What does knowing your class mean?

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For the particularly obtuse who wouldn’t twig otherwise, the Teacher Standards make it explicit teaches should have an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the pupils in their classes. Knowing your class is such an obvious feature of good teaching that in itself it can’t ever be much more than an irritating truism.

Unfortunately, as is common with broad and uninterrogated truisms, practical interpretations of this very basic fact can far too often result in nonsense.

For much of my career ‘knowing your class’ actually meant just knowing the numbers and information attached to pupils in the past. It meant knowing whether they were a High, Medium or Low attainer. It meant knowing their reading age. It meant knowing how they scored on the tests they sat at the end of primary. It meant knowing their dreaded ‘target grade’ and being able to parrot off all this information at the drop of an Ofsted inspector’s hat.

Knowing this stuff was how teachers proved they did indeed know their classes.

Which is silly.

Firstly, a lot of this data is historic with some being years old. For example, the data used to assess a pupil as High ability is often drawn from SATs tests completed at the end of primary. This means that by the time the child reaches Y11 the information, even if it was once accurate, is at best outdated and at worst now unrepresentative of how the child has changed in the intervening years.

Even if the child had not changed at all, the numbers attached to them tell us nothing about why they scored as they did. Are the Low Ability because they have a small working memory, or are they Low Ability because they weren’t taught well in Year 5? Do they have a low reading age because a teacher didn’t have a good grasp of phonics instruction, because they have EAL, or because they find tests boring and don’t bother doing them properly? The numbers tell us nothing without the story and when we overemphasise the importance of supposedly empirical facts we deprioritise the most powerful information and lose nuance.

Furthermore, many of the numbers are generic. They don’t tell us anything about what on our curriculum our pupils know and what they do not. They are not starting points in most subjects. They don’t tell us what a child needs to do to get better. Even when teachers keep detailed records in their own subjects these are often of little use to anyone else, because a third party will not know the conditions under which assessments were done or the amount of preparation and help pupils received, or what was going on in the complex life of the child when they did the work.

A lot of this is unknowable which means the only way to act upon it is to make assumptions we probably shouldn’t – for example that a child is unintelligent or hardworking – before we’ve had the time to know the people the numbers are attached to.

It is for all these reasons that I am comfortable admitting to mild sacrilege; for the first month or so of taking over a new class I deliberately avoid looking at any data about them apart from SEND needs. Instead I pay very close attention to work, ability to read, scores on my tests and quality of extended writing. I ask who is left handed and adjust my seating plan if I need to. I work out who is comfortable volunteering answers and who I’ll need to prod. I focus on what they can do in my subject and what they struggle with.

I record all this. I make mental notes. I annotate my handwritten register. I scribble on my seating plan.

Only then, only after I’m confident that I know my group will I look at the centrally held data. Where does it match what I thought? Where is it clearly wrong? Is there anything I need to do differently in light of it? Does it give me answers to questions I had?

For unless we have rules about how to navigate the ocean of information available to us it is all too easy to drown in it.

 

 

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