Education Irritations: Books

This is not fiction. These are real policies in some schools. The lengths some schools go to, to prove teachers are impacting on pupil progress is staggering and very often, unnecessary and increases workload. Hopefully, the pandemic has made some schools rethink their policies.

Learning objectives
Does your school insist learning objectives are typed up, printed and stuck in every book for every lesson. Why? Because it looks smart. It’s a non-negotiable to help the children learn. They make it easier for an observer of books to see what learning took place on any day, any lesson. They ensure children don’t waste time writing up lengthy learning objectives.

The reality: It takes up precious teachers’ time every week and costs the school a small fortune on glue sticks. The children don’t need them. The teachers don’t need them. It’s all for show. I would argue that KS1 don’t need printed learning objectives too. Who are they for? They’re a way to prove teachers are aware of what they are teaching. I bet teachers didn’t do them for their own children during lockdown.

Then there are schools that insist that the long date and the long learning objective is written out for every lesson. Why? Because they want to save teachers’ time by not printing off learning objective slips. They help prove what learning took place on that day.

The reality: It wastes too much time over the course of the day. Waiting for everyone to finish writing it all down is frustrating. They don’t need to write a long learning objective in books to learn. Do you need one in books at all? Sadly, the above is often part of a school policy and the teacher has no say in how the learning objectives are recorded in books.

Answer to learning objectives in books: Tell children to write a one or two word title. The teacher expands upon this in lesson and makes it very clear what they learning. Instead of writing or typing – LO: I am learning how to use fronted adverbials, they write the title Fronted Adverbials. They don’t need to use the abbreviations LO or Walt etc. They could write the long date once during the day and the short date for everything else. It saves time in lesson and reduces workload for teachers.

Self assessment
If you work in a school where learning objectives have to be printed and stuck in books for every lesson, self assessment opportunities can be easily incorporated onto the same slips! Great eh! Mmm.

Children are made to evaluate their learning in every lesson through comments, colouring in happy or sad faces, colouring in traffic lights or ticking against a success criteria etc. They might have to use a particular pen. The policy proves that self assessment is occurring. It shows the teacher how the child has done in the lesson. They prove to observers of books that the teacher is fully aware of how the pupils are doing. It will be part of a book scrutiny checklist.

The reality: The children just play the game and colour in or tick what they want you to see. Teachers rarely look at them seriously because they already know how pupils have done. But it’s all done because they are non-negotiable. They look good eh!

Answer: If you’re waiting until the end of the lesson to find out how your pupils have done, you are doing it all wrong. But you know that. You monitor their learning throughout the lesson and support when necessary. You’re just doing what you’re told to do because it’s school policy. It’s proof that you give children a chance to reflect on their learning and that you are aware of it. It’s a game. You are constantly assessing and evaluating how the class are coping with the learning throughout the lesson. You adapt and support learning there and then. This is all. Let’s not complicate things.

Verbal Feedback
Are you told to write or stamp VF in books to show you give verbal feedback? In one school, this had to be done at least three times a week. Of course, we all know that most teachers give feedback to their pupils constantly throughout the lesson – to the whole class class, to groups, to individuals.

The lesson itself may be feedback from the previous lesson. Writing VF in books is just to prove to an observer of books that the teacher has supported the child. But it doesn’t prove this. It proves you wrote VF.

In order to satisfy a book scrutiny recently, I quickly went though books writing VF on random pages to pass the book scrutiny. My books were praised! It’s a game people. Arghhh.

What’s worse, in one school, they decided that a VF must be accompanied with a written comment to explain what the verbal feedback was. What a waste of time.

It’s all about proving (or trying to) the teacher is helping move the learning forward. It shows the observer of books that the teacher has helped that child. But we all know the teacher does this multiple times in a lesson. It’s their job. Imagine writing VF, every time you said something in a lesson that helped a pupil!

One school said that it doesn’t take long to write VF. ‘But what if I placed every exercise book that was written in during the day, on your desk to write VF on every page!’ I may have said to one Head! Oops.

Answer: Stop insisting teachers write VF. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s a waste of time. Are children making progress over time? Did the children understand the lesson? Then your job is done. Whatever you said in the lesson worked.

Next steps comments
I’ve had to draw steps and ladders with a next step comment next to them, write two stars and wish, and even told to write comments every lesson to feedback to the pupil if they understood the work (Well done, you understood fractions today). What’s worse, some schools insist these techniques are written a particular number of times every week. And, they are policed! Part of the book scrutiny checklist.

One particular school allocated 30 minutes a day for pupils to respond to comments in their books with a purple pen. No teaching. It was just to ensure feedback comments were being written and that children were responding. That’s 2.5 hours a week! Regular learning walks were used to police this was being carried out.

