The narrower the teacher frame of reference becomes, the narrower the learner view becomes, as it is controlled by the former.
It is strange. For the first part of my school career, there was talking with children about their ongoing learning, sometimes as individuals, often as groups and then there was marking. As the talking and the marking were in the context of work being checked, edited, discussed, reframed, as a part of developmental approaches, drafting and redrafting ideas, the discussions could be seen more as “editorial boards”, with the recipient of the group discussion having to go away and recraft their work. As my career was largely in Primary, these were 5-11 year olds. The later classes also had the benefit of being participants in the National Writing Project, which had a strong local base.
I am beginning to reflect that, as the discussions were part of a known process, it was this context, with the need to follow up, to improve the detail that was the successful element.
Today, too often, as has always been the case in many classrooms, a piece of written work can be seen as an end in itself, with the potential that any critique, or support, offered at the marking stage, will only be tentatively applied, or retained, as the class moves on to the next topic.
This creates for me a broader question. Is it better to craft fewer pieces of higher quality, than a greater number of pieces of possibly lower quality?
The approach that I outline above, with a focus on the process, could mean that a piece of writing was developed over a couple of weeks, and, as this was all hand written, needed careful management, to avoid children just rewriting for neatness.
An example that I used, with one able group, was to spend the lesson time developing the ideas and planning carefully, with a home activity to write a (short, 15 minute) chapter draft, to bring back to the class to discuss and edit the following day, before moving to plan the next chapter. A lower achieving group had the task of developing their storyboard at home, to use in the lesson, to talk about, plan, draft, edit and create a “chapter” of three sentences. Lesson length varied with the needs of the task, to ensure quality outcomes. Topics were governed by the need for quality.
“Publication” was a hand task, with each child’s work mounted, bound and incorporated pieces of associated art work. Children were trained to mount their work with care. Their finished products made them proud and they became a part of the class “library” for a while, before going home.
Teachers talked together about the outcomes, especially within year groups, but also across the school, as a topic or a particularly exciting outcome was shared. Everyone grew, by talking together and being allowed to try things out.
My school, as a whole, took part in these approaches, and, as I was one of the leads for English, and undertaking my post grad in Language and Reading development, it provided a great platform for personal and institutional development. We talked improvement, created generic formulae to describe this from Reception to year 3 (It was still a First School) and we got children to an extremely high level of achievement, often not believed by the receiving Middle School. Many were at what would have been called afterwards, a good level 4.
It was in the last three years of my time as a class teacher when the original National Curriculum came into being. This gave a form of words to all teachers, across all schools, to discuss progress. More focused moderation began to offer broader insights into outcomes across schools. Ideas were shared more widely, but then there were also apocryphal stories about schools not able to do the same, as they were more tightly controlled in their timetabling or what they had to offer.
In many ways, the inception of the National Strategies, with the further development of Assessing Pupil Progress (APP) grids, to my mind, enabled a greater stereotyping of approaches, with ever narrower aspects being the focus for learning; losing sight of the bigger picture, especially as moderation then began to focus on sub-levels. The words of moderation killed off the teacher aspiration to hold onto the holistic process of writing, and to focus on ever smaller elements, which children then often had to put together themselves.
Rather than move in this ever-narrower way, within my school, we worked towards what became the two page approach to the writing process, embedding the best of the National Writing Project outcomes with what we felt was the best of the emerging development narrative. This enabled us to move to around 85% level 4+ in the 2005 SATs, with 40% at level 5. The process of writing was always at the forefront, with the discrete elements fitting together.
This approach was further developed across the curriculum, with a focus for each week’s main piece of writing. There was one book for all major writing, developed in the same way, over the course of a number of days, with a purposeful outcome; display or class book being the main sharing points. Shorter, note based writing also happened, to facilitate some other subjects.
Development discussions were always based on the whole level descriptors, with subject managers adjusting these, or advising, if there were discrete elements to be considered.
In essence, the school focused on
Order and organisation of thoughts. This might be aided, in any subject, by storyboarding, a series of photos, mind-mapping, story mapping, scaffolds, or some other structural aids. Some children crafted three sentence narratives, reports, letters etc, with a beginning a middle and an end, then were challenged to add detail. Others were able to develop a more coherent, extended narrative, but needed guidance to focus in some way.
Getting good at words. Collecting together, sharing, words and phrases appropriate to the needs of the writing, including thesaurus or class sharing activities. Talking about adjective, verb and adverb choices, crafting sentences.
Bringing in inspiration from what they were reading. There was a link with books read, as every class had an appropriate “Author of the Month”, with a set of books available to supplement other reading. This allowed teachers to read quality literature aloud, children to share with each other parts of books that caught attention, but also to write “in the style of”, from some experience. Guided book sets were also author linked where possible, so there was a joined up approach.
Modelling, as needed to some children, including TA as scribe for some at different times.
Oral rehearsal; telling the story out loud and capturing in some form, for those whose needs dictated that; in the early days with a tape recorder. Nowadays there is a multitude of digital alternatives.
Sharing developing drafts. Talking improvement, at every stage, with the “final” drafting being seen as capable of further improvement. It was the best it could be at the time.
The children were getting better at getting better. They were party to their own development, so their energies were clearly directed towards self-improvement. Becoming learners, they needed “feeding” rather than always needing to be led.
Of course, after all these efforts, to improve the outcomes of children, and even if 85% of them achieve the “national standard”, will Secondary schools accept these outcomes? That has been a question since 1987, when Juniors argued level 3 in infants was “different” in the juniors and Secondaries argued the same from their perspective. That question is, to me, the crux of future developments.
There needs to be a common language and common agreement about outcomes. For what it is worth, I did think level descriptors 1-5 described Primary progress imperfectly, but quite well as an overview.