Ofsted's impoverished view of teaching

posted 26 Dec 2013, 04:52 by Unknown user   [ updated 2 Jan 2014, 02:01 ]
The latest guidance from Ofsted should have me feeling happy. It's official: Ofsted does not favour any one particular teaching style. As HMI David Brown said to me on twitter: "Ofsted does not have a preferred (generic) style - outcomes matter!" Anything goes then (including student passivity and dependence on the teacher), "unless there is unequivocal evidence that [teaching] is slowing learning over time" (paragraph 64 of the new subsidiary inspection guidance). Written to placate those teachers who argue that 'teacher talk' is the main mechanism for learning, the guidance has been generally welcomed on social media. I, as an inquiry teacher, should be equally pleased. No longer do I have to force inquiry into a school's prescribed lesson plan format; no longer do I have to feel obliged to set objectives at the start of a lesson observation when they would be better left to be co-constructed with students after a longer exploration phase. There is much to like. So, why do I feel uneasy?
   
There are two reasons. The first relates to spending much of my teaching career to date involved in formal research. Surely after decades of research on how students learn, Ofsted can say more than "teach as you want as long as children learn"? Apparently not. The HMI in the same twitter discussion said that separate subject guidance on 'outstanding' teaching is arrived at by inspectors carrying out observations and having discussions with teachers as to what works well in maths teaching. This is not valid and reliable peer-reviewed research evidence from longitudinal studies.
   
However, this is how Ofsted seem to come to all their conclusions. Earlier this year I wrote to Sir Michael Wilshaw to request the provenance of new research evidence on mixed ability teaching mentioned in an Ofsted report. Ofsted replied that the evidence was school-based from the monitoring carried out by school leaders. So, anecdotal and unverified evidence drives official policy on the best way to teach. As anecdotal evidence, by its very nature, can vary from case to
case, we have an inspection body that listens to whichever anecdote is voiced most loudly or fits best into a preconceived idea. 
   
My second concern relates to Ofsted's idea of learning. Whereas there is no generic teaching style, it seems that there is a generic entity called 'learning'. As long as learning does not slow over time, teach as you want. Admittedly, the outcomes of learning are defined in the maths subject-specific guidance (including reflective and independent problem-solvers and investigators), but there does not seem to be any recognition that different styles of teaching lead to different forms of learning. 
    
Think back to the National Numeracy Strategy. The three-part objective-driven lesson gave rise to students digesting knowledge in discrete bite-sized chunks. This form of disconnected learning was rightly criticised in Made to Measure - Ofsted's 2012 report on maths teaching. Or take a textbook lesson in which students practice a procedure after the teacher has modelled an example. At its worst, the student does not learn about any underlying concept. Or again, look at the mastery concrete-pictorial-abstract schema in which students learn how to represent a concrete situation before attempting to express it in abstract form. Or inquiry classrooms in which students learn how to incorporate concepts into a process that they also learn to lead. There are a multitude of teaching models that all give rise to different forms of learning. Teaching as you want will not lead to the same 'learning'.
   
For all its heralding of academic standards and intellectual rigour, Ofsted's latest guidance suggests that it does not hold itself to account at the same level. By failing to engage with research and by adopting a crude concept of learning, Ofsted have let us see its impoverished and anti-academic values.