The Cult of Outstanding™: the problem with 'outstanding' lessons

/, myths/The Cult of Outstanding™: the problem with 'outstanding' lessons

First of all I need to come clean. Up until pretty recently I was a fully paid up member of the Cult of Outstanding™. Last January I considered myself to be a teacher at the height of my powers. In the spirit of self-congratulation I posted a blog entitled Anatomy of an Outstanding Lesson in which I detailed a lesson which I confidently supposed was the apotheosis of great teaching, and stood back to receive plaudits. And indeed they were forthcoming. I was roundly congratulated and felt myself extraordinarily clever.
And then Cristina Milos got in touch to tell me that there was no such thing as an outstanding lesson. I was, she patiently pointed out, deluding myself. When I sputtered my objections she directed me to a video of Robert Bjork explaining the need to dissociate learning from performance. Now no one enjoys being told they’re a fool, but I have to say that I’m profoundly grateful to Cristina for not pulling her punches; nothing else has had anywhere near the impact on my thinking about teaching and learning. When you start thinking in this way, it becomes increasingly obvious just how little we know and understand about what we do.
The more I’ve read and the deeper I’ve delved into this, the more convinced I’ve become that in our efforts to cast teachers in the mould supposedly preferred by Ofsted we are unwittingly, but actively, undermining our pupils’ ability to learn. Understandably, this is not a popular message. A lot of very influential people have got an awful lot invested in the belief that the pedagogical methodologies popularly understood to result in ‘outstanding’ lessons are the right way to teach. In fact it may well be easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than for an Ofsted inspector, an education consultant or a school leader to admit that they’ve been wrong.
But are they wrong? So far this is just a piece of polemic and can be easily dismissed as the ravings of a loon. Well, I think you’d agree that most teachers in most schools are expected to teach lessons in which students make visible progress. Although the past year or so has seen the pernicious myth of ‘progress in 20 minutes’ rightly debunked, as a profession we still believe that the best lessons are those in which pupils are learning. Now as a whole raft of academics have proved (at least to my mind) learning is, in fact, invisible. Judging the effectiveness of teaching by assessing what pupils can do during a lesson is arrant foolishness. It would be like me telling you that the capital of Poland was Warsaw and then asking, a few minutes later, what the capital of Poland was. What’s that? Warsaw, you say? Oh jolly good. Marvellous progress. This is an obviously risible example but not really so very different from the literally thousands of lessons I’ve taught in which I’ve shown pupils how to do something and then proudly watched them do it themselves. They are merely responding to cues. They may have learned something, but this can only be inferred from their performance.
Now the truly mind-bending bit of all this is that sometimes (often?) current performance is not only a poor indication of learning, it actually seems to prevent it. When we design lessons that boost pupils’ performance, the net result is that we are retarding the likelihood that they will learn. Conversely “Conditions that induce the most errors during acquisition are often the very conditions that lead to the most learning!” (Bjork 2013) So are all those slickly outstanding lessons we’ve venerated for so long really just fluff and nonsense?
Lessons which are generally judged to be outstanding are characterised by pupils being visibly engaged and ‘getting it’. Ofsted’s criteria for outstanding teaching and learning include the following:

  • Sustained & rapid progress
  • 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

In order to thoroughly expose the Cult of Outstanding™, we might do well to investigate each of these criteria in turn.
Sustained & rapid progress
I’ve already written extensively about the problems with progress so let me summarise by asking this: if we do something really quickly is it likely to last? I contend that rapid and sustained progress are mutually exclusive: they cancel each other out. You can have one or the other. We have to choose and I’d strongly recommend sustained progress. The problem is that the route to sustained progress is deeply counter-intuitive. We’re all a lot more comfortable with the idea of making rapid progress because it ‘feels right’. But there’s a significant body of research which suggests that slowing performance and increasing the errors made during instruction has a significant impact on our ability to retain and transfer skills and knowledge. Simply put, we learn better by struggling. But this is not what happens in an outstanding lesson where pupils are expected to demonstrate rapid progress and not look confused as they grapple with challenging concepts.
Consistently high expectations
On the face of it you’d think I would have little to argue against here. And on the face of it, you’d be right. But consistently high expectations of what? If our expectation as teachers is that pupils perform to a high level only in our lessons then we may will be guilty of engineering a situation which makes it harder for them to retain and transfer what we’re teaching. This leads to a culture where it becomes routine for pupils not to remember or be able to apply the basics. Consider this: in a Year 11 English lesson, we read an article about Barrack Obama taking a 5% pay cut to show support for the plight of the American economy. We decided to award him a nicely rounded salary of $150,000 and calculate what this 5% reduction might represent. I was appalled when the class, which contained some very bright mathematicians, signally failed to work out what is, even for me, a pretty simple sum. I’m fairly sure the same thing goes on when students I know for a fact can spell and paragraph accurately in my lessons suddenly lose this ability in, say, geography or science.
Excellent subject knowledge
OK, you got me. Having expert subject knowledge is highly desirable and likely to result in pupils making significant gains in their learning. In particular, it pays teachers to understand the likely mistakes and misconceptions pupils are likely to make in a given subject. If these mistakes are anticipated and headed off before they become ingrained then a great deal of harm is avoided. Naturally it’s not sufficient to merely have great subject knowledge, but it is necessary and your kids ain’t gonna get very far if you’ve not got it.
Systematic, accurate assessment
Again, this seems obvious doesn’t it? How can systematic and accurate assessment be a bad thing? The short answer is that it can’t. But the problem is that very little assessment is accurate and systematic in the right way. Most mark schemes are highly subjective and do little to encourage accuracy. Daisy Christodoulou has written eloquently about what she calls ‘the adverb problem‘ and this is something of which we should be ever mindful. Our assessment is a lot more inaccurate and vague than we’d like to admit.
Well judged, imaginative teaching strategies
Of course well-judged teaching strategies are brilliant. But if we believe that improving pupils’ performance is the desired outcome then it’s highly unlikely that the strategies we select will be well-judged. It’s certainly very rare for a lesson to be judged outstanding if pupils are still struggling by the end of the lesson; this is normally judged inadequate. But if sustained progress is our goal then neat resolutions and slick performances will undermine our aim. And we don’t really mean ‘imaginative’, do we? What we mean is ‘conforming to a fairly narrow set of expectations of what constitutes good teaching’. And that just isn’t the same.
Sharply focused & timely support
Providing effective support is, of course, highly desirable, but too much support will create learned helplessness. Also we often support pupils because we’re obsessed with improving their performance. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with struggle, in fact it’s often essential for information to wend its way from working to long term memory. So why are we so squeamish about children being stuck? We’d do better sometimes to set out our stall to celebrate what’s hard and damn what comes easily. There’s a toxic trend in our society to dismiss hard work as the preserve of thickos and plodders. It’s in our language: ‘Hard luck!’, ‘Easy does it!’ All this sharply focussed support may well be eroding the confidence and resilience we so desire in our students. The point of scaffolding is that it must be removed. The problem with outstanding lessons is that they rarely devote the time necessary for effective explanations or modelling (see below) for fear that the teacher will be accused on talking for too long.
Enthusiasm, participation & commitment
These, along with engagement, are the very stuff of Robert Coe’s ‘poor proxies for learning’. These things are lovely and certainly sociably desirable, but the tell us nothing about the quality of pupils’ learning. It’s relatively well-known that doodling can increase your retention and in the past I’ve taught children whose apparent attention is lessons is minimal and yet they learn. One boy I shepherded through GCSEs spent 2 years building piles of rubbers only to get an A*! We can, and should, insist on good behaviour because the alternative is horrible. But we must be informed and honest enough to acknowledge that observation feedback like ‘that boy at the back was off-task for 3 minutes’ is utterly meaningless.
Resilience, confidence & independence
I’m all for pupils being resilient, confident and independent. Who wouldn’t be? The problem here is that we’ve got ourselves into the perfectly understandable muddle of believe that independent learning will result in independence. It doesn’t; independent learning actually makes pupils more dependent. If we really value independence and want our pupils to be confident and resilient then we’re much better off teaching them. I’ve written extensively about the teaching sequence for developing independence, but just to recap, the process is broken down into 4 stages:

