Is teaching a science… or do I need to do the marking?

I’ve been teaching my A2 politics students about differing ideological views of society. Our textbook author explains that some people see our society as like a machine, perhaps a motorbike that can be re-designed, souped-up and improved. You can detach certain parts, even dismantle the whole and put the bike back together better than it was before. For others society is a living organism, like a child for example. The idea that one might ‘dismantle’ a child, redesign it and attempt to improve it makes one recoil in disgust because society, like a child, is greater than its parts and the argument goes that you can’t merrily detach and tinker with certain elements of the whole without doing damage.

In teaching, similarly, I recoil at an instinctive level from attempts to apply a very reductionist approach to my job. Assuming the different aspects of the teacher’s job can be broken down, some detached and performed by others that have no oversight over the big picture, to me is madness. David Didau mentioned a school that employs teachers purely to mark homework, leaving those in the classroom free to spend their time on other aspects of the job. Sod the ambrosia and harp playing no marking sounds like a teacher heaven on earth.

Oh, if that cup could be lifted…

I felt the same when my new born child cried all day and all night and in my sobbing exhaustion I fantasised about having a nanny. However, you can’t harmlessly just lop marking (or night time feeding) off from the bigger job. Both are inextricably rooted in the whole. I’ll explain further:

No external marker can give me the nuanced feedback I get from marking my own students extended writing. Neither can their comments effectively reference the ideas I emphasised in class. My marking is also part of how I build a relationship with my students. My departmental colleagues might be able to mark for me. They are engaged in teaching the same SOW and material, using the same books, towards the same exam, actively thinking about the same challenges. However, it wouldn’t be anyone actively engaged in the challenges of delivering that material that would be doing the marking. It might not even be a subject specialist.

It is worse than this though. I remember years ago being asked by my niece to help with her history GCSE coursework. It was a board set piece I had coincidentally just been doing with my own class. (I am an upright type and didn’t do anything reprehensible.) However, it was startling how differently another teacher had framed the same task. I couldn’t say anything constructive because the way my school had interpreted the task and presented it to the students just did not match her school’s approach.

I can hear my colleagues teaching the same material as I do when I walk along the corridor. The stress is on different elements in terms of content and writing technique. We all seem to get to the same end point but I can’t pick up the threads of a colleagues teaching easily. The route towards an explanation, arguments chosen, examples used and aspects of technique prioritised all change with the teacher. My colleagues might all get fabulous results with the resources they use but I can’t resist tweaking some of them, to make them fit with my approach, my priorities. When I mark, only I really ‘get’ the context that work comes from. When I have not marked timed written work myself I can only feedback to the class effectively if I take quite a bit of time looking over the papers.

This is why I also have such a strong objection to classes being shared between more than one teacher. The very idea that teaching can be reduced to something so mechanistic that it does not matter WHO the teacher is that appears to deliver the next bit of the material is anathema to my view of what good teaching means.

I am not so foolish as to adopt an extreme position that dismisses all possibility of analysing the separate aspects of a teacher’s job. The reductionist approach of scientific method, analysing isolated parts of what a teacher does, can be useful. I have been able to lop off weak aspects of my teaching and make the whole better. I wouldn’t entirely dismiss the idea of external markers. I currently only tend to mark tests and weekly extended writing, which I largely set for homework. I don’t have time to mark class notes and perhaps that could be done externally, rather than not at all. For other subjects or at different key stages (I only teach year 10 and above) what can usefully be marked externally would be different and for some marking loads are totally unreasonable currently. I can see that there will be wide variation in what is appropriate but if a  teacher does have lots of work that could reasonably be marked by someone else I wonder if it needs to be marked at all, or in the case of some forms of homework, did it ever need to be set?

I do believe it is symptomatic of a horrible malaise in education that for many teaching is so often viewed in a mechanistic, reductionist way. We see the impact of this in the way KS3 and GCSE classes are shared between teachers, the way teachers are graded from a few lesson observations and in the way fads are enforced using check box lists. We see trainers and SLT suggesting that by following a recipe, adding up a mish-mash of individual bits of ‘good practice,’ you can create a whole thing of worth – a Frankenstein’s monster more like.

