Icebergs, taking risks & being outstanding

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How do we recognise a great teacher, a great lesson or great teaching and learning? How do we know what we’re seeing is outstanding?
The sad truth is that often observers don’t (or can’t) see the wood for the trees. They see your planning, they see your interactions with a group of students and, hopefully, they see the evidence of impact in your students’ books. But most of what goes into making your lessons finely crafted things of beauty are invisible. Observers only ever get to see the tip of the iceberg.
The iceberg

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
Ernest Hemingway

Can Hemingway’s wise words on writing prose can be applied to teaching? Instead of flopping about trying to make students do too much in a given lesson we should have the confidence to ‘omit’ all the fantastic stuff we know we do day in day out because its presence is what will make the edifice float with such stately elegance.
The bit beneath the surface is our knowledge of our students and the relationships we’ve lovingly established over months or years. It’s the routines we’ve set up and the massively high expectations we’ve communicated. Only we know how hard we’ve worked on these things and unless we take the time to tell our observer, how will they know? If we hope that they can extrapolate all this from the 20 minutes they spend in our lesson and intuit all the hard work from a brief conversation about targets and a flick through a few books then we could well leave ourselves open to disappointment. Instead we need to expect that an observer will know all these thing because we will take the opportunity of point them out.
So, what can we do?
This post is a distillation of all my thinking over the past six months on how we can demonstrate to an observer that we are outstanding teachers and that the lessons that are being observed showcase outstanding teaching and learning.
Often, one of the biggest tensions for teachers is the fact that what we believe is best for our students is not what Ofsted (or our SLT) want to see. Over the past few years this has led to teachers performing the Monkey Dance in front of observers and then getting on with the day job; that of getting recalcitrant kids to learn stuff.
Now, fortunately for all of us Sir Michael Wilshaw has recently said this:

OFSTED should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching, whether it be a three part lesson; an insistence that there should be a balance between teacher led activities and independent learning, or that the lesson should start with aims and objectives with a plenary at the end.

This is excellent news.

Here’s a list of the stuff that, according to Ofsted, represents outstanding T&L:
• Sustained & rapid progress (NB – this does not take place in individual lessons but over time)
• Consistently high expectations
• Excellent subject knowledge
• Systematic, accurate assessment
• Well judged, imaginative teaching strategies
• Sharply focused & timely support
• Enthusiasm, participation & commitment
• Resilience, confidence & independence
• Frequent & consistently high quality feedback
• Engagement, courtesy, collaboration & cooperation

Taking risks
The clear and splendid implication I take from Wilshaw’s remarks is that we shouldn’t have to worry about how we’re doing these things as long as we’re doing them. Obviously we cannot reasonably expect to do all this in 20 minutes, but maybe we can find a way to show it. This gives us more freedom to take risks, embrace failure and, of course, try hard.
Here are some handy pointers from the great and the good:

You must learn to fail intelligently. Failing is one of the greatest arts in the world. One fails forward towards success.
Thomas Edison

The idea of ‘failing intelligently’ is a fascinating one. As Zoë Elder points out here, “making mistakes may or may not be the result of risk-taking. A mistake may simply be indicative of carelessness, lack of time or stress, rather than an overt effort to take a risk”. The more effort we put into careful preparation, the more likely our mistakes are to have been worth making, and more likely we are to ‘fail forward’.

Show me a teacher who doesn’t fail every day and I’ll show you a teacher with low expectations for his or her students.
Dylan Wiliam

This is as clear an indictment of playing it safe as I’ve ever encountered. It is ridiculously to meet low expectations but there is little reward for doing so. As teachers we owe it to our students to risk failures, identify where we went astray and feed all this invaluable information into our next experiment. And if you’re still not convinced, here’s why:

A teacher’s job is not to make work easy. It is to make it difficult. If you are not challenged, you don not make mistakes. if you do not make mistakes, feedback is useless.
John Hattie

