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?