Are you using the right coloured pen?

Pens

Red or green pen?

Having had the honour of working at literally the best school in the country has led me to do a lot of thinking of late.  I think about all the things that people worried themselves about in my previous school – which went into special measures not long after I left.  I think about all the advice I heard the teachers there – many of whom had advice to share that I rely on to this day – had themselves received from consultants who’d came and went.

A big one was around pen colour.  Apparently someone had arrived shortly before my time to help the school spend its money on learning that red was an ‘aggressive’ colour that could upset pupils.  Teachers should all mark in green.  Everyone would be much happier this way.  They’d learn more, one assumes.

The profound philosophical question about whether or not teachers should mark with a red or green pen has plagued schools for a decade now.  The question has proved such an intractable devil that one trainee was driven to make its resolution her ultimate edu-quest.

The debate reached its apotheosis when one senior leader announced a decisive breakthrough: purple and orange pens!  Now, at last, there were no pre-conceived connotations attached to the colour of the pen; lucid and pure, the teacher’s words could shine through on page.

It’s as I prepare training on Lemov’s concept of the Exit Ticket that I find myself jotting down a note about how our pupils might ‘green pen’ a ticket returned to them i.e. correct it with a green pen they are expected to have in their pencil case.  I realise I’ve been writing in red ink now for three years.  I like it; not because I enjoy scrawling angry blood trails across pupils’ work, but because it is the colour that contrasts best against the blues and blacks in which pupils write.  It’s easy to read against a white background, unlike green, making it a solid choice.

And you know what?  It didn’t do our kids any harm.

I almost expect this is why teachers have been marking in red for decades; it’s almost as though this were a natural, sensible, choice, considered and resolved aeons ago.

One wonders… how much time have teachers found themselves wondering long, deep into the night, about things that matter not a jot.  How much nothing has been trumped up into all by people charging a fee.  How much longer will education allow itself to be blustered by changing winds blowing in all directions, before fizzling out to lead nowhere.

Bodil Isaksen’s blog title was obviously wry irony; even a trainee who hadn’t yet set foot into the classroom had been able to see the emperor was naked; why not the rest of us?

There will be ‘the next Brain Gym,’ the next Learning Styles, the next Red or Green pen; my question is how are we so spectacularly taken in by it, time and again.  Why are we allowing ourselves to be humiliated like this?  How long until we develop institutional immunity to nonsense?

At Wellington’s Festival of Education 2014 I argued that teaching needs a codified body of knowledge before we can lay claim to being any kind of real profession.  At the 2016 festival discussed a new model of teacher training and development, and at ResearchED 2016 I flirted with some of education’s historic development.

Not long ago I heard a trainee tell me that their university tutor educated him in learning styles, which is only shocking until you read Howard Jones review of the neuromyths prevalent in education (93% in the UK still thought learning styles were a thing).

We’ve a long, long way to go, but I look forward to us getting there.

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About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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5 Responses to Are you using the right coloured pen?

  1. Eleni Pepona says:

    Thanks for this Chris. At Kumon classes around the world we have used red pen to mark students’ worksheets for over fifty years now. We draw a big red circle on a page where everything is correct, very purposefully to celebrate that achievement. We put a smaller mark next to the questions a student might have gotten wrong so thdy need to look at them again and resubmit them, and when those questions are correct we draw again a circle around the question number. This is an approach taken by Kumon in all 49 countries today. Students get used to red circles meaning success and yes it is red brcaude it contrasts vividly against the white of paper and black of print/students’ writing. We condition ourselves to think in one way or another. The problem is not the colour, the problem is the approach. No child will feel better about mistakes or more motivated to work harder and achieve if they are not recognised in a meaningful way for what they can do right. The point of marking in my humble opinion is not only to evaluate what a child can do now and draw attention to mistakes, if any; marking should be the first step to taking one’s learning further. We say ‘we learn from our mistakes’ and this is often misinterpreted by teachers I think; for me, at an academic context it actually means ‘we learn from our corrections’.

  2. Steve Webb says:

    This blog speaks volumes. The fact that it needed to be written is rediculous. You hit the nail on the head when you wrote, ” Why are we allowing ourselves to be humiliated like this? How long until we develop institutional immunity to nonsense?”
    The collective reluctance for individual immunity to nonsense is what worries me most.

  3. Pingback: The colour of the pen | Daphne's numbers

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