Marking is shit

This is a brief write-up of my TLT16 presentation. You can find the slides here. There are loads of other blogs I referred to, including some of my own. In no particular order:

Evidence? What evidence?, Marking is not the same as feedbackSo, how might we best feed back?, Whole-class marking, Is questioning yet another cult?, How do we create meaningful conversations? and Questions are shit all from me.

Jo Facer on Giving feedback the Michaela way and We have overcomplicated teaching.

Joe Kirby on hornets and butterflies.

Ben Newmark on Telling ’em what they need to do.

Doug Lemov on Reducing teacher workload by rethinking marking.

Tom Bennett, who wrote this the morning of TLT.

There are loads of others, of course, and I referred more generally to the thinking of Harry Fletcher-Wood and David Didau. Chris Curtis also writes very honestly about his thinking here.

Marking is not the same as feedback

I don’t tend to do ‘marking’ but I do provide ‘feedback’. The problem is, for the people whose job it has become to look for evidence of this sort of thing, without actual marks on the page, whether in angry red, positive green or DIRT purple, the evidence is not so obvious.

Except to the humble teacher it is. We look through books and see a difference between the quality of work at the start of the year and later on; we are witness to conversations in the classroom which show an increasingly deeper understanding of our subjects; we see students making inferences and leaps based on newly acquired knowledge; we are, over the year, able to elicit more and more nuanced responses from students.

The notion of providing ‘evidence’ of our input is as misguided as it is dangerous: remember, evidence is the answer to a particular question posed of a particular piece of information, often with a particular answer in mind. If the question is, “how much green pen is in this book?” then the answer is the amount of green pen, not the effectiveness of the feedback, if – indeed – that’s what the marking was even for.

And, if we’re all now accepting that learning is invisible then we have to also recognise that our input is going to be at least very difficult to see. Thus marking is a poor proxy for judging a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom, or, indeed, a student’s journey. Just like a student’s activity should not be mistaken for achievement, marking should not be viewed as evidence of effectiveness.

We really should read what our students write, but this doesn’t have to be time-consuming. So, before work is handed in, why not:

  • Ask students to pre-highlight certain key indicators? In history this might be dates, whereas in maths it might be brackets; in a French class it might be a tense.
  • Ask students to pre-edit. Create a ‘here’s what you could’ve included’ list which students then highlight or add in. This is perhaps the one occasion when a different coloured pen is acceptable!
  • Model answers first. Obvs.
  • Scaffold through questions, then gradually remove the scaffolding over time.
  • Give students the common misconceptions beforehand.

But we still have to offer some kind of advice, right? So what can we do?

  • Just ask questions? I’ve always found this a great way to stretch ideas, but do we need to write these down? Why not just give them a load of questions, and maybe number them? Then we could simply number their work: “You have 4, so that means …”
  • And on that, just give numbered tasks? Or next steps?
  • Use marking stickers? The problem with these is that they can be quite generic, but they certainly reduce time if you’re only looking to build technical ability.
  • Use dot marking? Again, these can be generic, but in terms of building a hierarchy of technical accomplishment, as well as a desire to move up the dot-ladder, they work well.
  • What about verbal feedback stamps? No. Their sole point is to provide evidence of feedback, but they do no such thing. Ditch them.
  • Try whole class marking crib sheets? These seem to be becoming more popular as teachers look to reduce the workload, but – again – there is the danger of being too generic or vague. Use them, but remember that anything students produce is knowledge dependent, and as such a very generic sheet might capture only proxies. Just be careful.
  • Write a few notes on a scrap of paper? This might not be the high-vis signposting that some want to see, but it’s at least as effective as anything else suggested above, and has the added bonus of allowing the teacher to be as flexible as necessary. Oh, and it saves a heck load of time.

Thank you so much if you came along. The session seemed to generate a lot of ideas, but then marking always will. I sometimes think I should put “marking” in every blog title, just for the hits.

Also, thank you to Dave Fawcett and Jenny Ludgate for organising the day. It was my first time (after a few years of failing to get a ticket in time) and I was genuinely really impressed. Hopefully I’ll be invited back next year.

10 ways to use clowns in the classroom 

Yes, we’ve all been tickled pink by those cheeky, chainsaw-wielding clowns jumping out of bushes on a dark (k)night, but how can we capture this in the classroom? 

Here are my top ten tips for successful clowning around:

1. Art: dress up as clowns, complete with face paint, and then draw the clowns, paying particular attention to the menace of the baseball bats.

