Friday, March 21, 2014

No More Red Pens at English School

Red ink on student papers is mean and bullying and hurts precious snowflakes' feelings. At least that's what administrators at one school in Cornwall, England are worried about. They're no longer allowing teachers to use red pens to mark their students' work because it might make them feel bad. Instead, teachers will use green pens to give feedback, and students will use purple pen to write responses.

According to a story in The Cornishman newspaper, the Mounts Bay Academy is worried that students will feel discouraged when they see all the red markings on their papers. So rather than help students do better, teachers are instead working to make green the new "I suck at math" trigger color, which will then be the subject of stories like this in about 20 or 30 years.

Either that, or every kid will just be patted on the head and given a participation trophy.

Head teacher (which is British for "principal") Sara Davey told the Cornishman, "Students make more progress if (grading) is a dialogue and the new system is designed to help that. A lot of primary schools are already using a similar system amazingly well and I think it was felt that red ink was a very negative colour."

Davey was then distracted by a unicorn farting rainbows and chased after it.

Vice principal (British for "assistant head teacher") Jennie Hick clarified Davey's statement. "Switching to the new marking system is certainly not about us going all soft and fuzzy," she told The Cornishman, which was the signal that they are totally going all soft and fuzzy.

"Students make more progress if it is a dialogue and the new system is designed to help that. A teacher will make two or three positive comments about a student’s homework and point out perhaps one thing that will take them to the next stage. By asking students to respond with purple pen forces them to read the teacher’s comments and helps them to create a real conversation."

You hit full soft and fuzzy when you said "dialogue."

When I was a kid, we didn't have these kinds of conversations with teachers. Back then, the conversation was "you got this many wrong. Now get out your math book." When a kid — usually me — didn't understand something, we didn't have a chance to go back and do it again. Everyone else was moving on and you just had to "work harder."

Later, the conversation was usually about applying myself and having a lot of potential and blah blah blah. (I never really listened, but it was probably something really important.)

We just lived with the red pen. We didn't see it as something negative or something to be feared. The red ink didn't represent mistakes, it showed them. We were the ones who had made the mistakes, and it wouldn't have mattered if the pen was red, green, purple, or a soft pinkish russet. The mistakes were ours, and those were the things to be stressed over, not the ink.

The Campaign for Real Education (CRE) agrees with me. (Well, not so much agrees with me as said the same thing I said a couple days earlier. But they are taking a stand against the issue and have put a frowny face sticker on it.)

"The problem with using a colour like green or blue is that it's not clear," said CRE chair Chris McGovern. "A lot of schools seem to have a culture where they don't like criticizing children but actually (the old red pen system) helps them."

He also called BS on the school's claim that red ink is too hard for kids to read. I have never, ever had any difficulty reading red ink on my school papers. Of course, I had plenty of practice, so I may have an advantage over the Mounts Bay Academy snowflakes.

Changing the color of pens assigns too much power to the symbols and trappings of a grading system, and not enough to the performance. The school shouldn't be worried about the color of the marks on students' paper, they should worry about why there are so many of them.

Making mistakes is a part of learning. We learn from our errors and how to avoid them in the future. By softening up the colors of pens, Mounts Bay have turned the conversation from "this is how you can get better" to "your mistakes aren't as important as your feelings." Let the teachers grade in whatever colors they want to use and focus more on providing the best education.

And if I could get a couple gold stars, that would be awesome.



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