There seems to have been an awful lot of cyber-palaver over the last few weeks between educationalists debating about marking and the use of different coloured pens. Howls of derision at being given multi-coloured pens by naïve and idiotic HoDs who want to please Ofsted and the SLT without a single thought for real education and real marking have been emitted across cyberspace, drowning out a lot of the other noise.
I remember being at a CPD event a few years ago where I was forced to bite my tongue when somebody began expounding the virtues of the “purple pen of progress”, turning me into a cringing, shaking mess in the corner. Honestly, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the idiocy of this idea.
But, I’m afraid I have to confess, I am a convert. I am that moronic head of department who unthinkingly forces pens of different colours onto my staff. I ask them, nay, force them, to mark in red. I cajole them into making students peer assess in purple. Even worse, I coerce my long-suffering faculty into providing green pens for students when they are responding or improving their work. And, to top it all off (this really does take the biscuit), I make them use blue and yellow highlighters in their marking to highlight effective work and that which needs to be improved. Why do I do this? Mwaaaaahhahahahhahaha!. Because I can! The buzz I get from asserting my power and the tinge of pleasure I receive from showing our books to LA visitors, Ofsted types and the public in general makes me bristle with self-importance! Or maybe not.
Why do I do it? Because it works, stupid! Since I began adopting this approach four years ago, my students have learnt more and faster. If they can glance back in their books and instantly see what they’ve done well (blue) or what they didn’t do very well (yellow), then this aids their revision. If they want to find my comments quickly, they look for red. If they want to see how they’ve improved something, they look for green. Why do we colour-code anything (hands up if you colour code classes when you get a new timetable)? Because it makes it more efficient, better organised and easier to use. If the students use nothing but one colour and the teacher uses nothing but one other colour, there is no quick way to differentiate between what’s what.
As we gradually embed the new GCSEs, I think this will become even more important. Our students are given a different exercise book for each topic to help with revision, and those studying the new GCSEs are going to have to become much better at revising than those students who sat previous exams. The use of different coloured pens in their books is, to my mind, going to be a vital aid in helping them to revise more smartly, more efficiently and more thoroughly. They will be able to pick out much more easily what’s going to be more or less useful. So, for us, the coloured pens are here to stay.
Yesterday I had the great honour and privilege of observing a fantastic lesson delivered by an MFL colleague. I was in the lesson for the first 25 minutes or so, and I can only describe the atmosphere in the room as “electric”. All the kids were completely engaged. Their “thirst for knowledge” filled the room and threatened to burst out through the roof. In short, it was amazing. The observation took place straight after lunch (period 4), and I left that room with a huge smile on my face. I couldn’t wait to feed back to the teacher and was only sorry that it would have to wait until the end of the day.
As I sat and reflected on the lesson, it got me thinking once again about that slippery old concept of differentiation. Some of my earliest and most viewed blogs were on this subject. The most popular blog I wrote, “Why We’ve got Differentiation Wrong,” was an angry response to the expectation that objectives should be differentiated and that “weaker” students should be given easier work and expected to do less. I championed the idea that differentiation should be a reactive process that is perfected by expert teachers who can deliver it in situ without detailed planning of how and when it should happen. The lesson I saw on Friday was a brilliant piece of evidence supporting this theory.
You see, there were no differentiated worksheets. There were no differentiated objectives. Every student in that room was expected to partake in the same activity. The emphasis was very much on speaking French, but the evidence in the books showed that these students (who had arrived 8 weeks ago without knowing a word of the language) could also write extended paragraphs in the target language. The progress that this group had made in the time they had been with this teacher was, quite frankly, phenomenal.
So what’s the key to this great teacher’s success? In my opinion, it is an intuitive approach to differentiation. For a start, the written feedback in their books is focused and differentiated, allowing the students to improve on their work. But the real magic is in the delivery of the lessons. As she carefully guides the class through activities that allow them to grow their vocabularies and practise their grammar, she is constantly checking and assessing every single child in the room, carefully rephrasing questions and explanations to ensure that each child has grasped what they need, or pushing those that have got it just that bit further to ensure that they are challenged. As she does this, she oozes passion and enthusiasm for the subject and for the students. Her body language shares an excitement that is contagious, shouting to everybody that she is so pleased to be in the room and sharing this fascinating stuff with the class.
And the students know that there is nowhere for them to hide (but then, nobody wants to hide). The exciting atmosphere in the room encourages everybody to do their best; every single child in that room is desperate to please this amazing teacher. A student who is wheelchair-bound arrived several minutes late with her TA and was seamlessly absorbed into the action. Within seconds she was answering questions and behaving like she’d been there from the start.
For me, it was invigorating and refreshing to watch this lesson. It gave me a reminder of how lessons ought to be taught and gave me further contempt for the nonsensical distinction between “sages on stages” and “guides on sides”; often the kids learn best when they have a brilliant “sage on the stage” to admire and aspire to emulate.
My last job of the week was to feedback to this teacher, and it was great to finish the week on such a high. I try not to talk about work at home, but after ten minutes of being back through the front door my poor wife and kids were fed up of me waxing lyrical about this fantastic lesson that I’d watched that afternoon. I hope I can take just a little bit of what I saw and inject it into my teaching next week.
One Saturday afternoon during the spring of this year, I had just served up tea for my two kids. Without warning, the eldest, then aged six, began to weep uncontrollably into her pasta. I was shocked and very concerned. When I finally managed to persuade her to tell me what was the matter it transpired that she was worried about her upcoming SATS test on Monday. It turned out that her teacher had told the students that they were expected to produce their best work and that if they didn’t, or if they talked during the test, they would have their papers torn up in front of them.
As you can imagine, this made me really angry. At the time I tweeted about what a travesty it was that my daughter should be suffering like this at her age, worrying about tests when she should be enjoying herself.
But I now realise that it isn’t the testing that I have an issue with; it’s the way the tests are sold.
There has been a lot of debate and discussion this week on the necessity of testing after Nicky Morgan’s declaration that she wants to reinstate externally standardised tests at various points in a child’s school life. Much of the debate has been over whether teacher-assessed tests are as reliable as externally standardised tests; to me this is a nonsensical argument. I know that I have to constantly check the summative levels I give to my students’ work when I’m assessing it because I personally know the students, and therefore, before I’ve even marked the work, I have formed a prejudiced expectation of what that child will achieve.
However, I also mark GCSE English Language for AQA, and so I am quite confident that the same prejudice doesn’t apply when marking work for students I don’t know: I may look at the handwriting and form some assumptions (a circle or love heart used to dot an “i” rarely implies anything above a “D”), but I’m pretty sure that my marking for the exam board carries way less bias than when I mark the work of students I know. There is no question that externally standardised tests are more objective.
So then the argument is whether or not we should test young children at all. Personally, I have no problem with testing – it gives teachers a reasonably objective snapshot of where a child is at a given point in time and provides useful data for both the child and school to use in various ways (professional conversations, reporting to parents, planning for progress etc.). I have no qualms with my children, aged 5 and 7 being tested. But if they are to be tested then what I insist on is that the teachers don’t make a big deal out of it. We all know that the pressure is on the schools and the teachers to get the best results possible, but we are the professionals who are paid to take the pressure, not pass that pressure on to the kids who have no choice about being in that system. We teachers do have a choice, and we are the ones who should find strategies to ensure the pressure we are feeling is dealt with by us, professionally, and not passed on for these vulnerable, developing young minds to try and cope with. All the talk of high stakes and accountability needs to stay in the staffroom, not be foisted onto the children.
To my mind, (externally) test all you want. Just don’t use it to frighten the children.