Creative Teacher Support

Creative, practical support and discussion for classroom teachers everywhere

Beware the Crocodiles

4 Comments

Why are monitor lizards called monitor lizards?

… some monitors rear up on to their hind legs to ‘monitor’ their surroundings.

I’m not an idiot. At least I think I’m not an idiot. Popular thought and psychology would say that that doesn’t mean I’m not an idiot. But something that’s puzzling me at the moment is the fact that I have been unaware for some time now that teachers are feckless, work shy fops. No really, they are. They need to be monitored in order to get them to do anything. Me included.

Public persona doesn’t help I suppose. I do enjoy a good teacher headline and the recent accusations of Marxism and being “enemies of promise” are a delicious dessert to my previous favourites. “Teachers should quit extremist unions”, “Teachers forced to cheat” and my personal favourite, “Fern Britton Not Happy With Mountains of Homework”. You know things are bad when you’ve upset education expert Fern.

Tail Wags the DogWith so many aspects of education, the tail soundly wags the dog. This is particularly true where monitoring is concerned. Not evaluation, I’m happy with that, it’s monitoring that is the partner that no one wants to talk to over dinner. It has, recently, been described to me as “checking teachers are doing what they’re supposed to”. A worrying statement. And one that assumes a deficit model in relation to teachers and their practice. We need to be checked up on to ensure we’re doing what we’re supposed to as opposed to finding out where the effective practice is and enhancing it, spreading it, the old “grass fire” analogy. Instead, what we have is an elaborate strategy designed to prove that we are working. No really, really working.

I must point out that I don’t believe everyone does mark enough. I also believe that there are colleagues who mark too much. Both camps need to be provided with targets to ensure that they meet somewhere in the middle. I get the fact that “gap” studies are necessary and, at times, illuminating, but the observer effect of monitoring is all too often a nudge in the wrong direction.

I recently refused access to a set of books and students I was teaching for a monitoring visit. Admittedly a risky strategy but one designed to point out where the flaws in the process exist. This class was the same class that had been monitored the previous time it had been carried out. The structure of the monitoring, in the midst of everything else colleagues are being asked to do, means that they fit it in when they are free. The nature of timetables means the same people are free at the same time that colleagues are teaching the same classes. Essentially, if I was clever, I could mark only one set of books and be happily monitored for the rest of the year. I did no monitoring this time round, no one has asked me for it. Monitoring is carried out differently in almost every department, if it happens at all and appears on the calendar three times in deftly timetabled succession, meaning that teachers, aiming to please, ensure that books are marked up to date for monitoring. This monitoring works on the basis of a contract with parents and not even contracts with children or students. The contract, unspoken as it is, should be with the learning and the child or student. I’m much more of a subscriber to the position that once marking has been done then students have to take action to remedy or at least work towards their targets – somewhere between David Didau’s consideration that “marking is planning” or @headguruteacher’s thoughts around exercise books becoming more like a journal.

Impact of Monitoring Cartoon

Teachers shouldn’t be marking because they are being monitored and, moreover, those monitoring should be able to determine the fact that a book not marked studiously up to the date of the monitoring visit does not necessarily mean that the teacher is not doing their best. In the skewed priorities of schools, some books or work just has to wait longer than others. My Y13s will tend to get priority, followed probably in reverse chronological order, the reasoning too obvious to go into here. There is also the meandering policy of individual departments towards periodic assessment, where a book may have lain dormant whilst an (inner gasp) APP assessment or some such nightmare has been completed and marked and worked on ad infinitum. Teachers though, like Jurassic Park, “will always find a way” and the explosion of “verbal feedback given” stickers, stamps and post-its is a reaction squarely to the culture of monitoring. (When perhaps colleagues’ initial reasons were grounded in the research that considers the powerful nature of feedback.)

The fact remains that we work within a system that wants everything to exist at once. We should mark and plan in relation to what we find whilst also providing schemes of work that can be so prescribed that they can exist on a website for parents to see. It’s a conflicting set of systems that, without appropriate leadership of these areas, we maybe even shouldn’t fight.

I’ve written before about the importance that I see in Learning Walks and fact that I disagree with unions and a lot of other colleagues in the way that I think they should be carried out. Learning Walks, as a system of monitoring, get directly to the core of what we want to monitor, the “received curriculum”, or what is alive in the mind of our students. I know that’s not particularly tangible so I also subscribe to the approach of “pure” AfL where marking isn’t over until students have had the opportunity to work on targets or action points that they have been given.

“All teachers give pupils clear feedback which identifies next steps and provides opportunities in lessons for pupils to discuss and act upon the feedback.”

AfL & APP Quality Standards

Monitoring should consider how often this approach is employed whilst also considering the fact that sometimes we simply have to “check” that work is being done or has been done. In which case, “tick and flick” is wholly appropriate.

