When Things Go Mad: The Destructive Power of Ideas

Over a hundred years ago, the German poet Heine warned the French not to underestimate the power of ideas: philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor’s study could destroy a civilisation.  Isaiah Berlin
Yesterday I read a post by @teachertoolkit about a measure he employs in his school called ‘book look’. In his blog he wrote that the measure was to check on: “…marking, workload and quality assurance of feedback and assessment” As my main teaching subject is a practical one I thought I would ask the perfectly reasonable question:

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My thought being that in subjects where much of the feedback, teacher, self and peer assessment is done verbally that instead of demanding those subjects should do unnecessary written work to fit in with the book look system, that the system might bend in a way to recognise the richness of this type of assessment.

Strangely, before I was able to receive an answer, this happened:

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This was an odd diversion. Clearly Paul, who is an Ofsted inspector, had been into Teacher Toolkit’s school and had seen the ‘book look’ in practice, he implies here that he likes it. He also makes a leap from my tweet to imply that I meant practical subjects don’t mark. No matter, I had a right of reply:


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And I expected it to be left there, after all, I was asking a question to which I hadn’t received an answer. My ulterior motive is to avoid subjects with a large practical component having to write everything down – where currently they are more effective by not having to log everything.

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Now Paul has begun to question my understanding of ‘practical subjects’ – I have taught drama for twenty-five years, so this certainly ‘bristled’ with me. All I can think is that Paul is deliberately misunderstanding me because I’m asking about the practical component of practical subjects.

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I know they all do written work. I am waiting for an answer from Mr. Toolkit about how they approach practical subjects, in other words do they want ‘everything’ logged in written form?

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This is where things went mad and we went into meltdown. I had spent the day leading a course on the new exam specs for drama so Paul’s comment that I need to look at the exam specs was particularly hilarious.

The meltdown:

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From this point the whole discussion went even further down hill, it is on twitter for those you who wish to see a spat about ‘you said this’, ‘you said that’.

There is something far more important going on here, the original book look idea is a bureaucrat’s dream but it falls apart when faced with practical subjects. Either it means that subjects with a sizeable practical  component will be asked to do more, unnecessary, writing or the system that has been brought in will miss the feedback given verbally and understood physically in, say, drama and PE.  Will this result in teachers at the school putting too much emphasis on written feedback and ignoring the richness of other ways of teaching and assessing?

Paul Garvey clearly thought I had no idea what I was talking about and the best I can think of him is that he misunderstood the nuance of my question. He seems to have a huge vested interest in ‘book look’. As a consultant he had visited Teacher Toolkit’s school and, as mentioned above:

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has given ‘book look’ his blessing. As an Ofsted inspector his word carries power, I can see many schools jumping on the book look book check and adapting it for use in their schools. This would be a disaster for practical subjects and, I would venture, for all subjects. Read this excellent blog from Greg Ashman where he examines the thinking behind ‘book look’.

Since I pointed out the problem with practical subjects Teacher Toolkit has removed the bit of the blog where he wrote about checking: “…marking, workload and quality assurance of feedback and assessment” maybe because it doesn’t work for a large part of the feedback that is done in practical subjects. However, the tool doesn’t cover practical elements.

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The ‘yellow box’ areas don’t help for practical work – how could a ‘diagnosis’ of books pick up the improvement in a girl’s ball skills in football or a boy’s vocal quality in drama unless it is written down? The point is the writing down of these things interrupts the teaching of these things in the subject, slows them down,  and, in all likelihood, lowers the standards of teaching and learning in the practical element of practical subjects. By writing about your practical work, you cease to truly understand it. It would be like teaching a child to walk by insisting she wrote all the stages down, set targets etc. when, in real life, the understanding of how to do these things is quite mysterious to us. Each child is different, they respond, in practical work, to coaching in real time, not to stopping and starting and writing about it.

That this check seems to expect teachers to spend a lot of time giving written feedback, and what is assessed will be what is done, I think the above book checking tool will mean that staff will have to spend more and more effort and time with written work and feedback and reduce the time and the quality of verbal feedback. This excellent blog by Andy Day reflects on how these checks distort education. What a pity  to put all the effort into written feedback especially if verbal feedback is a far more effective method of raising standards.