I will gladly use research, gladly analyse individual parts of my practice or even allow others to do bits of my job but ONLY when the starting point is to acknowledge the challenges innate in taking apart something as complex and interdependent as the act of teaching.

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10 thoughts on “Is teaching a science… or do I need to do the marking?

  1. Oh,I couldn’t agree more, Heather. Teaching, like so much (if not all!) of human interaction is much, much more than the sum of its parts.
    (And I hate working from someone else’s plans and resources too.)

    1. I didn’t see that before writing this and must have missed it. I have subsequently seen a tweet in which he says he meant just homework. I do know of another secondary school where most of the marking is not done by teachers. However, I’m wondering what regular work you would set children that you do not want to mark yourself. I teach in the independent sector and in my school homework is THE main independent work. To suggest it is OK for the teacher not to mark the work because it is only homework implies that homework is not a serious, ongoing part of what you are doing. I am now genuinely curious about what sort of homework is set.

      1. It strikes me that it depends on how the homework is set. If it’s short answer assessments, then I don’t see that it’s any different from the widely-used and popular MyMaths package and similar things.

  2. I do know teachers that dislike setting MyMaths homework for the very reason that it doesn’t allow them to gain the same information as if they marked work themselves and unless the ‘short answer assessments’ are multiple choice or yes/no then a teacher won’t get the same feedback if they are marked by someone else. While I would not rule out any use of external marking (as I say in my post) I would be concerned by any widespread use of external marking for the reasons I outline and so still question the ‘I only meant homework’ argument. Sure, short questions, or MyMaths might be reasonably marked externally but that is the thin end of the wedge. Is it really productive to largely set that sort of work over a whole academic year?
    Is this the kind of homework that is regularly set? Many teachers on twitter are willing to argue ‘homework’ is not academically beneficial. Is this why?
    I teach history and politics from yr10 upwards and it is an enormous push to get through the courses in the time available. I set tests and perhaps those could be externally marked as I could probably flip though them quickly. However, mostly I use homework for a really constructive purpose, for extended writing. There isn’t time in class to set it, it is essential and there is no way it should be marked by anyone else.
    So, I have two points.

    Firstly I worry about the ‘I only meant homework’ argument as lgenerally I don’t think homework should regularly be the sort of stuff that can be marked externally

    Secondly, while I can see that some marking could be given to others I fear it would be the thin end of the wedge. In my sector teachers would be horrified at the idea of splitting a KS3 or GCSE class between teachers. Yet in the state sector it has become so normal in some schools it seems many timetablers don’t even actively try and avoid it happening. In education there are lots of people that have a very mechanistic view of teaching and they see no problem with these sorts of solutions. Once marking starts to be farmed out I am sure I will get the same reaction from state sector teachers when I question the practice as I do when I express my horror that so many classes are split between teachers. Something that should be viewed as an enormously regrettable expedient becomes viewed as a minor drawback and the education of our children suffers significantly while we obsess about issues that have far less impact on the quality of our children’s education.

  3. I agree that you have to mark work yourself. But it must only be significant work you are marking – not notes / short answer work. That can be looked over and feedback can be given in class if needed. Also, homework can be memorisation which can be tested orally in class. This reduces the marking burden while also refocusing on the importance of thorough mastery. Joe Kirby blogged recently about how they do this at Michaela.

    1. I don’t mark classwork really. But I do set some extended writing most weeks which I mark. I also set learning for factual tests, which are about once a fortnight.

      1. Yes, it’s the extended writing that is worth marking formally. It’s enough to get one’s teeth into. I make them do it in class, though, once a fortnight. Then they have to do it, the dog can’t eat it and Mum can’t do it for them.

      2. Ah well, I teach in a boarding school with pastoral staff that will make life hard for miscreants if I make a fuss when ‘prep’ isn’t produced. It is convenient to set open ended tasks for prep when you know they will be done!

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