I think I’m about done with ‘Book Looks’, work scrutinies and marking checks. I get it that looking in student books is often a useful exercise for a range of staff, from peers, heads of department and yes, even SLT. But I think we’ve been looking at and looking for the wrong things. We’ve been using this process as a judgemental exercise and ranking it against what may often be an unsuitable or unrealistic criteria and that’s not really helping students, teachers or, if they’re honest about it, leaders.
We’ve laboured under the misapprehension for too long that ‘progress’ can be seen via a teacher’s written marking and/or feedback and this has been another inaccurate and misleading hammer to crack the wrong nuts.
I’m speaking as a member of SLT and someone who has been on both ends of the procedures outlined above. I’ve had to explain misunderstandings about the state of my students’ books, when I’ve known the students are still making progress; and I’ve also held teachers to account about their books using criteria that suits some subjects and some types of feedback but isn’t appropriate at all for others. I regret both of these things.
The trouble is that, up until fairly recently, we were singing from Ofsted’s previously very discordant song-sheet on marking and feedback. And even when Ofsted published clear and very sensible guidance (read here for the Ofsted Myth-Busting document and here for the EEF’s report ‘A Marked Improvement’), many SLTs did not review their thinking accordingly and still have unrealistic and unmanageable marking expectations.
When considering our own marking and feedback policy, we’ve looked carefully at what the evidence tells us; we’ve encouraged colleagues to find methods that suit their subjects (especially now that books look so different these days with greater subject content and material that need to be used for revision).
With this in mind, we’ve been looking at how we can support departments in developing feedback strategies that work for them, while trying to promote consistency across faculties and adhering overall to our flexible whole-school policy. After a visit from our School Improvement Partner last term, I tried a few ideas with the departments I line manage and gained feedback from other heads of department after a group discussion. We’ve agreed on something that will replace book scrutinies that I’ve named Book Talks. (Not entirely happy with the name but it does what it says on the tin, so we’ll keep it at that for now so we can all recognise the ‘shorthand’ across school).
Format for ‘Book Talks’
The teacher / HoD brings along a selection of books, of their own choosing to the book talk.
We agreed that this should be 3 to 5 books from the same class to include at least one disadvantaged student (but if possible don’t discuss which is their book)
Before looking through the books, ask:
- What kind of marking & feedback intervention can I/we expect to see in these books/folders (e.g. marked for literacy/SPaG corrections? DIRT? Peer/self-marking? Any teacher comments? If so, to what end? (e.g. to direct improvements / for rewards / to promote confidence, etc.)
This is not a checklist – it is purely to ascertain what the HoD/teacher thinks is in there, hopefully which should correlate with the department feedback policy.
- How do these books/folders reflect the progress made by students over time?
This is a thorny old topic, but basically: is the student’s work getting better and/or showing evidence of learning and applying more as the book goes on? That’s your evidence of teacher feedback having had some impact. You don’t need ‘verbal feedback’ stickers to show this – it’s obvious. Has the student’s work stalled or deteriorated? Are teacher comments routinely ignored and thus repeated as the book goes on? Then teacher feedback is not having any/much impact, so this probably needs to be addressed/reviewed/changed.
- Will I/we be able to tell which of the books/folders belongs to a disadvantaged student? If so, how/why?
A discussion is useful here about what assumptions might be made about what a disadvantaged student’s work look like, e.g. untidy and/or inconsistent standards in presentation? DIRT not acted upon and perhaps most importantly, gaps indicating absences? Although this largely deals with stereotypical patterns, they are often true in students that are under-attaining, so this is very useful in starting off conversations about what we do as a school, in departments, and also what we do as teachers when this is seen. In doing this, it is often very clear to see why some disadvantaged students steadily slip through the net and under-attain. Where disadvantaged/non-disadvantaged students’ books are indiscernible, this is an excellent start.
Then look through the books together, discussing as you do with the teacher/HoD.
- What action/further discussion will follow this conversation?
This will be based on whether what the teacher/HoD expected to be in the books was actually there. And if it isn’t, it doesn’t get reduced to a cross in a box or a number, it leads to further discussion about why this might be. Why isn’t the marking & feedback policy working for this teacher / this subject? Is it too onerous, or does it actually do what we want it to, i.e. support students to improve their understanding and application?
Aim to make the outcome in notes, not tick boxes/judgements, based on the discussion. We can do this on our existing department development (DD) meeting sheets which are focused on teaching, learning and collaboration (copy here if you’re interested).
What we’ve discovered so far
In all the book talks we’ve conducted so far, some very interesting and useful outcomes have emerged, including:
- Some teachers still doing far too much in the way of detailed written comments with little evidence of feedback being acted upon. This led to the teachers admitting that their time-consuming methods were not working, and they agreed to give whole-class feedback grids another go (they’d tried once but given up as they weren’t convinced it was personalised enough. Seeing that what they thought was working was clearly not doing its job gave them the motivation to try the grids again and discuss how they could be used more consistently).
- Some concerns about the quality of student notes in a heavy content-based part of the curriculum for one subject. What could they expect in terms of checking the notes? How would they show students how to improve without marking everything? This ended up being a really useful discussion at the end of which the department decided they would spend their next meeting agreeing on what revision notes should include and should look like in their subject and sharing this criteria with students to adhere to throughout the year.
- A disadvantaged student’s book showing periods of absence and missed work, a key factor in under-attainment over time. On investigation, we found out the student was being taken out of certain lessons to attend nurture groups to support his transition to year 7. We were able to use this as evidence to discuss at SLT about our intervention to balance pastoral and academic progress, and the student is now attending these lessons much more regularly.
- An agreement in one subject that their interpretation of the whole-school policy was not having the required impact. We discussed what might work better, and adapted the department policy in agreement with the whole department.
- The revelation that a variety of methods of feedback can work within the same department and that one teacher does not have to slavishly follow others if they don’t believe in the process – as long as their feedback is having an impact. Communication is key, and the element of discussion supports this.
What those heads of department who have tried the process with their line managers and within their departments have found above all is empowerment. They have found confidence to explain what can be found in their students’ books and folders and the conviction that they are choosing methods that work for them. This way, we have found there is much more correlation within departments: teachers seem happier that they are being given the freedom to provide feedback that is of higher quality, not greater quantity.