Ideas nurtured in the stillness of a senior leader’s study could destroy the quality of education in a school. Unnecessary writing of targets etc. is the bane of practical work please stop it happening in schools just so that a leadership team needing something to do can check it and Ofsted inspectors needing to justify their consulting business sidelines can tweet about it. Hopefully the book look tool will ignore practical work and, maybe, ignore books.


21 thoughts on “When Things Go Mad: The Destructive Power of Ideas

  1. As an ex-Drama teacher, ex-Deputy Head, this issue was one I wrestled with for some years, even to the point of giving students exercise books in which to produce ‘reflective’ diary entries of their devising work at one point. It didn’t work, it was ‘bolt-on’ so not surprising. In the end we went (in Perf Arts) for Portfolios of evidence, linked to assessment criteria. (Illustrating how they’d achieved a given level as a Storyteller, Director or Actor in Drama). This did involve some written work, reviewing, evaluating etc – in readiness for GCSE (the point your inspector was making) – but it meant the written work wasn’t an independent means to a specific goal (i.e. Book Look). It was part of monitoring progress, it was personalised (students chose what to use as evidence for their Portfolio) but it also provided evidence to any outside observers (including parents).
    Your reasonable question – and its subsequent misunderstood response – is a result of some inspectors not having any experience of teaching practical subjects. Or not having the set of values to consider processes that are meaningful to students AND which offer accountability.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your supportive comments Phil. In drama GCSE the portfolio is part of the assessment of the subject, and it can be a useful way to log a process when leading up to a performance or other assessment. I use the ‘working notebook’ as a place for exploration, logging ideas, noting thoughts, planning, writing etc. this is an informal book that would not benefit from close marking and can be used to help compile a portfolio at times when a portfolio adds to understanding or helps in the preparation for or in exams. As you say, pointedly, these things don’t work, when “it was ‘bolt-on’” and I absolutely agree that this is “not surprising”. My concern is that these sorts of checks add a whole lot of ‘bolt on’ logging throughout the school that pupils and teachers end up chasing unnecessary writing rather than getting on with learning stuff.


  2. I am with you one hundred percent and would go further Martin. In primary schools, the whole ‘written’ feedback has led to a situation where even verbal feedback has to be written down so those conducting the book scrutiny can check what advice you gave. Now I have no problem adding a VF at the point it was given but isn’t it obvious beyond that? If the feedback was acted on then a change will have occurred. If the feedback was appropriate then the change will have led to the outcome expected in the first place. As for practical subjects – again – why are we asking children to waste time writing down more than they need to just to fill books. In KS1, responding to marking often involves having an adult who can read and explain what needs to be done. What is the point? Why not work on the next steps in the next lesson? Much better use of an adults time than running around the class trying to get children who are still learning to read to respond to written feedback. You are right about this – it is the outcomes not the process or amount of writing that is important and this is especially the case for practical subjects but I would also want to put in a word for the ones where there is more written context. Written feedback is one not the only way to feedback and it is not actually the most useful in many, many contexts.


    1. Thank you for your supportive comments, I am with you 100% too. I might even go one step further, why write VF? Why not accept teachers and pupils converse about work and this vital relationship is at the core of great teaching and learning, far more so than a book full of green, blue and indigo ink. And, yes, this is beyond just practical vs written subjects.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I read the Twitter exchange last night with increasing horror – and agree with you that there seemed to be a deliberate misunderstanding of your original question. Indeed, the reason i followed the thread in the first place was because i had intended to ask the same question myself, and was looking to see if it had been answered already.
    When i taught GCSE Drama, and was faced with a similar expectation that somewhere there ‘ought’ to be some kind of concrete record of progress, I too initiated a portfolio approach. In the end, this was really useful, because the final exam demanded students describe a piece of work they had completed, explaining how they reached their final decisions: the portfolio was a really useful revision tool which reminded them of the stages they had gone through that potentially may have been forgotten.
    Often, the suggestions made by me or other members of the class were recorded, making them very obvious formative assessments – ‘back-of-the-net’!

