Looking for learning progress in books – sorcery or a skilled art?


I really struggle with the concept of seeing learning progress in books; especially those that aren’t your subject or from another school.

I think I would be able to pick out some sort of change in writing in student books that I don’t teach within my subject area but progress of learning? Without discussing what the work was with the student or teacher I’m not so sure.

There are some things that I think you can see in books:

  • If school/dept marking policies are being followed
  • If incorrect SPAG is being picked up on
  • If students are acting on feedback (Is this progress of learning?)
  • The different levels they have achieved (going ‘up’ doesn’t always mean progress?)
  • If students are taking care with presentation
  • If students are making the same errors or not (simple errors such as capital letters)
  • If their written style is improving ( possibly progress for literacy/English but not directly for other subjects)

But I struggle to see that this shows progress in their subject learning.

If we are teaching them different topics in succession that require different knowledge it is very difficult to see progress over time with knowledge; the knowledge needed for Buddhism is different needed for Islam.

The only way that I can try to display progress in their learning is if there are explicit points made to show it off. For example, a test taken at the start and then again at the end of the learning period; with more marks on the 2nd test. Or asking them to explain what  they’ve learnt in the topic. Are these truly representative of what they’ve learnt?

If we’re looking at writing some may say ‘their writing is more extended’, but there are times I say to my top set they can only write one page ( or they’ll write 10). Then it doesn’t look more extended.

Drafting and redrafting seems a sensible way to show development in their writing, but is there then pressure on a teacher to triple mark? Maybe we should spend several lessons on one piece, crafting it to excellence than several that may not show much progression?

Part of a puzzle of evidence?

This phrase has been used to try to explain to me how books help form part of a picture of learning. My concern is that if an Ofsted team spend 20 mins doing a book scrutiny how could they possibly have enough time to investigate the ‘whole’ picture of one child let alone a pile of them?

Isn’t there a large probability that a misinterpretation of one book linked with a misinterpretation of a lesson observation lead to a completely incorrect judgement of learning?;the wrong puzzle being pieced together?

Books don’t tell enough of a story. They don’t tell you where that student was in their learning at the start of the year, last year or the year before. They don’t tell you that for that child, that messy paragraph without capital letters was the best work they’ve ever done for you. They don’t record the conversations ( some teachers are made to do this) that you have with students, that a 30 minute observation by an inspector may not see. There are too many possibilities for misinterpretation unless discussed with the teacher.

Any sorts of tracking sticker or graph on their book may well easily be misinterpreted without discussion and we all know that learning isn’t linear anyway. How do you know that the levels recorded weren’t for different skills, some being more difficult? Is it true that only subject specialists could see this?

A whole new world

My final concern is the new assessment systems being used by different schools and different subjects around the country. Unless I explain my assessment system to someone looking at the books, how will they know how I’m assessing and why I may get students to write in a particular way? If an inspection team come and look at books that are used in a specific way without any explanation is there a danger of the misinterpretation above?

Playing the game?

When I look at books within my department, it is a two-way process. I ask my colleague questions. I want to find out what is going on with a student and their work. But many people who look at the books won’t have this luxury.

So the question is, do we create systems that jump the hoops? Create stickers saying “I have learnt…”? using stampers to say “Miss Cox said….” for oral feedback? make a sticker saying “books checked by Miss Cox” to show I’m doing my middle leader job?

Or just carry on and hope the outsiders looking in are better at the skilled art rather than practising some unknown sorcery?

3 thoughts on “Looking for learning progress in books – sorcery or a skilled art?

  1. Pingback: Improving schools; its all about the teaching. | missdcoxblog

  2. Really interesting points here. Undoubtedly some of the book checking is about policy adherence. How do you get middle/senior leaders to move on from this mindset.

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