Although I have developed and shared my formative markbook over three or four years, it has not been used widely. It has been picked up by several schools, and across both science and liberal arts practitioners. I have reflected about its use somewhat:

However, its use and aims have somewhat drifted recently. That is until an esteemed colleague recently raised pertinent (and appreciated) questions that have got me thinking about the kind of critique such a thing needs to make it entirely useful.

Let’s start with the most important question:

1) What is it used for?

The ultimate aim, as is the case with all my teaching, is to inspire my students. Nothing less is adequate. How can that be measured? I define inspiration in this instance as the ability of my students to choose any text (both canonical and of their choosing) and being able to judiciously choose the tools that they think most useful to analyse (or create) it, for the purpose that they desire (or need).

2) What does that actually mean?

That they are able to employ the language framework I provide in a way that benefits them beyond the class.

As in, that actually do so. Evidenced.

3) What did you create it?

Like with most supposedly-teleological creations (created for a purpose that exists outside of its creation), this was not initially created with this in mind (although that drove it on its initial inception). A famous(ly good) head teacher told me that students should receive formative targets once per week upon which to act. Like I have said elsewhere, having 100+ books to mark formatively once per week seemed to me to be logistically unrealistic. That would involve deprioritising many people-related activities in school (I would be marking instead), or deprioritising much of my weekend. Yet regular formative targets seemed to be ideal. Therefore, through research from my networks with TES, NATE and RL (real life!), I began to develop and use rubrics.

This is something that teachers primarily find useful in my practice, and often begin to use themselves. Most notably, Carol Weale of Danecourt Grammar, and Natalie Dale of Banbury High both find their own formidable practice enhanced by rubric marking and planning.

Rubric-based marking empowers a teacher. As a much-loved colleague said to me a month or so ago, I am not (necessarily) paid to write curriculum. However, I am responsible for the learning (and, inherently, the growth) of my students. Personalised rubrics (based on APP and DFES criteria) allow my students to respond to, and absorb, the criteria needed to improve their skills.

Most significantly, such rubrics allow a teacher to produce genuine feedback in a rapid manner (an expert teacher can judge a piece of work in moments once the rubric is truly understood). By this, the formative feedback once a week becomes a realistic target.

4) So if rubrics are so important, why do you need the markbook?

The markbook is not as important as the rubrics. The rubrics are key. I would go so far as to say that the rubric based marking system (in addition to other rolling/maintenance marking practice) is the aspect that makes the most significant difference to students – especially in an esoteric subject like English.

The markbook, however, allows more precise planning of lessons as formative patterns of achievement can be mapped. You can see exactly what skills the students need to hone, and begin to plan the most appropriate topics to which to return. In the subjects that are skills-based rather than content-based (another argument in itself), this is a revelation.

5) Is the mapping of formative patterns of achievement a worthwhile priority when it might lead to the deprioritisation of other tasks in school? AKA ‘Will this take too long?’

I have refined the mapping of formative assessment to the extent that it does not take as long as you would think. If students hand their work in with a particular order, opened to the work that will be marked, then a class of 30 can be completed in 30 minutes (including all the setting up, getting a cup of coffee etc.).

However, I think that if this considered an ‘extra’ when integrating into practice, then even 30 minutes per class is too much. Therefore, during specific lessons once a month or so, I will see all the students to review all their work, and to help them map their achievement. At the same time, I will map this achievement onto my markbook. This kind of ‘flight path’ is especially useful for observers who want to assess if students know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and where they think they are going.

6) But, really, what is the purpose of mapping formative achievement?

As I said earlier, the purpose of the markbook has to be beyond providing tracking data that impresses observers. Ofsted enjoyed this, and when this matches a seating plan (something that I have drawn away from due the transient population and my current deprioritisation of the need for seating plans). There is certainly a danger of the markbook is that is acts as merely ‘proof’ that marking and progress has occured

When this data is shared – AND CREATED – with students, it is further reinforcement of the frameworks that I want them to create. They become more empowered to make criteria-based judgements about the quality of their work, and of how to improve it. When encountering new texts in a unfamiliar context (i.e. outside an exam, or in a different classroom), the robustness of their framework will be tested.

7) So how can this formative markbook be tested to see if it is worth the time dedicated to use it?

This is the essential question, especially if other teachers are to dedicate their time to exploring formative markbooks.

The first thing I would look to is the recent suggestion (although its roots stretch back) that you cannot validly measure progress in the course of one lesson. You can mark formative achievement in a lesson via a rubric and prove progress in terms of doing so (i.e. they have deepened their knowledge or skills, or learned fundamentally new knowledge since the start of the lesson).

This isn’t really enough, though. Has that knowledge been retained? How has it degraded? Why is there (outside Japan and their three year ‘lesson studies’) so little in the way of follow up observations to see if specific learning has been achieved?

I guess that people would not want Ofsted to arrive three weeks, then three months again after the initial visit!

We could seek to isolate the variable of using the formative markbook and then use qualitative data harvesting to see if students feel they have gained from the frameworks I have provided. Like with most action research, this is still a difficult experiment to conduct with validity.

I think that these would help teachers see if it is worth dedicating time:

a) Achieve consistently excellent results with all students by mapping formative marking (requires cross-school support for students who have significant gaps in their ability to work independently: no framework can be bestowed if there is no receptiveness by the student).

b) Produce students who can articulate to others what they are doing, and why they are doing it.

c) Produce students who can articulate (and respond to) targets that are specific, criteria-based and personalised.

d) Do all this and still have a life/time for other responsibilities!

Final thoughts

I would say, though, that without an inherent understanding of the framework you use to teach, the markbook cannot achieve its purpose.

You need to have a series of personalised rubrics for each of your classes in order for the quantitative data of the markbook to have qualitative sense.

You need to share with the students regularly where there are on the formative scale of the framework.

The pressures of Ofsted et al. mean that this markbook can become a ‘proving tool’. In the heat of the moment this is nice. Yet it needs to be combined with effective, evidence-based practice – and to be used to enhance an already-effective working relationship with the students – in order to achieve its stated aims.

As with all things, seeing how far down the road my students are in three weeks, then three months, with this framework will determine whether this mission is worth its time. We will see… At least now, a challenge to examine its worth has been set!