I can’t completely do this justice, but a blog I have learned a lot from is that of Hayley Thompson (@HThompson) a fabulous AST Science teacher who I didn’t get the chance to see at Pedagoo London but who writes in great detail about the work she has done around effective marking and dialogue and the power of the green pen. I can recommend her blog wholeheartedly: www.educatingmatters.wordpress.com.

I know I don’t offer a great deal of support to do this better. The only suggestion I can make beyond reviewing approaches to marking, feedback, assessment and monitoring is that you don’t allow the tail to continue to wag this particular dog. If a monitoring visit is due don’t mark your books unless it fits into your usual scheme and timetable for doing this. We’re better than the thought that, when someone opens an exercise book we hear a distant voice saying, “these exercise books are being monitored to ensure a quality experience”. We know when we need to mark and, moreover, we know when we can mark.

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Author: Gordon Baillie

I am an Advanced Skills teacher in a large comprehensive school in the North West of the UK. Trained in Scotland, I have worked in a number of different settings in my almost fifteen years of teaching. I have been working with both my own and other local schools and their teachers to both enhance and improve learning and teaching for a number of years now. I am an experienced trainer of both trainee and experienced teachers and have contributed to both local and national conferences around learning and teaching, particularly around Assessment for Learning as well as being asked to contribute to keynote addresses around other, more generic areas of teaching. I believe that teaching and particularly learning are deeply creative pursuits and that the only way to continue to enhance them and the practice of teachers is to collaborate.

4 thoughts on “Beware the Crocodiles

  1. Ah, monitoring. Or should that be an opportunity for many in a department to make themselves look good by playing the game of marking what they know will be looked at.

    It’s akin to the lesson observation isn’t it. A chance to show off your best lesson. The chance to get an outstanding – the same outstanding you always get for the same lesson you always deliver.

    I am not an advocate of prescriptive schemes of work – I prefer a system where teachers are set a set of learning outcomes – and then do what they feel is best to ensure these are met or indeed exceeded. But I do see the benefit of checking the lesson plan for the observation against the scheme of work and ask the question “so why exactly are you teaching this lesson when the scheme says otherwise” – and rate the lesson satisfactory because by definition its not in a well planned sequence of lessons because the teacher cannot prove it.

    Teaching is in danger of stifling the very creativity that makes the best teachers stand out. That makes the students want to learn because the craft of the teacher inspires them to learn and not because they are receiving a bland education that merely goes through the motions of ticking boxes.

    Books marked – tick
    Good lesson – tick
    Action points done – tick
    Students bored rigid because the teacher ticks the management boxes but does not tick the boxes that makes the students want to learn.

    I have to pose the question – what does monitoring the marking of a set of books demonstrate? To me it demonstrates that the books have been marked (or not) and that feedback has been given (or not). What it does not do is concentrate on what really matters – which is that progress is being made.

    I would argue that progress is made when students are inspired by great lessons. Not great marking and feedback. Do they even read it anyway? If the answer to this question is no then I would argue that what we should be doing is concentrating on our practice in the classroom, concentrating on what we can do to foster learning and inspire students than to worry too much about giving them a smiley face and some pointers that they probably already know themselves.

    A colleague of mine routinely mentions that they spend hours marking their books. They nearly always get an outstanding when observed. Yet the students I know tell me how much they hate the lessons. Dull, boring and uninspiring.

    I mark books to inform me what I need to do teach next. What misconceptions I need to address. It is my failing if the students have not understood – not theirs. I rarely get an outstanding – but nearly always a good – but I never put on a show – I nearly always do what I normally do.

    I teach a class who have targets lower than my colleague’s. I teach a class who are outperforming my colleague’s.

    Go figure.

    • I’m glad you’ve gotten all of that out! I don’t disagree with much if not all. Perhaps not with the power of feedback. I’d suggest that, similarly to what you said about misconceptions, if students don’t get or use feedback. That puts the onus on us to create structures where the feedback is made more meaningful.

  2. The feedback can be on what we as teachers do next – rather than point out the inability of the student. E.g. we’re going to cover this again – I am going to approach it in a different way.

    It’s about empowering the student to find a way that suits them – from the approaches we offer them. Rather than stick blindly to the method that works for us. And mark (criticize) the students for their inability to follow it.

    Perhaps in my subject it’s easier – where the answer is or isn’t right – show your working out becomes a mantra but do we have to write it as feedback every time?

    Perhaps that’s what I mean by great teaching though – demonstrating good practice – demanding good practice. But….letting students find what works for them and advice and so forth that allows them to do so.

    There is little point in asking a student to use a method they clearly don’t understand. Little point in correcting work where the student’s misconceptions are such that they won’t understand the corrections.

    Better as a teacher to use it as a starting point for the next lesson maybe. We’ll look at this in a different way.

    I would far rather devote 2 hours to that and to devising how I can tackle the misconceptions that to send two hours correcting work that the student doesn’t understand and giving feedback that won’t help them as much as a well constructed lesson.

  3. Pingback: What’s the Plan? What’s the Strategy? | Creative Teacher Support

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