Triple impact feedback on the EEF marking review

1.The EEF publish a review of the evidence of marking.
2. I give them some feedback.
3. The EEF respond to my criticisms.
4. Well… we could go on for ever. Feel familiar?

James Richardson and Robbie Coleman, say they’d be happy “if people took the current lack of evidence on marking as the key finding of the report.” So would I. Unfortunately, I don’t think that will be the case.

Teachers and school leaders are desperate to have their views validated and some will, I fear, latch on to the weakly evidenced “findings” the report offers. Now of course, absence of evidence is not at all the same of evidence of absence. I made clear that it may turn out that the advice offered is sound. The trouble is, we don’t know enough to take that chance. Richardson and Coleman say they had a choice. They could  have said, “Sorry, we don’t know any more than you do, but here’s some research we looked at.” Or, as they chose to do, they could say. “We don’t really know anymore than you do, but we’re going to offer some advice anyway.”

They defend this choice by saying the alternative would have been a waste of time. Would it? Who’s time would it have wasted? The fact that there is very weak evidence on marking comes as something of a shock to most teachers. When I talk school leaders through the research you can see their pallor spread as they feel certainties shift beneath their feet. This is healthy. Far from being a waste of time, the clear and unambiguous message that no one knows how best to mark – or even if marking is worth the effort at all – could have ushered in a coming of age for education. Instead of compelling teachers to mark in ways which are definitely inefficient and potentially nugatory we might have had to stop and think. The review, and the evidence it discusses is quite valuable enough without making such weakly supported recommendations.

The second pillar of their defence is the assertion that they didn’t want to “underestimate the ability of schools to deal with imperfect information”. Honestly, I don’t think it’s possible to underestimate the ability of schools to deal with imperfect information. I can’t think of any research, proposal, or fad which hasn’t been jumped on with wild abandon as the solution to all of education’s ills by at least someone. Look at the mess we made of assessment for learning. Look at the way Dweck’s research on mindsets is currently being mangled. Even where evidence is pretty strong, schools fall over themselves to misinterpret it to the point of meaninglessness. This may not be a popular message, but we just aren’t mature enough to handle this much ambiguity… yet.

But it’s this statement that really staggers me:

Clearly, the findings are not strong enough to make decisive contributions or to undermine particular policies that schools have carefully considered and believe work well. But it does not follow from this that time spent engaging with the existing evidence-base is a waste of time.

It does not follow from anything I’ve written that I believe “engaging with the existing evidence-base is a waste of time.” This is very lazy reasoning. The time spent engaging with the existing evidence base was hugely valuable and I’m very pleased that the EEF undertook to do so. But it really does follow that making weakly supported recommendations is not only wasteful, but irresponsible and potentially harmful.

So let me be clear: I’m really glad this review was undertaken. Finding out that we don’t know nearly as much as we thought we knew is fabulous. Hopefully this will herald in genuinely useful research into how teachers should best give feedback and how schools can best support these process. But, please, no more well-intentioned but dubious assertions on what “clearly” follows from a lamentably weak evidence base.

12 Responses to Triple impact feedback on the EEF marking review

  1. Toby French says:

    “We think taking the former course would have been a mistake for two reasons. First, and perhaps most importantly, it would have wasted valuable time. Given the dearth of evidence on marking, there is collective agreement that more research is needed, and alongside the publication of the report the EEF announced that £2million has been ring-fenced for exactly this purpose.”

    Ha! Translation: we’re spending a pile of cash so we’d best say something.

  2. Gunther says:

    I read the report yesterday. I couldn’t say there really is hardly no evidence. The report does not usefully link the text to the studies. There is not a lot of detail in the methodology, for example inclusion criteria. In most cases ‘no research’ claims, turn out to be more nuanced. The current reference list does not have a lot of newer publications, and the scope of what marking is, could be clearer. As an example: articles on feedback is under ‘corrections’. Surely there is quite a lot on feedback. Same on psychometric literature on assessment. Etc. Etc.

  3. There are people who could arguably put two million pounds to much better use for improving education with the research-findings they know of already.

  4. […] to use. I believe the EEF is trying to fulfil this role, but you only have to look at their recent summary of the evidence on marking to see that they’re not fully realising their potential or being as useful to teachers as […]

  5. “Whose time would it have wasted? ” I am sure that SLT will waste many more hours of pointless meetings on this rather than looking into how to cut down on contact teaching hours to reduce the workload.

  6. Oggi says:

    “particular policies that schools have carefully considered and believe work well”. My last school was about being “Ofsted-ready” and their careful consideration was reading Ofsted reports and replicating whatever was praised in them.

  7. […] In 2016 the EEF produced a review of the evidence on marking and found that there is a distinct lack of any evidence to demonstrate what effect marking has on learning or, put more clearly, “no-one knows how best to mark or even if marking is worth the effort at all” (Didau). […]

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