2. Drama: devise a freeze-frame of a young family running hastily into the darkness away from a clown. Extra marks for those adopting a Stanislavskian approach to the axe swinging.

3. English: write a police report/newspaper article about the murder of an elderly couple by “killer” clowns. Use lots of adjectives. And nouns.

4. PE: practise jumping out of bushes whilst waving your arms. Add a beachball in for added difficulty.

5. Geography: plot all the clown sightings in the UK, then colour code for those where emergency services have been called.

6. MFL: learn to say, “Help, I am being chased by a clown” in French. Then Spanish. Then German.

7. History: create a timeline of clowns in the news.

8. Science: devise an experiment to find out the solubility of clowns in highly acidic substances.

9. RE: do clowns have souls?

10. Music: write a theme-tune for a special news report about the genuine fear and panic caused by these absolute jokers.

Stepping up

Once upon a time, on a coastline far, far away, I was asked if I wanted to step up.

Sorry, “Step Up”. A few of us, all within our second or third year teaching, were invited to attend a weekly session, lasting around four months or so, where we’d learn how to become better leaders: we’d find out about middle leadership, maybe do some shadowing, and then be more ready to become the new heads of year, house, or even department.

Four of us got together one lunchtime with our regulation school dinner and custard-drowned desert to decide how best to reject the offer. Why? Many reasons, the most important of which was that we didn’t have time to sit around drinking tepid cups of brown discussing how to make our CVs look like we had more experience than was actually possible. We also didn’t really like the person who was running it. But this wasn’t any kind of certified course in any case, with the final hurrah being a pub meal which the school would put on for us. And, after all, we were only in our second year teaching. There was no rush.

No, we’d all separately – and graciously – reject the offer. Which I did.

My friends, however, did not. They accepted, grudgingly, and were immediately given all sorts of texts to read on synergy and work/life balance matrices etcetera. And they all, both at the start by the end, regretted wasting their own time.

“What are you doing?”, I said to them. “We agreed to say no!”

“Yeah, but we kinda had to, didn’t we? We’re obliged to. How would it have looked if we’d said no?”

“But I did, and so now I look like the only guy who doesn’t care!”

So every week I’d walk past the conference room, and every week I’d catch a glance which pleaded for an excuse to leave. Maybe I could be their saviour? “Sorry Miss, but I really need Jim tonight. Yeah, Amber’s playing up again and he tends to be able to calm her down. If that’s okay with you, mate?”

“If I must!”

But I didn’t. They’d made their bed. In the end I’m not even sure if there was a pub meal, but I know very well how much they thought of their obligatory voluntary course. A few years later I was offered the chance to take the NPQML. Again, I rejected the opportunity. By that point I was already leading a department, and so I wondered what I could gain? It was a difficult enough job without having any extra pressure.

I did actually need some help, but in terms of support from above, not jargon-laden self-appraisal forms. A colleague took the course, which incredibly, as one of its criteria, required said middle leader to attend an SLT meeting and raise a point. Raise a point. That was all. Once raised this box could be ticked. It’s fair to say he felt insulted.

I wrote about this here (with photographic evidence!), but I’ll reproduce an actual task from the course below:

The fourth step is to create a short, internally consistent story of the future that highlights the key implications of the imperatives or drivers for each scenario. The story should develop in detail the most significant variables, and explore the practical implications and alternative ways forward.

Yuk. Really? If this is the kind of rubbish with which our vanguard are trained then don’t be surprised if boldly they ride and well, into the jaws of hell. After all, theirs not to reason why. 

Many people just want to be great teachers. They don’t want to be leaders or thought catalysts or education imagineers. I took on a HoD role too early and nearly went even further before I realised that just being a classroom teacher is actually pretty good. There’s a dignity there which is lost on some, as though being the responsible adult for, perhaps, three-hundred children of a loved-subject is less valuable than being the Cross-Departmental Interactive Whiteboard Trustee. Somewhere I once read that leaders are often the people who don’t necessarily want the position, but who’ve earned it through honesty and the respect of their peers. Maybe stepping up is something that happens not through design, and maybe those who choose to stay put deserve a little more. Ambition is not the sole worth of a person.

Consumer Friendly Pedagogy


As those of you who follow this blog closely will know, I am a big fan of treating our students as stakeholders in what is, really, a rat race to the top of the socio-economic pile. As such, any attempt to reach out and engage further with our partners using what I’ve come to term Consumer Friendly Pedagogy is fine by me. In fact, it’s to be promoted. I want an unashamed corporate attitude towards our young customers.

