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Exercise Books, Leadership, Progress, Uncategorized

Purple Pen Revolution and the Power of the Written Word

purple pen

Should we have a feedback policy? If a student is making excellent progress, what difference does it make?

Zoe James has a response to David Didau’s thought provoking post about book monitoring…

We are reviewing our teaching and learning policy and as dry as that sounds, it has actually been both a fascinating and positive process.  The policy has been debated by staff from across the curriculum and pay grades and the intent of the document seems genuinely to liberate and empower the classroom teacher:  certainly a far cry from the largely irrelevant, top down policy approaches I’ve experienced in the past.

On Thursday we tackled feedback. A thorny subject for any teacher but I left the meeting feeling really rather pleased at the approach that was being espoused: the minimum expectation is half termly feedback, which can take a range of forms. It seemed great… But then I read David Didau’s blog, ‘The Problem with Book Monitoring’ and was momentarily seduced by its radicalism. If a school insists on prescriptive written feedback, it is, he suggests, simply managerialism:  something simple for middle and senior leaders to check in book looks.  If a student is making excellent progress, what difference does it make?

I thought again about our shiny new feedback policy.  David’s argument certainly sounded convincing.  Despite everything that was great about our policy, we were still entrenched in idea that a written comment or a mark on a piece of paper or computer is essential.

Thankfully, however, a cover lesson provided me with an apt reminder that marking, whatever way you do it, is integral both to the teaching and learning process.  During Period 3 a colleague had covered my Year 11 class and, as they were diligently writing their paragraphs about ‘Othello’, had moved round the class, jotting single word points that would improve their writing in the margin.  ‘Leader pleaser’ was my initial post-Didau reaction when I looked at their books later that day: “Why not simply discuss these ideas with my students?  Who are these comments for anyway?”  But as I read on, I realised that actually, as much as these comments were for students, they were for me too. Instructing students how to make progress is not the sole purpose marking.  These comments weren’t written to please me or another manager (although they were precise and helpful) but as a reminder.  We write important things down in order to remember them, to reflect on them, to give them the benefit of consideration over time.   For the most part, I check that my students have made progress by looking at my previous comments, not by rereading their earlier work:  too time consuming.  The average English teacher in our school probably teaches about 130 students a fortnight.  Other subject areas will teach far more.  Marking is a vital aide memoire.  If I can see that I’m setting the same target for a student for the second time, I know I need to try a different strategy.   The same is true for students. As much as I’d like to imagine my conversations with students hold a special place in their memory, I fear that is not the case:  like me they will forget as they leave my class and move to one of the 10 other subjects they’re studying.

So, I agree with David Didau, that if a student is making excellent progress it really doesn’t matter whether a book has been marked.  And equally, he is right in stating that book scrutiny must be about looking for progress and not making teachers slavishly adhere prescriptive marking checklists.  However, it is difficult imagine a real school where written comment in some form isn’t key to learning. The written word holds power for a reason:  teachers’ and students’ brains are busy places, brimming with information:  as a result, we forget.  Written comment reminds us and gives us the benefit of time, allowing us to reflect, build and develop.  Our teaching policy needs to be pragmatic in this respect: we want students to progress and know that this is highly unlikely to occur in without some kind of written feedback. But, this is clearly this is a point for debate and if anyone has ideas to challenge this I’d be interested hearing them.



2 thoughts on “Purple Pen Revolution and the Power of the Written Word

  1. Hi PP – to be clear, I have no problem with teachers marking students’ work. As you say, it can be useful for all sorts of reasons. What I object to is forcing teachers to mark in a particular format. It may be that there are some teachers at your school who are underperforming – if so you might want to consider compelling them to follow a particular frequency and format of marking. But if you’re not worried about a teacher, let them do what they judge best. By all means ask them to justify that choice, but start by assuming they are the experts.

    One other point, the marking example you write about above is interesting and will no doubt have resulted in improved performance. What I would also consider is the extent to which improving performance in lessons makes understanding less flexible and durable. Not sure if you saw this post on pupil response: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/assessment/should-students-respond-to-feedback/

    Thanks, David


    Posted by David Didau | December 8, 2015, 12:08 pm
  2. Hi David, thanks for your comment. Yes I have seen the other post you mention – indeed the thoughts and questions you pose have been a really useful reference when trying to formulate a document that will guide the work that teachers here are going to be doing. The principles of allowing the teacher to be the expert is exactly what we are trying to achieve and provide the freedoms so that teachers can find and use the methods that work best for them and their students. We have indicated that we expect a student to receive formative feedback at least once per half term – more often is fine if the teacher feels the need – the method of providing that feedback is down to the teacher. A non negotiable is that students then use the feedback to improve the quality of their work, not write a comment or commentary…a point that I think aligns with your view!

    All the best,



    Posted by @purplepedagogy | December 8, 2015, 12:19 pm

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