  1. Explaining – you can’t think about what you don’t know so if we want our pupils to do anything interesting or creative we must give them the vocabulary and background knowledge required to explore a subject.
  2. Modelling – no one is ever going to get good at anything unless they go through the process of deconstructing high quality examples and then ‘seeing’ the expert thought processes which go into creating an expert example. The road to hell is paved with vague success criteria.
  3. Scaffolding – once pupils have had new concepts explained and had great examples modelled then they’re ready to have a go. Our job is to make sure that everyone is challenged to do something they will find difficult and help them deal with the frustration of not being able to get it.
  4. Practising – pupils are now ready to work independently. Our role is to be aware of the fact that practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent. We must be vigilant about the mistakes pupils are likely make and prevent them prevent them becoming embedded.

Frequent & consistently high quality feedback
Yet again this appears entirely desirable. That is until we examine the staggering weight of research that suggests that delaying and reducing feedback, while having a negative impact of short term performance gains, tends to boost long term retention and transfer. This leads us, inevitably, down a rabbit hole of trying to determine exactly what ‘high quality’ feedback might be. Is it high quality if it visibly supports pupils’ performance in the classroom? Or is it high quality if it means that they’re more likely to pass an exam? This issue is that one of these is easy to check for during an observation and the other isn’t. Guess which we tend to prefer?
Contrary to what almost everyone else would have us believe, Bjork tell us this: “Numerous studies—some of them dating back decades—have shown that frequent and immediate feedback can, contrary to intuition, degrade learning.” This is an earth shattering bombshell and goes completely against the grain. I intend to devote my next post to dealing with this at length.
Engagement, courtesy, collaboration & cooperation
We’ve already dealt with engagement above and no right thinking teacher would object to politeness except to say that it has very little bearing on learning. But collaboration and cooperation betray a preference for group work. There’s a time and a place for group work: it slots in neatly to the scaffolding phase of teaching. But the idea that all lessons should contain collaborative or cooperative learning is preposterous. Thank goodness that the subsidiary guidance to inspectors added in December 2013 confirms this:

Do not expect to see ‘independent learning’ in all lessons and do not make the assumption that this is always necessary or desirable. On occasions, too, pupils are rightly passive rather than active recipients of learning. Do not criticise ‘passivity’ as a matter of course and certainly not unless it is evidently stopping pupils from learning new knowledge or gaining skills and understanding.

It’s become abundantly clear to me that what might appear to be passive may well conceal a vigorous and seismic inner turmoil that heralds real learning. So the next time you think you’ve seen an outstanding lesson, think again. There’s no such thing! We can certainly have outstanding teaching – it’s the preserve of those teachers who get consistent and startling results, where students really learn. The received wisdom on what an outstanding lesson is, actively obstructs outstanding teaching. We all need the humility to accept that our preferences and biases are just that: ours. They do not lead to better learning. And further, it is my considered and contentious opinion that the pursuit of outstanding lessons has done more to damage education than any of the more obvious goonery like VAK and Brain Gym that we’ve had to put up with over the years.
The fact that Ofsted appear to be officially distancing themselves from some of the more deluded facets of Outstanding™ lessons can only be good news. But that still leaves us with a situation where most inspectors and school leaders have got where they are on the strength of their ability to dance the rapid progress jig. Will they be able to admit the possibility that they were hoodwinked by the Cult of Outstanding?
I’m sure you’ll have an opinion on all this and I look forward to discussing it in the comments below.

Related posts

Don’t trust your gut: a little bit more o the problem with grading lessons
Deliberately difficult: why it might be better to make learning harder

2014-01-16T13:26:35+00:00January 16th, 2014|learning, myths|


  1. adavies660 January 16, 2014 at 1:55 pm - Reply

    As a teacher for over 12 years and having been through 4 Ofsted inspections, one of which the college where I was at the time gained a grade 1 in all areas, including teaching, I do feel that we are under so much pressure in our teaching today, be it administrative and or students behavior and the individual learning needs of the students.
    Those I was teaching, at the time, all suffered from different learning disabilities of varying degree and even I, with my patience and years of experience found the whole “Ofsted Performance” very exhausting and I cannot think that, like most of my fellow teachers at the time, did meet all the criteria, despite teaching in the professional, enthusiastic and energetic way we always did. Is it not a fallacy that these criteria are just not sustainable in every day teaching?
    Can anyone honestly say they meet all the criteria all the time, every day? “Burn out” and “Breakdown” is common for those who are passionate about teaching and give their all for their students day after day without meeting the criteria. Is it not time that Ofsted “got real” and realized that passion and enthusiasm cannot be a tick box exercise.

    • David Didau January 16, 2014 at 3:47 pm - Reply

      Even Ofsted are not so foolish as to suggest that individual teachers should be meeting all their outstanding criteria in a single lesson – this is what they look for across a school. No, it’s ignorant, ill-informed SLT who we have to thank for the very particular idiocy that we should all be performing the Monkey Dance every lesson

  2. Harry Fletcher-Wood January 16, 2014 at 4:17 pm - Reply

    Yes. The systematic critiques of the sub-heading are important, but the key point (which your critique reinforces) is that many of narrow, subjective criteria so commonly applied in observations are undermining to successful learning. Will you be pulping your book?

    • David Didau January 16, 2014 at 4:45 pm - Reply

      Haha! I recently reread my book and stand by most of it. There are aspects I would remove and if there’s ever a 2nd edition it’ll substantially different.

  3. e=mc2andallthat January 16, 2014 at 5:14 pm - Reply

    Fascinating! A lot to think about here.

  4. Gareth Harris. January 16, 2014 at 5:44 pm - Reply

    I’m afraid I’m part of an SLT that has fostered this cult. Teachers graded as outstanding have become an elite club (cult) with little or no understanding of anything other than doing the OfSTED monkey dance. I will be sharing this with them David , in my ongoing attempts to convince them that learning is more than lesson measured progress. I work hard to see it from the perspective of my principal and see that the requirements of OfSTED must be considered but much convincing is needed to show that we have created an elite cult who know lots about ‘OfSTED outstanding’ but bugger all about learning, thinking, memory or mindset.

    • David Didau January 16, 2014 at 6:25 pm - Reply

      I commend you sir! But all is not as forlorn as you may think. Ofsted (at least the top brass) are starting to sound sensible. Have you read this?

    • chris francis @stplearning January 16, 2014 at 10:35 pm - Reply

      Gareth, that’s a harsh assessment of your ‘outstanding teachers’. I suspect some (if not all) of your ‘monkeys’ can see the bigger picture, they’ve just been dancing to the tune you’ve been playing – because that’s what you asked of them. Do you not teach yourself? What do you aim for when you are observed? Let’s say you have achieved ‘outstanding’ over the past year or two – and I suspect you have – is that a different type of ‘outstanding’ to those teachers that know bugger all about learning?
      David, thanks for a great post (as was the last one) plenty of food for thought. Regarding Developing Independence, yep, in full agreement although prior to ‘Modelling’ there is a place for exploration / discovery – open ended creative ‘play’. This, without the pressure of knowing what is best, or knowing excellence, can frame the Modelling stage with even more significance.

