I was invited to observe a colleague’s lesson as part of some middle-management training. The idea is that if a school’s management know what the correct judgement for a lesson is (outstanding = 1, good = 2 etc) then that school knows its staff and will be able to explain itself to any visiting inspector. The process was straightforward enough but also insidious. The denial of subtlety and the insistence that learning can, and indeed must, be seen to be happening in front of any observer’s eyes is absurd, unintelligent and unjust.
The Year 6 (ten and eleven year olds) maths lesson was an expansive one covering patterns, factors and shapes; not only covering these topics but ambitiously making connections between them. It started with twelve children in a circle passing a ball from one to the other. This was then mapped out on a blank clock face using a ruler to draw straight lines between each number on the face. The resulting shape is a dodecagon with twelve straight sides of equal length. A variation of the game – with the ball missing one person each time around the circle – mapped in the same way produces a hexagon. It was left to the students to take it forward from this appealingly active start to the lesson. Incidentally this sort of lesson is very much ‘post-SATs’ as no teacher would teach in such an abstract way prior to the teach-to-the-test SATs. Throughout this introductory part of the lesson the teacher made a big effort to encourage dialogue and reflection on what was taking place in the lesson.
Working independently some children, naturally, fared better than others. Once the ball, as it were, is passed to every fifth person the line needs to break through the ‘12’ position on the clock and produces a star (the line going from 12 – 5 – 10 – 3 – 8 – 1 – 6 – 11 – 4 and so on). The ‘jumps-of-five’ pattern was something that a few children did not immediately grasp. The teacher had already foreseen this and asked those who were unsure to come to the front for further instruction and explanation before getting on with it independently. Unfortunately some who should have did not do this and some who did seemed none the wiser.
I considered it to have been a good lesson; the great majority of the children fully engaged for the great majority of the lesson; a clear and articulate teacher leading the whole process with lots of chances for all to join in and share thoughts and ideas; an imaginative attempt to draw attention to the beauty that can result from playing around with numbers. The local authority adviser who watched the lesson with me assured me that it was in fact ‘in need of improvement’ (read: not bloody good enough). This is Ofsted’s new expression for what had been described in the past as satisfactory or adequate. The reason for this judgement was that some of the children had been muddled at the point where they had to draw a pattern for the ‘jumps-of-five’. I agreed that the teacher might have made more of the complications that arise at this point but I do not accept that, because these children were stuck, they were not progressing. Ofsted have introduced a culture where an inspector must see ‘progress’ and ‘learning’ right there during their – sometimes fleeting, as little as twenty minutes – visit to the lesson.
At first glance this seems simple enough and obvious enough: the inspector’s job is to answer two questions: how do you go about teaching? And, more importantly, is your approach effective or not? The first question can be answered with close observation of the lesson itself; the second question is much harder to pin down and is often not answered even by close observation of the lesson. Ofsted would vigorously deny this last underlined point. Here are a few ways you can examine a teacher’s effect on the learner’s in the classroom:
- Ask the children, after the lesson, all about it to see how much they have really held onto
- Look at the children’s books to gauge the growth in understanding over time
- If it is a formally examined subject look at exam grades over time
Efficacy is not by any means something that can be located and clearly identified in a single visit to a classroom. The most a sensible observer can do is to note the various strategies that are used by a teacher to encourage thought, engagement, enjoyment, problem-solving, dialogue, articulacy and so on. Ofsted have, over the years, introduced a culture of what I call ‘context-less judgemental immediacy’: an ugly expression for a profoundly damaging tendency. Ofsted, as anyone who works in a school will tell you, are in a terrible hurry. Inevitably they favour immediacy of judgement and it’s not surprising that they pay little attention to context. So, in the case of our Year 6 maths lesson with some children stumped by the task, any inspector would be unlikely to consider the following:
“…learning from success tends to aim and focus how we think, while learning from failure also leads to … productive thoughts, but in less directed ways.”
“Human thought is not based on any single and uniform kind of ‘logic’, but upon myriad processes, scripts, stereotypes, critics and censors, analogies and metaphors.”
“We can make fewer errors by confining ourselves to cautious, ‘logical’ reasoning, but we’ll also discover fewer new ideas.” 1
These sorts of thoughts are much too subtle, and indeed thought-provoking, for the inspection process; quite simply we need a simplified image of teaching and learning that can be quickly and universally applied. This is, of course, the famous ‘tick-box’ culture that you will hear teachers, and many others, complain of. For schools then it is a question of imagining learning as no more than filling a person’s head with knowledge; something that John Dewey faulted schools on a hundred years ago. I repeat: teaching is not telling.
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranks Singapore and Finland at the very top for educational provision. In the Institute for Learning’s current magazine Geoff Petty (author of ‘Teaching Today’ and ‘Evidence-based Teaching’) lists a number of key ingredients for this success:
“They don’t use accountability and control systems, they get teachers to work together to frame good practice. They provide excellent CPD (continuing professional development), enable teachers to make innovations in pedagogy and foster professional dialogue. They have moved away from standardisation and compliance towards helping teachers to learn how to get better. They also put the most capable teachers into the most challenging classrooms.”
This last point is funny for me because it reminds me of when I started teaching and I was given the class that was clearly, and openly acknowledged as, the most disruptive group of children in the school!
It’s not just Geoff Petty fighting the fight for including some actual pedagogical values in educational policy. In the same magazine Dr Matt O’Leary writes about an ‘expansive’ – as opposed to restrictive – approach to lesson observation. This is an approach that is defined by:
- differentiated observation: this allows the teacher to select what the focus of the observation will be resulting in greater ‘ownership’ of the process
- prioritizing feedback: this means giving feedback its proper place at the centre of the process i.e. allocating time for feedback equal to the amount of time of the observation
- removing the graded element: no use of Ofsted’s 1s, 2s, 3s & 4s
This last point is my favourite and Dr O’Leary’s research identified what happens when the graded element is removed “levels of trust between colleagues improved and some of the negative associations surrounding observation vanished…” In another paper Dr O’Leary tells it how it is:
“By attaching a grade to the subjective judgement of the observer, people are seduced into believing that such judgements have greater objectivity and authority than they can, in reality, claim to have” 2
The seduced include Ofsted inspectors themselves: never is anyone more unjust than the ignorant; to be ignorant is to be impressionable, seduce-able. I knew one teacher who trained to be an Ofsted inspector. He had too much integrity to follow it through and chose not to become an actual inspector. As it happens Ofsted are about to visit my current school; I should really print the above quote out in large font and make a poster of it. It neatly sums up one of the main forces of momentum behind this disgruntled website.
1. The Society of Mind (1987) by Marvin Minsky pages 96, 184 & 279
2. The Role of Lesson Observation in Shaping Professional Identity, Learning and Development in Further Education Colleges in the West Midlands (Doctoral thesis, University of Warwick, 2011)