding not to make the same effort.

Now, just to be clear, I don’t really think marking is a bad thing, but I do think it comes at an appalling cost to teachers’ well-being. The fact that very many teachers seem reluctant to cast off their shackles shows the extent to which we’ve imbued marking with magical powers and superstitious awe. Teachers probably do need to mark some work, if only so they understand the process of assessment, but I don’t think the process needs to be nearly so onerous or widespread. Marking is only a proxy for what we actually want. Let’s put away the fetishes and think about where the power really lies.

To this end, I’m taking part in a research project with Leeds Beckett University and Wakefield Regional Teaching School Alliance which has as its aim prioritising teachers’ well-being whilst finding ways to mark and give feedback as quickly, efficiently and effectively as possible. I’ll tell you more in due course…

See more from David Didau –