  5. nancy January 16, 2014 at 6:24 pm - Reply

    Until I was informed that it was ‘not what ofsted expect’ I quite often used the technique of allowing the children to struggle for a bit before ‘guiding’ them in the direction I wanted.
    There is, sadly, so much Emperor’s New Clothes-ing that I don’t know what to do with myself sometimes.

  6. […] First of all I need to come clean. Up until pretty recently I was a fully paid up member of the Cult of Outstanding™. Last January I considered myself to be a teacher at the height of my powers.  […]

  7. Steve Philp January 16, 2014 at 7:12 pm - Reply

    In my school, we have decided that ‘outstanding’ actually means consistent. We’d far rather do a good job nearly all the time (everyone has bad days), than be whizzy for short periods and then burn ourselves out.

    • David Didau January 16, 2014 at 7:28 pm - Reply

      Quite right. Well done you.

    • Stephen Godwin January 16, 2014 at 8:20 pm - Reply

      But in being consistently good over time, it is almost inevitable that learning will take place, results will then follow and the end game will be outstanding learning progress over time.

      • David Didau January 16, 2014 at 8:39 pm - Reply

        I think that’s the wrong way round. If results are good, then learning is taking place which would suggest you are consistently good.

        • Stephen Godwin January 16, 2014 at 10:08 pm - Reply

          Been a long day, but that’s what I meant (honest).

        • Concerned March 3, 2014 at 12:58 pm - Reply

          I have an issue to take here, but I might not word it correctly. If our definition of results is the score on GCSE examinations then all we have shown is that we have increased performance and not helped students to learn. The very fact that exams (in my subject) can be gamed by going through past papers, identifying likely topics and ‘teaching to the test’ throughout year 11 (and from year 9 too) means that it is a flawed system.
          In fact are we not building our entire system upon pillars of salt (or should that be sand) if tests are a measure of learning?

          • David Didau March 3, 2014 at 2:48 pm

            Of course you can teach to the test and of course tests can be gamed. I do maintain that exam performance is a more meaningful proxy for learning than Professor Coe’s ‘poor proxies’ usually identified in lesson observations. But yes, our entire system IS built on very shaky foundations.

    • Catherine Barnett January 18, 2014 at 9:01 am - Reply

      Wise words indeed.

  8. Colin Goffin January 16, 2014 at 8:36 pm - Reply

    As SMT I’d rather like to avoid being ill informed and ignorant or demand a monkey dance from anyone so am interested in what you do (if I remember rightly you became SLT recently?) to translate what you theorise here into practice in your school. As with so much the gap sadly seems to come between discussion and aspiration and the day today so can you would be grateful for your experiences in terms of reshaping the thoughts of the rest of the senior leaders in your team and then helping to redefine the expectations of the staff of the school who would I imagine be like many others here and have spent a long time aiming to be part of the cult and find it disconcerting to move to something new even if that change leads to more positive outcomes for all. Cheers.

    • David Didau January 16, 2014 at 8:55 pm - Reply

      You’re not ill informed or ignorant. You’ve read the post. Whether you agree with it and what you’ll do about it is up to you. For what it’s worth, here’s my advice:
      1) Analyse your data to work out who, consistently, gets the best results in the school. Go and watch them to see what they do and accept that whatever your preconceptions might be, it must be worth doing. Try and replicate it.
      2) Convince the powers that be that grading lessons retards teaching quality – move to a Lesson Study model. Consider joining NTEN

      • Colin Goffin January 16, 2014 at 9:29 pm - Reply

        I’m not sure how finding the teacher with the best results and then expecting all to replicate these methods sits with the notion that there is no one way to approach teaching. This seems to go against the passionate calls for independence and freedom that has people genuinely and justifiably excited. Without genuine understanding this could reduce some to a bag of tricks and insult others who want to approach their classroom I a different way. To say nothing of the banality of this for students who see all their lessons delivered in the same way. One of the things we have to challenge and explain on Teep training is the benefits of consistency and the perils of replication and not making things your own so would hate to advocate that there was ‘one way’. How was this approach received when you applied it in your school?
        Also, the powers that be in terms of obs and grading is me and a lot of the time the desire for grading comes from the teacher rather than a need to impose one from the observer rather like student reading grades before the comments. The framework etc becomes a cage that people shut themselves in as Tom Sherrington suggested in his ‘do it anyway’ post. Again I’d be interested in how you changed this mindset in the school you work in.
        As always love the ego behind my not being ill informed apparently solely because of having read your post!

        • ijstock January 18, 2014 at 5:38 pm - Reply

          There is no substitute to having intelligent, reflective individuals in the classroom and then leaving them to it. Any attempt to produce a framework or template around what they do is doomed to failure.

  9. david jones January 16, 2014 at 9:02 pm - Reply
    Hope you don’t mind me sharing some of our ideas with you on your great blog.
    We’ve been discussing smashing the one off outstanding nonsense since inset in Sept and have used the NTEN and our own lesson discussions to develop obs feedback and talk about learning. I’m trying to create a portfolio of evidence to support quality of teaching across the school and accrediting individual contributions-far more than the list of obs grades Ofsted demand. It’s early days-it worked for Wroxham but although I know there are schools moving this way, there is silence from the majority and certainly not much apart from, a few passionate colleagues like yourself and Chris Moyse etc. putting forward solutions. I believe in what we are trying to do [we might need to adapt/I could be wrong] but if there is opposition it is eerily quiet-no flack as you tweeted. What do the majority really think-not that it matters to me!

    • David Didau January 16, 2014 at 10:14 pm - Reply

      Thanks David – see Colin’s response above for a glimpse of what the majority might be thinking.

  10. Colin Goffin January 16, 2014 at 11:48 pm - Reply

    That’s fairly insulting David (D). I’m not sure that I have suggested that I want anything different to what David (J) is working towards or that I would see the one off as a way of assessing anything other than the one off and my comment was intended to show that the ‘powers that be’ can be as misinterpreted/underestimated as the noble oppressed classroom practitioner when the twitterati or blogosphere get going! For a school leader to want anything other than for their teachers to engage in dialogue about learning and support them to develop their practice so that they can get greater job satisfaction and the students achieve both the highest level of qualification and develop as rounded people seems entirely alien to me. And there’s absolutely no way that I would be part of a senior leadership team that would want a ‘hatchet man’ forcing people out through lesson observations!
    I’m also not sure that a reading of your suggestion – which seems rather simplistic – to look at the teacher with the best data and try to replicate as one that seems to be limiting in terms of teacher creativity and freedoms is unfairly literal. As someone with a gift for language I don’t assume you use words lightly and you didn’t suggest that we could identify principles or approaches and see how these can be adapted or incorporated into practice to allow others to develop a sense of what their best practice means for them as an individual but rather your offer was to replicate which I have to say surprised me in the light of not just this blog (replicating does seem rather cultish) but other discussions and writing.
    I also wouldn’t take any delight in your lack of success in making changes as that would make me rather mean but it does perhaps suggest that there is a difference from talking/blogging about these things and making them a reality which was my reason for posing my questions in the first place and I do think that for these changes to be brought into practice then the potential for destabilising the way in which those who we would hope could develop by changes to the terms of reference shouldn’t be ignored – it’s not just senior leaders that find changes to the status quo threatening. I am buoyed though to see that people like David (J) and Alison Peacock are able to transform the rhetoric into reality and I’ll definitely be taking the time to read the blogs from Meols Cop.

