Outstanding or Excellent?

So I did some CPD.

As part of an INSET day, we watched a video of a lesson in cross-curricular groups. We used Ofsted criteria to judge it and then discussed our overall findings. Back in curriculum groups we then discussed common features and next steps as a department.

Interesting or Frustrating?

It was interesting to see other lessons and hear a range of other viewpoints. The lesson we watched was judged as ‘Good’ despite it being very teacher-led, a lack of pace and what I would describe as a very subdued atmosphere. Maybe the parts where students were excited and engaged, discussing and interacting rather than passively listening, had all been cut out. In summary, it felt like the teacher had treated Ofsted criteria as a tick-list, making sure each thing had been addressed but perhaps at the expense of any enjoyment or coherence.

It was frustrating for two reasons. Firstly, some of the items included in the observation proforma (which I’m trying to find a link to, as it doesn’t appear to be an ‘official’ one) were dismissed by colleagues even though I know there’s evidence to support their use. They also pointed out, rightly in my opinion, that some of the features would take an unrealistic amount of time to include on a regular basis.

Secondly, I think many schools would benefit from doing more peer and paired observations. I know I’d like to see how my colleagues approach particular topics, or how they manage individual issues or students. It would be interesting to observe some or all of a lesson then swap ideas with another colleague who had also watched it, especially if they had a more senior role. As it is, I’ve only really observed PGCE students. Otherwise, my experience is as an observee. If we’re going to learn about lesson observations, let’s actually do some!

Learning or Observing?

We’re looking at a new literacy strategy in my current setting which will involve students having a specific target, assigned by their English teachers from a list of twelve. Each subject will have students do a piece of work where their success against this target will be measured. (I should add that I think this is a great idea, despite the added workload, which as usual SMT may not fully appreciate.)

The problem is that students will be told to write their literacy target across the top of the page and consider it while writing. Surely this would mean a lot more if they were expected to aim to meet their target whether or not it was the specific six-monthly assessment piece? Isn’t this a rather artificial situation?

So as teachers do we include these features because we think they are important for our students’ learning, or because we think they’ll be noticed when we’re observed? If they matter, based on evidence and experience, then we should include them for our students’ benefit. If they’re only for the inspector, then we should exclude them – also for our students’ benefit. There isn’t enough time for the things which matter, let alone optional extras.

Outstanding or Excellent?

If the criteria I was given is typical, I can see that it would be very easy to use this as a shopping list of aspects to include in each hour lesson. This in turn could make for a very ‘bitty’ experience, with the flow of a good lesson interrupted while students assess their progress in endless mini-plenaries. I can certainly understand the temptation, but to include so many things in the time means it might tick the Outstanding boxes, but not be an Excellent lesson. Those factors are the results, not the causes. The best parallel I can think of is Body-Mass Index.

BMI is a fairly crude health measure which is currently on the GCSE Science specification. It’s a single number for a person, calculated by dividing their mass in kilograms by their height in metres squared. There are agreed (but disputed) ranges for under, normal and over weight. My BMI says I’m overweight, for what it’s worth.

The thing is that a person’s BMI in isolation doesn’t tell you much. It’s like heart rate or most other medical measurements. The context matters a lot, and the BMI is the result of many factors, not all of which are easy to change. It might be a warning sign, but it isn’t an instruction for improvement. Doctors don’t assume everyone in a particular range needs the same advice or treatment, because they understand it’s a bit more complicated than that.

There’s some great arguments around on this topic; about what Ofsted want and how to give it to them. For his typical measured and balanced approach, see this post from @OldAndrewUK. The reality is probably that different inspectors or observers would give different judgments based on their own preferences – or dare we say bias? And when being graded as ‘Requires Improvement’ will have inevitable consequences, for an individual or a department, means a lot of pressure to play it safe with the criteria.

I found The Perfect (Ofsted) English Lesson by David Didau (aka @learningspy) to be an interesting read, with many ideas that could be applied to Science. In fact, I still haven’t blogged my take on it. Bad @teachingofsci, no biscuit. But the idea of being observed by a member of SMT with the book in hand, telling me I’ve missed out the idea on page 42, fills me with terror. I want to be a better teacher, like all of us. But saying I want my students to learn, enjoy and achieve isn’t the same as saying I want to be Outstanding according to a stranger with a clipboard.

Performance or Practice?

In my view, the aim of teachers should be to look at the criteria together. This will probably be at different levels. As departments we can probably agree at least some of the ways in which excellent teaching will be demonstrated, but getting a high observation grade is a consequence of that primary aim, not the end in itself.

None of us can be Outstanding teachers all of the time, but neither should we hope to pull off one great lesson to get the grade when we’re being observed. This should be a general expectation, not a one-off. Instead, individually or in groups we need to look through the criteria and decide what our own targets should be.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

Will Durant, paraphrasing Aristotle

Where possible, let’s share the good ideas, observe each other with constructive feedback and get better at what we do, every day. Maybe the best approach would be to choose one aspect per half-term and learn how to build it in, so more and more of the positive features – and many of the Ofsted criteria do recognize them – are included as a matter of course. That’s a department or a whole-school approach that will really pay off where it matters – in our classrooms, not just on an Ofsted report.



3 thoughts on “Outstanding or Excellent?”

  1. I’m finding this book helpful: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/effective-supervision-robert-j-marzano/1100208563?cm_mmc=googlepla-_-textbook_ebook_26to75_pt99-_-q000000633-_-9781416613183&cm_mmca2=pla&ean=9781416611554&isbn=9781416613183&r=1

    What I like most is the checklist of behaviours and strategies I observe when I walk through a classroom. While observations will always be subjective to a point, the checklists help me better describe what I see and start a dialogue with the teacher about that.

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