A brave new world for Ofsted? A response to SMW’s Views on ‘Preferred Teaching Styles’

Below is a blog entry posted by @HelenMyers last Saturday in which she includes a letter that reportedly Sir Michael Wilshaw sent to Ofsted inspectors and which she says she was very encouraged by. Helen has since tweeted that the authenticity of the letter has been confirmed by Ofsted. So, without further ado, let’s move onto the letter itself and my response. So as not to confuse my thoughts and words with SMW’s (easily done, I know!), I’ve written mine in navy blue at the end of the letter.


Saturday, 25 January 2014

OFSTED Message from HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw

Message from HMCI – Sir Michael Wilshaw

Over the last 18 months, I have emphasised in a number of speeches that Ofsted is not prescriptive about the way that teaching is delivered and does not recommend a suite of preferred teaching styles. Inspectors should only be concerned with the impact that teaching has on children’s learning, progress and outcomes. Our new guidance on the inspection of teaching in schools reinforces this. I quote:

‘Inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style. Moreover, they must not inspect or report in a way that is not stipulated in the framework, handbook or guidance. For example, they should not criticise teacher talk for being overlong or bemoan a lack of opportunity for different activities in lessons unless there is unequivocal evidence that this is slowing learning over time.

It is unrealistic, too, for inspectors to necessarily expect that all work in all lessons is always matched to the specific needs of each individual. 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.’

Nevertheless, I still see inspection reports, occasionally from HMI, which ignore this and earlier guidance and, irritatingly, give the impression that we are still telling teachers how to teach. Let me give you a few examples from recent reports I have just read:

• ‘Teaching will improve if more time is given to independent learning’
• ‘Insufficient time was given to collaborative learning’
• ‘Students are not given sufficient opportunity to support their classmates in their learning’
• ‘Pupils are not sufficiently engaged in their own learning’
• ‘Teaching requires improvement because pupils do not get enough opportunities to work alone or in groups’
• ‘Weak teaching is characterised by teachers talking too much.’

It is quite acceptable for a teacher to talk a lot as long as the children are attentive, interested, learning and making progress. If not, it is quite legitimate for inspectors to say that poor planning and lesson structure meant that children lost focus and learnt very little.

There is so much more that could be said about teaching without infringing the professional judgement of teachers to decide the most appropriate style of teaching to get the best out of their students. For example:

• Do lessons start promptly?
• Are children focused and attentive because the teaching is stimulating?
• Is the pace of the lesson good because the teacher is proactive and dynamic in the classroom?
• Is homework regularly given?
• Is literacy a key component of lessons across the curriculum?
• Do teachers use display and technology to support teaching?
• Are low expectations resulting in worksheets being used rather than textbooks?
• Are the most able children provided with work which stretches them and allows them to fulfil their true potential?
• Are children expected to take books home to do their homework and return them the following day?
• Does marking give a clear indication of what the children have to do to improve and are clear targets being set?
• Is the structure of the lesson promoting good learning and are children given sufficient time to practise and reinforce what is being taught?
• Do teachers have sufficient expertise to be able to impart to students the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed?
• Does the school have a robust professional development programme which is improving the quality of teaching by disseminating good practice across the school or college?
• Are teaching assistants supporting teaching effectively or are they simply ‘floating about’?

In summary, inspectors should report on the outcomes of teaching rather than its style. So please, please, please think carefully before criticising a lesson because it doesn’t conform to a particular view of how children should be taught.

In saying all this, I recognise that a report-writing orthodoxy has grown up over the years which owes as much to the formulaic approach of the national strategies as to any guidance that Ofsted has given inspectors. We must continue to break free of this and encourage inspectors to use their freedom to report in language that has meaning and relevance to the institutions we inspect and the parents and students who read our reports.

Only by doing this can we hope to use inspection to raise standards.

