Why I've stopped marking essays

This is what I don't do much anymore.
Why do we write? Why do people put words together and share them? What kind of response do we want?

When a student writes, how do I as a teacher respond? What do they get back from me? Does my response match the motivations central to the process of creation? Will it encourage them to create more?

There are two problems with marking the way it is traditionally done:
  1. Nobody has ever written anything hoping to have all of their errors identified. The feedback I need to give my students needs to focus on the purpose of the text and how that purpose is achieved. I need to identify elements of the text that work and don't work for the reader, and some of those elements might be specific language errors and usage, but specific 'errors' of the text should not be prior to the more holistic response to the ideas and purpose of the text.
  2. Red-pen marking (even when done in blue) is essentially proofreading. There is a time to proofread, and it is before the text is published, and it needs to be done by the student with support from the teacher and peers. Students need to own that process. *
The purpose of a written assessment is to communicate first and to identify areas for growth second. My response to a student's work should reflect those priorities. I need to respect their efforts and voice, and then point out what they might do differently the next time, identifying process issues as much as outcome issues. If a student struggles with structure, I need to define that, but also discuss how their process might be adjusted to allow for more focus on structure.  

What do I do instead?
  1. I still comment on the text, but it tends to be more about my response to the content and my process of reading. If something is interesting, I say so: if something is confusing or unclear, likewise.  
  2. I use a rubric to respond to students more holistically. The rubric breaks down the different elements of the text and allows me to isolate them In terms of language usage, I will identify general issues (sentence structure, sloppy spelling, comma use) and sometimes link to resources for them to get more help. 
  3. As we work on a text in class, I require them to look at the feedback from previous assessments to see where they're at and what they need to concentrate on or compensate for. Because they have laptops in class, they are working during class and I am much more involved in the process, helping with developing proofreading skills as we go. I can work with individuals to identify their own strengths and challenges and develop a process for progression.
A rubric I use. This is from the IB MYP Language & Literature criteria. The highlighted text is task-specific clarification.

Some of this is prompted by my own time management. I want my students to write a lot, and if I am doing very detailed proofreading-style marking, I don't have time to get it back fast enough for them to do more.

When I have written something, whether it is a blog post or a story or a lesson, I want feedback. I want a dialogue. But I don't want a proofreading. And so I will extend the Golden Rule to my students and provide more of the kind or response that creative people seek.

* I know that some teachers take the approach that no text is ever finished -- that you can always go back and re-work and edit. I can see some merits in that approach, but part of creating is completing. We can reflect after we publish, but that is a different thing than reflecting as part of the immediate process.


New Phone pedagogy: experience & information

One way of thinking about learning – a quite traditional model – is that first we learn, and then we do. 

As a composition teacher, I used to teach students long lessons about structure and process and the nature of a good thesis and all of that, and then they would go off and write. This is also how traditional math classes work, and it is how I remember science classes working when I was in school.

At some point, I realised this doesn’t work: my composition students weren’t applying the detailed, abstract principles of composition to their own writing. The dichotomy between learning and doing is false. I needed a new model.

As we all move through a task or work toward an objective, we will find the information we need and solve the problems as they come up. As a general principle, I definitely believe in that.

However, to be totally successful, students need some background to make sense out of their experience. I’ll use reading Shakespeare as an example: in the best of all possible worlds, I would take students to see a performance of Hamlet, and then we would read the bits they thought were the most important, and then they would develop their own reading of the text and demonstrate their own reading in a coherent and interesting manner.

But in reality, there are some bits of information – about Elizabethan England, about drama, even about basic critical theory – that I know will make this a better experience for them. To give them that information will make it possible for them to access the play at a level that makes more sense.

To put it another way: I was talking to a teacher of grade 6 Science. He said that he would love to have students just do experiments that may or may not validate their hypotheses and then respond to them. The problem is they don’t have a very developed scientific framework, or as he put it, ‘enough information to ask the right questions.’ On the other hand, you don’t want to give away all of the answers and have experiments that just validate or illustrate things that have been explained. There is power to the surprise, but they need to know enough to make sense out of it.

Experiential learning is the right way to go – where assessment experiences drive the learning rather than respond to the learning – but it needs to be supported with some theory or background information.

New Phone Pedagogy

When I get a new phone, it might come with a manual. But I’m not going to read the entire manual before I use the phone. I’m going to look at the ‘Getting Started’ instructions.

This allows me to turn the phone on and understand how it basically operates. Then I’m going to play with the phone. If I come across a problem or a feature I don’t understand, then I go to the manual and look it up, but mostly I learn how to use my new phone by using my new phone.

When I start a new unit, I ask myself, what is the bare minimum of information students need to be able to discover things for themselves? 

I could spend a week on the context, or have students research these topics, or have them watch documentaries as homework, but I really want to get into the play. This doesn’t mean students won’t want more information while reading the play, but that will grow out of honest inquiry as we read through the play: Why would he act like that? Why would the author use that word? Why is this so hard to follow? etc.

Likewise, I boiled down the elements of a student essay, which I encourage students to stray from as they are ready to do so. We can get through this very quickly and get writing, asking and answering questions as we work.

I’m interested in inquiry-based learning, but I’m interested in its practical application rather than as an ideal. New Phone Pedagogy is a way for me to understand the role traditional learning might play in empowering students to have learning experiences that invite greater inquiry.