And so it is with great pleasure that I present to you extracts from a consumer questionnaire taken by stakeholders in a school in the north of England. In this exercise, stakeholders were requested to pick six of the following statements which best described their requirements. Their Content Facilitators then addressed these requirements in a personal capacity, thus individually planning all learning centrally before disseminating the CFP at consumer friendly, correlative pace.

All options are given in their original, consumer friendly language.

  • Use less textbooks in lesson
  • Show me power points with more instructions on them
  • Only ask me if I put my hand up
  • Sound like you care about my progress
  • Have a friendly manner
  • Grade my work
  • Ask me questions during the lesson to check that I understand
  • Make jokes about football or pop culture

Finally, the questionnaire asks stakeholders if there is any other strategy that will help improve their learning. Blue-sky thinking is encouraged.

I, for one, believe this innovative, informative and creative approach to internal marketing and outreach will improve customer relations.

Keeping Quiet


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At Torquay Academy every teacher is coached by another. The idea is to pick something you want to get better at and come up with some kind of plan with a quiet observer who’ll pop in for ten minutes or so a week. My coach, Kathrine, and I share many of the same Y11 girls who just Do. Not. Speak. They say nothing. At all. Even if asked. Sometimes there’s a “don’t know”, followed by a well-practised flick of the hair to disappear, but often there’s a sort of non-smile followed by a shake of the head. It’s even worse when the response is to almost look through me, with a nearly imperceptible shrug of the shoulders, a “I don’t know and I want to show that I don’t care but I don’t even know if I don’t so please don’t ask me anything else and I might say goodbye at the end of the lesson.”

They want to keep quiet.

So our target is to get them to talk, and we’ll share our tactics, successes and failures. There are three girls I’m focussing on, three who really do need to get involved and build some confidence. Why? Because whilst their ability to write is not in question, they don’t build arguments, and when June arrives they’ll have to; because while they’re pleasant and friendly there’s simply no spirit in their communication and they write as if they don’t really care, which might be true; because although I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable in lessons, I also desperately don’t want them to not argue back when they’re older and they need to.

How am I, and how are we, going to achieve this? I feel like we’ve already been successful to an extent by using more and more low-stakes tests. My silent trio invariably get 100% on these, so I use this to celebrate them. Two really like public praise, and it’s beginning to pay off in terms of improving their quiet ethos. The third girl, however, just wants to be ignored. It’s the same in many subjects for her, so I don’t think it’s the subject or me that’s putting her off.

I don’t really want to spend all of my time ignoring everyone else in the class for her sake, but I do want to bring her in from her own exile, to feel the warmth of success. There’s one boy in the group who has finally taken to the subject to such an extent that he even put his hand up to ask a question the other day, whilst another has returned from his summer break with what I can only describe as a soul-transplant. So what is it I can do – just persist? Maybe.

Another thing that’s worked in the past is asking relatively simple questions that are easily answered, or asking the whole class to look back through their books or at their knowledge organisers, and then cold-calling a reluctant speaker. But this girl: it’s not that she can’t answer questions but that she won’t. I’m really not sure what to do if she just wants to keep quiet because it’s so difficult to even build a relationship.

Kathrine and I will keep each other updated with our ideas and, if I can find the time, I’ll pop in to her Y11 class. In the meantime, if you have any ideas, or have had similar experiences – which I’m sure you have! – then let me know. I’d love to get better at this, for my sake partly, but mainly for hers.

Does this sound like a place you’d like to work, where we try to be better every day by focussing on the small things? Then it’s your lucky day! Have a look at this.

Summarising with Y9


At some point last year, exhausted and frustrated with the quality of notes taken at A-level, I made the Cornell method mandatory. Occasionally I’m asked, “Cornell yeah, Sir?” but it’s now such a normal way of working that I rarely have to mention it. What’s been of particular use is the summary section at the bottom, as students can turn back a few pages to quickly check something if need be.

I have no evidence that this is the reason for their improved ability to recall above anything else we’ve done, but it certainly makes finding information much easier.

So, for no other reason than making their books neater for revision, I asked Y9 to do the same thing. Well, almost. At the start of every lesson they draw a line about a fifth of a way up from the bottom of their page and then leave this blank. After one or two hours we then revisit what’s previously been looked at to write a summary, and then check a few using the visualiser. We look for the best overview which should include a flavour of the history studied, with perhaps one or two key dates, people or events.

