Saturday, 12 December 2015

Chimera Measurements: will somebody please tell me what a good or outstanding in teaching is today?

First they focused on the lesson observations

and I shouted out because the focus was on showing progress at all times in a lesson.

Then, they focused on marking in books

and I screamed because the expectations from teachers was to triple mark everything.

Next, they focused on pupil opinion

and I swore at them because I felt the need to.

We have a problem with monitoring teaching. I am realistic and I know that we should have something in place to check the quality of teaching our students have. I am a parent and I want to know my children are getting a good education. I don’t want my children to be bored and put off learning for life. However, I am concerned, gravely concerned, about where things are going. We seem to be on this endless quest to judge learning in a classroom and to find one stick to measure everything on. In the future, it looks like the temperature in a lesson could be measured as it has been proven that good quality learning occurs in a room with a temperature of thirty-two degree. Above and below that temperature and the learning is awful. Sack the teacher now.
Learning and teaching is complex. The proof is usually in the pudding: the results. How teachers get to the good results vary? Some do it well. Some might even cheat to get there. Ideally, we all want good or great results. We all want to know how to get to those good results and we want to know that those who get the good results gained them fairly and humanely. The results are only one part of the learning process and that’s why there is still a need to visit classrooms.
I didn’t like it when Ofsted announced they were not going to grade lessons and the reason for this was simple: what is going to replace it? There needs to be a judgement somewhere, even if it is simplified to pass or fail, but somewhere, you need a stick to measure against. I have seen over a short space of time the focus move from teacher to progress, to students concentrating in a lesson, to work in a book, to marking and to student voice in five years. Assessing teaching and learning has become a Chimera. The head is your results. The body is your marking. The feet are your neatness of books and the student’s response to your marking. But, this is the sad bit, there will be a different Chimera next week, month, term, year, political term, decade.  
Adjusting to this Chimera of judgement is problematic. I have known and know of fantastic teachers who can dazzle in a lesson observation. I have known and know excellent brilliant detailed markers who can dazzle in a books scrutiny. I have known and know of superb teachers who foster great relationships with their students who can dazzle in a student interview. The view of greatness is ever changing. If what is 'good' is hard to define, then so too is getting there. If the system focuses too much on one aspect, then the teacher would place more emphasis on that aspect.  I see nationally endless teachers, head teachers, middle-leaders feeling insecure because the system is insecure. It spreads and seeps into all we do. We all want improvement, but first we must know where it is we want to aim to. If the top of the mountain is covered in clouds, then how are we going to get there.
Teaching is a combination of what the teacher does, the marking, how the student responds and the student’s attitude. Ofsted should be looking at all these areas and triangulating a judgement. This is, what I think, most Ofsted teams do. I’d be quite happy if this is what happens. A healthy opinion is formed on the basis of several things. The problem is there is no tick list for this. Like medicine, there is isn’t a tick list for treating a patient. Each one is different. But, one thing is clear, you can easily judge the wrong way to treat a patient for an illness. Therefore, we know what a bad lesson looks and feels like (guilty, your honour). What if Ofsted instead of pedalling this golden ticket of an outstanding school and lesson actually said what makes a bad school / lesson? What if Ofsted said complex assessment policies were stopping good quality teaching? What if Ofsted said that nobody checking uniform was a sign?  
Mastery seems to the ‘in thing’ at the moment.  We have this idea that the best work should be visible in lessons and students should copy / learn from it. Ofsted seem to have had this idea at its core for a while now. We had have this idea of ‘best practice’.  But it works both ways. An idea of the worst work should be known too. Recently, Ofsted produced a document about KS3 and commented on it as being the ‘wasted years’. I think it was very helpful. It said: don’t do this; think about this; and definitely do this. It was more use to me than any ‘good practice’ document I have seen. It focused on the worst things first and then looked at solutions. It models the way exam boards mark. They start at the bottom and then work their way up through the mark scheme. I feel, in the past, the model for lesson observations and school judgements have been on the top down basis. It can’t possibly be outstanding because…
I have been observed and I know that I have been judged on the basis of the top down method.  You usually get the following phrase: ‘It would have been outstanding, but you didn’t do this.’ One thing stands between you and greatness. Doh! If people are insecure about what ‘outstanding’ is, then they are more likely to select things for improvement just to prove they know what ‘outstanding’ is to other people. I suspect this has happened to many people. I am not bitter…much. What if we start at the bottom? What if we started with the idea of working from the bottom? Does this lesson have the basics of an acceptable lesson?
How do I teach students to write? I start with the basics and then when students have mastered the basics, then I get them to look at subtle and more complex things. Ofsted and its top down approach doesn’t focus, for me, on the basics. Wouldn’t it be better if Ofsted focused on the basics in all schools than looking at this ‘outstanding’ title? All teachers want to teach and improve. I have yet to meet one person in teaching that doesn’t. The obsession partly caused by Ofsted and partly cause by SLTs on the ‘outstanding’ lesson has meant that the basics have been forgotten. Worryingly, the focus on the one golden nugget that will push a lesson to be ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ has meant we have lost sight. Take progress, for example. That warped everybody’s view of lessons. Tasks were planned around showing progress. Books were marked to evidence progress.  It influenced our teaching and learning. If instead we focused on the basics, such as students do not talk when the teacher is giving instructions.
If we had a clear idea of the basics for lesson planning, teaching and marking we will have a consistent education system. Sadly, we don’t have this basic model. So, how can we have a clue about what outstanding is when we don’t even have an idea of what the basics are? We need leadership. We need to be told. We need a point on the stick to be measured against because, if we get the basics sorted out, then we can truly sort out what is good and what is outstanding. If the basics were clear then any teacher could go into a classroom and see if the lesson fits the expectations of a lesson. However, when the basics are in place, you need a subject specialist what makes a good or outstanding lesson. This has, in my opinion, always been the flaw with the education system: A science teacher, for example, will judge my lesson on metaphors and they will tell me how I can teach metaphors better to students. It is a huge flaw in the system. I can’t tell a Maths teacher how to make their lesson outstanding. I might, as an English teacher, be able to tell an English teacher, but I couldn’t really do it for another subject.
I am in favour for the return of lesson observations, but I want it adapted and made relevant to teaching. The alternatives are turning out to be far worse and more demoralising to the profession. We have had a problem with how observations were used in the past. If we followed by these rules, I think we would certainly have a greater level of autonomy and clarity, and dare I say it, quality:
  • Judge lessons for a set number of basic qualities
  • Judge learning on several factors and not one overriding aspect
  • Teachers of a subject can only deem a lesson good or outstanding
  • Assert that SLTs should only judge for the basics and subject specialists should judge for the good and outstanding aspects.
Just call me Doctor Faustus - I have made a pact with the Devil, or Ofsted. We need to keep Ofsted. We can’t let it go and disappear. We should question it and make it accountable, but we should never let it go. Why? The alternative is much worse. A system based on data and only data. That’s why we need it and we need to keep it. We need an opportunity to show inspectors what is going on and the real story. The problem with judgements based on a number is that we can never tell the true story.     

Thanks for reading,



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