As head of department in a rapidly improving school, my priority is to reduce variability and ensure all students are taught an ambitious curriculum. I need a guarantee of quality, especially given that I have got a number of lessons being taught by non-specialists, plus an NQT in my department. I have had concerns that not all staff are planning their lessons adequately, and at times are just using whatever they could find on the TES for that topic. We have schemes of learning but these are not ambitious enough and frequently focus on activities rather than learning.
I wanted to put reading at the heart of the curriculum, as it seems to me that once decoding has been mastered, the thing that causes the gap between rich and poor to widen is the exposure to challenging texts. I wanted our department to be instrumental in the closing of this gap: what better way than reading academic text in every lesson? Some may object that this is boring or lame, and in all fairness I thought so too, but having thought about it I have realised that if we think reading is lame, should we really be teachers at all?
Sticking with “closing the gap”, I wanted as much of our lessons as possible to be used by students to think hard about the things they were learning. One of the best things for getting students to think is of course written problems and questions, but again I was worried that not all of my staff were planning these well enough or even knew how to.
My solution to all of these needs was to adopt the booklet model and I can honestly say that it has transformed my department. I can walk into any classroom confident that the students will be studying an ambitious curriculum, reading and interacting with challenging text, and spending lots of time working on problems that force them to think hard about what they are learning.
A brief description of the booklet model:
Each unit has its own booklet. We have not got all of our units completed yet: we have started with Year 11 and are working our way down the school. I’ve written them myself as my job, as head of science, is to reduce variability and raise standards. Over the next year I am going to build in participation from other members of my department, by inviting staff to volunteer for sections, with me retaining the role of editor.
Teachers plan using their own copy of the booklet, marking up particular points they wish to expand on, vocabulary that will need defining, and questions to ask of particular students, when to use different techniques such as mini-whiteboards and call and response to build engagement. We make frequent use of “Turn and Talk” for students to rapidly discuss their thinking in pairs. Students will take it in turns to read aloud from the text, with merits awarded for projection. The teacher will pause the reading to explain certain things and check for understanding and question for thinking. This AfL allows the teacher to identify what needs reteaching and if any individuals will require further support. After the reading and explanations, students work on the questions. The teacher can work with any individuals who require further scaffolding. After the students have completed their work, the teacher will read out the answers to those questions which have the sort of answer you can read out, and students live-mark their own work. For other types of question such as graphs or essays, we show examples, often from the students themselves, on the screen. We can visually scan the books as we live-mark or ask for “hands up who got that one right” for further AfL to inform our next episode: do we re-teach or move on? This method of marking student books frees up time for marking frequent quizzes including longer questions: we often felt in the past that marking books gave us information about how well a student had performed in lesson but not on how much they had learned and remembered, and this was frustrating. Marking quizzes is a much more rewarding use of our time!
Additional benefits of booklets:
In addition to the things I set out to achieve in using the booklet model, we have encountered a great many unanticipated benefits:
- No more scrabbling around copying sheets for individual lessons.
- No more stressing about photocopying budgets – SLT agreed for all booklets to be copied at the start of the year.
- A guaranteed quality of work for students in internal exclusion and those off long term sick.
- For students who miss a lesson due to absence or illness, we can just ask them to read and complete pages 5-8 at home from the online version of the booklet.
- Staff planning time is freed up to improve subject knowledge, explanation, or classroom strategies e.g. “No opt out” and “Call and response”
- The staff conversations at lunch time are now all about the curriculum – subject knowledge, explanations, the questions in the booklets
- Book monitoring and lesson dropins are now able to have a much clearer focus – are the booklets being used, is time being used effectively, how could improvements to delivery and engagement be made?
Objections and responses:
When I first suggested this model, I encountered some objections, first from SLT and then, after I had convinced them, from some of my department. I have listed the objections and my responses below:
“We can’t afford the photocopying”
“The actual cost per student is approximately 30p per unit. Under the booklet model there will be very little need for any further photocopying. This model allows us to deliver an ambitious curriculum for all students and a focus on reading – and both of these are going to be a focus for Ofsted.”