    Incidentally, I did think it odd that @TeacherToolkit remained absent. A simple response from him may have stemmed the flow…


    1. Thank you for your supportive comments. As I have written above I use and recommend a ‘working notebook’ that is used to feed into portfolios where they are useful and/or required. However, the thoughts that the notebooks would be treated in the same way as an ‘exercise book’ would take away its strength, or, indeed its purpose. That over-marking might result from certain checking methods should be a concern in all subjects and over writing about practical work can have a detrimental effect on the quality of said practical is a particular concern of mine. That suggestions are sometimes emphasised by a child in their notebook is not a problem, that this be over systematised I think would be.


  4. Teachwell makes a good point regarding KS1 kids who can’t read yet. It always annoyed me that I had to write written feedback for kids who had not the slightest possibility of reading it.
    Similarly, when you do a practical activity in an otherwise ‘academic’ subject, like drama in English or making 3D shape models in maths, what is to be practically gained by producing a load of Learning objective stickers and marking to stick in the kids books? It makes minimal impact fie the kids (as they’re still learning to read) and it uses up a load of time creating and sticking in.
    When I was able to do so, I used to record observations on a class list and file it in a folder. But that would not do if someone dares to have a look in the books and seen nothing written down for Thursday morning.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your supportive comments. Yes, that dreaded ‘oh I’m being checked and I’ve nothing written down so I need to spend a few hours chasing my tail whilst dissipating my focus and energy on teaching’ is extremely annoying.


    2. It devalues the experience for the children too if they are writing things down for the sake of writing things down!! I know what you mean about recording observations – its not good enough on the planning it seems. More admin tasks that are pointless….


  5. I do worry that some school leadership teams see their core role now as “checking up” that colleagues are doing their job ‘correctly’.

    In my view (as a senior leader) our central role should be creating a culture which is supporting colleagues to teach as effectively as possible. My colleagues are professionals – and that word means something to me – it means that we all share an obligation to be reflecting on our practice – I see my role (in charge of staff development) as presenting stimuli that help people reflect – that may be blogs, a video or whatever and then creating a space to allow people reflect, through discussion with fellow professionals, on whether that information is something that, upon professional reflection, will help them to be more effective in the classroom.

    That’s not some ‘soft touch’ option – where genuine problems are identified through various sources those colleagues are challenged to improve (with support as necessary).

    In terms of marking and feedback – as a school community (all staff & students) we identified some key principles that exist across all subjects (timely, accurate, ‘actionable’ etc.) and asked each subject team to think about how those principles apply to their subject. It was a chance for teams to reflect – perhaps one or two areas to review – but our practices vary very much from PE to Maths to Music to English.

    It’s certainly not something we are ‘checking up on’ – although we do have a group who are looking at the effectiveness of the marking, assessment and feedback it is very much collaborative – “is this having the impact you expected? If not, what should we tweak? If yes – why? Can we share more widely?”


  6. Too much proving we’re doing what we’re doing and not enough of the actual doing. I’ve an idea for all subjects. Video everything and make the inspectors watch the entire 60 hour day.


  7. I’m with you on this. The twitter exchange seemed to show how obstreperous that Ofsted chap was.

    It seems as if the diktat of ‘No longer grading individual lessons or teachers’ combined with the ‘We’re now focusing intently on the books’ take that Ofsted are now doing is being mimicked by SLT in schools. So, they can’t just let the teachers get on with their job. No, they’ve got to satisfy that nit-picking urge somehow.

    Result? We’re all now paranoid about our books. In primary schools, any ‘practical’ lessons or activities are recorded on iPads ‘ready for inspection’ and photos are expected to be taken to show children in groups doing practical things and then stuck in the children’s books. It takes hours to print, cut and stick.


  8. As someone who has been inspected by this gentleman I can fully appreciate the difficulties you had communicating. I could also tell you the story of how on day 2 of the inspection at 4.30 am on a bitter March morning I found myself lying on a freezing concrete slab, fingers bleeding working with my Tory boy governor and his mate to put up a rickety chicken wire fence which saved us from dropping into the then ‘satisfactory’ category. But that will have to wait for the autobiography. As to explaining why I’m commenting on a piece you write 2 months ago, no idea! It’s a mystery.


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