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What Looking At Children's Books Tells You That You Don't Need To Know

When it comes to book scrutiny (or book looks by their slightly less evil-sounding name) there are plenty of things that can catch our eye as we peruse the children’s work – only some of which can be really useful. There are other things which distract us, and which we can end up getting very hung up on.

Before we explore what these things might be, it is important to clarify the purpose of looking at books, or, more broadly, children’s recorded outcomes.

Why do we look at children’s work? I’d suggest that we do it as part of the attempt to judge the quality of the curriculum and its delivery. It shouldn’t be about checking adherence to policy; it shouldn’t be about checking individual children’s outcomes; it shouldn’t be done for the sake of doing some monitoring; it shouldn’t be done to scare teachers into ensuring that regular work is done in books.

So, what can a book scrutiny tell us that we don’t really need to know?

How often children do work that is recorded

The mistake is that we think it tells us how often children do work, full stop. And that isn’t true. There are obviously plenty of other ways that children might be carrying out practice activities. And that is, on the whole, essentially what recorded work is: tasks carried out for the purpose of children practising what they have been taught (and not for the purpose of assessing anything, teacher or child). However, some work that we look at might be a final outcome: a piece of work created as a culmination of a process. Whatever it is that is recorded, it will likely never be a full record of everything that has gone on in the classroom.

If you see gaps as you flick through books, does that mean that teacher and children haven’t been engaged in something meaningful? No. All it means is that they haven’t done any work in their books on those dates, and that most likely, they have carried out other tasks as part of their learning. This may generate a further line of enquiry around the kinds of non-recorded tasks that are being done, but should not result in a judgement of ‘not enough work’.

How neat their handwriting and presentation is

OK, this may be a school improvement focus for some, and if that is the case, by all means check children’s work for this. However, for the rest of us, handwriting and presentation can be a real stumbling block to useful work scrutiny. The problem is is that it is just so obvious: you open a book and bad handwriting and poor presentation slap you in the face. You can’t not notice it. And then a book-looking leader can get really hung up on it.

Messy books tell you one thing: that either teachers or children, or both, have low expectations for presentation. They don’t tell you if the geography curriculum is being taught well or not. Some may argue with that – sweat the small stuff and all that – but it’s not hard to imagine a teacher who 100% inspires their class in history but whose books leave a lot to be desired presentation-wide. It could possibly give you a clue as to general low expectations, inclusive of quality of teaching, but this would have to be followed up by other forms of monitoring before a judgement was made.

Whether or not everyone did the same thing

In most of the book looks I’ve been involved in, I’ve noticed the temptation to hone in on particular pieces of work. Often a group of leaders will all attempt to find the same piece of work in each book, often comparing classes within year group. Questions are asked: why are they doing something different in each class? Why does this child have a different task? Why do these children have the same task? All sorts of judgements are made around consistency and differentiation. In some contexts, these may be pertinent questions to ask, but sometimes they just give leaders something to do in the time allotted to book scrutiny, for want of anything better and more productive to do.

Sure, lines of enquiry may be generated by doing this but, (and here’s the refrain:) judgements cannot be made solely by looking at books. There will be many reasons as to why work is different in different books, many of them completely valid, based on a teacher’s assessment and responsiveness. You could follow this up afterwards with conversations with teachers if you were concerned that children weren’t been given the correct tasks.

How good they are at doing things in exercise books

Let’s be honest, most of the looking at children’s work we are talking about is concerned with looking at written work in books. The school exercise book has come to dictate much of what goes on in the classroom: we shoehorn written work into subjects that would benefit from being more practical, we spend more time worrying about grammar than Science as we force children to write about what they know. I’m all for literacy being promoted across the curriculum, but not at the expense of knowledge of other subjects.

Most new fads in schools are eventually accused of being the tail that wags the dog, but those sneaky exercise books, long since established in the education tradition, certainly hold a lot of sway. We must be careful: some children may never display their full potential in a subject if they are constantly judged by their work in books; more pertinent to this subject though is the fact that the teaching of some subjects may never be truly judged if they are only judged by written work in books.

Whether or not they completed the task

Oh, leaders love to look for complete tasks. Complete tasks that tell them so much, or perhaps not so much really. A complete task tells you that the task has been completed, not that learning has taken place. An incomplete task does not mean that learning has not taken place. It might point you towards poor task design or selection (and this is something that book scrutiny can tell us that we do need to know); it might point you towards a lesson correctly abandoned as a result of assessment which has revealed gaps in prior knowledge; it might point you towards the fact that the fire alarm went off – there are so many reasons why a task may remain unfinished which you will not be able to work out just by looking books. Lines of enquiry can, of course, be developed at this point to be followed up with other monitoring activities.

What a teacher’s written feedback looks like

Where to start with a polemic against this? It’s almost impossible to judge the quality or effectiveness of a teacher’s written feedback. For a start, written feedback on the whole is not that effective, although there are shades of how well it can be done. Many, many, many book scrutinies have been carried out with the intention of assessing the quality of feedback given, and most of them, if not all, will have been pointless.

Pointless because they will have relied on the answers to questions such as ‘has the child responded?’, ‘has the correct colour ink been used?’ and ‘has the teacher followed the policy?’ Policies which in the first place are probably full of arbitrary things designed to create a bit of consistency with not too much thought put in to what actually helps children to understand how well they are doing and how they can improve.

Really, all you can judge in work scrutiny is the nature of a teacher’s feedback: do they give 2 stars and a wish? Do they use marking symbols? Do they use the right colour? Do they identify the most pertinent areas for improvement? Do they differentiate between mistakes and misconceptions? Anything else that you think you have found out is based on a proxy: the child may have responded, and in the correct colour, but has it helped them to learn something new, to make progress, to truly correct their misconception? Without doing a very in-depth analysis of future work (which is rarely done), you will not know.

Don’t get hung up on the perceived quality of teacher’s written feedback, or marking: change your feedback policy to centre on more effective methods which centre around verbal feedback and responsive teaching.

Whether or not children respond to written feedback (or perhaps, whether or not they’ve had time to)

You can stop reading this now if my last point convinced you, however if you are working somewhere that does enforce certain kinds of written feedback, read on. When you move on from looking at the written feedback provided, and begin to look at the response, there are further pitfalls: further things that you just don’t really need to know, unless you are hell-bent on ensuring that teachers follow policy, and that is the purpose of your book scrutinies.

If children are given time to respond to written feedback, then you will be able to look at how they respond. However, how they respond clearly depends on the kind of response that is required by the type of marking that has been left for them. If children have responded, it doesn’t necessarily mean that any progress has been made: as I’ve already written, a very deep-dive into subsequent work would be more revealing than whether or not they carried out the mini-task left by a teacher who spent 3 hours of their evening marking books at home. All you can see is if they have responded or not.

The temptation is to judge the quality of feedback as good (or better) simply because written feedback has been provided, and it has been responded to – task completion does not always equal learning, it just equals task completion.

Is book scrutiny a useful tool?

Ultimately, I think the answer is yes, it can be useful. But it will only be useful if certain pitfalls are avoided (as outlined above). Once you are clear on what you aren’t looking for, you can begin to think more clearly about what you are looking for; my blog post ‘Monitoring Your Subject 101’ will give you a good starting point for starting to think this through.

If you would like Aidan to work with you on the development and delivery of your curriculum in your school, academy, trust or local authority, you can get in touch via or using the contact details on this page.

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