Staff were also told (to make feedback quicker) to highlight the learning objective to show how the child did. So, if a child did well, you had to highlight the objective green. But the teacher already knew how the pupil did. The child already knew how they did. It’s just proving that the teacher has looked at the work and is aware of the learning that took place. We had to do this for every book, every lesson, every day. Waste of time. But you had to do it because it was a non negotiable. The children didn’t care for it. They rarely even looked at it. They just turned to the next blank page and started the lesson.

How often have you been told, ‘But it’s all about the books. We have to play the game. It helps to plug the gaps. It ensures accelerated progress,’ etc.

Answer: Give staff lots of ideas on how to feedback to children. Don’t insist on a particular way of doing this. Just make sure you model ways to do it. If progress is good in books you have to assume the teacher is good at telling the children how to improve. With the time they save not marking books in depth, lessons will improve. Oh the irony.

Names on books
Not having the autonomy to choose how to display pupils’ names on books is an interesting discussion point. Some teachers prefer to type names and subjects onto stickers. Some prefer to allow children to write their own names on the front because it gives them a sense of ownership. Some like to write pupils’ names on for them. It’s fine. As long as it’s smart and neat who cares?

Being told you must use a printed sticker using font size 10, in Times New Roman, italic font and centred is another thing to add to your workload. Is it necessary? No, but some leaders want all the school books to look the same. Consistency. Does Ofsted care about how names are presented on books? I can’t remember the last time a school failed an inspection because one class had handwritten names and another class, typed.

Answer: Let teachers decide.

Photographic evidence.
I did some drama as part of a build up to some writing. The Head walked through and said, ‘Don’t forget to take photos of every child and stick them into their books with a explanation of what they’re doing.’
I laughed.

It turned out he was serious. If a lesson didn’t require work in books, staff were expected to type up a lesson description, ideally with photos to prove the lesson took place. Teachers stopped doing practical lessons because it was too much effort. The amount of colour ink and paper we got through. Why don’t we do it for PE? Mmm.

Answer: The practical lesson is often part of the bigger picture. A piece of writing may follow, or some good written maths work. It’s an important step of learning. Photos and lesson descriptions don’t need to be recorded. The proof is that the children produced some good work, aided by the unseen practical lessons. You can always talk to pupils and look at planning if you don’t believe the teacher!

Amount of work in books
I was told off once for only having 25 days of work in books when we’d been at school for 38. Not enough evidence of work in books apparently. So does this mean the children fiddled their thumbs on the other days? Of course not. Learning took place. Probably better learning too! Any lessons not in books had to be evidenced. Grrr. See above.

Coloured pens
Children must respond to feedback in a different colour pen. Why? One colour for pupils to write with, another colour to edit in, a different colour pen for the teacher, another colour for the TA, another colour for peer assessment comments. It’s all very confusing.

Answer: Let children decide if they want to use a different colour to edit with. If at all. Stop forcing children and adults to adhere to a rainbow coloured pen policy. Does it really matter? It just becomes another thing that has to be policed.

Marking codes
I get this one. I do. Something quick to write in the margin – Letters, codes, squiggles etc, are great. But only if it’s manageable. One school had over 20 codes you had to use and if you didn’t use them…!

I circled an incorrect capital letter once when I should have written CL next to it. The ticking off I received!

Answer: Have a few codes. A few! Does it matter if teachers do different codes anyway, or have their own way of feeding back? Would it be so bad letting teachers decide for themselves? It’s just another thing to police otherwise.

Book scrutiny
Regular book scrutinies, where the non negotiables for how books ‘must look’, is super irritating.

Part of the enjoyment of being a teacher is having some autonomy to decide how best to work with the children. There’s nothing more annoying than getting your book scrutiny feed back sheet back with reds, greens and ambers all over the page telling you how well your books looked (based on a long checklist). It’s one big game. Progress people. Look at progress!

And finally
I congratulate all schools who have recently addressed their marking and feedback policy. I hope that the pandemic has made schools think long and hard about their existing policies too.

So many things I’ve had to do in some schools had nothing to do with helping the pupils, but to prove to outsiders that good teaching was occurring. Nobody should be working late at night trying to maintain expectations for how books must look.

2 thoughts on “Education Irritations: Books

  1. One of the main reasons I left.
    With 11 classes of 30 kids each week and being told books had to be like you’ve described and marked up to date within a week, In a literary subject, I physically couldn’t keep up.
    “Leave the unmarked books open on your desk so you which you need to do” said the HOF who taught a practical a subject and used only one book for 4 years. Great except I have kids twice a week so they’ll need their books again before I’ve marked them all.
    “Make sure you ‘mark’ their purple pen responses!’ I’m marking their response to my marking for them to respond to – never ending!!!
    “You didn’t do x in the lesson” no but if you bothered to look at the planning or ask you’d see thats because they need to do ‘y’ and ‘z’ first and that ‘x’ you want is in the follow up lesson.
    So glad I’m out.

    Liked by 1 person

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