Why book looks should never return

Most schools have paused book looks this term - and Yousuf Hamid says they should never make a comeback

Yousuf Hamid

Book looks don't give senior school staff a true picture of pupils' learning, says Yousuf Hamid

Pupils do their work in their books, so SLT should check these to make sure pupils are learning, right?


Book scrutinies – where a collection of pupils' books is placed in a room where SLT walk around ticking off a checklist of criteria for each to ensure that pupils are "making progress" – have been put on hold in most schools during this term, due to the coronavirus restrictions.

But in truth, they should never have happened in the first place and they definitely shouldn’t make a return when restrictions are lifted.

Don't bring back book looks

You can sum up the reasons succinctly in two points: 

1. They do not show learning

Professor Rob Coe has shown in his research on poor proxies for learning that lots of written work being done, or the breadth of curriculum covered, is not a good indicator that learning is happening. 

The phrase "learning is a change in long-term memory" may be over-used but that does not stop it being true. Learning takes place inside a pupil’s head and what has been written down in an exercise book does not easily give you an insight into that process.

Work in pupils' books is for practice and this is all they will show. Most of what happens in a classroom is not recorded.

Before pupils start a new topic, I might want to check prior knowledge through questioning or a quiz using mini whiteboards. This is crucial to them being able to understand what is being taught, but after the event there won’t be a physical record of it anywhere. 

A good example is as follows: I frequently get pupils to draw accurate diagrams by outlining a scenario, like "the effect of an increase in the minimum wage’" The pupils will use their mini whiteboards to manipulate the correct data into a coherent diagram. We might go through five different scenarios in around 15 minutes. 

None of this will be shown in pupils’ books. Even if it was, unless you were an economics specialist, you couldn’t tell if they were making progress or not.

2. They lead to a ‘prove it’ culture

It might sound like a dystopian nightmare, but it is a reality in some schools that unless learning is in a book, SLT will not believe it has happened. 

As a result, I have seen teachers planning activities to ensure that enough work is shown in pupils' books so that it will look favourable to SLT, rather than focusing on what will maximise pupil learning. 

This is not due to a lack of professionalism from a teacher – it is the inevitable consequence of high-stakes book scrutiny. 

I vividly recall an NQT mentioning in a CPD session that she was trying more online quizzes as homework to aid retrieval. The SLT member responsible for teaching and learning made it clear that this was "fine", but pupils needed to record this somewhere in their books so it could be evidenced. The outcome was that the teacher made a sheet detailing what pupils had completed online that they could stick in the back of their books.

Which is madness. 

Yousuf Hamid is head of economics and business at Hammersmith Academy. He tweets @yousufhamid

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