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Groundhog Days:

How an assessment-driven curriculum made everyday feel like February 2nd. #feedbackNOTmarking

Groundhog Day is one my favourite films. Yet, never did I ever imagine my lessons becoming both repetitive & my love for teaching zapping away so quickly into my career.

I love my subject. Studied it at GCSE, A-level, Degree & began to teach it as an NQT. I loved how it got to think about alternative perspectives, question the world and learning about real life issues . I still do love my subject yet teaching it made me feel more like Phil Connors & less like John Keating.

I aspired to be like the Teacher in Dead Poets Society yet felt like my assessment-driven lessons had turned me into Phil Connors.

Curriculum Planning or Cramming?

Many schools have strict marking policies. Fortnightly is usually the case. Every two weeks students worked towards being assessed on ‘bitesize’ subtopics. After planning the assessments, creating an incredibly extensive assessment map, I had to now gear my teaching towards these assessments. Teaching for the love of the subject or the sake of teaching; it was now gone.

I went from wanting to stand on tables like Mr.Keating to delivering same-paced, assessment-driven lessons, almost on repeat. I understand we need assessments, students need to be making progress but what does this mean to the ‘love of learning’; a fine print in our teaching standards.

At the height of my disillusionment, I was getting students churning out assessments day in, day out. Lessons began to lack engagement, it felt as though all students were doing was putting pen on paper. Yes, folders & trackers were full but it seemed as though there was no alternative. Exam season meant students needed the practice. Discussions, group work & anything associated with Vygotsky-esque ‘active learning’ was replaced with repetitive, knowledge-based, talk & chalk lessons. Doing my PGCE a few years prior, I felt morally violated teaching this way.

What research tells us: Well, what if there is no (assessment) tomorrow? …

Assessments should be low-stakes, regular & a mechanism to build knowledge NOT gain judgements from it. High-stakes BIG end of topic assessments can actually harm student confidence & make them have a poorer outlook on the learning journey. There’s a real plethora of literature on AFL which I won’t delve into too much but can synthesis to support others. I am not an Teaching & Learning guru, examiner or an AFL God-send, but rather, I’m aiming to use my own experience to support others & give others practical ideas.

‘…the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse’

One very memorable conversation I had during my PGCE with a colleague about overdoing assessments & gaining little from them. Both in terms of reliable data & student engagement. Research pretty much tells us, in a nutshell, ‘stop marking your heart out’. But here are some handy tips:

•Frequency: Assessments need to be fluid, set around the ever-changing curriculum. Static assessments time frames only cause anxiety for the Teacher to get through content quicker. Instead of focusing on frequency, think about the quality of feedback. Marking 100 assessments a week, will they be rigorously marked? Teacher fatigue can play it’s part. But you definitely want to ensure students are actively reading, processing & acting upon your feedback. An assessment is a powerful document, students need to feel empowered reflecting upon them.

•Mark Smarter?! When I did my PGCE (2015-16) the wave of literacy marking with SPAG or GAPS began to slow down. Marking smarter is simply using your own fantastic internal library of subject specialism to give meaningful feedback. I am NOT advocating using lunchtimes for marking! Enjoy your sandwiches! Marking smarter is really about giving consistent feedback, not frequent feedback. I used a template for marking assessments & not only did it help me devise better feedback but also visibly see how students reacted towards their marks. This template was heavily inspired by the great folks on Edutwitter! None of these ideas have been thoroughly sampled enough for me to suggest they are wholly great but they are ideas to help differentiate assessments.

•WWW & EBI: Imagine if students wrote their own WWW & EBI after each lesson? In serious fact, what is the purpose of WWW & EBI? Should we be highlighting successes & failures? As an NQT I would write these most abstract EBIs. Out of naivety I would write things like “Use colour to illustrate your points further” or “please write in pen”. This often felt like marking for the sake of marking. From what I’ve gathered & I’m still a teaching novice but learning questions often work better & are more effective than EBI. Your learning question can be a short extension activity, or a challenge task. It could be an extension of learning that could get students to think outside the box. One example is:

EBI: Include evaluation in your analysis of educational policies.

Learning Question: Which educational policies has the greatest impact on reducing inequality.

Fundamentally these mean the same thing but the learning question is more direct & subject specific. As a subject specialist you have so much knowledge, get your students to develop theirs as you use yours!

•Maintenance Marking? Why? I actually remember one of the most surreal Teaching & Learning initiatives I’ve ever seen. It was literally called “Super Marking Swap” and no, sadly, may his soul rest, this was no homage to Dale Winton. All teachers were required to bring ALL class books (imagine being an English teacher; 10+ classes 😣) to the hall. Using a whistle, the Deputy Head would make departments scrutinise other departments books. This was 2hours long and counted as ‘CPD’. I sat back wondering, ‘How does help a student progress?’. Staff looked so disconsolate & exhausted. Books went missing & within a year, the Deputy was replaced. Tragic actually. The idea of marking EVERY page, making sure all handwriting was legible, SPAG Marking every sentence, & deep marking, that is absolutely soul destroying & time consuming. Ofsted have themselves said to stop this practice, so DO NOT maintenance Mark. Save your energy for assessed pieces of work. Really rigorously tear apart mark schemes & give accurate subject specialist feedback. That’s what will help your students progress. I haven’t quite tuned into the new Supermarket Sweep just yet!

This key terms test was peer-assessed by students. Wanting to know how well students knew their key terms, this low-stakes assessment did the trick. Literally took 10minutes & so easily adapted to other subjects too.

In order to create greater consistency with marking, I developed this feedback sheet. Again an Edutwitter inspired resource. Tally student marks, highlight a subject specific WWW & EBI. Then allow students to deconstruct using mark scheme.

In Summary: There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.

Marking isn’t about frequency and every teacher wants their students to succeed. But there’s a trap here. Your lessons and schemes of work should be building up towards exams, that’s the nature of the British education system. But assessments for the sakes of assessments, tracker filling, box ticking and marking your heart out will only lead to disengagement on behalf of the students & eventual burnout for the teacher.

Lessons shouldn’t be repetitive & be open to mixing up your assessments. Set questions as starters, knowledge checks, spelling tests & low stakes testing. Of course you need to build students confidence but that often won’t happen through draconian & rigidly followed assessment regimes. When you lay pen on a students work, ask yourself “Will this be beneficial to them?”. Indeed there is a time for caution as Mr Keating remind us. But there’s also a time for daring. AFL daring.

John Keatings was a truly inspirational teacher with eccentric norms & values. The man who wanted to let his students progress and promote a real love for learning! Phil Connors, bless him, he was trapped reliving every single day. Ultimately you chose what type of teacher you want to be, but remember, retaining student engagement will empower your Marking & vice versa.

Thank you for reading. Also RIP to Robin Williams. One of the voices of my childhood. May your soul rest easy. Thank you for all the memories.

By Shuaib Khan

Twitter: @shuaibkhan26

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