Pride in the product: how much do we value our students’ work?

value

During a lunch break last week, three male English teachers in our thirties huddled together in the corridor to admire the writing of a thirteen year-old girl. As Ed and I marvelled and cooed at the craft and accuracy of her descriptive sentences, Gavin – her teacher – raised her open book on his fingertips with all the awe and nervous tenderness of a father presenting his new-born child to visiting grandparents. Gavin talked with pride about her work and about how he had guided her to this standard.

It was a lovely moment. Here was the work of a student who clearly values the act of writing and exerts a huge effort to produce such a final product. Equally, her teacher’s pride in her work makes his challenging job all the more worthwhile.

And now for the dampener. Unfortunately, too many students do not value the act of writing like this. Too much written work in secondary school is scrappy, chock-full of thoughtless errors that have been repeated to the point of automaticity. It is expedient to shift the blame: ‘it should have been taught at primary school’ or ‘that child is bone idle’ or ‘he’s just not clever enough to write properly’.

My question is this: if we do not give all students the opportunity to find value in their written work, is it not a surprise that so much of it is littered with preventable mistakes?

Hattie and Yates in Visible Learning and the Science of how we Learn have summarised some very interesting research into how we value the product of our labours. There is considerable research into what is known as the IKEA effect – that we place huge value on those products that we have had a role in producing, especially if this has been challenging and we have had to exert a large amount of effort. Plenty of research validates this finding. One study that caught my eye involved the construction of LEGO models. The participants whose LEGO models were immediately dissembled after production valued their products less than those who were allowed to keep their products intact. Other studies corroborate the finding that we only value products that we have fully completed.

Hattie and Yates sum up with this food for thought:

“Such findings confirm a simple truth: that people will value their labour, and what it produces remarkably strongly, and this goal overpowers other considerations. Try asking yourself: would you enjoy going to work if everything you did, or made, was not valued, was rendered meaningless, discarded, or even destroyed, as soon as it was completed? Just how strongly would you exert effort if this was the case? What implications can you see for valuing student work, and for encouraging students to genuinely exert themselves?”

All of this points clearly in one direction. To demonstrate that we fully value the products they create, we must give students kind and careful feedback, as well as the time, patience and opportunity to reflect on and redraft their work based on our feedback.

But is this enough?  What happens to the work after this? Can we get our students to value their work to an even greater extent? The simple answer is that we find more opportunities to celebrate the final product. I do not think we do this well in the secondary sector and I think this has become engrained over the decades. I left secondary school eighteen years ago and I do not remember one piece of work that I completed in those years (except for one which I will come to in a minute). I do, however, remember a few treasures from my primary years.

This is not to say that there is no celebration of student work at secondary. The problem is that the majority of students go through secondary without having any public recognition of the products they are producing day-by-day. In my English department, we invite the crème-de-la-crème of KS3 writers to a lovely presentation evening every July. This amounts to about twenty students whose work achieves very public recognition – or, if we are cynically-minded, 740 students whose work is overlooked. Of course, it is vital we recognise the talent in our midst, yet I cannot help feeling that most kids are institutionally undervalued, simply because they are exceptional at nothing.

Ron Berger provides a tantalising solution to this problem. In his book An Ethic of Excellence Berger discusses his approach to excellence through redrafting and critique. Yet there is another crucial aspect to his approach: the product of every student’s labours is celebrated. They exhibit their products, take part in gallery critiques, invite in experts in the field of study to critique the work, and the work itself is anchored in real-life contexts. A culture of value pervades everything; students, whatever their ability, are given the sense that the quality of their work is of great importance, not just to the teacher, but to everybody. Students are not just working to such inspiring goals as ‘this term’s assessment’ or ‘moving from a level 5 to a level 6’, they are working to a deadline when their work will be publically shared. Concrete goals are intrinsic to Berger’s vision.

Berger’s rural Massachusetts elementary school context is, of course, very different to mine. However, if I am to value student work more than I do now there are many simple strategies I could easily employ. These strategies must conform to three  features: 1) every student’s work must be valued with no opt-out option; 2) they must not add to workload otherwise they will be unsustainable; 3) students must be made aware they are leading up to this point of public recognition from as early as possible.

Here are some I am looking to embed more regularly, with at least one a half-term.

  • Creating benchmarks of brilliance. Every student attaches a piece of great work to their book/folder as a signature of what they can do in the subject. (See here.)
  • Class anthologies. Creating an anthology which includes something from every student and is then distributed to all and/or published online. The only piece of work I remember from high school is a poem published in a class anthology my Y9 teacher produced.
  • Blogging student work. I do not have the ICT facilities available to do this regularly, but it would certainly be manageable once an academic year.
  • Producing a piece to present to parents on parents evening. This would be a great way to involve parents in the process.
  • Regular use of gallery critique in lessons. David Didau has written a lovely blog post about this here.
  • Having classes present their work to another class. There are countless ways this can be done, but the knowledge an outsider will read your work is hugely motivating.

