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‘It’s time we talked about it’

Ian Healey, English Teacher, writes…

If you read this article, I guarantee that it will improve your life.

This may seem like a bold claim, particularly coming from an English teacher with 18 years on the clock who is staring down the barrel of 50; a father of three boys aged 8, 5 and 7 months (who is on my lap asleep as I type) who makes annual trips to the psychiatrist and is on a regime of pills to keep him on the straight and narrow. However, it’s completely true.

In our careers, we have seen numerous initiatives which have come, been adopted into policy and practice and can now be found cluttering up the double-doored metal cabinet at the back of the classroom. Among them: literacy strategy, numeracy strategy, SEN, APP, key stage 3 SATs; the list goes on ad infinitum. However, this is (and always was, as far as I can see) pure gold.

All of us have been at the mercy of school marking and feedback policies since the invention of pedagogy. All of us have spent days, nights, weekends and holidays furiously scribbling in students’ books in the naïve belief that the hours we spend are being warmly received by them as they diligently follow every word of our written comments; act upon ‘WWW’ and ‘EBI’; slavishly look at what constitutes the next level or grade and will do their utmost to improve in their next (and every subsequent) offering. Either that or we believe (quite falsely) that some faceless third party will read it and think ‘Goodness me! This teacher is amazing; outstanding, indeed! This is what effective marking and feedback should look like. Steady the buffs! Hold the front page!’

I hate to burst your bubble, but a lot of that time could have been spent on higher things with better marginal gains for you, your nearest and dearest and the children you teach.

This realisation struck me very recently and I have now experienced an epiphany which I want to share with you, my fellow professionals.

Having secured a position as a Lead Practitioner for English in an inner-city secondary school, I found myself merrily carrying 58 exercise books out of school to my car (health and safety, pah!) on a Friday afternoon. I then proceeded to spend that night and intermittently all the way through to Sunday afternoon furiously ensuring that I had written positive, constructive comments with realistic targets for improvement in them all. I invited comment with wonderfully pregnant rhetorical questions which I grinned over while writing, imagining their little faces lighting up as they realised how, by following my beautifully crafted insights, they may achieve the very best grades possible.

As I tottered back into school on Monday with a repetitive stress injury of the wrist, feeling exhausted (but satisfied by my endeavours), I felt that it was a job well done. Who cares that I didn’t spend time with my wife and kids at the weekend? Why worry that instead of enjoying a beer on a Friday night and a good lunch on Sunday, I was carefully thinking what to write in a middle ability year 8’s book about how they might use accurate spelling, punctuation, grammar and capital letters (for the nth time)? It was some time later that I realised that my efforts were all in vain.

With a song in my heart, I gave my first set of books out to my year 10 Set 1, laying them carefully down on the desks awaiting their arrival. And then, it hit me. Within 10 minutes, I realised that maybe I should have had that beer, taken the kids to the park or had a proper lunch before putting my feet up and watching Planet Earth II the day before.

It became immediately obvious that my efforts were not being (and perhaps never had been, really) reciprocated by my students. Sure, they looked at what I’d written (‘Sir! What does this say? I can’t read your writing’, ‘What’s that?’, ‘What do you mean?’, ‘WTF!’), but was my effort really going to have the effect that I wanted it to? Was that time really well spent? Were my blood, sweat and tears going to pay off in improved grades from now on?

The short answer is no; it wouldn’t.

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We are standing doe-eyed in the nuclear dawn of a post-Gove educational landscape. Gone are the days of essays going back and forth from student to teacher on an endless carousel of written feedback, agonised over for hours providing 1 or 2 more marks on a controlled assessment (which in turn is worth maybe 7% of an overall qualification). Gone are the times when students had something in the bank to go into an exam with so that (God forbid) if they bombed at least when the Kleenex were handed out on results day they would walk away with something more than just BFH (a reference only people of my age would understand).

Gone are the analyses of media-based, pupil-relevant texts and we have been plunged back into the dark days of The Art of English and youngsters having a metaphorical revolver pointing at their head in a foetid sports hall over three hours in summer as they wrestle with Keats, Shelley, Bryson and Shakespeare; icy beads appearing on teenage foreheads as they ponder their immediate, short and long term futures. We are right back where we were when I was at school, in fact. And 10 hours of marking is not going to bring about hugely higher grades no matter how motivated they are to succeed.

‘So how does this make our lives better?’, I hear you cry. And here’s the rub.

I dropped my copy of An Inspector Calls (but it could just as easily been a science textbook, a bag full of used PE kit, or an Oxford Helix Maths set) and asked my students to do the same with their wonderfully annotated and colour-coded exercise books. I candidly asked them whether or not they acted upon my (and my colleagues’) written comments. Honestly; what did they really do with high-quality written feedback? They were flat and candid in their response; they did what we all feared they might: they looked at the grade and turned the page. Yes, they read the comments, but did they act upon them? ‘Errr…nah’. It was the crushing response that I had half expected; clever students were only really interested in what they’d got, not reading what they needed to do next. My hours of work hadn’t done what I wanted them to do.

How could I change this? The answer was simple.

In the next lesson, I gave them a questionnaire and elicited that what they wanted was what I had when I was facing a similar regime: quality, personalised feedback from the adult in the room. What gave me the biggest gains when I was at school were not spurious and formulaic red-penned comments but the teacher taking five minutes to talk through what I had done well, not so well and where I went next.

By being creative with our time in the classroom and ensuring that students are engaged in their own learning, guided by high-quality teacher input, a revolution is at hand. Students can read, answer questions and generally get on with some aspects of their work while the teacher provides tutorials of 5- 10 minutes culminating in the student encapsulating the dialogue and writing themselves what they do next.

In every way this is a winner. Students are gaining the skills they need for this reductive curriculum we are all burdened with. Teachers can engage in and evidence effective, quality assessment for learning and ensure that any interested third party can see where input has been given and improvements made (should they not be doing something more productive with their time like enjoying their family or going down the pub).

By following this simple MO, I believe that I have got my life back (at least partially).

I know that we will never be free of the yokes of the red pen, lofty targets and performance management. Neither do I underestimate the fact that we will always be caught in the crossfire of political agendas and at the whimsy of educational fashion. However, if we spend quality time with our students in class, we can spend more quality time when we are free of the classroom. Five minutes spent with a child going through their work must be more productive than spending 30 minutes agonising over comments which may never even be read or at best fleetingly paid attention to and then lost in the ether of the next lesson or topic.

In conclusion, I invite you to invoke my guarantee should you follow this advice and find no improvement in your life. Ideally, do this when you are on book 16 of 28 on a Sunday night, at your wits’ end and out of red ink.

Me? I’m off to read my boys a bedtime story before putting Planet Earth II on catch-up.


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