“This model will stop teachers planning their lessons”
“Teachers will still need to plan their lessons – plan how they interact with the class and the text, build their subject knowledge and prepare their explanations. If any staff don’t do this then we will pick them up using the quality assurance systems that we already have in place.”
“Our weakest teachers will implement this badly”
“Our weakest teachers are currently implementing a bad model badly – and the outomes for the students are disastrous! With this model, a) while our weak teachers are still weak, at least the students have a guarantee of quality, and b) it is much easier for us to work with those weak teachers to improve their practice, since the field of things to work on is narrowed.
Here’s another way of looking at it. Weak or recently qualified teachers don’t get good by knackering themselves out trying to resource lessons and improve their performance all at the same time. They get better by working on one thing at a time: get behaviour and classroom techniques nailed and then we can develop them as curriculum writers after that.”
“This will stop differentiation”
“What even is differentiation? It started as a commitment to help all children regardless of their starting point, and it’s mutated into a monster of low expectations. If we can teach this challenging stuff to all students then why wouldn’t we? We don’t need to show different tasks for Ofsted any more, we just need to show that all students are supported to access powerful knowledge. We can do that with the booklet model.”
“This removes our autonomy and creativity”
“What is the main purpose of education? If it is to allow teachers to express themselves and be creative, then this is a valid concern. If it is to educate all children to the highest possible standard, then I don’t think it’s an issue. What is a concern, and I think this might be what you’re getting at, is that there is a wealth of expertise in this department and at the moment we are not making the most of it because I have written the first round of booklets. I completely agree with that and it’s not a decision that was taken lightly, in the end I felt that because of the need for a quick turnaround on the booklets it wasn’t reasonable to ask anyone else to contribute, but what I very much want to happen, if you’d be happy to join me, is for staff to keep notes throughout the year on possible improvements, and then next year for the second round of the booklets I’d very much like to invite contributions from staff and also suggestions for improvements to the ones we’ve already got.
“There is more than one way of treating this subject and you can’t choose the best one”
“I definitely agree there is more than one way, and in fact there’s more than one best way and it can’t be an objective decision as to which one is best – that’s the nature of the subject. What we can say is that there are many poor ways. What this model does is guarantee that no child will experience a weak treatment of the curriculum. As we move forward into the second round of booklets, with contributions from across the department, then I hope we can add to the richness of the treatment of the curriculum with input from more staff.
“Our students won’t engage with this model”
“What is it you think they won’t engage with? Reading? Thinking? Having something printed on a piece of paper, stapled with some other pieces of paper? I don’t think any of these are too much to ask. If behaviour is a barrier then we need to look at behaviour because we have a system that is designed to back teachers up so that we can all expect the best from our students at all times. If your subject has important practical elements, booklets are not there to try to replace those elements – they are there to guarantee the quality of the theory that you teach alongside. There is, of course, a bad version of this model that sees the teacher distribute booklets to students and then just leave them to get on with it, but that’s not what we’re doing here (see “brief description of the booklet model section, above). If you’re worried about students engaging with challenging material, then OK, you have a point. My son prefers not to engage with tidying up his toys, doing his reading after school, or going for walks at the weekend. He would prefer to engage with watching Ninjago on the telly. He prefers not to engage with eating his tea, and would prefer to engage with eating Quavers and ice cream. I’m not going to bow to any of these preferences because he deserves to learn to contribute to his household, to read, and to be healthy. As his parent I am duty-bound to do what is right for him, not what is easy. Our duty as teachers is the same.
Adam’s thoughts: I am glad to see ideas like these enter the discussion about how we manage the moral purpose of education. Working in a school that has a very diverse intake, booklets is an idea we have discussing recently. This post makes an excellent case for their strengths and their criticisms. If you are considering the move as well, I hope this helps with any discussions with other staff you might need to have.