In November our school was fortunate to be paid a visit by Andy Buck. Our Principal had found a way to carve out time for all subject leads to collaborate and look at work scrutiny. It was really useful to be able to explore a whole school strategy together, with guidance from Andy, who had been inspired by Tom Sherrington’s blog on the 10 questions to ask about work scrutiny. Interestingly, there was no Principal or Vice Principals present. There was trust that these work scrutinies were a tool for primarily middle leaders to use, and as such we had been trusted to deliver a consistent rationale that we could all find value in and adapt to suit our subjects.
You can find a link to the finished document at the bottom if you want to skip the explanation of why I think this is the most effective way of using books to improve teaching and learning.
Firstly, let me preface this by saying I am aware that some of the criticisms of traditional book-looks I am about to mention can be interpreted as excuses by some, especially when the perceived logic seems so irrefutable.
I can understand why people want books to be a strong indicator of learning and a good judge of the quality of teaching. They are controllable and available. They provide security and comfort in a world of ‘progress over time’. You can look back at the drive for consistency when OfSted decided to focus on the role of self-evaluation and progress. Schools became driven to ensure all teachers were always compliant with policies all the time and flexibility was hard to justify. In the heyday of triple marking and fortnightly cycles, it became justified and logical that all this effort must be because it’s really important. I feel this a post-hoc rationalisation that feeds into the desire for leaders to be in control of their environment and satisfy some of the Type A personality traits that leaders tend to exemplify. Books can be controlled, books can be organised and students can spend time in lessons making sure their books are perfect. Both teachers and students can be proud of their books.
I think there are times in my career where I have completely believed these narratives and have felt under incredible pressure to both lead by example and leverage my relationships with my staff to get them to work long hours marking books. I look back and realise how damaging this was to them and I’m thankful that my school now embraces a wider understanding of feedback and recognises the importance of pragmatic feedback policies.
My policy is built on the following principles:
- Books are a poor proxy for learning
- Book-looks are needed because we cannot visit all lessons
- Books can tell us about routines, effort and standards
- Teachers who are not maintaining desired standards are not doing it on purpose or being lazy
- All staff can benefit from sharing practice and discussing students work.
1. Why books are a poor proxy for learning:
Let’s first of all consider the following quotes
Learning is messy – Eleanor Duckworth
In both these cases it is completely obvious that books play little to no role in learning. Otherwise I might have used quotes like these:
Learning is a change in pen colour
Learning is a neat book without errors
This is a hard thing for people caught up in the machinations of schools to believe sometimes, especially if they are good at marking and having neat books. I am fortunate to teach some amazingly hardworking and studious low-ability girls in year 11. They are great at all things apart from trying activities. They are resistant to writing an answer in their books that might be wrong as they don’t want to spoil their books. I think the prevalence of this is an unintended consequence of the priority books have had over the last 5 years.
2. Why we need book-looks:
A head of department will be teaching about 70-75% of the timetable. Their Team leaders will teach 80%. They just can’t get into all the lessons to ensure all students are getting the best education we can provide. So we need a way of checking lessons remotely and book-looks are probably the best we have right now.
3. Why books are a good proxy for standards and effort:
Books are a pretty decent proxy for routines and standards in classrooms. Routines and standards are important and most management training programs will tell you standards and expectations are the most important drivers of improvement. They are definitely easier to change than the quality of teaching. A new leader is right to focus on this if they want to positively impact student outcomes.
Looking at the books can tell us if lessons are starting in an orderly way and they can indicate both the rate of curriculum coverage and the challenge. Notice I say indicate as questioning, whiteboards, explanation etc. might be hard to notice in the books.
If we look at a range of students it also lets us understand the motivation of students. If a student has incomplete work compared to another in the same class it tells us that they either have a recording issue (and might need more scaffolding) or are not engaged (and will need an external motivation strategy like a report).
4. Teachers who are not maintaining required standards are not doing it deliberately.
You might disagree, maybe I’ve been lucky, but I think the number of teachers who don’t care, or deliberately don’t do a good job, is incredibly low. Most teachers that look like they are not doing what needs to be done are either swamped or de-skilled. You might have some protesting members who do not believe in the policy. If that is the case I would recommend Andy Buck’s NEFIART as a way of having those difficult conversations.
In each of these scenarios, a dressing down for not marking does not improve the situation. It might seem to, but unless you want to manage them out of the profession, it won’t work.
I’m a big believer in developing the staff you have, partly because recruiting is hard on the south coast, but mostly because I have a rockin’ crew of awesome teachers.
It is my moral responsibility to ensure all the students in my school get the best science education we can provide, and part of that means I need to monitor standards and hold staff to account. But I need to work to ensure that improvements in performance don’t come at the cost of morale.
5. All staff can benefit from sharing practice.
We all know that time spent in department is golden. We all know that time spent discussing planning and individual students’ barriers is crucial. So by having a collaborative book-look where all staff are able to see each other’s work, it reduces any ‘us and them’ feelings and we create a space for professional dialogue. We involve the teacher to provide context, like the number of lessons taught, the activities not recorded in the books and any actions already taken. At the same time strong practice is modelled and tips and tricks shared.
My vision for book-looks:
- We will devote a portion of a dept meeting every half term to look at one year’s books: if it’s a useful thing to do then we should find time to do it properly.
- We will bring in a large sample from each class and discuss in trios the quality of the work: trios takes the formality away but gives everyone a chance to get into a meaningful discussion.
- We will feedback good practice and write down next steps: focus on the positive verbally and generate momentum. Keep the issues low-key to avoid embarrassing staff.
- These next steps will be collated by the head of dept: to follow up issues and check for department-wide training needs.
- Any staff that are not compliant with the feedback policy will be met at a later date and support will be provided.
** if your school still follows a less that perfect marking policy i would recommend Adam Boxers ‘Markageddon’ blog for ammunition to change the policy**