How ‘perfect book syndrome’ could improve school culture and leadership

Following on from my previous post on the possibility of enhanced learning as a result of aspiring to ‘perfect books’, I thought about how this might also affect leadership and school culture in a positive way. I’m hoping this will provide some comfort to teachers who are worried that a focus on bookwook will add to their workload and stress. My synopsis is that a focus on bookwork should, ideally, do the opposite for teaching staff.

Whenever I read about strategies to improve ‘teaching and learning’, most advice seems to focus on changing what teachers are doing/saying rather than changing what the pupils are doing/thinking. The assumption is that if some groups of pupils are not learning as much as others, then the teacher needs to be directed by a leader to be more engaging, to teach more or in a different way, or to work harder to plan and provide more resources, scaffolds, support, interventions, differentiation and so on. The onus is nearly always on the teacher. If you want proof, just google ‘how to improve teaching and learning’.

It may well be the case that teachers need to be encouraged to deploy more equitable and efficient pedagogy or just turn the tables round so all the pupils are actually facing them, but it could also be that the pupils themselves aren’t working (or thinking) hard enough when the baton of knowledge is passed to them. No one seems to have the courage to consider this option, at least not in public; the idea that that a pupil is not putting in enough effort is absolutely unconscionable. Maybe the teacher has not planned sufficient high leverage activities for practice to ensure what is taught is committed to memory, or perhaps the teacher allows pupils to clock off in various ways and at various points in the lesson without consequence. The corresponding bookwork would reflect this. However, widespread shoddy bookwork could also be the canary in the mine of a much bigger problem to do with school culture and leadership. Some children develop take-it-easy habits despite the teacher clearly stating the minimum expectations and then politely asking and showing them how to finish that sentence or paragraph. They may still take the easy option of trying to get away with doing as little as possible (just like us adults do). Years of ‘when they’re ready’ and then ‘choose your challenge’ certainly doesn’t help in this respect. Groups of pupils who know that there will be virtually no consequence for less than adequate attendance to the knowledge taught, either because the school has a policy of only using praise/positive language around pupils that seriously confuses them or because there is no system in place (centralised detentions etc) to issue consistent consequences, will take the easy option by default. These children are at risk of being entrenched in the slow lane of learning due to habitual lack of practice and concentration and it is our fault, not theirs.

Who is responsible here? Leaders.

What might be lacking that would otherwise galvanise that pupil into aiming high instead of psychologically bailing out is a whole school academic culture that, for example, celebrates the best young scientists, mathematicians etc. Where is that sense that when a pupil walks into a school, they can step into a new identity where they can dream, hope, work hard and then feel successful and purposeful? This is about so much more than trips and distracting experiences. Are they on a mission to be the best mathematicians, going up secondary school with a fearsome reputation that precedes them, or they going up to a secondary school (that is not looking forward to receiving them) thinking that school is primarily for entertainment and that a teaching assistant will do their thinking for them? If they are on a mission, it will certainly show in their books. If they have been inculcated, thanks to leaders, with the belief that school is primarily about ‘expressing individuality’ or ‘making happy memories to inspire writing’ then this will also show in their books in the form of lack of detail, coherence and consistency that would ordinarily come from developing the habit of working hard and concentrating*.

There could also be a lack of old-fashioned leadership presence that gets inside pupils’ heads and stops them from aiming low through taking the easy option. How can a leader be that person? By being on hand not just to give a gold star and go the full panto for a pupil who has worked really hard to impress (yes, younger pupils want to impress), but if needed for a really stern chat and supervised re-write of work in their own time when a pupil decides not to work as hard as his classmates or worse still stop themselves and their friends from learning. This means that the teacher can (hopefully) concentrate on teaching knowing that the pupils, when entrusted with independent work, have an added incentive to avoid taking the easy option. This is really important and analogous to a father and mother working together in the home with consistent expectations for raising their children. If I visit classrooms, I’m not checking up on the teachers like I’m the Stasi, I’m checking that the children are giving them their full attention, not messing about or speaking over them, and doing exactly as has been asked when writing in their books. If I catch someone doing anything other than what is expected of them and that they are capable of, then that pupil will know I am very disappointed and I will insist he or she apologises (because we also teach manners as well as maths) and then ensure they go above and beyond to put things right. Not all lessons can be wildly fun and engaging and even if they were, it would not guarantee that all children were engaged. I deploy this strategy to raise the status of teachers and teaching assistants in the minds of pupils and because I care very much about all the pupils, not just the advantaged pupils who already come to school with a good attitude to learning and an ability to learn by osmosis. I believe everyone has the capacity to learn and to change (and then I will find a way to praise said pupils later). This ‘system’ requires that a school leader is visibly present and it’s the reason I don’t agree with the view that leaders should be constantly teaching and attending meetings; using the father and mother analogy again, it’s similar to the father having to work away on business all the time and the children, in his absence, forming the view that their mother, who now has to do absolutely everything, as a lowly servant whom they can treat like dirt.

I also like to ‘catch’ the pupils who are quietly beavering away and make a big positive fuss of them, which causes all the other pupils to want similar praise. Often a teacher has to (quite rightly) devote a lot of attention to children with SEN or who need extra help ‘staying on the bus’ and this means that the quiet ones who always work hard and do the right thing miss out when the teacher’s energy and attention is carved up. Whenever I issue some public praise, I also tend to include a clause ‘aren’t you lucky to have such a good teacher who’s helped you get brainier!’

Really, this is another level of teaching. What is being taught? That you are being held accountable for your behaviour and effort even when the teacher is not sat right next to you or even looking at you. This is knowledge of the rules of wider society and it is taught by the headteacher (or deputy) and therefore, in my view, should constitute part of the ‘quality of education’ judgement because it does affect how much pupils attend to teaching and independent practice. It is very interesting clocking the body language and vocal reaction of pupils when a senior leader enters a classroom or is in the vicinity. If pupils aren’t galvinised into following rules and instructions by the mere presence of the leader, then they sure won’t do the same for teachers (unless that teacher is strong and experienced). How easy would it be for a leader to be the equivalent of the ‘fun weekend dad’ and appear infrequently to give lots of praise, treats and rewards. This would surely undermine the teacher because the pupil would compare the leader to their teacher and deduce that their teacher is a naggy, sour cow who doesn’t want him or her to have fun. I bet there are a few single mums reading this thinking this situation seems strangely familiar…….

So, if I were an inspector confronted with consistently inconsistent bookwork, I would be gathering a group of pupils and asking them about what happens when pupils decide to take life a little too easy.

Who’s with me?

*Sometimes this shows lack of SPG explicit teaching and practice; pupils might have ideas, but cannot convey them in writing because they have not had enough instruction at sentence level.

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