    • david jones January 17, 2014 at 9:47 am - Reply

      Turning rhetoric into reality-always the tricky bit! BUT the most challenging and motivating aspect for many school leaders and if you can manage to achieve your September vision by the next July and know that you have helped to make a real difference to your students and staff-a real WOW moment [not many of them perhaps!] I’m sure that many of us who read blogs check the providence of the writer and then look at their school to see if they practice what they preach. Often there does seem to be a mis-match, however I do welcome non teachers, teachers with ideas [although they may not be proven], researchers, consultants and in fact anyone at all with an interest in education into the debate about the future of schools and all aspects of them. They often have the time we don’t have, to look internationally at case studies or simply pick up on good practice, research or ideas and share them out albeit with their own opinion attached. If I see an idea I like, I see it as my role to bring it into school and persuade my colleagues to give it a go-I would imagine that you [Colin] feel the same way and that is the test of our leadership skills. Others have different skills and aptitudes but can make equally valid contributions in supporting our aim of making our education sytem the best that it can be. I just wish that more people would put their head above the parapet and tell everyone else what they believe and what they are doing-schools and teachers should be leading the debate on OUR future.
      I’ve been teaching for a long time and I just feel that we are entering a different era for us as professionals where our voices are beginning to be circulated [I know the majority don’t blog or tweet] and opinions aired-I haven’t felt this before in my previous 33 years and I might have mis-judged the situation. I certainly know that we have been pushed into this and hope it won’t be our professional last stand! My blogs are very practical and explain our ideas in practice-they work for us but I loved the more theoretical and philosphical debate on Monday which sparked this latest spate of blogs and tweets off. Teachers [and others] to the ramparts-defend your profession or at least discuss it!

      • Colin Goffin January 17, 2014 at 3:11 pm - Reply

        Hi David and thanks for your reply. As I mentioned previously there is little that I would disagree with in the original post and certainly not in your comments here. I suppose what irks me – and apologies to David (D) for going on a brief tangent – is the suggestion that either a) this is as simple as senior leaders just deciding to abandon their stasi like approach to demanding lessons be graded in order to compile some files to help with the witchhunt or that b) senior leaders are all involved in some kind of consipracy to run people out of teaching if they dare suggest an alternative way. It’s the laziness of reverting to these tired stereotypes that seem to characterise a lot of posts or tweets and it’s not a picture of any leaders that I’ve known or worked with. It is also not helpful in terms of us moving forward as while there may be examples of these out there it’s going to prevent development of the profession if we continue to perpetuate these generalisations which seem in some cases designed to ingratiate the authors to their audiences rather than advance a debate. This was in part my reasoning for pushing David about the application of this in a genuine context as it’s easier to point fingers than to build and some of the tone and the comments seemed to slip into this which for me was a shame as it made the post seem less powerful. I’m not one of those who would dismiss anyone out of hand for not having recent classroom practice as some do and in terms of the panel you mention I’ve met Mary a number of times and think she is fabulous. My only contact with some other has been tweet exchanges and I havbe found lots there of interest – as indeed I have with David – but my response here came from a tone that seemed to be laying all of the blame at the feet of senior leaders (something which I’ve never witnessed from the others) so I suppose at this point I did want to know ‘Who the hell do you think you are? Have you delivered any of this? You’re having a pop and you’ve not made this work etc’.
        The other question I have and one which may cause issue with the playing to the crowd that permeates a number of blogs is whether teachers are rushing forward to grab the opportunities presented and I get the impression at times that the kind of comment I’ve mentioned earlier is a manifestation of a lack of willingness, desire, confidence, I don’t know on the part of those who would appear to want to rejoice in these freedoms. I appreciate that leaders need to create the environment for these to develop but as I say sometimes the cages are self imposed (hence my reference to Tom Sherrington). I read a while ago about theories around society suggesting our obsession with the royal family is an indication of a lack of desire for self rule and sometimes see parallels. I find this mindset facscinating and would love to explore it and establish why, when freedoms are presented, they aren’t taken. I’ll stick above the parapet and say that I am desperate for teachers to take these freedoms and we as a senior team all make this quite public and while we do have a sense of the practice of our teachers we only look at this in terms of where they can go next and how we can help them. Whether in school or during TEEP training I have told teachers to go for it and that we would rather see risk taking that doesn’t pay off than safe teaching to fulfil some model lesson that doesn’t exist and yet the response is often to look for another restriction such as specification, content, ‘that’s fine for KS3’ etc. I know that there are more teachers than leaders on twitter and blogging but I would suggest that we challenge the stereotypical view that all would be ok ‘if only SLT would do this about that’ as while I am not so ignorant as to not concede that SLT have a role developing these confidences and that in some cases we can do more and need to look in the mirror as much as anyone else but I would emphasis the ‘as much as anyone else’ and suggest that others could benefit from taking an honest look and identifying where the issues are genuinely external and where the ‘mind forg’d manacles’ are our/their own.
        I hope this explains my thinking and you’ll see it as a useful contribution to the debate. This depends on whether David has worked out how to block comments. If he has I hope he doesn’t do so as would definitely not be in keeping with the notion of debate you’ve advocated and I value in these times. Cheers

  11. kvnmclKevin McLaughlin January 17, 2014 at 11:14 am - Reply

    Yet again, you write a blog post that manages to pick me up, shake me vigorously and demand my attention. I’ve often thought that our present inspection/observation system is creating almost nothing more than teachers who are able to jump hoops and ensure every box is ticked.
    Many thanks for the post and the link you have provided to Bjork’s work – plenty for me to consider further.

    • David Didau January 17, 2014 at 11:21 am - Reply

      Many thanks Kevin – anything that challenges conventional wisdom is always worth considering, isn’t it? I find that if I can defend my currently held beliefs in the light of new information then they are worth keeping; if though they cause me to want to reject new information then there is probably something in it.

  12. sunderlandliteracy2012 January 17, 2014 at 1:03 pm - Reply

    Really interesting article – thank you for sharing
    Working in teacher education, in FE, I constantly see the stress that trainees are under to reach that outstanding grade. Although we tell them that discussion and development points are the most important part of the post observation chat, they forget this when they walk away and look at the grade. I have started recording the discussion on my iphone and immediately sending it to them because the discussion usually throws up a lot of self realisations that a grade can not represent. The grades are based on teaching standards – enough said!
    Working with trainees and helping them develop into the best teacher they can be is important but within this is the need to develop learners and a love of learning.
    Many literacy/ English students have failed miserably elsewhere, for a variety of reasons. I try to instil respect for all and a notion that time can change attitudes and develop learning in students. I always gave myself at least 6 weeks to “crack” the difficult group of students, especially the students referred from outside agencies such as probation or the construction industry: I stretched and challenged every session until they wanted to be there, wanted to learn and changed their attitudes about teachers per se. If the teachers we prepare for the changing world of Teaching are so hung up on grades then they fail to see that not every lesson may be deemed perfect by the “authorities” but it may still be worthwhile.
    The greatest feedback I received from my PGCE trainees last year was that they left with a different outlook to the one they arrived with. They now realise that just because someone did not stick in at school first time round, leave university with a first or 2;1 they are still capable of aspirations and are worth investing time in. This sets the foundations of successful literacy teachers. They leave with the standardised notion of an outstanding teacher – they have met the standards but they also leave with an understanding that learners matter!
    All that said, until Ofsted take away the requirements of teacher ed institutions to demonstrate the grade profile of trainees and reference requests for teaching posts do not contain the line “Please outline the grade profile of this trainee” then the trainees will continue to focus on the grade as do employers.

    • David Didau January 17, 2014 at 3:21 pm - Reply

      I don’t know enough about teacher education or Ofsted’s demands for grade profiles, but if they’re in any way similar to the expectation that school leaders know the quality of T&L in their schools then I think you have a pretty good argument for refusing to grade observations, especially using Ofsted’s criteria. And the same goes for reference requests: refuse to be corralled into something so limiting and prone to error. The times they are a changin’.

