In the Ofsted Annual Report, several examples were given of ‘outstanding lessons’:
In 2012/13, inspectors saw many different kinds of outstanding teaching, although nearly all shared the common characteristics of high expectations, detailed subject knowledge, good and attentive behaviour and an unremitting focus on what children were expected to learn.
Now, just because Ofsted say something, it doesn’t mean that we should suddenly see that as the right way to teach (but I would hope nobody would disagree with the points above). Nor should we assume that all inspectors will be singing from the same hymnsheet. After all, judging lessons is still a subjective business. However, as teachers we cannot ignore that Ofsted’s agenda does have an impact on schools.
I was particularly interested in the two English lessons described. These lessons have been chosen specifically to indicate best practice, so we can learn much about Ofsted’s vision of outstanding teaching from them. There are some interesting points addressed which contradict received wisdom about Ofsted. Here are the lessons, with the phrases I wish to concentrate on in blue:
Lesson 1: Year 11 English students were studying J.B. Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’. Students listened attentively and quietly as the teacher opened the lesson by explaining key features of evaluative writing. Her talk included an excellent example of an evaluative sentence, and students were challenged to come up with examples of their own. Following this, students were set to work on exploring the text, and during their evaluative writing the teacher cross-examined individuals, using searching questions to provoke a deeper level of knowledge and understanding. The work set had been meticulously planned and each student was mindful of their target grades and knew what was expected of them. Although this was a tightly planned lesson, the teacher responded flexibly to students’ questions, allowing the lesson’s ‘direction of travel’ to shift so that she could fill gaps in the students’ knowledge and understanding.
Lesson 2: In a Year 10 English lesson on Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’, the teacher kept the lesson format simple and allowed students, through high quality debate and note-taking, to develop considerable proficiency in annotating text with detailed and insightful textual analysis. The students worked doggedly, and committedly, to improve their knowledge and understanding. As a result, they were informed and knowledgeable about the different dimensions of the character of Curley’s wife, and at all times they closely referenced the text when making their observations. At the heart of this successful learning was an experienced and expert teacher, who motivated the students well and ensured that they were fully prepared for a subsequent writing task.
The teacher opened the lesson by explaining key features of evaluative writing.
From this, we can be clear that teacher explanations are not frowned upon. Ofsted pointedly use the phrase ‘Her talk’ and I feel this is indicating that teachers can begin lessons with explanations without fear of a negative judgement. Pupils ‘listened attentively’ and ‘students were challenged to come up with examples of their own’ so this is not described as passive learning. There are many examples in Ofsted reports where ‘teacher talk’ is criticised but I feel that the report is at pains to clarify that ‘inspectors will not look for a preferred methodology’.
In the Science lesson described in the report, I also think the phrase ‘The teacher led the pupils…’ (my emphasis) is included in the report deliberately. The phrase ‘Teacher led’ is often used as a criticism but in this case the teacher is leading students towards deep learning. The lesson is punctuated by ‘short, sharp direct inputs and a series of challenges set for pupils,’ so once again this is not talking at the students. In an example Year 3 lesson, ‘the pupils listened intently as the teacher recapped previous learning, using a story to prompt the class to identify examples and justify them.’ There is a real sense – to me at least- that these examples exist to reinforce the point that we can and should teach how we want. We need not be scared of explaining, discussing, modelling and asking ‘searching questions’.
Allowing the lesson’s ‘direction of travel’ to shift…
In the first English example, the teacher is praised for a ‘meticulously planned’ lesson. However, when the lesson needs to be adapted, that is also praised. There were ‘several…mistakes’ made by students in a Maths lesson but the teacher had anticipated and addressed them. When you understand that there were many, many outstanding Maths lessons observed, for them to single out one where many mistakes were made is significant.
It is important to acknowledge that a lesson where every single student ‘gets it’ straight away is a) not typical and b) probably not challenging enough. The teacher’s job is to address misconceptions and it is their skill to identify and intervene appropriately. The more Ofsted repeat this, the fewer teachers we will see wanting the ground to swallow them up when things don’t go to plan.
Knowledge and Understanding
In both English lesson examples, they use the above phrase and ‘key scientific knowledge’, ‘thorough knowledge’ and ‘knowledge’ itself appear throughout the lesson examples. It seems that ‘knowledge’ is (quite rightly) valued by Ofsted and this reflects the changed wording of the September 2013 Inspection handbook which introduced the phrase ‘growth in students’ knowledge’. (See Heather Leatt’s handy guide to changes for September 2013 here)
The teacher kept the lesson format simple
I think this point is very, very important, especially when placed against the checklist of ideas Ofsted provide earlier in the report. The report mentions the ‘Moving English Forward’ report from March 2012 and I was struck by just how much the annual report echoed findings presented in that earlier document.
Both reports refer to myths which Ofsted wish to point out:
The quality of pupils’ learning was hampered in weaker lessons by a number of ‘myths’ about what makes a good lesson. The factors that most commonly limited learning included: an excessive pace; an overloading of activities; inflexible planning; and limited time for pupils to work independently.
These points can be cross-referenced with a bad practice example from the ‘Moving English Forward’ report:
The lesson involved a Year 9 class working on techniques of persuasive writing. The lesson was planned in detail. The first phase involved an explanation of the learning objectives and a starter activity where students worked in groups to complete a card-sort activity. In the next phase of the lesson, students used a grid to identify persuasive devices on mini whiteboards. The teacher then took them quickly through the criteria for assessment at Levels 5–7 and gave students examples of extracts from two essays on capital punishment. Students were asked to choose the more effective piece, linking it to the assessment criteria. They were then asked to produce at least one paragraph of writing on the topic of capital punishment. In the final part of the lesson, students were asked to peer-mark two other students‟ work, then to look at and review their own work and check the comments. One further activity was introduced before students were asked to say what they had learnt in the lesson. The lesson closed with a final activity where students revised persuasive techniques on the board.
This final example contrasts with the two earlier lessons. Whoever we blame for the encouragement of the type of lesson described above, it is positive that Ofsted are addressing the problems.
How will this affect classroom practice? Well, in truth it shouldn’t. We should go on teaching in the way we feel is right regardless of Ofsted. However, it is my own experience that the lesson described above is commonplace in observations and I say that because it is a typical lesson from my classroom as recently as a year or two ago. I have advocated this kind of lesson because I firmly believed that it would be praised by Ofsted. I still find observations to be a bit of a mind reading game which depend on who is observing you. I admit too that I have encouraged the flurry of progress checking activities which Ofsted say they would never advocate.
What is pleasing is that the examples of outstanding practice given above are typical lessons in my classroom and in the classrooms of my colleagues. The Ofsted report is a reassuring reminder that we need not abandon what we know is right and do day-in-day-out when Ofsted come calling.