The word according to @reflectivemaths

The word according to @reflectivemaths

If we don’t challenge students to meet our outrageously high expectations, they won’t make mistakes. This results in a desultory lack of progress. This is one of the biggest potential pitfalls we encounter when teaching able students: they can do a lot of what we think is hard so we end up lavishing them with praise for their efforts without raising the bar. This is well-known. Vygotsky told us that success should always be just beyond where we currently are so that we have to strive and reach for it.
This applies to teachers as much as it does to our students. The vast gap in the feedback given to teachers judged as ‘good with outstanding features’ is an appalling travesty. It is simply not acceptable to fob off these teachers with meaningless guff about gut feelings, lack of a certain je ne c’est pas, or the observation that student x was briefly off task despite producing a fantastic outcome. If, as an observer, you cannot give kind, helpful and specific feedback on how to get to outstanding you really shouldn’t be allowed to make judgments on others’ teaching!

So, once we’ve acknowledged the iceberg and committed ourselves to taking risks, what next?
Being outstanding
Outstanding has to be a way of thinking rather than a way of doing. The truth is that for most of us the idea of working harder is impossible: we’re already flat-out. This is the beauty of an approach like the aggregation of marginal learning gains. Sometimes, we can make a huge difference by making relatively minor, but deliberate improvements.
I start by spending less time planning. Yes, you heard me. I’ve written before about my approach to lesson planning but I’ve recently boiled it down to the following essentials:

I’ve written before about my medium and long term planning model, the Learning Loop – the basic premise is that lessons should build on each other in a coherent way. In English I’ve identified 2 distinct loops: creativity and analysis which I deliberately thread through all schemes of learning and every lesson. This is a little simplistic, but it’s a useful place to start and I would urge you to identify the main loops within the curriculum area you teach. With this in mind, it really doesn’t take much time to plan what it is that students need to learn.
During the lesson
With the planning taken care of, we need to consider what to do during a lesson to ensure it’s judged as outstanding.
1. Explain why to the observer – make sure any observer understands how well judged and imaginative you teaching strategies are. If you’re confident enough, seek them out and explain it to them. Even better, get the students to explain it. Failing that, staple the research findings for your approach to your lesson plan. If an inspector is any cop, they’ll appreciate this; if they’re not, they’ll be intimidated by your professional knowledge and leave you the hell alone. I make it absolutely clear to any observer that they are witnessing outstanding teaching and learning and make sure they see the parts of the iceberg which lie beneath the surface of the lesson. I point out why each individual is making ‘rapid and sustained progress over time’ and direct them to particular students and their books.

2. Observe the learning – it’s important to leave yourself free to observe what’s going on. I always have a block of post-its on which I scribble comments. If students are working in groups I’ll leave these on their table to discuss; if they’re working individually I’ll pop it on their work and stand back. This is a great way to show how your interventions are ‘sharply focussed and timely’ and is clear evidence of ‘frequent and high quality feedback’ to add to all the wonderful examples of ‘systematic and accurate assessment’ in their books. If a particular student doesn’t appear to be as engaged as you’d like, point them out to your observer and tell their story. Show them how much progress they’ve made over time and contextualise their particular issues. Obviously, this will depend on your students’ ‘resilience, confidence & independence’ and this too needs is worth pointing out.
3. Questioning – this is an essential part of teaching and wonderful opportunity for developing students’ oracy. I don’t care who you are or what subject you teach, you must take the opportunity to ask good questions. It can be hugely impressive to include a hinge question mid way through your lesson but you should ensure that your questioning seeks to clarify, probe or get students to recommend. Even better, you can get the students themselves to do this while you sit back and point out the ‘engagement, courtesy, collaboration & cooperation’ to your observer.
4. Take the temperature – the best lessons just seem to ‘flow’ with students experiencing an appropriate level of challenge and stress. However, this is hard to judge and we may need to ‘take the temperature’ of our lessons to ensure we’ve pitched it right. Get students to explain where they are on this chart:


You can then make micro adjustments to the levels of stress or challenge to make certain that students are displaying appropriate levels of ‘enthusiasm, participation & commitment’.