I am sure there are plenty of other ways to do it – feel free to leave any ideas in the comments box.

We often wonder why our students forget so much of what we hoped they would learn. Might this be because we never give them a chance to value their work? And finally: if we don’t value their work, why should they?

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11 thoughts on “Pride in the product: how much do we value our students’ work?

  1. I think this is a hugely important issue.

    Teachers are so arguably overwhelmed and overburdened, however, with expectations for marking work to the nth, setting specific (written down) targets for each pupil, having everything scrutinised to death, rejecting paper-based activities, using mini-whiteboards for anything and everything which leaves no trace of the activities or anything to mark, over-emphasising the role of IT as a resource and under-emphasising the role of more material-based resources – that the net result may be a lack of craftmanship in our schools – and a culture away from regular high-quality, high-pride, finished products.

    Even pupils’ exercise books can be a work of art when pride is taken in them.

    But look at the level of teachers’ handwriting nowadays – often so scruffy and idiosyncratic that this sets the (low) standard. Why should pupils write neatly, for example, when so many teachers don’t?

    There are so many aspects of teaching nowadays which work against taking a pride in product as well as process – which diminishes individual content.

    I remember asking one of my sons what he thought of his literacy lessons in a new Year Six class. He replied that all the teachers were interested in nowadays was the ‘structure’ of the ‘genre’ and all pupils had to write in the same way. He said that no-one was actually interested in what he, or the other kids, had to write about.

    Another tale from a school under immense pressure where the staff were expected to do this onerous, standard marking system of levelling, writing next steps and so on. I asked if the teachers had been provided with a ‘time management’ study as it seemed to me (and a particular teacher) that they were being asked to do the impossible and in their ‘family’ time. “The trouble is” said this teacher “my colleagues don’t challenge the demands on them with regard to marking. They actually mark like a factory production line writing what they are instructed to write – but to get this onerous marking completed, they don’t actually read the children’s content properly”.

    There are many other aspects to this issue which contribute to a possible lack of pride in work.

    For example, on the TES forums, sometimes people in the early years describe how they have been made to destroy the ‘learning journey’ records they have painstakingly made of the children’s progress. Their own work (the teachers’) is not valued by the school – and where the record itself may be valued by the children’s parents, nevertheless it is consigned to the bin. Other teachers have described that marking so overwhelms them that they destroy loose bits of children’s work rather than have them do it in books which reveal lack of marking or sloppy work.

    I applaud you raising this issue – but half the problem could be changed if the teachers themselves stood up to be counted as to what works against pride in work and high-quality finished products with a purpose.

    Warm regards,

    Debbie

  2. Thanks, Debbie, for taking the time to comment.

    You are very right to highlight the overwhelming demands on teachers; we do need to stand up to it in unison. Our strongest argument against the mindless workload demands you describe is the detrimental effect they have on student work. I feel that the unions would have much wider support, from parents especially, if this issue was articulated more forcefully.

    I do, however, think that we can find very simple and effective ways to celebrate student work – even in the current climate. Our strongest argument might be to shove quality redrafted work under the noses of those who impose such restrictive marking schedules and say ‘now will you listen to me!’

    As for the handwriting issue – guilty as charged!

    Andy

  3. LOL! I hate it when I raise criticism about the teaching profession – because my self-appointed ‘reason to be’ is as a support and ally of teachers. I suspect that at heart I’m just a rebel by nature and a plain-speaking Yorkshire lass.

    I agree that teachers can find ‘very simple and effective ways to celebrate student work’ and my overarching suggestion is that if teachers weren’t so overwhelmed with being seen to be ‘accountable’ with ridiculously time-consuming and often unrealistic demands on them, then I suspect that there could be a shift in practice and greater emphasis on purposeful end products.

    I think it is pertinent that you reflected on recollections of your own experiences when at school. When I, too, do this – it is exactly as you say and the memorable events in a good way include all the creative ‘end product’ activities – taking in parts in performances (plays, dance, orchestra), art and poetry competitions – but these were nearly always ‘extra curricula’.

    I also remember that I took the greatest pride in my work and chose the subjects of those teachers who were the most inspiring and ‘interested’ in what I had to write, produce, say. In fact, such teachers are the kind who can influence future careers are they not?

    But I must add as a final comment, that what I learnt over many years in the teaching profession, is that the fine-tuning of the minutiae – the ‘basic skills’ – underpinned the greatest creativity and high-quality end products in any subject. By this I mean, the craftmanship achieved through plenty of art and design, the penmanship skills from good teaching of handwriting, the teaching of phonics (phonics, handwriting, reading and spelling instruction – now my field), the skills practice of various sports and music.

    A creative person by nature and inclination, my field has become about ‘the basics’ because I recognised that it was ‘the basics’ which were sadly missing or not good enough to guarantee that every child/pupil could truly do that thing called ‘develop their full potential’.

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