My Life Without A Red Pen Would Be by @Mike_Gunn

Reading time: 3


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
Read more about @TeacherToolkit

This post answers the 20th question from my TeacherToolkit Thinking page of Thunks. You can see my other top-Thunks here.

Thunk 20: My life without a red pen would be…? by @Mike_Gunn

Answer below:

My life without a red pen would be…much simpler, but much harder!

For a start, I wouldn’t be able to fall back on the age-old teacher safety-net, that means I could correct everything, and feel like I’ve really helped my students. Even though they will ignore most of what I’ve written, and definitely ignore grammar and spelling corrections! Sometimes, I don’t know why I bother… With this whole self-delusion thing, I mean!

It’s clear to me now, that for years I was either creating in my students, a dependency on me, which stopped them thinking things through for themselves and learning to take responsibility for the little things. Or, at worst, I was wasting a massive amount of my own time, making myself feel like an over-worked martyr, and yet having no impact at all on the students’ learning.

“A-ha!” …I hear you all cry (I have excellent hearing, even from here in my martyr’s bunker!).

“That’s what you meant by it being easier on you without the red pen! But what’s all this rubbish about it being harder too? It doesn’t make sense, old-boy!?”

Well, patronise me if you will (oh, you just did), but marking gets a bit harder when you know your students don’t take much notice of it, and you still have to do it.

“How do I make this marking as effective as possible?”, that’s the question.

Ok, for starters; I need to take away anything which is preventing my students from learning from this new highly effective marking I’m doing. So, there go the grades. I realise I’m skating on the thin-ice, that is conchie talk here, but Dylan Wiliam knows what he’s talking about, even if I don’t.
“More surprisingly, give them formative feedback AND grades, and they don’t improve either”

Give a class formative feedback, and they improve. Give them grades, and they don’t. More surprisingly, give them formative feedback AND grades, and they don’t improve either. Not what I was taught, so I had to experiment with that one, but sure enough the Bald-Beardy-Wise-One was right.

So out go the grades. Next thing to get rid of is the underlining, circling, crossing and correcting. Because the students take one look at it, and somehow achieve the feat of both ignoring and being deflated by it… (How you can be depressed by something you ignored is beyond me, but I’m
not physicist. Must be something quantum.)

My Life Without A Red Pen

So, do I replace this with precise, lengthy notes in the margins? Again, no. They won’t read more than a certain amount, and it will again depress the fragile little souls, so it’s pointless. Instead, some carefully selected “What Went Well” comments, and two “Even Better Ifs”, maximum. This is the bit where the marking gets harder. Because, if I have only a couple of comments to make a difference to their work, then I’d best be thinking really carefully about which two will have maximum impact, and how I phrase those comments to get the best out of the students.

Usually, a suggested improvement can be improved with a question for them to think about; a good old-fashioned thunk to really get them to re-evaluate their work. That’s where the hard part of parting with my red pen comes in: less writing, equals more thinking on a much more profound level, about how students themselves can be made to think just as profoundly as I am in marking their work.

Hurts your head a bit, doesn’t it?!

For those of you wanting to start down the road to the pen-less utopia, I have described my best tips: below:

1) Get your students to do written work on Google Docs.
2) Get them to share their work with you, and with their classmates.
3) Make sure they set their share preferences to “Comment”, but not “Edit”: this takes away
the temptation to correct bits of their work.
4) Make sure they respond to every one of your comments clearly, so you know they’ve thought through what you’ve said…

I’m not saying it will make your students geniuses, but it’s been my experience that it will get them to take responsibility for their own work, even if it’s for the tiniest little errors; it will get them thinking about how to improve their work in much more profound way.

If changing the way you mark, achieves even that, that’s a good enough starting point for me. Either that, or use a green pen…

by Media teacher @Mike_Gunn, edited and posted by @TeacherToolkit.

Mike has been a teacher for 17 years and subject leader for almost as long, in three different schools and three different subjects. Currently he is specialising in Media Arts and Film, and Head of an Outstanding Creative Arts Faculty at Finham Park School. He is lately, a self-confessed evangelist for flipped learning, ICT and iPad pedagogy…

You can follow Mike’s blog, ‘Failing to Learn Better’ here:

Media teacher, @Mike Gunn

2 thoughts on “My Life Without A Red Pen Would Be by @Mike_Gunn

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.