Fishing Without The Bait

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How can we improve the process for schools, teachers and observers when looking at students’ books?

I was going to publish this blog at the back-end of the summer, but after a Twitter conversation with David Weston, I’ve decided to share my views on (student) work sampling today.

Our system incentivises prioritisation of monitoring/judging teaching quality over its development. This must stop. (David Weston)

David Weston Book Looks

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Terminology or Process?

I agree with David Weston. All schools need to move away from monitoring exercises that judge a teacher’s performance under the guise of student learning. Let the appraisal process take care of itself to support and challenge the teacher, and whatever a school policy says, we should be moving towards a system to help our teachers work better, not ‘to work around a monitoring exercise’ that judges an individual in a ‘poor’ or a ‘good’ perspective.

There is a huge need for evidence-based research to inform school practice here. The sooner the better …

Before I elaborate, I want to share some opinions as it is easy to be misinterpreted:

  • I do not believe schools should grade individual lessons.
  • I do not believe schools should grade their teachers.
  • All schools should be using sources of evidence to gather a picture of the overall quality of teaching.
  • This does not include any individual teacher or department. It is a collective judgement.
  • When considering the overall quality, assessment must be made from the entire student population and not for example, year 11 alone.
  • I believe there is a place for work sampling in schools to gather a picture of overall quality of teaching.
  • Although more ‘what works’ research is needed in this area, and must be shared widely.
  • Book monitoring is one part of all [specified by the school] sources of evidence. At no time, should this include an individual, or a grade.
  • Book monitoring should be used to assess the overall quality of teaching – but not exclusively, or any individual.
  • Any type of monitoring should inform and develop all teachers.

According to ASCL, 50% of schools (or thereabouts) have removed individual lesson gradings and are no-longer judging teachers using false proxies, there is a small call-to-arms to have book-looks, work sampling or work scrutiny (whatever your school calls it – it’s the same thing) removed from school processes altogether.

Seth Godin says we should ‘avoid the false proxy trap‘.

Sometimes, we can’t measure what we need, so we invent a proxy, something that’s easier to measure and stands in as an approximation. (Seth Godin)

Firstly, a personal disclaimer.

Student books are a source of progress over time, as is anything we do in school, but should not be used for scare-mongering or evidence trails to judge teachers.

Work sampling should not for ‘beating teachers around the head with a stick’, or one to push as a methodology in schools that lacks substance or value. Equally, every teacher should be aware that ‘we have all’ used various techniques and systems for a number of years and at some point, have been misled and ill-informed. I am happy to be proven wrong here too, but I’m confident that looking in student books is a more secure alternative (than observations) for assessing the quality of teaching across the school – an important distinction – and not the overall quality of teaching of an individual teacher or the learning of that child.

That’s an important last sentence. Please read it again.

The wrong way …

For years, schools, school leaders and heads of departments have been conducting work sampling in the wrong way.

Myself included! Only 18 months ago, I shared our improving system for Taking a Look at Books, with the primary aim to gauge the landscape of ‘diagnostic marking across the school.’ The process was never about the individual. I can go back just 5 years and the process was very different.

Looking in students’ set of books, should be about quality of teaching across the entire school. It’s not about the individual teacher, although patterns may evolve about particular groups of students, and progress in specific subjects.

Just 6 months ago, I shared our improved system for Marking and Work Scrutiny – and the blog (perhaps this video) took quite a fair bit of criticism – but, the mechanisms used were a) to gauge the quality of teaching across the school (and NOT the teacher) and b) that the process was triangulated by student and teacher interviews, and middle and senior leadership sampling. Much of our development and findings from this review led to our system taking more and more consideration for subjects of a practical nature – those subjects where students did not typically work in books and complete extended pieces of writing.

In essence, the process became formative itself to help teachers and teaching move forward. It was not designed to judge individuals or become a poor proxy for quality.

Before any book look, observers should always:

  • The observer should meet with the teacher to gather initial context; e.g. how best can this process improve your marking?
  • The book-look monitoring should provide areas for improvement to support students and potential CPD for the teacher.
  • All book-looks should schedule a planned feedback session for each classroom teacher; agree this period in advance.
  • Prior to any book-look, prior data must be used pre-plan and identify students for observation.
  • Every student sample should include a high, middle and low attainer; stretch; SEN and pupil premium.

