It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. . .

Since writing last week about the problems with the sorts of lessons which typically get judged as outstanding, I thought it might be helpful to illustrate further what I mean by describing two lessons* I observed last year.

Lesson 1 – Year 7 

This was one of the most impressive lessons I’ve ever seen in terms of how slickly organised it was. In the space of 50 minutes the students took part in a bewildering array of activities; they had a starter in which they were asked to analyse a text a describe, using keywords, the techniques that had been used. They then had to get out the piece of work they have been working on for the past few lessons and set themselves a goal for the lesson. They then had to complete their chosen goal, take part in a mini-plenary assessing their progress and giving advice to other students on their table for the next lesson. The fact that all this was possible is a testament to the fact that the pupils had obviously been thoroughly drilled in the expectations of how to behave. There wasn’t a second of wasted time; the students work independently for the vast majority of the lesson and the teacher’s input was minimal as they wandered the class giving brief suggestions here and there. If a pupil asked for help, they would be questioned on how they might work out the answer for themselves without recourse to the teacher – they were clearly well used to this and knew how to go about solving the problems they encountered. The pupils’ engagement and behaviour for learning were exemplary It all looked amazing.

But was it? Well on the face of it, the lesson was incredibly well planned, was clearly a typical example and the pupils were enthusiastic about their experience. Their performance in the lesson was tip-top. But were they learning? Well frankly, I disappointed by the quality of their writing. Oh well, I thought, that’s just because they’re in Year 7. I stamped on these nagging doubts and both me and the other observer were more than happy to chalk the lesson up as outstanding.

Lesson 2 – Year 10 

This lesson was a shambles. For a start, the objective was overly complicated and confusing with most pupils unable to explain what they should be doing. There was no differentiation – everything was pitched right at the top with little support for those that might struggle. While some students were clearly enjoying the challenge, others were distracted and ‘off-task’ for extended periods. In one activity, pupils read a very complex text and then had to answer a number of fiendishly difficult comprehension questions that required all sorts of background knowledge which many of them didn’t have. Chaos ensued. The teacher allowed the class to struggle and then intervened to didactically explain, at some length, what they should have been doing. This too was clearly a typical lesson and many of the pupils complained that they often ‘didn’t get it’ and that Miss didn’t explain things clearly enough for them to make clear progress. These were kids that knew what to expect and were vocal about demanding it. And as an observer I couldn’t help but agree – it was hard to see that any but a few very able pupils had made any progress. Again, both me and the other observer were unanimous: inadequate.

There’s no question that the pupils in Lesson 1 were happier, performing better, more engaged and better behaved. The weird thing was that the teacher of Lesson 2’s exam results were much higher. And consistently higher – over the previous 5 years they had outperformed every other member of the department by a fairly significant margin. She is quirky, fiercely intelligent, remarkably knowledgeable about her subject and constitutionally incapable of turning out a ‘good’ lesson. The exam results for the teacher of Lesson 1 weren’t awful, but neither were they what you would expect. Could this be an example of short term performance gains actually getting in the way of long term retention and transfer?

Once in an exam analysis meeting a member of SLT who taught in a particular department said that the reasons the exam results of that department were so poor was because of their outstanding teaching. They concentrated on independent learning and refused to ‘spoon feed’ and obviously this meant kids did less well in the test. I kid you not – that really happened.

Now, of course, none of this constitutes evidence, and I’m certainly not proposing a free for all where we all do whatever the hell we please and damn the consequences. But it does raise some interesting questions about what we value. Is the ability to deliver outstanding lessons more important than getting great results? Who would we be more likely to promote, or put on capability? Which of these teachers is more likely to lead a school, and what are they likely to train their staff to do?

It’s clear to me that we tend to value what we’re good at and most schools are led by teachers who can teach ‘outstanding’ lessons. Teachers who teach lesson like Lesson 1 get promoted. They becomes ASTs, and Assistant Heads in charge of Teaching & Learning and train others how to do what they do.

And it’s equally clear that we tend to be suspicious of what we don’t understand and likely to dismiss it as dangerous and aberrant. Teachers who teach lesson like Lesson 2 get put on capability. They are marginalised, ignored and, ultimately, if they fail to put on the required show, forced out.

So, to be absolutely clear, I am not, repeat not advocating ignoring what goes on in classroom and focussing solely on results. All I’m suggesting is that we think a little more and jerk our knees a little less. We understand a hell of a lot less than we think. And maybe now it genuinely is the best of time and worst of times. Belief and incredulity are currently battling it out and while it’s anyone’s guess about whether we’re heading straight to Heaven or the ‘other way’ I’m betting that the east wind is blowing and change is on its way.

* I have changed some details and worked hard to make it impossible to know to which teachers I’m referring. 

Related post

The Cult of Outstanding™