With galling hypocrisy and seemingly no sense of irony, Ofsted have released their latest subject report for English snappily titled, Moving English Forward. The report is a step by step guide on how to suck eggs. Apparently, teachers should concentrate on engendering a passion for learning instead of worrying about all the waggle of passing exams! Who knew?

Apart from its obvious interest to English specialists, there’s stuff in here that all teachers will benefit from knowing.

Moving English forward

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Possibly the most immediately pertinent information for all teachers is contained in the section Some common myths about good teaching (page 12.) Many schools and teachers seem to have developed a whole raft of mistaken beliefs about what will impress inspectors. Most of this advice is what most teachers do in normal lessons but feel they have to abandon in order to appease some clipboard wielding bureaucrat. These myths include:

Lessons need to be fast paced Actually faster is not better. No one wants slow, ponderous lessons but we should concentrate on the pace of learning rather than the pace of the activities we’ve lovingly planned.

Lessons need to be packed with a range of activities Not so. Many of us have been told lies such as ‘activities should last no longer than 10 minutes’. Yes this will keep students busy, but cramming activities into your lesson will not result in them learning more. In fact they’re likely to learn less due to the lack of time available for consolidation. Instead lessons should have a clear focus on what it is that students need to learn and provide them with the opportunity to make progress in whatever this is. Ofsted’s advice is that an activity “needs to last only as long as is needed to ensure effective learning”.

Lessons plans need to be massively detailed  Most schools insist on planning pro formas being completed for observed lessons. This is not in itself a ‘bad thing’, but if lessons are planned in excessive detail it’s easy to lose sight of what it is students are meant to be learning. The report talks about lesson plans of over 500 words where every minute of the lesson is accounted for in meticulous detail. The advice from Ofsted is clear: a simple straightforward plan that is easy to understand and follow is always best. The report states that, “excessive detail within plans causes teachers to lose sight of the central focus on pupils’ learning.” So there.

You should not deviate from your plan A rigid plan is not a good one. Whilst the three or part lesson structure may be a useful starting point, we need have the confidence to change and adapt our plans if students’ progress is better or worse than anticipated. An inspector will always be please to see teachers going ‘off piste’ if it means that students are given more opportunity to learn and make progress. Osted say, “The key consideration should be the development of pupils‟ learning rather than sticking rigidly to a plan.”

Learning needs to be reviewed every few minutes Students need time if they are going to produce anything worthwhile. The temptation is to rush the ‘actual work’ so that we can get on with assessing progress. The belief that learning needs to be reviewed every few minutes is actually getting in the way of learning. This myth is particularly unhelpful because we knowit’s wrong but feel pressured to make it part of the ‘Ofsted show’. The report is very clear on this: “significant periods of time were spent by teachers on getting pupils to articulate their learning, even where this limited their time to complete activities and thereby interrupted their learning!”

Of all the pieces of wisdom about Ofsted that is often bandied about, the only one to be explicitly confirmed is that teachers shouldn’t talk too much. Inspectors want to see lessons where students are given time to work independently for extended periods with teachers working less hard than their students. The report mentions that  inspectors criticise the fact “that pupils rarely had extended periods to read, write or discuss issues in class.” One of the difficulties with lesson observations is that teachers feel that they are being observed and therefore have to been seen doing something purposeful. The reality is that although the teacher is being judged, the inspector will be observing what the students are doing. As long as they’re seen to be learning it doesn’t matter too much what the teacher does.

My advice for teachers is to spend the observation showing off their immaculately marked books and pointing out students who have made especially impressive progress whilst the students get on with some independent learning.

Just in case you might have been tempted to read all this as encouragement to kick back and relax we’re told:

These points should not be seen as a plea for teachers to skimp on planning, teach slow-paced lessons, or leave pupils unsupported for long periods. However, given the positive impact of recent guidance and training on lesson methodology, there are good opportunities now for teachers to be more flexible in their approach to teaching and planning lessons. This should include a greater readiness to respond to the unexpected in lessons and to change the direction of lessons as they develop. Teachers should also be encouraged to be creative and adventurous in their teaching, and to vary approaches depending on the nature of the learning planned for the lesson. Above all, this is a plea for teachers to focus on the key actions that affect pupils’ learning and progress within lessons.

Point 19 pp 14-15

The other general point that all teachers would benefit from being aware of is the criticism of teachers placing ‘inappropriate emphasis on tests and exams’. Ofsted seem to feel, as most teachers do, that the high stakes nature of the the examination system means that all the fun is sucked out of lessons in order to concentrate on how to pass tests. The report also makes the point that teachers don’t spend class time doing stuff that doesn’t get rewarded directly in exams. Quel surprise!

This is without doubt true, but the pressure placed on schools by Ofsted make it very difficult for all but the most confident and courageous of teachers to ignore the stark fact that in a world where Gove is threatening teachers with the sack if students aren’t seen to be making termly progress doing stuff for the sake of enrichment or because it’s interesting just don’t cut the mustard.

I for one am only to happy to embrace fun lessons and enrich students’ lives with all the wonders of the universe. I’ll get right on it just as soon as I’ve got my Year 11s through that pesky GCSE.

Amusingly, the report does not mention the fact that all these myths have come about due to the terror schools have of Ofsted.

Related posts

When independent learning meets high stakes success
Are teacher observations a waste of time?
Why aren’t we supposed to teach anymore?