5. Take risks – through your observation of the students’ learning and your temperature taking you are in a position to take some exciting and fairly safe risks. Explain to the observer that because you’ve noticed x you’re going to do y. You might adjust time limits to increase or decrease stress or shift the emphasis of questioning to raise or lower challenge. You might move students around or throw particular students some curves. The point is that while these things might not work, the observer will be interested and engaged in your experimentation as you’ll have explored the reasoning first. 
The purpose of all of this is to make sure you don’t leave the reading of your professional practice to chance. Don’t hope you’ll be outstanding; expect it. How you think is as important as what you do, and if you think of your teaching as art, then you can enjoy the process of being creative and of taking risks.
Not everything you do will work, but if your thinking is outstanding and clearly articulated then it’s almost impossible for an observer to disagree with you. At any rate, the onus will be on them to explain clearly and precisely exactly why you’re not outstanding: if they fail to do this, challenge them politely but assertively by laying out the evidence that you have both understood and met the criteria.
One last piece of advice:

Be brilliant and they’ll forgive you anything.
Phil Beadle

Coda: You might argue that being judged outstanding in an observation doesn’t make you an outstanding teacher. And you’d be right. But, labels have power. Once you become known as outstanding you will start to become it.

Related posts

Anatomy of an outstanding lesson
The myth of progress in lessons by Kev Bartle
Lesson planning – lessons I’ve learned from lessons I’ve taught



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  4. Ben Horbury February 17, 2013 at 2:20 pm - Reply

    Great post David, it makes so much sense to teachers, hopefully HMI will begin to understand too

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    • paul July 20, 2013 at 3:37 pm - Reply

      Great blog with some excellent points. I agree with so much of what you say but I have to say, I really resent having to jump through all of those hoops to ‘show’ these people I’m an outstanding teacher. I would rather watch THEM showing me how to do it. Maybe that’s why I’m in the predicament I’m in!!!!
      I’ve just had a right slagging and my art lesson judged to be ‘inadequate’ (first time ever) because I took some huge learning risks with a year 7 class. I was told the language/handouts were too hard for them and that they couldn’t recall previous learning. Oh and that my research task was vague and badly constructed. “Students did not make sufficient progress” was the verdict.
      I accept that it went horrendously badly whilst the two observers were in the room, but I was asking a very tough conceptual question based on Fluxus art and Dadaism: why is it important to constantly change our perceptions of the world we live in? I tried all manners of questioning techniques to elicit responses about learning from the previous lesson, but they struggled. The students were then asked to invent a meaning for a strange piece of Fluxus art to the group, but they simply began describing what it looked like, so I was challenging them to think ‘out of the box’ and act like the dadaists did (off-the-wall) But they didn’t ‘get it.’
      The result; I’ve been told ALL my lesson planning must be poor (they haven’t seen any of my planning) I have to hand in all my plans for four weeks, and I’ve been put on SLT observations every day for four weeks too.
      Ironically, the school was criticised by Ofsted for not challenging the students enough. From reading your article I know I should have pointed out the risk taking, maybe played it a little safer, and explained my lesson more to the observers, but I get really nervous when I’m being observed and two mute people with clipboards and pens who aren’t even talking to you is intimidating IMO.

      • David Didau August 24, 2013 at 11:08 am - Reply

        Paul, you’ve summed up everything that’s wrong with lesson observations. I’m very sorry your school is so short sighted.

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  15. Melanie Willden November 2, 2013 at 4:32 am - Reply

    I just stumbled on this while looking for some pictures for a college assignment. I plan to come back and look at this later. Looks very interesting. As an elementary teacher, transitioning to teaching adults, I’m interested in knowing what’s going on outside of my little bubble here in Seattle.

  16. […] How do we recognise a great teacher, a great lesson or great teaching and learning? How do we know what we’re seeing is outstanding? The sad truth is that often observers don’t (or can’t) see the wood for the trees. They see your planning, they see your interactions with a group of students and, hopefully, they see  […]

  17. […] important to gauge whether students are ‘getting it’. I written before about how I use my ‘flow chart’ to work out whether the levels of stress vs challenge […]

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