I suppose these could be called mini-plenaries, but then they aren’t activities, as such, and no time is spent is spent on anything irrelevant to the actual history. We’re at a stage where this is automatic and I’m wondering why Y10 and Y11 aren’t doing the same thing.

Neat books, clearer notes and summaries at the bottom of each page. Easy.

Want to be a better teacher? Then focus on learning, not activites

Unlike last night’s post, I know this is a little controversial with some. But it shouldn’t be.

The more I read about my own subject the fewer activities I prepare. I don’t mean to say that I never let children do something without my total control, but that this is incredibly infrequent. I talk a lot; all the time, in fact. Unless children are writing or reading alone – and, actually, I’m generally reading with them – I’m talking. And I’m doing so because, eight years in, I feel like I know my subject pretty well. I don’t know everything, but there are fewer and fewer questions which stump me.

I talk because I’m the expert and they’re the novices. I talk because I need to show them how to speak, in general and specific terms. I talk to “bring it to life“, whatever that means. I talk to build the basics and describe and explain and make links and keep attention focused and add colour.

If staff come in to my room and say, “Excuse me, Sir – do you have a minute?” my answer is that I don’t. “Shall I come back when they’re getting on with something?” Well, you can try. I’d have liked to write today but we need to re-explain a couple of things so no, no you can’t. I’m not dogmatic, but I don’t like dead time. Couldn’t they just get on with something else? Maybe if it’s Y13, but I need to be in control, not freakishly but overseeing and nudging and pausing and probing by feigning ignorance, or acting surprised or getting really bloody excited about the Weimar constitution.

I don’t like dead time, and I don’t like wasted time. If children are performing an activity – and I choose my words carefully – then they’re doing exactly that. Busy hands make for tick tick tick: One One One! But learning is a process, and a difficult one at that. If an activity is designed to gather information then I’d rather tell them and not waste the time. And by telling them I can point out all the nuances, and bring them along with me at the appropriate pace, all together and together as one. We can colour as we go.

I don’t want to see a charade which hollers to the rooftops its inability to tell me what’s really going on. An activity to complete is often an end-of-act curtain hiding the stage hands struggling with the props, and Lord knows there are enough dusty curtains getting in the way of our ability to witness learning anyway. Learning is not a series of immediately snapshottable end-points, so let’s not fall for Polaroid-planning, Instagramming our way through lessons.

Focus on the subject itself.



Want to be a better teacher? Read something new every night

I don’t think this is too controversial, or perhaps anything profound, but I’ve just this moment realised that, due to my whack-a-mole reading habits, I read something new about history every single night. Sometimes I might read a single page before a hand snakes out of the duvet to the light switch, whilst at other times I’ll read for a few hours.

This is nothing new for many of us, but what I’ve realised is that I use some of that new knowledge every day. Last night I was reading a bit of Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands (not a light read) and found myself talking a little bit about the failure of collectivisation in Ukraine in 1931 today to a Y9 class. They were starting to see similarities in the autocratic rule of Stalin and Hitler, and so were struggling to understand the traditional left-right differences (although they did eventually come up with the horse shoe with which history teachers will be au fait)I do this a lot, but I hadn’t made the rather obvious link to my own reading habits.

Had I not read those few pages last night the world wouldn’t have ended, but it’s just an extra piece of colour in the history. Every bit of knowledge expands my palette, and with each new shade I can – apparently without realising it – paint a new detail which better illustrates the past. And knowledge breeds knowledge.

Do I go out of my way to find something new every night? Not purposefully, but one might, I suppose. Maybe it’s just my timeline, but I often see mathematicians sharing difficult equations, and geographers sharing new maps, peppered with interesting data. But how often are we aware of giving students this knowledge? And if we’re not, should we be? I think so.

Read one thing new every night and share it the next day. Find an opportunity and actually say, “So, I read last night that x, y, z – isn’t that amazing?” It shows you’re learning, but also that you care about your subject and the world. Colour in your subject.


I taught a girl for a year before I realised she was from Birmingham

I once taught a girl who was, apparently, disruptive in every lesson bar mine. She didn’t do any work in mine, but she wasn’t disruptive. She wrote stuff down and at least began to answer exam questions, but nothing more. She was, for a year or so, lost in her own daydreams, a sort of history cataracts with the odd moment of, “Jemma, sit up, please” to jolt her sight back into focus.

She didn’t turn up to the parents/parent’s/parents’ evening in Y10, but surprisingly did at the beginning of Y11.