  13. nancy January 17, 2014 at 9:50 pm - Reply

    I’m not sure what else to add here (I said I would, so here I am again!) except to say that I surely and most certainly resent the notion of a Way To Teach.
    It seems to me that teaching, from the very early years right up to U3A is essentially a human endeavour. And what I mean by this is that there are endless permutations, endless possibilities, endless approaches that result in (hopefully) the same thing – an educated person.
    In order to get to that summit, though, we teachers have to navigate a twisty-turny journey that encompasses disciplines with vastly different demands (I wouldn’t teach Dance in the same way I would Science), children with many, many different needs (I don’t teach my SEN kids the same way I do the highest achieving Y6s) and personalities – and to all this we add our own ‘style’ to the mix.
    I have recently been trained in two schemes – one for Maths and one for English. Both of these schemes are highly prescriptive in terms not only of what to teach, but also how to teach it. Now, this is OK for me, because I recognised a lot from my own practise in the demonstrations from the trainers – but what about those quieter teachers, those people for whom leaping about (or whatever) is an alien mode of being, and yet still manage to create good, useful learning in their classrooms? What about those children for whom partner work is a painful experience?
    In my view, teaching is far, far too prone to fashion and, it seems at the moment, to be infected by a friutless search for the educational Holy Grail, The Truth About Teaching. A Truth that can be pinned down, measured, replicated, ticked off, checked and accounted for.
    For me, this is a useless, pointless, painful exercise that serves little useful purpose. Yes, we can all learn from our colleagues – but what we learn is filtered through our own experience, our own subjectivity, if you like, and what we learned worked once with one set of children won’t always work with another.
    I hope this adds usefully to the debate.

    • Michelle January 18, 2014 at 8:29 am - Reply

      I have seen the general feeling in our school fall rapidly over the last year, in our school since being graded ‘Requires Improvement’ by Ofsted. We have been consistently observed and graded with some teachers really floundering as they manically try to include as many aspects as possible of an ‘outstanding’ lesson into their own lessons-the end result being the children have not got a clue what they are doing or what they are meant to be learning-this then leading to another lesson grading of ‘requires Improvement’. I have watched and tried to support as the shoulders of these teachers ,who care about their class and try their up most to ensure they make progress, slump under the pressure. I have tried to suggest the non grading approach but have been told until
      Ofsted return we cannot do this as we need to have a teaching portfolio which shows grades to back up our SEF grading for teaching. Is this true? As I really do not know how much ore some teachers can take and would really appreciate some advice…..

    • David Didau January 18, 2014 at 8:53 am - Reply

      Nancy, you’re quite right. There’s a well worn narrative in schools of looking at some crusty old teacher (that gets great results) and deciding that they’re methods are embarrassingly old fashioned and forcing them to perform a Monkey Dance which results in… well, bad results.

      • nancy January 18, 2014 at 9:13 am - Reply

        I also think that we teachers need to tighten up our language (been reading about the knowledge/skills debate – can you tell?!) – and we need to give examples of what we are talking/writing about.
        I teach KS2 SEN. This is entirely different to EYFS – and a totally different animal to KS3 and 4.
        Maybe this nonsense of a Way To Teach started with the lit and num hours? I well remember staff room discussions on the wisdom of teaching YR in exactly the same way/format as Y6 back then.
        Yes, there are generic methods, but they are so distorted by ourselves, our personalities, our ‘way of being’ with children.
        To me, the proof of the pudding, the only one that matters, is the child themselves. And the things that matter are things you can’t put in a checklist or on a data sheet. Where is ‘enthusiasm such that they tell you about their lessons when you are on playground duty’?
        I’m trying to express some of this in my blog post ‘did a teacher change your life?’
        (Now for a cheeky plug!)

  14. Janette Baker (@janbaker97) January 17, 2014 at 10:59 pm - Reply

    Some of my very best results have come from “teaching” – ie where pupils have sat & taken notes during a lecture-type lesson – they have the explanations in their books, have understood the concepts of language learning because I have explained them in detail – have looked at examples & then and only then have attempted to create something of their own. Also it slows the learning down to give pupils time to study something properly. But this would get me a 4 under the current regime. So we have to do the “proper” learning when the door is shut & we have no audience!
    My issue has always been that when observations take place, it doesn’t really matter whether the teaching is good or not, it’s whether the person doing the observation likes what they see. I spent 15 mins going through book marking with my Year 10s because it was the first time I’d marked their work & I wanted to be very clear about what I expected re flagging homework tasks, what my marking symbols meant etc. how they needed to respond.because book marking and written feedback & dialogue is such a huge part of “passing” your progress over time criteria these days & actually, it’s something I personally think is important to get right for my students’ sake – I failed the learning walk because, oh dear, the person “observing” didn’t see any progress during the 15 mins someone was sat in my room taking notes. You can’t win either way!

    • David Didau January 18, 2014 at 8:50 am - Reply

      You can win – but it involves rooting out such unevidenced nonsense as graded learning walk – how abhorrent! This is some of the very worst examples of a belief in witchcraft rather than evidence in our schools – why should you be blamed for the ignorance and stupidity of an observer?

  15. Jan Gavin January 18, 2014 at 5:44 am - Reply

    I taught in schools for 25 years, worked as an LA Advisor and for a national education quango [I was a trained ofsted inspector some years ago]. I was made redundant in the bonfire of quangos – I do lots of different things now, one of which is working part-time in offender education – that is I teach prisoners. This is a challenging environment in which to be ‘outstanding’! The class I teach only has 8 learners, who I see every morning for a three-hour session, but they are all at different stages of their learning journey – from entry level to Level 2, prisoners arrive and leave the course on a weekly basis at the will of the prison, many arrive without the minimum literacy and numeracy stipulated by the course requirements, but I welcome them all. I was recently observed, and was told that my teaching was inadequate by my managers, this was because, despite my learners achieving a 93% pass rate I did not have a detailed lesson plan, which included health and safety, diversity and clear learning objectives for the class; a three-part lesson structure; do ‘group learning’ sessions, and various other tick-boxes which they had decided were a necessary feature of an outstanding lesson.
    I challenged their judgement by asking a few simple questions – 1. Were my learners engaged in their learning throughout the session? – remember a lesson lasts three hours. 2. Did each learner make progress during the lesson? 3. How did the results my learners achieve compare to national and within the prison data?
    They agreed that both the engagement of learners, the calm and purposefulness of activity in my room and the progress and attainment that my learners achieved were all very good, in fact one of the observers said ‘I wish other teachers here were able to get their students through as many qualifications as you do’ – but that I was not doing all the things they said I had to do to make my teaching outstanding, so I was graded as an inadequate teacher .. I was given an action plan of things I had to do, they are coming back this week to re-observe me and if I haven’t done everything on the action plan I will be put on capability. Needless to say I have not, I have continued to build a respectful relationship with my learners, they are on the whole motivated to learn and are achieving very well indeed. We are talking about grown men who society has locked away because they have committed, in some cases terrible crimes. I love my job, but if I am again judged to be an inadequate teacher … I will walk away.

    • David Didau January 18, 2014 at 8:48 am - Reply

      Gosh! This is a particularly extreme form of idiocy! Who are these people observing you?

  16. […] as David Didau shows here, as ‘the cult of the outstanding lesson is retarding learning.’ The focus on busy engagement in protocols over memorable instruction is problematic: it is […]

  17. Andrew January 18, 2014 at 9:43 am - Reply

    Very engaged and stimulated by all of this. For me it points to a simple thought really, which is that we tend to put too much emphasis on adults assessing and judging adults and not enough on simply getting meaningful feedback from students about what works for them. As an occasional inspector and Head I have, somewhat shamefully, only just understood the power of watching the pupils much more than the teacher in a lesson observation.

    • David Didau January 19, 2014 at 10:48 pm - Reply

      But that’s what I’ma arguing against! There’s little of any real value that can be gleamed from simply watching pupils and expecting to get any insight whatsoever into what they might be learning. It just isn’t possible.