My Response
Let me start by saying that I agree wholeheartedly with SMW’s comment that Ofsted (nor indeed any other inspectorate or government agency involved in evaluating educational provision) should not be seen to prescribe ‘a suite of preferred teaching styles’. As the Chief Inspector reminds us, ‘Inspectors should only be concerned with the impact that teaching has on children’s learning, progress and outcomes’. How we ascertain that ‘impact’ is a matter for another discussion, but for now, SMW should be commended on making such a forceful statement and providing such clear examples (e.g. teacher talk time, independent learning) to illustrate his position.
As many experienced teachers would no doubt acknowledge, like fashion trends, different teaching methods and approaches come and go, and even come back into fashion again in their career. Thus, to espouse the virtues of the current methodological flavour of the month is a precarious position to adopt and one that is inevitably bound to have a limited shelf life, not to mention the floating sands of “evidence” on which ‘new pedagogies’ have traditionally been based . There is a distinct lack of convincing research evidence that points to a “right” way to teach. On the contrary, much of the research that has been undertaken across different disciplines/subject areas, has invariably concluded that no one method or style of teaching is significantly more successful than others, and that it is the quality of exposure to the subject matter that matters most. So, in that sense, SMW is right to call for an end to some of the highly subjective judgements made by inspectors in their reports ‘because it doesn’t conform to a particular view of how children should be taught’.

I suspect this is a position that many working in schools, colleges and academies would welcome as it sends a clear message to all that from now on inspectors will be scrutinised in the way in which they evaluate the quality of the teaching and learning experience. One of the significant repercussions of such a shift in policy is that, at least in theory, institutions will no longer be expected to conform and comply with models of normalised practice. Inspectors will be expected to base their judgements on the quality of teaching and learning they witness on a case by case basis and in so doing consider a range of contextual factors that impact on the learning experience. If this ‘theory’ is to come to fruition in practice, then it could mark a significant turning point for the inspection process. However, in order for this to happen, there are two key elements that need to be considered and embedded into the process and, unforturnately, I think this is where there’s a missing link in SMW’s letter.
Firstly, if Ofsted inspectors are to make informed judgements as to the effectiveness of particular teaching methods/approaches/styles that they observe in practice during inspections, then they must engage in substantive professional dialogue with practitioners, students and senior staff. In order to ensure robust data triangulation and to ward against their own personal biases influencing their interpretation of what they see, then they will need to ascertain the rationale for these chosen methods and evaluate their effectiveness by asking the very people involved in the heart of the process. Inevitably this will make the inspection process more time consuming, but not to do so risks perpetuating allegations of bias and subjectivity in their judgements and falling back into the very trap that SMW seems so eager to step out of.
Secondly, and finally, many forms of assessment or evaluation are beset with issues surrounding validity and reliability. As Gipps (1994) once said, ‘assessment is not an exact science and we must stop presenting it as such’ (1994: 167). But that should not stop us from at least wanting to try to improve it, particularly, as is the case in inspections, when the stakes are so high for those being inspected. It cannot be assumed, for example, that there is a shared understanding among inspectors as to the meaning and interpretation of value-laden terms such as ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’. These terms, together with the assessment criteria that underpin them, need to be carefully defined when used and attempts made to establish a collective understanding. But I see no discussion about this in Ofsted circles and this is where there is a second missing link in SMW’s letter. There is no reference to assessment criteria and the need to open a debate regarding what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘effective’ teaching or even how we might approach the thorny issue of standardisation.  Without dealing with such issues, we inevitably come full circle to relying on the subjective interpretations of inspectors, with the result that we’re two steps forward and one step back.

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I work as a Reader in Education at Birmingham City University. Prior to this I was the co-founder of the Centre for Research and Development in Lifelong Education (CRADLE) and a principal lecturer in post-compulsory education at the University of Wolverhampton. I have worked as a teacher, teacher educator, head of department and educational researcher for over 20 years in colleges, schools and universities in England, Mexico and Spain. Much of my work and research is rooted in the field of teacher education, particularly exploring the relationship between education policy and the continuous professional development of teachers. I am well known for my work on classroom observation and am regarded as one of the first educational researchers in the UK to investigate and critique the practice of graded lesson observations. I am also the author of the 'Classroom Observation: A Guide to the Effective Observation of Teaching and Learning' (Abingdon: Routledge 2014). Qualifications: PhD in Education (University of Warwick); MA in Applied Linguistics & ELT (King's College London); PGCE in Spanish & ESL (UCE Birmingham), RSA DipTEFLA (King's College London & British Council Mexico City); BA (Hons) in French & Spanish (University of Southampton)

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