My first experience of work-sampling was during an Ofsted inspection when we gathered around a conference table as members of SLT and sat with the inspectors poring through a sample of students’ books. It’s not hard to see the benefit of book-looks from an accountability perspective – judging the content of a book is much more concrete than judging (or not judging) the content of a lesson, and if inspectors can no longer show a preference for a particular style of teaching and learning, then at least they’re on more solid ground when assessing actual work in actual books.
Of course we should be wary of asking schools for things which ease the lives of inspectors and other outsiders (myself included), with no clear benefit for teachers and students. Just because books are easy to check doesn’t make them worth checking. Martin Robinson raises some particular issues for practical subjects, and I can’t help but think of Daisy’s concerns about samples and domains when I wonder whether the books assembled in a conference room provide a fair reflection of students’ activity in the classroom.
But I think there’s something positive in this work-sampling trend that’s worth keeping and exploring. For too long we haven’t paid enough attention to the work produced by students in their lessons. Teachers and leaders talk about the sub-levels of progress that their students have made, but not about the beautiful essay written in history, the robust PE bag made in textiles or the forensic investigation conducted in science. Reading Ron Berger’s Ethic of Excellence reminded me that we need to refocus on the productive process of learning. Paying attention to the work students produce seems a good place to start.
Work-sampling should also be in a teacher’s favour if and when it comes to their performance management. I would much rather be held to account for the work that my students produce throughout the year, than for the ‘progress’ they make in a single lesson. Too often, our determination to raise standards in schools involves asking teachers to do more. Scrutinising students’ work puts the onus back on the students. There’s no better indication of progress over time, and no surer sign of the typicality of teaching, than the work students produce over the course of the year.
So how can we make work-scrutiny a useful exercise? I think it’s most useful when done in the classroom, during a lesson. This will hopefully mean that students of art can show you the fruits of their creative labour, while students of DT can reveal the various stages of the productive process, from first draft to final evaluation. In academic subjects, we can look for students’ best work of the year and we can check that students are spending more time responding to feedback than teachers spend giving feedback. We can ensure that the books contain a decent amount of work, that the work is challenging and that it contains rich, subject-specific vocabulary. We can look for careful presentation and high standards of spelling, punctuation and grammar. Perhaps most importantly, we can check that the work students are producing now is better than the work they were producing at the start of the year.
It’s clear from the dialogue on Twitter this week that, like any accountability tool, scrutinising students’ work can easily become yet another stick to beat teachers with. But if done carefully we might be heading in the right direction with this one. Nothing is more important in schools than the work students produce in all of their lessons, so it makes sense to pay close attention to it.