Suffocating young writers.

This article originally appeared in the Times Educational Supplement, a magnificent publication which you can subscribe to here.

 

It’s hard to describe to those who don’t work in primary schools the intense satisfaction and pride that travels alongside watching young children transform from novice writers, unable to transcribe a simple sentence, to authors who pen an entire story, woven and plucked from their imaginations. Our role as teachers in this process is critical in nourishing two key aspects of accomplished writing.

The first is the mechanical process, which includes letter formation, correct punctuation and sentence construction. But alongside this, children must acquire a creative flair that allows them to come up with ideas, innovate, organise their thoughts and arrange them on a page for some imagined audience. In short, writing is a tremendously complex and difficult process, consisting of dozens of sub-processes making painful demands on the pitifully limited working-memory that we are all stuck with.

When trying to assist children in balancing all these spinning plates and coming out the other side as independent and confident writers, marking can get in the way. In fact, I’d argue marking can have unintended consequences that end up doing more harm than good.

Since it is so easy for those who do not teach a class full time to forget, it is worth laying out just what a rigorous marking policy can cost in terms of time. An average primary school teacher will deliver at least one maths, one literacy and one topic lesson per day. With a class of 30, that totals 90 books to be marked after the kids go home. If only two minutes is given to read and respond to each book, it will take three hours to clear the pile. Three hours of marking. Every day.

While these overly-burdensome marking policies are written by the senior leadership teams of individual schools, the high stakes nature of Ofsted inspections has caused many, especially those carrying the cross of a ‘requires improvement’ status, to forget exactly who marking is for, and why we do it.

I have found myself guilty of this. After noticing a child wasn’t starting a new line for a new speaker while writing dialogue, I explained this convention and told her to follow it for the rest of their piece. Then, without thought, I scribbled in the margin exactly what I had just told her. “What are your doing?” the child asked, confused.

“Don’t worry, that’s not for you.” I replied.

Well who the hell is it for, then? I later asked myself.

Although there have recently been some very promising reforms and clarifications, spearheaded by National Director Sean Harford, Ofsted must bear some responsibility for the chaos of marking and the potentially damaging effect it is having on students. Schools, desperate to secure a magic ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ rating from Ofsted, scour recent reports for clues of how to impress their impending visitors. A simple search of the Watchsted website returns comments from recent inspection reports like:

Teachers’ written comments in marking do not always give pupils precise enough guidance on how to improve their work -108800

Pupils do not have a clear understanding of what they have achieved or how they can improve their work because marking is not always thorough – 115606

It is not difficult to see how these comments, both published in the last twelve months, could mold and supercharge a school’s marking policy. If this were only crushing teachers’ work/life balance with unreasonable demands, it would be bad enough, but this baseless ‘advice’ means children aren’t able to stretch their wings as writers and take ownership of their work. They follow a checklist laid out by an expert who does all of the hard work for them. Writing is reduced to a dull, generic formula of fronted adverbials and developed noun phrases.

When caught in the maelstrom of life in the classroom, with duties freewheeling down a never ending to-do list, it is so easy for us to lose sight of the bigger picture; the end goal. In short, we want our students to become proficient and motivated writers. The work of professor Robert Bjork shows how mechanistic feedback from teachers can get in the way of the former.

He has demonstrated that ‘desirable difficulties’ – i.e. not spoon feeding the student – improves student’s retrieval of important information in the longer term. After all, why would a child remember to start their sentence with a capital letter if they know that you’ll circle them all for them later that evening.

“They are desirable because they enhance long-term retention and transfer,” he explains, “they’re difficulties because they pose challenges. They slow down the rate that your own performance is improving as a student. And the consequence of that is that they can be easily unappreciated.”

But what of motivation? Surely marking children’s work at least ensures that they are driven to write?

It seems plausible enough, but rests on a mistaken belief of what motivates us. By rewarding every piece of work with a gold star or written praise, we are laying extrinsic motivators on top of an activity that should be inherently desirable. In Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn makes the point more clearly, summarising one of the most robust findings from social psychology: “the more you reward someone for doing something, the less interest that person will tend to have in whatever he or she was rewarded to do”.

A more natural way to motivate children to write is to provide an authentic purpose for doing so. So, asking children to write letters to public figures or organisations (and sending them), publishing articles for a school newspaper, or creating recipes to feature in a cookbook that is sent home to parents will provide a much greater drive than writing ‘so I can improve my level’ (a genuine response from a child when I asked why we were practising writing letters).

Perhaps one of the most promising uses of technology over the last five years in primary school is the Pobble website (previously Lend Me Your Literacy), which allows pupils to publish their work and have it read and commented on by teachers and students across the globe. Forgetting capital letters, then, becomes something that a student is compelled to check not because their teacher scribed it as a ‘wish’, or because it features on their target sheet in the front of their book, but because it’s embarrassing to miss them when you have a real audience.

If we abandon the received wisdom that every piece of writing must be post-scripted with obligatory Praise and Next Steps which require no reflection or thought, then we might just start to see children emerge as real writers, unafraid to make messy drafts, but meticulous final versions. They may well actively seek feedback and be compelled to implement it, rather than have it enforced upon them. They may well begin to flourish and light a fire within themselves that we couldn’t put out if we tried. 

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