  18. Fran January 18, 2014 at 11:21 am - Reply

    Jan, please don’t walk away. Those young men need your help – you are changing their lives. Can you jump through the observers’ stupid hoops while they are there, then go back to doing what works….? Let me know what happens. @FranNantongwe. X

    • Jan Gavin January 18, 2014 at 12:57 pm - Reply

      Thank you Fran for your lovely comment, but I fear that my learners would give the game away if I suddenly start behaving differently, and there comes a point when hoops should not be jumped through, they should be challenged. I have decided not to ‘put on a show’ .. I am hoping that the learning that happens every day and the results achieved by my learners will be enough for those who are there to judge me. I really am not prepared to be put on ‘capability’ for getting results with some of the most difficult learners I have ever taught just because my managers can’t fill in their tick box sheet.

      • David Didau January 19, 2014 at 10:50 pm - Reply

        I really think that anyone put on capability through such a provenly unreliable means as lesson observation would have a very strong legal case! As Robert Coe says, you’d be better off flipping a coin.

  19. […] as David Didau shows here, as ‘the cult of the outstanding lesson is retarding learning.’ The focus on busy engagement in protocols over memorable instruction is problematic: it is […]

  20. […] ideas on their heads this week, I really enjoyed reading @learningspy David Didau’s post ‘The cult of outstanding’ I’m sure the best of us will recognise some of the traps we have previously fallen into in […]

  21. Sue crane January 18, 2014 at 3:25 pm - Reply

    An interesting read. However can’t help but wonder if you don’t achieve the “outstanding” badge of honour. What else will slt use as a measure for promotion or to be even considered for any new opportunities. It takes a brave slt to go outside the club.

  22. alexbeauchamp1977 January 18, 2014 at 4:31 pm - Reply

    Hello David,
    I am 100% behind your point of view. It echoes my increasing frustration as a performance manager on one hand, and as a progressive open minded teacher in the trenches on the other. Keep up the excellent work.

  23. ijstock January 18, 2014 at 5:34 pm - Reply

    This one of the clearest expositions I’ve yet read on everything that has been wrong with education in recent years. Everything you say here chimes with my many years of teaching, observing, and reflecting on the outcomes of lessons. I have had a deep inner unease about what we have been told to do and you have expressed it superbly.
    I don’t think SLT were necessarily ignorant – more likely afraid of not doing that which their jobs depended on. Whether they will have the humility to change their tunes is another matter – but you have done the ’cause’ of debunking the vast weight of edu-myth under which we labour a great service.

  24. Dan Williams January 19, 2014 at 11:48 am - Reply

    Hi David,
    This is once again a fantastic post that has given me a great deal to take away and consider. I agree with much of what you say, yet wonder what an individual at teacher level can do to challenge the ‘powers that be’? If one is not seen to be ticking the preconceived boxes, then capability comes under scrutiny… Therefore, it seems that a top down approach is the only way your points will ever be considered.
    I have a question about some of your additional comments where you suggest that the best results indicate that learning has taken place. What about those that teach to the test/coursework? Furthermore, there are the issues with retention of learners in Further Education. If we do not retain learners for whatever reason, success rates are affected, which is seen as a reflection on the teacher, rather than the circumstances we face. I obviously can’t speak for Primary/Secondary, but this begs the question, do results mean that greater learning has taken place?
    Thanks once again – always learning from your insights.

    • David Didau January 19, 2014 at 10:55 pm - Reply

      Exam results are just another proxy for learning – but they’re a more reliable one than performance in a lesson. Of course we value other things and to the extent that these can be measured, we should measure them. If retention of students is of value, then this should form part of our judgement of teacher effectiveness.
      These things aren’t fool proof but there is some good evidence on the validity of student evaluations of teachers (especially older students) and we can learn a lot from work scrutiny too.
      On the subject of teaching to the test, read this post from Daisy Christodoulou:
      And on the subject of top down implementation, I predict that Ofsted will be forced to stop grading lesson within 3 years, and schools will be quick to follow. But in the meantime, we might see some legal challenges against those put on capability as the evidence is very clear that observations grades are massively unreliable.
      Does that help?

  25. paul Carney January 19, 2014 at 12:52 pm - Reply

    Excellent analysis as usual David and your constant search for deeper understanding of the learning process does you proud. I remember being told a bible story at school about seeds falling on the pavement. I didn’t ‘get’ the true meaning until many years later, which would dismay many OFSTED inspector looking for outstanding progress in 20 minutes wouldn’t it?
    As I told you on your earlier post- I am an advanced skills teacher and an expert in my subject who was ‘ripped apart’ in a learning walk by a Deputy who put me on 4 weeks observation despite my trying to do a lesson on creative thinking, because the children were ‘failing’ to make sufficient progress. I wasn’t told how progress was measured by the observers and I insist that they failed to see that my pupils were learning through failure. I had set them the challenge of inventing a new meaning for a piece of Fluxus art, which they struggled to do. When they made presentations of their ‘new’ meaning they fumbled and struggled to do anything meaningful. I was told this was ‘shambolic’ teaching and made to feel inadequate, yet in my opinion, the ‘failure’ of the lesson was actually very meaningful. The road to teaching children how to be independent, creative thinkers is not a linear one and involves much ripping up of conventions and prejudices. The problem we have is that the SLT’s, inspectors and decision makers need to see tangible evidence and this isn’t always possible. Failure is a forbidden word.
    For me, it is a final nail in the coffin, and I intend to leave my own ‘struggle’ to find the Holy Grails of wisdom when teaching children to those who are more compliant to Gove’s system of excellence. I will leave teaching soon.

    • David Didau January 19, 2014 at 10:56 pm - Reply

      I’m sorry to hear that Paul – rage, rage against the dying of the light!

  26. […] David Didau: The Cult of Outstanding […]

  27. Brave New World | teaching personally January 19, 2014 at 2:06 pm - Reply

    […] a number of current discussions regarding the relationship between learning and progress, of which this is one. At last, people are beginning to realise that these are not the same thing – something that I […]

  28. Heather Taylor January 24, 2014 at 9:59 pm - Reply

    So heartening to see evidence in print that that I have not lost the plot and that there are well-researched and respected academics out there who are providing some light in the educational dark ages we are currently forced to endure.

  29. […] boost pupils’ performance. How could it not? But as I’ve already explored at length, increasing performance is not the best route to improve learning. At number 2 is the unhelpfully labelled ‘feedback’. How is ‘feedback’ a […]

    • Dave P February 1, 2014 at 1:32 pm - Reply

      Thank you David – I really detest doing the Monkey Dance! I do rage against the dying of the light, but I’m with Paul it’s easy to quit!

  30. R Paterson February 2, 2014 at 1:55 pm - Reply

    A really interesting article. In my last school some of us in the staff room were labelled outstanding teachers by the SLT who announced them like ‘teacher of the week’. I was never in that club but most of the teachers who had , lets say less than significant exam results were. Sounds like jealousy but it’s not. I left that school with many others questioning whether I wished to continue teaching (despite being a HOD which brought the GCSE A*-C pass rate to 99% 1 student out of 168 failed to get a C) . Of course I did continue and I still love it. I’m content with being ‘good’ I tried my best!