The right way …

So, for the sake of this blogpost and expediency, I want to push definitions, marking policies, hoop-jumping and judging individual teachers aside.

The process is open, transparent and takes into account context of student/teacher and written versus practical subjects. One methodology cannot be applied in all subjects. For example, the yellow box. Nor should we expect, drama and PE for example, to produce written work just for the ease of school monitoring or for OfSTED. (When You Try Too Hard, It Doesn’t Work.)

For those that read my blog regularly, you will know we are already ahead of the bell-curve. What I’d like to share, is a robust and fairer process for schools to go about conducting work samples with rigour and an end-goal established from the outset.

How can we ‘fish with the bait’ rather than without it? i.e. how can we look at books without knowing what we are looking for. This potent term is coined from the fabulous Pam Fearnley (not on Twitter) who I have worked with for many years …

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Image: Shutterstock

Teachers are to be trusted; some will need training, particularly in their formative years. Teachers can also become easily distracted when marking; ticking and flicking every single page and providing meaningless feedback that gives no student the opportunity to improve. We do know that verbal and written feedback, if provided in a sophisticated and meaningful way, can make the biggest difference. And that if the students are given the time to act upon feedback, including the teacher checking up on that feedback has been actioned,  has the most significant impact on student progress. No monitoring process or marking policy can make this happen. It is all about trusting teachers to mark in a way that is best for their subject, and for their students.


I cannot do this process justice without sharing student data or photographs taken from students’ books.

Below is my response to the statement made by David Weston: how work sampling in schools should be conducted.

  • First and foremost, book looks should never be an ad-hoc process. Most books looks are random samples that judge the teacher, not the quality of teaching. There is a clear differential to be made here. Students must be selected beforehand and not left to an arbitrary process e.g. who is setting next to the observer.
  • Prior data must be used and referred to when looking at any student’s work. If not, you are ‘fishing without the bait’.
  • In my experience, I have used key-stage 2 starting points. Why? Because I work in a secondary school and year 7-10 represent over 70% of our entire school population. Therefore, our school will be judged on its progress over time, from 70% of this cohort. Year 11s have their own external validation, so it is wise to leave students and teachers to their examinations and avoid any undue stress. Judgements aside, as school needs to know how well 70% of their population are performing over time.
  • It is vital to pre-select students and their work. In a subject, an observer should look at higher, middle and lower attainers; SEN/EAL/G&T students or particular groups of students. For example, Bangladeshi or White British. Teachers who look in books may wish to use levels, for example 3-6 or grades A-D. Whatever system the school is using to evaluate patterns.
  • It is important that the process looks at ‘work over time’ and not isolated pieces of work. Is there evidence that students have a) improved? b) re-drafted / acted on feedback? c) take care of their own presentation d) have homework (according to school policy) and e) take pride in their work?
  • Much can be deciphered from a student’s book and not just in a conversation. Typicality can be assessed and student attitudes and learning behaviours are apparent in the quality of their work and the pride they take in completing it. Expectations are also evident if a teacher expects students to a) underline, re-draft and complete un-finished work versus b) ripped out pages, scribbled out sentences and graffiti on the front cover.
  • A sure way to achieve this is to: Choose 6 students books. Select a date of a piece of classwork. Open every book at the same date/piece of work. Compare quality with prior data and sample the work according to other student’s starting points and the quality of their work. Does this look like XYZ standard? With 4 levels of progress as a school’s aspirational target, does the child’s work indicate that they are on this trajectory? And so on …

To be clear. This is about assessing progress, NOT the quality of teaching of an individual. If we can all use the above methodology, schools will become data-rich and not data-driven. More importantly, every teacher will be better off for it because it will inform our teaching. If schools wish to judge teachers and their book looks, this is a problem. We should be focusing on empowering teachers to use book scrutiny to learn about their own progress and what they can do to support students better, as well as help students with their learning.

Actions Required:

  1. All teachers should be given the opportunity to look in each others’ books.
  2. Schools should provide training for all staff. The findings should then be shared to help teachers teach better.
  3. More work needs to be done to eradicate schools using book-looks as a process for judging individual teachers.
  4. More research is needed to find out what system works best; what methodology leads to reliable assessments about the quality of teaching.

Until we do the above, we are simply ‘fishing without the bait’ and have no idea what we are doing, or why we are doing it.

Credit: Pam Fearnley (Pupils First Ltd.)

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