The colour red can symbolise many things. The positive attributes can denote success, happiness and excitement. Yet, red is a colour that can also represent anger, dominance and wrong doing. Some even say that the red pen that is so commonly used to mark students work is considered to be too confrontational and aggressive.
Instead, teachers are being encouraged to use a plethora of colours to mark work which are reasoned to be more calming for their students. The gradual change in marking techniques, which originated in the US, has flowed on to Australia, with Queensland adopting the marking guidelines in 2008. The Queensland’s Government’s introduction of these education kits, warns teachers to not use red ink as it can damage the student’s psychology. The Good Mental Health Rocks kit, which costs nearly $3000, has been distributed to many state schools in the region.
The elimination of red pens, the removal of negative comments on a child’s report - no matter what the results or the behaviour standards and no longer using a cross alongside an incorrect answer, only a question mark or dot - are just some of the new marking techniques. After speaking with teachers and parents on the topic some alarm bells began to ring. Are we setting our children up for failure? Will they ever begin to learn right from wrong?
This no failure approach is also something that is filtered from a University level. Murdoch University Dean of Education, Judy MacCallum says, herself, along with the majority of her colleagues have disregarded the use of red pens and pick and choose which errors to select in particular when work is handed in by the education students.
Judy says the University works hard to instil positive teaching techniques in their students studying education. It is based on encouraging a safe environment for students to make mistakes. Ultimately you want students to take risks and mistakes should be seen as an opportunity for their learning.
Judy says feedback is critical. “We provide different examples for ways of providing feedback and assessment. As an example in maths, they have regular online assessment. The student’s then get a printout saying which answers were acceptable, the student’s get a mark, and then they have a discussion forum about the answers. This is another way of getting feedback from doing an assessment and providing an opportunity for conversation about the ideas and concepts of mathematics.”
Self-assessment, peer assessment and providing the student with criteria explaining your guidelines for marking are considered essential. It’s important for the children to be aware of meeting the standards, says Judy.
Similarly to some teachers in classrooms today, Judy prefers to use colours other than red. “When I mark things I don’t use crosses, but I do use ticks. Some of my student’s have been overwhelmed by the writing over their paper, so obviously having a lot of feedback can be quite distressing for people.
“Any age student will be shocked with that; it’s the gradual thing that will be better. It’s about what’s explained and what is set up around that, that’s important. Obviously a child that gets crosses on everything will be disheartened, so it’s probably better in some ways that the child is given a differentiated assessment.”
Using pencil has the advantages of erasing comments if they are considered too harsh, but now a lot of people are also turning to technology, using ‘track changes’ to mark assessments, explains Judy. “I think you have to set up a culture where students take risks with learning and the feedback is a marker of their progress rather than it coming to stall. I think that’s important.”
UWA’s School of Psychology Professor, Andrew Page, says that just marking and not providing any feedback could be unhelpful for students. “If you are trying to train a skill, then generally what you are trying to do is two things. You are trying to correct what the person is not doing right and also indicate to them what they should be doing right. You have got to correct or inhibit what is wrong and instruct and reinforce what is right.”
Andrew affirms is about encouraging the correct response. “I would probably argue that instruction has two components to it, information about the right thing and reinforcement for that along with information about the wrong thing and some consequences to help you learn.”
“If you only reinforce what you want, then the risk is that it might take longer to learn. If you only punish then you will inhibit what children will do, because then they will learn, ‘I just shouldn’t say anything because I will get a cross’.” Andrew explains that if you constructively point out both the errors and correct areas in a context that will support the child’s learning you will have a positive learning experience. Clearly just giving a cross with no support is not any help. I can’t imagine anyone arguing that.”
In one incidence, it is clear how inappropriate marking and feedback can lead to dire results with subjects such as spelling. Students allegedly in a Year 1 classroom were reportedly writing ‘woz’ instead of ‘was’ an issue that went uncorrected 200 times in that year group. It wasn’t until the students began Year 2, that the situation improved as the new teacher avidly tried to correct the habit.
The confusion with this new trend can lie between praise and encouragement. Too much praise and rewarding children with stickers and prizes coupled with not enough encouragement can pose some negative outcomes.
Encouraging students, something which is free of evaluation, is considered the more critical of the two. John Taylor who wrote ‘Encouragement vs. Praise,’ puts it clearly by stating that praise can stimulate rivalry and competition where as encouragement can stimulate cooperation and contribution. He says examples of Praise would include: “You are better than others”, whilst Encouragement would be: “You have helped in this way.”
Judy said that first year education at university heavily comprises of topics such as intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. “Young children at school are inquisitive about everything and you think why we do we sometimes have to encourage them to learn. Maybe because they are getting so much extrinsic reward for things that they begin to think that you don’t have to do anything unless you get something for it, but you have to balance the idea…”
With no set guidelines in Australia, many schools are open to formulate their own ‘Marking Code of Practice’. For example, Crofton Junior School in Orpington London, marking guidelines state, "Work is generally marked in pen - not red - but on occasion it may be appropriate to indicate errors in pencil so that they may be corrected. Teachers must be sensitive about writing directly onto pupils' final work."
Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education says, "Banning red ink is absolutely barmy. This is politically correct, trendy teaching gone mad. I give teachers who have ditched their red pens naught out of ten. They've failed."
Certain pieces of work do not require the search and destroy tactics that others do and in fact teachers have the option of choosing which issues of spelling, grammar and punctuation they wish to correct if any. If you prefer to focus on one or two types of errors per assessment piece you are entitled too.
“I’ve had student’s here say, ‘you didn’t pick that up last time!’ There are pros and cons to doing that but I guess we mark for different reasons and there is the conventions of the writing that we provide feedback on and then there is the substantive aspects,” says Judy.
“Some people will use one colour for spelling and grammar and another for the substantive. Maybe sometimes you might say, today I’m focusing on spelling…so student’s know what it is that they are doing.”
“It really depends on what the underlying philosophy and basis for it is. In our teacher education we are trying to teach a philosophy of learning that is very much around paying attention to the process of learning, how children learn, how you provide constructive feedback to them and different ways for them to be aware of the criteria around achievement so that they are learning themselves. It’s better to be self-aware than having someone else make judgements about your work…”says Judy.
I’ll leave the decision up to you!