Marking Guides: Grooming Our Brightest to be Followers

(This post by Dr Petunia Lee first appeared on her blog on 18 May 2014. It is reproduced with permission.)

A friend of ours relocated to Adelaide some years back for the sake of his Asperger's son. Singapore lost a gifted aeronautical engineer the day he left. He quickly found a job in Adelaide and has since become a trusted employee in an Australian high tech consultancy. He is back here to set up a local office in Singapore. To do that, he needs to recruit an anchor man here.

He interviewed umpteen graduates of NTU and NUS before he eventually hired a polytechnic graduate who was currently studying for an external degree in a LESS reputable university than NTU and NUS.

Frustrated frown between his eyes, he said, "The graduates were just too keen to get things right. They needed assurance and guidance because they needed to be right. We cannot afford the time to guide and assure them. We need people who have the courage to do what they think is right, and defend their actions."

"The poly grads have those guts," said he.

Marking Guides Standardise Marking

I do believe that the root of all this lies in the practice of Marking Guides. Undoubtedly, marking guides are useful to standardise marking. Please note that I did not write "to make marking objective". Marking guides make marking more objective? This is a myth. Like it or not, marking guides are still subjective. They simply reflect the subjective opinion of the one or of those who created the guide.

Still subjective, you know.

Marking guides STANDARDISE marking so that every script is marked the exact same way. There is therefore ONE right answer. Since teachers have to follow the marking guide, many teachers suspend their capacities for judgment and stop thinking about what they are marking. Worse still, they stop thinking about the child... and the uniqueness of each child.

This shows how, with a marking guide, Teachers forget to use their brains. Later on, when questioned they give an insensible explanation. Actually, I think the Teacher just blindly followed the marking guide.

Customising the Marking Guide To the Child

Little N (in Primary 5) reads books such as "The Intellectual Devotional". His compositions are replete with long sentence structures of myriad patterns. Dr Pet's English Enrichment teaches specific long sentence structures that are safe to use (i.e., the children can use them without too much risk of error) and complex enough to add syntax variety to their writing. For balance and elegance, the children are taught to write a judicious mix of short and long sentences. Little N, however, has a tendency to write masses of long sentences of every conceivable sort. Unlike other children, who would make masses of grammar errors if they contorted themselves into long and windy sentences, Little N hardly ever makes grammar mistakes in long sentence structures.

He is that good.

I decided to mark Little N differently from the other children to bring his prose into balance. I took out the specific long sentence structures from my marking scheme, and replaced them with one rubric that covered ALL the long sentence structures. This child could manipulate with enviable skill an astonishing variety of long sentence structures. Why lock him down to only the few that were in the marking scheme?

I decided to change the marking scheme to suit the child, in order to help him work on his weaknesses (too little use of short sentences) and maintain his strengths (copious long sentence structures). In so doing, I do not press Little N into a mould. He does not learn that there is ONE right way of mixing long and short sentences.

Marking Guides Simplify Skills and Knowledge

Very often, in primary school, knowledge and skills are simplified. Necessarily so because we are talking about 12 year olds. Some degree of oversimplification is necessary to teach and have them understand. In addition, simplifying helps teachers teach the same thing to the masses. If you wanted to teach someone how to make bak kut teh, you would use ONE recipe.

In reality though, Singapore has many famous bak kut teh stalls each with their own recipe. They are all good recipes. Customers have their personal preferences. This goes to show that in the cut and thrust of real life, there ARE no marking schemes.

Nuances and richness are lost in the simplification of a marking scheme, or of a single accepted bak kut teh recipe.

Marking Scheme 1: Power Words

One example of such simplification is the fascination many teachers had (some still have) with bombastic words. To score their students, they would count the number of Power Words or Wow Words: the more the better. Such scripts have double ticks next to the Power Words.

Marking Scheme 2: No Power Words

Another example of such simplification is the fascination many teachers have (some had) with words-no-child-should-know. These teachers penalise students for using good vocabulary. Such scripts have crosses on all the Power Words, and a note from the teacher stating, "The more bombastic your vocabulary, the lower your score."

All Teachers in the Same School Mark Alike

Whichever the teacher's marking scheme, the whole school follows the same marking scheme. Some schools teach children that Power Words are good. Others learn that Power Words are bad. Some schools give higher marks for longer compositions. Other children in other schools learn that succinctness is key and they are penalised for going beyond 200 words. Some schools ask their children to write as many long sentences as possible. Others ask their children to write only short sentences.

Good Writing Integrates Apparent Contradictions

The fact is, good writing is achieved by integrating apparent contradictions. Power words + simple words. Long sentences + short sentences. Verbose-ness + succinctness. Marking schemes cannot be ambiguous. They must state an answer or a criteria one way or another. Marking schemes are a feature of the early industrialisation era... when we figured out how to standardise factory processes.

