What can book scrutiny actually tell us? And what should we actually be looking for?
Having spent some time outlining some of the distractions in my previous blog post ‘What Looking At Children's Books Tells You That You Don't Need To Know’ and after having a quick look to see what advice is already out there, I wanted to share some simple points that hopefully answer the above questions.
In addition to answering them, I hope that this will help you to save time, prioritise what’s important and, ultimately, learn something useful when you look at children’s books and other recorded work.
First of all, I must point out the obvious (just in case it’s not obvious): looking at children’s work can only give us clues about what is happening in the classroom, and, more widely, about the quality of the curriculum and its delivery. Book looks must not be used to make cast iron judgements, but can be the start of a line of enquiry that takes in other forms of monitoring.
So, what should we be looking for? I suggest 4 main things (which unfortunately don’t have a handy acronym, unless COAI works for you!):
1. Curriculum – Curriculum-focused
This is about content selection – the objectives that have been chosen to be taught. In most cases this will be dictated by the curriculum that is in place. If it isn’t, then you should consider making this standard practice by putting curriculum documentation in place. This is a judgement by leaders of their own leadership, and not at all of the teacher or the children: leaders are asking themselves at this stage whether or not the curriculum in place is fit for purpose, with particular reference to the content that has been selected to be taught. A book scrutiny may be the start of curriculum re-development should the books show that the identified content is in some way wrong.
Although this is largely an assessment of the intended curriculum, it also may lead to lines of enquiry as to how well teachers understand the intended curriculum content and whether or not they prioritise certain parts of the content over others (and why this might be). Within this heading of ‘content’ leaders may also look at how well more substantial concepts have been broken down into smaller steps – there are obvious implications for this with regards to sequence as well.
A focus on the content might also identify content that is not being taught at all or content which isn’t on the curriculum but which is being taught (perhaps unnecessarily). Again, based on the book scrutiny, lines of enquiry may be opened into whether or not this is the case (it might be just that some work isn’t recorded in books, for example), and if it is, why.
2. Organisation – Curriculum- & Teacher-focused
When leaders look at sequencing they should still be scrutinising their own curriculum planning, thinking about how well sequenced the selected content is. However, this will vary from school to school: some leaders may have provided documentation which outlines how content should be sequenced, others may have left this to teacher discretion. I’d suggest that leaders should be providing curriculum documentation with this level of detail as it a) gives teachers more guidance and less work to do, and b) ensures consistency in teaching across the school. Where this is the case, leaders will need to look for adherence to this sequence.
However, even with the most detailed curriculum planning, there will be occasions where, in response to the needs of their class, teachers will have adapted the sequence. This responsiveness is something that should be a major focus of all monitoring exercise as it is key to high quality teaching and learning. Leaders should be looking across pieces of work in books to see how well teachers have picked up on concepts and ideas that need further work, and have then subsequently provided the necessary tasks for children to work on these. Leaders should not just look for positive adherence to the curriculum sequence, they should also look for positive diversion from it where teachers adapt the sequence to suit the needs of the children.
Leaders should also look at micro-sequences within the overall sequence of the curriculum. For example, leaders should look out for whether or not children are given the chance to take part in recall activities, and whether or not previous content is deliberately revisited and built upon. In many subjects leaders might also want to look at how each learning sequence builds towards and culminates in a final outcome, with each part of the sequence giving children the knowledge they need to be able to succeed in demonstrating what they have learned towards the end of a unit.
3. Activities – Teacher-focused
Some schools will have pre-selected, mandated tasks (for example, schools that have produced booklets for each unit) however most won’t. This is where curriculum design is passed from leaders and into the hands of teachers: most teachers plan at the short term level, and a big part of this is task design or task selection.
Before we think about activities, or tasks, I will briefly say why I’ve not included any other aspect of short term planning in this section: from children’s books it will mostly be impossible to tell what pedagogical approaches the teacher took to teach the content. For example, explanations and modelling are mostly verbal and visual, and any recorded work that happens during them is usually done on the whiteboard, on mini whiteboards or perhaps in jotters/notebooks. This kind of thing is best seen in lesson observations.
The first thing leaders might look for is whether the task has been created, adapted, or selected. And if either of the latter, where from. There need be no right or wrong here in terms of the task’s provenance, but there is plenty to look at with regards to its suitability.
Pitch – does it appear to be pitched correctly to the needs of the children? This is where looking at a range of children’s books can be useful: what is well-pitched for one child is not for another. This is not an excuse to just mindlessly look for differentiated tasks based on pre-conceived notions of attainment – some tasks can be so designed that all children are supported as they work through a task which gets progressively more difficult, for example.
Focus – does it match the learning objective of the lesson, and does it stay ‘on task’ in that it actually allows children to properly practice the thing they have been learning? Leaders might look for how tasks provide practice of concepts that have been broken down into smaller steps – some tasks can end up asking children to do far too much that is outside the scope of the lesson in question.
The kind of activity you are looking for may depends on pedagogical choices made and mandated by your school. Under this heading you may look for examples of retrieval practice, experiential learning, creative application tasks, and so on. You may also look at how well the children are actually accessing and engagin with the activities set.
4. Improvement – Child-focused
It is possible to see a child’s improvement as you look through their book. However, such an activity risks being done at surface-level. It’s really easy to see how a child’s handwriting has progressed, however this tells you nothing more than that their handwriting has progressed. It’s also easy to see if they’ve responded to any feedback (mainly written, but also verbal) especially if your school employs a policy which calls for different coloured pens. However, response to feedback does not necessarily mean progress has been made either – it tells you that you that the child has responded to feedback (perhaps correctly or incorrectly).
To see true progress or improvement is much more difficult, particularly over the short term, and particularly where there is little recorded work, perhaps because a subject is only taught once a week. The more work you have to look at, work which covers a longer period of time, the easier it will be to spot progress.
But, before you go looking for such improvement, it is best to have a clear idea of what kind of improvement you are looking for. Pick an objective – one that has been taught in that year group, or one that you know a particular child struggles with. Look for examples of the child displaying their understanding of that objective.
You might pick up, in an English book, that the child struggles to maintain the use of the same tense, before looking through subsequent pieces of work to see if this is something that has improved. It may be the case that the teacher has provided written or verbal feedback, has taught whole lessons on it, or has worked one-to-one with the child, and as a result the child has improved. It may not always be evident that such specific intervention has taken place, but that doesn’t matter, so long as the improvements have been made. The fact that a teacher has intervened is not what we are looking for – the child’s progress is.
Depending on the structures and systems you have in place, you may be able to see more than the above 4 things. For example, Alex Bedford’s Pupil Book Study ties in to a curricular approach at Unity Schools Partnership that means there are other things recorded in children’s books that might help someone looking in the books to begin to make other judgements too. A particular focus of the approach Alex outlines is that looking at books is a precursor to other forms of exploration, especially having conversations with children about their books.
However, unless you have particular pedagogical artefacts in place in your school, I'd suggest sticking to looking for the four points above: