What do we want when we look at books?


Around about 2012 (ish), I attended a Literacy course in Manchester hosted by Geoff Barton.  At that time, I was the Literacy Co-ordinator in a Scottish school and was searching for some practical ways of getting teachers to be able to cope with the reading, writing, and speaking and listening.  Something that Mr. Barton said that really stuck with me was this: ‘if you want to change a school, start with the marking.’

Working in schools where – for the most part – marking was something that existed between a teacher and a student (and sometimes a parent or two).  The idea that someone might come and look at my marking seemed an odd one in the heady days of the new millenium.  However, working in a primary school for a year (just teaching English to a Year 6 class) the deputy head of the school asked to see my marking.  He returned the books a few days later with a few comments on them.  I’ve written about this previously, but the long and the short of it is that he gave some unwelcome-at-the-time comments.  I took pride in my marking.  I was way cool!  I never marked in red, always green.  I also used to say hip things like ‘way to go’ and ‘eh?’  I did spend time on this part of my work making sure that my comments were legible and that I used funky little stickers for different levels of work.  Back then, it was customary to label the work with a grade so I diligently went about judging work as being a B-.

It the modern world of pedagogy and the Twittersphere, this way of marking and giving feedback seems wonderfully quaint, an antique from the past kept in a museum of failed ideas in a dusty glass case visited by no one.  However, the turning moment was when the deputy head asked: ‘how do your students know how to go from a B- to a B or an A-?’  I was floored by this question as a young teacher because the question made so much sense and also I didn’t have an answer.

Leap forward and the weight of Hattie, Wiliam, Claxton, Coe, Didau etc. and it’s impossible not to go about the business of feedback (not marking anymore) without asking how student should respond.  However, are teachers better at this now than back then? Also, is it right to assume that a book look can tell us anything about the quality of teaching and learning in our schools?

There is, of course, some debate about this, and lots of good advice some of which I suspect is aimed at toppling the accountability castle that has seemed to grow in front of our eyes.  But I think that looking in books is a little like taking a patient’s blood pressure; an indicator of rood health if you will.

A book look in a healthy school might show:

  • That the nature of work set is challenging enough
  • That work is varied and appropriate
  • That the teacher uses the work for AfL purposes
  • That teachers have an understanding of where students are
  • That teachers are abiding by school requirements for marking/feedback
  • That students are understanding their work and showing signs of progress (even if it is only in performance as opposed to learning)

However, an unhealthy school might reveal:

  • That work is rarely set
  • That work is not often checked for understanding
  • That students are not engaging with feedback in order to ‘close the gap’
  • That certain departments or teachers are misunderstanding or flouting the school’s policies
  • That teachers might be unaware of student needs

However, these looks can only operate well if we are seeing this in triangulation with other evidence: observations, walk throughs, pupil trails, exam result analysis.

We can also get a lot wrong in these looks: some teachers have piles of work all marked and sorted on things like TurnItIn or Canvass, they might also be using much of their feedback time providing verbal feedback and it might be tempting to assume a sort of professional negligence if this is the case.

I, for one, value the opportunity to look at books and to talk to teachers about what I can see in them.  I don’t agree that these should ever be graded but used as part of the ongoing process of refining the skills of teaching and learning in the light of an ever-growing body of evidence.

So look at books and see what you learn.




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