One of my frustrations with my last inspection experience was the high-speed book flick-throughs that were passed off as valid scrutinies of standards. Essentially, in the time given to each book, in some cases, it could only really have been presentation that was being evaluated. It was annoying when a teacher of a KS3 class was judged to have low standards for pupil premium students despite the fact that PP students were doing just as well as their non-PP peers on tests. This was based on the standards of presentation in separated piles of their books. Is this valid? Is it fair?
I don’t think it is – if you are judging standards of maths reasoning or, with writing, standards of comprehension or perceptiveness or, in science, accuracy and understanding. But, I’m going to suggest that a strong focus purely on presentation could actually be a powerful driver of standards in general.
Here’s an example of a piece of redrafting a Y8 student did for me in science – as featured in this ‘Improving the basics, Inspired by Austin‘ post.
This was a simple case of asking him to do the same work again but better. It’s a quantum leap in terms of presentation. Did it have an impact on his understanding of science? Well, yes it did. Not immediately, but over the longer term. Simply seeing that he was capable of really good work had a major impact on his self-esteem and commitment to our lessons.
Through an emphasis on presentation, numerous other messages are being given and reinforced:
- Pride in your work fuels a sense of self-worth; it feels good to produce something that looks good – it matters.
- Presenting your work well shows that you care; that you are bothered. This fuels positive engagement with teachers which helps you to learn.
- Your ideas have value and so people need to be able to read them; this matters.
- Clarity is important in presenting ideas, explanations and descriptions.
- Precision matters in punctuation so the meaning of what you are saying is clear. There’s likely to be a connection between neat writing and accurate writing; there are standards for writing every KS2 teacher will know and that secondary teachers should match.
- Precision matters in diagrams so that you can make good mental models for concepts.
- Precision matters a great in setting out mathematical problems to avoid errors – eg with column addition, rearranging equations, graphical solutions etc.
It is these messages that then, over time, lead to greater engagement, more commitment and, ultimately, deeper understanding. Also, crucially, very often students find it easier to engage with dialogue about presentation when asked to improve their work, than with more abstract or technical ideas. Within the Trojan Horse of redrafting for presentation, you can include a host of more technical details that they also improve and extend as they revisit the work to make it look better.
For some students, there is a question of whether a focus on presentation of a first draft, where ideas are not fully formed, inhibits their thinking. You need to sketch things, scope things out. This has a place – and needs to have legitimised space somewhere. But, that aside, a full-on drive on standards of presentation is going to pay dividends.
Through redrafting, you can get even the most sloppy student to produce beautiful work that they feel good about. The challenge is in sustaining this week in, week out. But, without doubt, this is a classic case of Bill Rogers’ ‘you establish what you establish’. If you establish that you will accept sloppy, scrappy work, that’s what you get. If you establish that nothing but well presented work will be accepted, with some process for enforcing that, you will get a return on the investment.
Final caveat: Even with a drive on presentation, it’s important not to fall into the inspectors’ scrutiny trap. It might well be that other indicators suggest standards are very different. The compliant, neat work of an average student does not equate to depth of understanding. Nor does the rough scrawl of a maverick indicate a lack of understanding. The last thing you want is blind copying for neatness, devoid of understanding; the masking effect.
But, if you do it in the right spirit, the progress proxy effect is real and well worth pursuing. And, if you can pass the PP: non-PP test, all power to you. And them. This means that you can’t tell which pile of books is which just by looking at them.
(Finally, an advisory note on book scrutinies. For God’s sake don’t grade them or crucify people for them. With some classes, this is much easier said than done. But, don’t just do a sample. The question is not whether some books show high standards or even whether the general standard is high; the question is whether there are any books where standards are too low and then, what needs to be done to change that. )