  31. […] Has lesson observation become the new Brain Gym? Why can’t we tell a good teacher through lesson observations? Where lesson observations go wrong Don’t trust your gut: a little bit more on the problem with grading lessons How can we make classroom observation more effective? The Cult of Outstanding™: the problem with ‘outstanding’ lessons […]

  32. Action Research | Pearltrees February 8, 2014 at 9:00 pm - Reply

    […] The Cult of Outstanding™: the problem with ‘outstanding’ lessons […]

  33. peterw February 10, 2014 at 9:16 pm - Reply

    Interesting post. Lots of food for thought. And that video is really interesting.
    I had some questions. There could be seen to be a tension between the idea that it is good to struggle through something (and that this leads to better long-term gains) and the view you put forward that we should be sceptical of independent work as it makes students more dependent. I have been giving thought recently to the increased use of self-directed learning. I think it means it is more of a struggle (they work harder, have to be more resilient and there are less”rapid gains”). I guess I saying that arguably independent learning seems to achieve what Bjork describes.
    On the same issue, you say that teacher talk is not necessarily bad but how does that fit in with the idea that they learn better if free to make errors etc. If a teacher is telling students the right thing isn’t that less rather than more likely to lead to overall progress?
    I suppose overall that it seems that independence and a lack of teacher talk would be likely to compliment the research Bjork explains rather than oppose it. If that’s so the not all of those ofsted criteria have got it wrong.
    Thanks for reading and hope what I’m saying makes sense.

    • David Didau February 10, 2014 at 10:44 pm - Reply

      That’s a neat idea but it doesn’t really stack up with other lessons from cognitive science. We know that working memory is easily overloaded and that if we want children to learn we need to help them store items in long term memory. The problem with ‘independent learning’ is that it presupposes children can be made to by-pass the novice stage of learning and move directly to the expert stage. Sadly, this just doesn’t happen.
      What Bjork advocates is that certain desirable difficulties introduced at the acquisition stage of instruction make a big difference to our ability to store in long term memory. But we still need to space & interleave instruction for this to work. Only when we are relatively expert with a field do we have the necessary embedded knowledge to be able to successfully learn independently.
      Thanks, DD

  34. peterw February 10, 2014 at 11:03 pm - Reply

    I teach sixth form so I wonder if they’re more suited to self-directed study as long as they are guided in terms of a framework. I have been experimenting with what might be seen as more project-based learning recently, plus introducing more choice for them regarding format etc. and wondered whether it suits what Bjork is saying or not (or whether it’s not that simple! ). I’m at the literacy course in Guildford this Friday (that’s why I came across this blog) so might try to catch you there.

    • David Didau February 11, 2014 at 11:12 am - Reply

      One would certainly hope that sixth formers were a bit more expert in their understanding of subjects and therefore more suited to ‘self-directed’ study, but my experience of teaching A level suggests this isn’t really the case. You know that annual debate where universities bemoan their undergraduate’s ability to work independently and accuse schools of spoon feeding? It’s precisely because we push them to learn independently without giving them an expert understanding through explanation and modelling that we make them dependent.
      Happy to go into it in more detail on Friday. Thanks, David

  35. Kris Boulton February 17, 2014 at 1:38 pm - Reply

    “Conditions that induce the most errors during acquisition are often the very conditions that lead to the most learning!”
    Now, here’s the part of Bjork that I’m struggling most to reconcile (second place perhaps goes to delayed feedback…)
    There are a couple of reasons why I can’t make sense of this. The first, is that I’m struggling to see where the extra benefits are in kids struggling with maths problems, except perhaps inn their learning something about the boundary condition of what can be applied where and when, through falsely attempting to apply to the wrong situation.
    This seems incongruous also with the idea of modelling, and explicit instruction. I’m struggling to see how someone being able to get things right first time can be bad for initial conceptualisation. That said, I agree that being able to immediately recall something having just been shown it, is no guarantee of future recall, but this should surely be handled by the curriculum structure seeking to build storage strength over time, rather than what we so at repoint of initial conceptualisation – to me, that seems to be a continuation of the false belief that we can teach for
    Effect understanding, or perfect conceptualisation, or perfect retention, first time around (I do get that there’s a certain irony, and blurring of the lines here, between arguments, since of course te idea of making. Is takes at the beginning is completely in line wit a lack of perfection!)
    The next problem is that it appears incongruous with minimising cog load. As an example, I currently run a daily rapid fire challenge (drilling simple processes for 3 minutes). Currently, the questions are blocked, making me super easy to answer super fast. Now, the benefits of variability are mentioned by Kirscher et al., and this makes sense, since variability introduces an element of ‘decision making’ to answer each question type. Slows down learners, but greater learning takes place. But, I thinking that this needs to come after a period of the easier blocked practice drills. So now after three terms of the usual negative numbers, perhaps I start to throw in sheets which mix up all the problem types.
    It doesn’t make sense for me to introduce more errors and more difficult tasks earlier on; if anything that would seem incongruous with the aim of minimising cog load.
    So, I’m at a loss – these concepts are, for me, unreconciled.

    • David Didau February 17, 2014 at 5:55 pm - Reply

      Hi Kris
      You’re right to question this stuff – it’s certainly not straightforward to wrap your head around. As far as I understand it, the problem seems to be that there are two apparently competing theories on how memory works: there’s the Willingham model of working vs long term memory and Bjork’s model of retrieval vs storage strength. Incidentally, I’ve asked both Willingham and Bjork to comment on each others’ work but so far no response. The bit that might seem to unify these theories is the role of forgetting. In the Willingham model forgetting seems to occur because items haven’t been transferred from working to long term memory and we then experience cognitive overload. In the Bjork model, forgetting occurs either because an item is insufficiently well stored (long term memory?) or we are unable to retrieve it (working memory?)
      The reason why difficulties at the point of acquisition might be an effective way to transfer information from working to long term memory is due to ‘retrieval induced forgetting: the more often you attempt to retrieve an item from memory, the harder it is to ‘store’ it in long term memory. This makes sense if you think about the experience of repeating a phone number until we write it down and them promptly forget it. If we want to learn (ie. store in long term memory) something, we seem to do better if we allow ourselves to forget in the short term, and then restudy (or even better, test) the information after a spaced period. Is that any clearer?
      Thanks, David

      • Kris Boulton February 19, 2014 at 8:47 am - Reply

        Are they competing theories? I haven’t been looking at it in those terms. I’ve seen Bjork’s as being more a refinement of what’s happening in LTM. With the WM/LTM model I think of it as what’s required for kids to ‘get it’, or otherwise be able to process it in the moment, into LTM, while Bjork’s model goes on to explain what will effect the ability to recall memories from LTM much later.
        Re: retrieval induced forgetting, if I recall, that relates to how retrieving one memory can lead to the forgetting of another, as opposed to the forgetting of the memory being retrieved.
        It doesn’t seem correct to say that ‘the more often we retrieve a memory, the harder it is to store;’ I’ve interpreted that as being more about the spacing between retrieval events. In the case of the phone number, we keep thinking about it over a very short space of time, and thus we forget after a short space of time – akin to cramming for exams. If we did the same thing, but then continued to attempt to retrieve the phone number across a correctly structured number of time intervals, then it may come to be that we recall it perfectly in future (e.g my house phone number from when I was 5).
        So I see the ‘desirable difficulties’ such as variability and interleaving as being useful since they mean more work has to take place in the act of recall, thus building storage strength, but there first has to be *something* stored to be retrieved! In other words, it would seem to me that at the point of acquisition, or initial introduction, we need to make it as easy as possible, and then ramp up difficulty later.

        • David Didau February 19, 2014 at 9:08 am - Reply

          Honestly, I don’t know the extent to which they might be ‘competing’ – I need someone on the inside to tell me. But, Like you, I’ve tried to see them as complimentary.
          You’re right about RIF, but there’s certainly a phenomenon of massed retrieval practice leading to poor storage, hence forgetting. And, yes, you’re right about the phone no example – if you space retrieval, storage strength will be increased: I too can remember phone numbers from my youth.
          So, are you saying you think Bjork is wrong when he says that difficulties during the ‘acquisition phase’ lead to better retention and transfer, or are you just saying that it’s deeply counter-intuitive and you don’t understand it?

