Could your pupils do better if you stopped marking their books?

Last week, the Sunday Times published this piece.

As it’s behind a pay-wall, and many people couldn’t read it, I’ve reproduced it here, with their permission.

Despite the title, this piece is really less about marking, and more about the level of debate in education.  I think we need to do better.


In October 2012, Phil Beadle wrote that ‘[marking books] is the most important thing you do as a teacher’.  Beadle is eminently qualified to make this assertion.  He taught for many years, has written many books, has appeared in many education TV shows, and works for various consultancies.  I’m not being facetious; Beadle is as much an expert as anyone can hope to hear from in education, and his experience deserves a certain level of respect.

I’m just not convinced.  It’s not that I’m unconvinced by Beadle’s argument; his case is sound.  It’s logical, it makes sense: make the child feel their work is valued, provide feedback.  All good.  But something else is missing, something much more difficult to spot…

Try this: in a factory, if we turn up the brightness of the lights, what do you think will happen?  Will people work harder, work less, or no change?  It makes sense to think that people might work harder, but maybe they won’t.  I’d be surprised to hear they worked less; a darker work environment would surely be more soporific, and conversely a brighter one might make people more alert.  So what do we think, shall we just make the claim that turning up the lights will get people working harder and have at it?  Maybe we can do better.  Perhaps brighter lights will cost more; will the increased output offset the increased cost?  How bright shall we make them?  Surely there’s a limit to how bright is conducive to a good working environment?

Let’s start at the beginning: does increasing the brightness of the lights lead people to work harder?  This was tested, and the result was ‘yes.’  The brightness of lights in a factory were turned up, and with them, output increased.  Beadle is no flimflam man; like these researchers, his experience no doubt tells him that his advice works.  Except… one bright spark in the research team realised something.  They ran the experiment again, but this time they dimmed the lights.  Productivity should at least return to its prior level, if not subdue further, right?  But no, productivity remained at its elevated level.  Workers were not working harder because the lights were brighter, or dimmer, but due to another cause that hadn’t been accounted for: they were being watched.  This is now famously referred to as the Hawthorne effect, named after the factory where the experiment took place.

I’m not picking on Beadle, I just happened to read his article years ago and it’s always stuck in my mind.  Now, three years on, I realise that this is an endemic problem in education: we try something, results seem ‘okayish,’ we assert that it works, experience and ‘expertise’ credit our statements.  But how often do we test the alternatives?  There is nothing wrong in Beadle’s reasoning, nor his experience, but did he ever try alternatives to marking everything a child writes?

One pioneering school, Michaela, has publicly stated that its teachers do not mark books.  They work hard to find ways of getting feedback to their pupils whilst minimising the marking workload of teachers.

Try this:  if we always mark pupils’ work, then we send the signal that they work for us, rather than for themselves.  They should mark their own work, so as to build independence, introspection, and a self-critical eye.  The decreased workload on the part of the teacher can be invested in lessons that are better prepared, in extra-curricular support, or in a work/life balance that leaves the teacher happier, and an ever more positive force in the child’s life.

Above is an equally compelling narrative to that which supports the ‘mark everything’ suggestion.

This is confirmation bias at its simplest.  We have an idea, we seek out confirming evidence, we write a narrative to explain why the idea must be true, we ignore or fail to seek out disconfirming evidence.  Education is rife with this, and to some extent, it seems, we are doomed.  It takes much to control for all the possible variables that can affect educational outcomes, so much so that Dylan Wiliam argued at ResearchED 2014 that teaching will never be a research-based profession.  But there are some alternatives.

First we can ask whether the claims made by an expert logically follow from what we now know about the fundamentals of human cognition and memory, insights resulting from decades of careful research.  Does the proposed pedagogy risk cognitive overload?  Is the expert conflating immediate performance with long-term learning?  Second, we can ask the expert what alternatives they have tried in their experience.  It won’t discredit the educationist’s point; it will simply remind us that equally valid alternatives might yet exist.

So could your pupils do just as well, or even better if you stopped marking their books?  At least one school is going to find out, and if the answer is ‘yes,’ then you will know you have a real choice about where to invest your time.  And this should be the model for all debate in education: does the claim logically follow from research into human cognition, and have the alternatives been tested?


About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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5 Responses to Could your pupils do better if you stopped marking their books?

  1. This is an interesting debate. It would be really interesting to compare not marking with lots of different factors involving marking. E.g. not marking vs marking and giving feedback the next lesson, not marking vs Marking and giving feedback in 4 lessons, not marking vs marking only one mistake, etc, etc. I think simply comparing marking with not marking could be dangerous in that there are so many factors which affect good feedback, at both an individual student level, and a holistic feedback level. My feeling is, and this is in agreement with Dylan Wiliam’s standpoint, that if students actively engage with what has been marked (hopefully in a timely fashion), then they learn something from the experience.

  2. Kiran Gill says:

    Interesting piece Kris. I’m always pleased to see the case for smart approaches to teaching and workload. To problematise, though, how are you proposing the effects of a no marking policy at Michaela could be isolated and ‘tested’ for their impact?

    As you know, this is Wiliam’s point – it can be very difficult to test discrete inputs in education and if we’re not aware of this, we risk simplifying what the data tells us and drawing false conclusions. Your framing here implies that success from Michaela will provide ‘evidence’ of no marking as an intervention, or of it’s not making a difference to outcomes. But you know there are many other facets to Michaela’s model – KIP-curriculum, Charter-style ‘no excuses’ behaviour policy, a start-up school with lots of attention on frontier cohorts, small form entry, a young and committed staff body likely to stay the course and provide continuity of care to the students, political support, the ability to fundraise in London and draw on its resources to culturally educate the children – to name a few. And that there has been investment in building curricula and assessment procedures which do give feedback to children in a way that Beadle presumably places importance on in his defence of the broad term ‘marking’. So we wouldn’t be able to say Michaela’s positive outcomes are either attributable to this aspect of school policy or evidence contrary to ‘expert’s opinion’ about feedback. It’s disingenuous to imply that you promoting some of your hypotheses – which are of yet still articles of faith – is any more evidence-based than Beadle promoting his.

  3. Tom Evans says:

    I have tried both approaches (marking and no so much) and from a individual perspective I’m pretty much in the Beadle camp. Obviously the quality of the feedback and what a student takes from the experience is a variable but generally marking is a key leverage activity for any teacher in my view. In terms of cognition I think that the process aligns. Developing stronger neural pathways for students through revisiting an activity after marking feedback, the use of praise or the sense of reward (intrinsic), all seem to make sense as I understand it.

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