“Jemma, the thing is, I don’t think we’ve ever really spoken. You don’t answer my questions in lessons, and you barely murmur to announce your presence when I take the register, and you don’t even return my hello when you walk in. In fact, I don’t know what I’d say to you in the corridor if we passed each other!”

“That’s sad, Sir”, she said, in a Brummy accent which I’d not once previously noticed. It was as many words as I’d ever heard her strong together.

“I know!”, I replied, taken aback. 

“Why don’t you think we could have a conversation?”

“Because we never have in lesson, I suppose. I’d like to, but I’ve not been able to drag the historian which chose this GCSE out of you. What have I done wrong? Is there something I need to do more of?”

She was stumped, as was I. And then, as per the norm, she said nothing more as the conversation continued, now with mum. 

Jemma ended up getting a G, which was an incredible result given she’d done virtually nothing for two years. But that second year, after I realised she was from Birmingham, she did actually speak in lessons. Just occasionally her hand would flash up, too, and she’d have the right answer or sometimes even questions. 

At the end of the year she said goodbye, and that she knew she’d get a poor grade, but that it was her fault and that she wished she’d spoken more in Y10. I said that I regretted not having had that conversation in Y10, early on, when it was obvious that she wasn’t putting the work in. We both silently agreed it was too late. 

I have a couple of children like that in Y11 now, the children who’ve never spoken up for fear of being wrong, or just with the experience of never being listened to by peers, or even at home. They’re my focus right now, and it’s tough, but I think I’ve made headway with a couple. I’m determined that, if nothing else, they don’t feel like taking history was a waste of time. And at least I know they’re from Devon.

Want to work at Torquay Academy?

That’s right, I’m hiring myself out as a human-advertising board.

We, Torquay Academy, need a Head of Humanities (or HOLA*, as we call them here) for January 2017. Our excellent previous HOLA has moved across to a Head of Year position and so a vacancy has appeared. You’ll have to work with me, but don’t let that put you off! We have an ever-improving team, with new faces and an absolute determination to teach great History, Geography and Religious Studies.

The school is really something to behold. After the appointment of a new Principal a couple of years ago the school’s results have skyrocketed, the Ofsted grade has jumped to Good, and we’re even winning awards.  There’s a real emphasis on getting better, both in terms of the children’s success and teacher practice, with a focus on using Teach Like A Champion to help capture those really successful, but often small and ignored, parts of our teaching.

Here’s what the school’s website says about why you should work at TA:

Torquay Academy is an exciting and rewarding place to work. We expect our students to work very hard and all of our staff lead by example; a growth mindsets approach applies to everyone in our community!

We know that a world class school can only be built by having the very best teachers. A lot of time is spent ensuring we all improve – every teacher has two weekly coaching sessions: one in class and one analysing the lesson. One twilight each term focuses on T&L and we have biweekly TAPD (Torquay Academy Professional Development) sessions. We kick off the year with a Teaching and Learning Conference at the Grand Hotel. You will be working with colleagues who share a passion for teaching. We implement Teach Like a Champion strategies and take time practising them to ensure we are at our best when we “go live” in the classroom.

“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.” Dylan Wiliam.

In 2015 Torquay Academy was one of the three most improved schools in the South West. Student progress in English and Maths far exceed national averages. We have been awarded the “Outstanding GCSE Results” by Pixl for our 2015 results. In spite of this success every member of staff at TA knows that we can do even better for our boys and girls in the future.

If you join TA you will be signing up to the belief that “everyone succeeds” and that “every student who joins TA is capable of going on to university”. If you join a school it is important you share its goals and values; Doug Lemov describes this as a strategic choice:

“the process of both teachers and school choosing each other explicitly based in part on shared mission and a set of core beliefs — is our work measurable? Does knowledge matter? How important is writing? How much orderliness is required? Do we care how classrooms are arranged? Do we care what books teachers choose to read? Do we care how they read them? When schools are explicit about these things, and seek likeminded teachers who want to be “good” by the same definition, the prime beneficiaries are often the teachers themselves”.

We care about all of these things. If you do as well please get in touch (you can do this even if we are not advertising as we maintain confidential lists so we can contact you when a job opportunity arises). I am always delighted to talk to colleagues who are interested in joining our community and signing up to our Vision.

Steve Margetts (Principal).

There’s even a video (where you might spot me**) of one of our T&L conferences here.

So, fancy it? If so then email Stella Morgan at or, if you’d like to know more, get in contact with me at or on Twitter at @MrHistoire.

*Head of Learning Area.

**Having just re-watched the video it turns out I’m all over it.