          • Kris Boulton February 19, 2014 at 9:26 am

            I’m not sure…
            I completely accept the notion of the ‘desirable difficulties’ mentioned over time, and can see how they would lead to increases in storage strength. But think of it this way:
            – The testing effect improves storage strength
            – I test kids weekly
            – Some of them don’t improve at all
            – Why not?
            – Because they didn’t understand what to do in the first place, and therefore there is nothing for them to retrieve!
            Maybe it makes sense in controlled conditions where all you’re being asked to recall are lists of words, but if what you’re being asked to recall is a complex multi-step mathematical algorithm, or a mathematical conceptualisation, you surely first need to have ‘got your head round that,’ transferred it to LTM as Willingham might say, before you can go on to benefit from activities that ask you to retrieve it from memory, no?

          • David Didau February 19, 2014 at 9:35 am

            I don’t know.
            I certainly take your point about lab results vs classroom reality – not everything can be neatly transferred. For instance, lab studies say rote learning is the most effective way to memorise facts, but it doesn’t work in the classroom because of problems with motivation.
            But, the body of research on performance vs learning is considerable. I’m wading my way through acres of studies which I’m struggling to get my head round. The difference between studies in the motor and verbal domains are important, and I’m trying to concentrate on the verbal domain as more applicable to most classroom practice.
            But, if you read my follow up post it does seem that what we think of as intuitively ‘right’ is insufficient to describe what’s actually going on.

          • Venassa Naidoo February 5, 2015 at 10:47 pm

            That’s the best definition .. I’m sending it to my whole department and the deputy head!!! Groovy bananas!!!

  36. […] We think about planning and evaluating individual, ideally ‘outstanding’ lessons. This pursuit of the ‘outstanding lesson’ is a chimera, spawning innumerable INSETs and entire book […]

  37. […] if we stopped making the same mistakes? The Cult of Outstanding™: the problem with ‘outstanding’ lessons The problem with progress Part 2: Designing a curriculum for […]

  38. […] Outstanding lessons are a good thing […]

  39. […] I’d want to make clear at the outset of this post that I no longer believe there is such a thing as an ‘outstanding’ lesson and would like to refer you to this post. […]

  40. […] The Cult of Outstanding™: the problem with ‘outstanding’ lessons A tale of two lessons: further thoughts on the Cult of Outstanding An inconvenient truth? A surplus model of school improvement  […]

  41. […] Deliberately difficult – why it’s better to make learning harder Everything we’ve been told about teaching is wrong and what to do about it The Cult of Outstanding: the problem with ‘outstanding’ lessons […]

  42. […] The Cult of Outstanding Everything we’ve been told about teaching is wrong and what to do about it! Testing & assessment: have we been doing the right things for the wrong reasons? […]

  43. Tony Roe May 10, 2014 at 9:58 pm - Reply

    Reading this makes me feel braver about my idea for next year of not grading individual lessons. For me an outstanding teacher gets great results, builds great relationships, contributes above and beyond to the department, develops them selves and others, is a fantastic role model and consistently upholds the ethos of the school. None of these factors relate to progress in a lesson but all of them relate to what my gut says a great teacher should be.

  44. […] with me? Good. Now hear comes the kicker. In the comments to my Cult of Outstanding post, Kris Boulton raises the problem that introducing desirable difficulties at the point of acquisition appears […]

  45. […] And just in case you’re interested and because I can never resist a little bit of self-promotion, my most popular post this year is The Cult of Outstanding. […]

  46. […] Outstanding lessons are a good thing […]

  47. […] Mandarin Centre room I was in last year to launch an assault on what I’ve taken to calling the Cult of Outstanding. If you’re interested, my slides are […]

  48. […] The Cult of Outstanding™: the problem with ‘outstanding’ lessons 16th January 2014 – 10, 584 […]

  49. […] The Cult of Outstanding: the problem with ‘outstanding lessons’ […]

  50. […] The Cult of Outstanding™: the problem with ‘outstanding’ lessons (January 2014) […]

  51. barefoottutor February 4, 2015 at 11:54 am - Reply

    I’ve been at my current school for 9 years, a teacher for 22, and am leaving at the end of the summer term for a job in an international school – that’s if my current rage and despondency don’t mean I send an email to the acting Head tomorrow along the lines of ‘F*** Y**!’ I’m leaving because for the past two years my ‘outstanding’ comprehensive school has been anticipating an Ofsted inspection, with all of the associated observations, work scrutiny, ‘intervention’ strategies, attempts at standardizing teaching practice etc etc. It’s also a member of the PiXL group – need I say more? I’ve long been disillusioned with the ‘cult of Outstanding’ and the way in which this has acted divisively in my department. I have been graded ‘Outstanding’ in the past (more often ‘good’) but only I suspect, as a means of retaining me, not because the lessons themselves ticked all of the required boxes. Last year I sent a long email to the area NUT rep outlining my views on the fiasco that teaching in the UK has become. Last summer I turned down a retention point from the Head because I don’t like feeling ‘bribed’ and wanted the freedom to leave when I wanted. I resigned at October half term (having secured a temporary post elsewhere up to July) but was then asked if I would stay on because they ‘were desperate’. I foolishly acquiesced – I really like the students I teach. Now, despite my GCSE English Language and Literature results having been the best in the department for the last three years in a row, my latest two lesson observations, with two GCSE English classes, have been graded ‘requires improvement.’ Even the NQT in my department was graded ‘good’. For the second observation, I used your book to plan the lesson. When I informed the Acting Head and Deputy Head of this, they then stated that the lesson had been ‘outstanding on paper but not in execution.’ For some reason, everyone in my department seems to know that I’ve been given these grades, even though I haven’t told anyone. I can’t wait to get out.

    • David Didau February 4, 2015 at 6:39 pm - Reply

      If my employment was in jeopardy based on something proven to be as inaccuate and invalid as graded lesson observation I would sue. I mean this in all seriousness. If you’d like to talk this over email me:

  52. Teaching and learning | Pearltrees February 4, 2015 at 8:37 pm - Reply

    […] The Cult of Outstanding™: the problem with ‘outstanding’ lessons. First of all I need to come clean. […]

  53. Core Sites | Pearltrees February 6, 2015 at 8:10 am - Reply

    […] The Cult of Outstanding™: the problem with ‘outstanding’ lessons. First of all I need to come clean. […]

  54. […] between learning and performance and introduction of desirable difficulties has been enough to persuade once trenchant supporters of the high-pace, activity laden ‘Outstanding’ lesson that this style is no […]

  55. Alison (alisont) | Pearltrees August 22, 2015 at 6:29 pm - Reply

    […] Education Trust. The Cult of Outstanding™: the problem with ‘outstanding’ lessons. First of all I need to come clean. Up until pretty recently I was a fully paid up member of the […]

  56. […] However, for a while I’ve also been mulling on the research-backed principle of making tasks deliberately difficult to maximise learning. As Didau later writes, this principle seems to contradict the principle of minimizing cognitive load. How might we ‘square the circle’? It’s definitely worth reading the comment exchange between Kris and David here. […]

  57. Learn it for homework | Solve My Maths February 18, 2016 at 2:03 pm - Reply

    […] The Cult of Outstanding […]

  58. Lee Humphreys June 30, 2016 at 12:25 pm - Reply

    My current school has started to make great strides with tailored CPD and a more modern approach to what outstanding is. We have had Chris Moyse in twice now and his ideas are so refreshing. What concerns me is that, against a backdrop of evidence and sound reasoning, these ideas are not really forming part of any aspect of teacher training. We need the future NQTs to understand how the brain works, how feedback is essential and to be aware that the ‘tick-sheet’ model of observation and/or book review is exactly that – a list of pre-determined, inflexible statements which an observer tries to correlate to.

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