I simply cannot reconcile marking schemes with student-centred pedagogy. If it were REALLY student-centred, there would come a point when one would have to mark one child differently from another after noting that the 2 children have different strengths and weaknesses profiles. One child masters long sentence structures poorly. The other over uses long sentence structures. One child uses ONLY simple vocab. The other overuses bombastic words. Neither have balance nor elegance in their writing. One child needs to be pulled back from the Cliff of Bombast. The other child needs to be pulled back from the Precipice of Easy Words.

Furthermore, there is also a gray area when it comes to exactly HOW MANY bombastic words to use... or HOW MANY long sentence structures and of what type? In other words, how much salt is too much salt in a dish? We can all recognise a dish that has too much salt, but there is a gray area where more or less salt doesn't really matter.

Parents Would Yell Blue Murder

Oh horrors! Gray area!? How do teachers mark like that?! There would be plenty of parents yelling blue murder. "Why is MY child penalised for using Power Words, but his friend in the same class is rewarded for doing the same?!"

Strangely though, every parent in Dr Pet's Enrichment is aware that the marking schemes are different for each child. Every child has a customised marking scheme. Every child has a Case Notes file where we maintain notes on the child's socio-emotional and writing profile. In class, facilitators are told that F needs to learn how to make eye contact. T needs to learn how to say Please. Markers are told to penalise J doubly for carelessness, and to ignore the careless mistakes for W.

Not one parent complains.

Real life is messy. There are often no right answers. Our children are taught 4 times a year for 12 years that there are right answers, thanks to the ubiquitous marking guides. Those who succeed in the system and make it to university are always trying to second guess what those in authority over them think are the right answers.

MOE Audit of University Processes

After the MOE auditors were done with auditing the processes of the university I was teaching in, I found myself having to write up detailed and un-ambiguous marking guides. Hellooooo... at an institution of higher learning, this makes no sense! In universities where research is done, we are pushing the boundaries of what is KNOWN. Ambiguity is a matter of course. For years, it was thought that coconut oil and butter were detrimental to health (and margarine was good). Today, it is believed that margarine is bad (with coconut oil and butter now good for health).

Duh!? The right answer?

Before the MOE audit, my markers and I were happily grading 2 essays with vastly different conclusions an A+... on the strength of the essay's internal consistency and the undergrad's skill (and conscientiousness) in citing evidence from good quality research. After the MOE audit, all my markers and I had to mark according to the right answer that I had written into the marking guide. We were previously marking undergrads on the strength of their logic and the quality of critical thinking. After the MOE audit, we had to mark them according to the right answer.

Whomever from MOE put in those bloody audit processes into the university must have been a fossil left over from Henry T Ford's era of the industrial revolution!

No Surprise that Our Graduates Have No Gumption to Lead

Not surprisingly, our university graduates go into the workforce looking for The Right Answer. They become very anxious when The Right Answer is not clear... and they keep bothering their bosses for The Right Answer.

The Daughter, graduate of a top school from an elite program... demonstrated this trait when she first began to work for me. One day, I told her off, "Use your brain. You have one. Take some risks. You will make mistakes. You will recover. I will also recover from your mistakes. Wing it and have some fun. That was how Mdm Kwan developed her nasi lemak. She didn't look to someone else for the right answer. She made her own right answer. Go and make your own right answer. Stop bothering me!"

Note how the boys from this school here give safe answers... and one boy was too afraid to even give an opinion! He said it was a trap and ran away! The top school rejects who make their way to polytechnic are just not very good at sussing out The Right Answer. Those are the psyches that think differently and won't conform to that ONE model of what a good student should be.

They make their own right answers. As a result, a poly grad was picked to be anchor man in Singapore for one of Australia's high tech consultancy firms.

It doesn't matter that these top school kids go to Ivy League institutions. Over there, they are still good at giving the examiners what they want (The Right Answer). When they come out to work, instead of making their own right answers, they latch on to international benchmarks such as the PISA... and global rankings... and global best practices... to validate their work.

Our best and brightest are acculturated to the habit of walking where others have gone before, instead of addressing first principles and inventing new answers to old problems.



Dr Petunia Lee is not the sort of doctor that prescribes antibiotics. She has a PhD in Business Studies, specializing in the science of Human Motivation in organizations.

For many years, Dr Petunia Lee researched and consulted in organizational psychology. She focused entirely on issues of Human Motivation.

In 2010, Dr Lee stopped consulting altogether. Her son, Little Boy, was ranked 28th out of 38th students in class. He hated school and described himself thus, “I am not one of the smart ones, Mom.” Whilst it did not matter whether Little Boy topped the class, Dr Lee thought it urgent to address his issues of self-esteem. There is no better antidote to low self-esteem than actually experiencing success. Hence, Dr Lee stopped helping managers to motivate staff and threw her all into motivating her son. In the process, Dr Lee discovered that many of the strategies she was teaching managers could be used on children too.

Dr Lee coined the term Internal Drive Ignition™ to describe the process of firing up and stimulating human motivation levels. She also compiled a set of motivation strategies that are collectively termed Internal Drive Theory®.