This article was written for SecEd Magazine and was first published in June 2013.
I spend a lot of my time travelling the country talking to school teachers and leaders and the question I am asked more than any other is this: “What is an outstanding lesson?”
My answer, rather disappointingly for my inquisitors, is that there is no “silver bullet”.
Let me explain…
I have taught and observed a lot of lessons over the years and I think I’m pretty good at recognising an outstanding one when I see it. I can wax lyrical for hours about all the outstanding teaching I have seen and about the “spark” that makes some lessons better than others.
Having read the guidance Ofsted provides for its inspectors, I am also confident I know how Ofsted differentiates between an outstanding lesson and, say, a good one.
And yet when I am asked that question – what is outstanding? – I struggle to furnish my inquisitors with an answer of sufficient clarity. Why? Because – to quote Ofsted (in its English subject report published last May) “there are many routes to excellence”.
To prescribe a formula for outstanding lessons is to ignore the fact that what makes one lesson outstanding might not necessarily do the same for another, and what works for one teacher with one class might not work for another teacher and another class.
Speaking at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) last May, the chief inspector of schools Sir Michael Wilshaw was asked the same question. In reply, he said that there is not just one but a multitude of definitions and, as such, we – and he explicitly included Ofsted in this – “should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching”.
The Ofsted framework echoes this view. It cautions that “inspectors must not expect teaching staff to teach in any specific way or follow a prescribed methodology”.
At the London Festival of Education in October 2012, Sir Michael was challenged by a member of the audience to explain what Ofsted is looking for when it inspects schools. He was asked to confirm or deny that, essentially, inspectors are (only) looking for (the answers to) three questions:
- Are all pupils being challenged?
- Are all pupils making progress?
- Are all pupils at least engaged and at best inspired?
Sir Michael was unequivocal in his reply: Yes! He went on to say that inspectors should “simply judge teaching on whether children are engaged, focused, learning, and making progress … and in the best lessons (are) being inspired”.
He was also clear about what he doesn’t want to see: “We don’t want to see lessons that are too crowded, too frenetic, with too many activities designed to impress.”
In an interview with The Telegraph in November, Sir Michael expanded on this. He said that too many teachers were attempting to break lessons into bite-sized chunks instead of allowing pupils time to complete extended tasks. So we know what an outstanding lesson is not; it is not formulaic, it is not frenetic, it is not bite-sized learning with a side order of teacher-talk. But what is it?
As I have already pointed out, in his speech at the London Festival of Education, Sir Michael defined “outstanding” as being when “children enjoyed their lessons, were engaged, were focused, learnt a great deal and made real progress”.
An outstanding lesson, he argued, was “about what works” and he made a plea to his inspectors to apply “pragmatism not ideology in the way (they) judge the quality of teaching”.
I would like to linger awhile on that word “progress” because I know it causes many teachers sleepless nights. I also think there’s a misunderstanding about what “progress” actually means in practice. I have heard some schools dictate that every lesson should be stopped every 10 minutes in order to “check progress”.
This, for me, is a classic example of “weighing the pig”. In other words, stopping pupils’ learning in order to check whether or not those pupils are learning starves them of the opportunity to learn.
And what is progress anyway? To the best of my knowledge, Ofsted only mentions the notion of progress within a single lesson once in its hundreds, nay thousands of pages of advice and guidance.
It refers to pupils making “progress over time” a lot, but this is something that is judged, not solely through lesson observations, but through an analysis of progress data and by talking to pupils and staff.
“Progress” is something that can be demonstrated over time because, given days and weeks, teachers and pupils will have engaged in some form of formative assessment and will know whether or not the pupil has moved closer towards achieving his or her target.
It is not always possible to demonstrate real progress within an hour and even more of a challenge when there are 30 or so pupils to assess. Also, progress can sometimes be the culmination of a number of interconnecting factors. Some lessons might involve pupils reading in silence for an hour or writing an essay in exam conditions. Progress cannot confidently be measured during such a lesson.
It is only when the teacher has had sight of the pupil’s work that they will know if the pupil has made real progress or not.
I know some teachers will shudder at the antiquated idea of silent reading or writing: but remember what Sir Michael said: we need to move away from “bite-sized” learning and provide pupils with the opportunity to engage in extended reading and writing activities.
Being able to read or write for an hour is an important skill for pupils to learn and will also allow for deeper learning. Ofsted also warns its inspectors that “not all aspects of learning will be seen in a single observation”, so, if a lesson spent reading in silence fits within the context of outstanding learning over time, then it is itself outstanding.
“Progress” is something that takes place and is measured over time; “learning” is what needs to take place every lesson – and by “learning” I mean that every pupil knows something at the end of the lesson they didn’t at the start, or that pupils have been accorded the opportunity to apply and therefore secure their prior learning.
If we can’t confidently say that all our pupils have done this then surely our lesson has failed?
So the word “progress” is, I believe, misleading. Instead, the key indicators of an outstanding lesson should be these:
- All pupils are challenged.
- All pupils learn something.
- All pupils are at least engaged and at best inspired.
And how do outstanding teachers do this every lesson? According to Sir Michael, the secret lies in a teacher’s planning, self-reflection, perceptiveness and resilience.
Let’s take a look at each ingredient…
For outstanding teachers, less is definitely more when it comes to planning because detailed planning encourages us to stick rigidly to the plan. Lengthy planning also tends to be done a week or more in advance, perhaps at the weekend, and this is problematic because lesson plans should plan for progress: in other words, the lesson should be planned in order to allow the gaps in pupils’ learning to be filled and those gaps might only become apparent at the end of the previous lesson or once the teacher has marked the work that pupils have completed during the previous lesson.
Assessment, it follows, is itself a form of planning because only by marking pupils’ work will a teacher know what each pupil has and has not grasped and, therefore, what they need to learn next.
Ofsted differentiates between the existence of a lesson plan and evidence that a lesson is planned. This might sound like semantics but there is a difference: a lesson plan is a piece of paper which might bear no relation to what actually happens in the classroom, but evidence that a lesson is planned comes from observing it, from being able to see that the teacher knows the pupils well and is providing them an opportunity to fill the gaps in their learning.
Sir Michael says that “reflective teachers adapt their lesson plans when things (don’t) go well” and at the end of a lesson or day “go back to the lesson plan and change it”. Because outstanding teachers are reflective people, they know they don’t have all the answers and are prepared to learn from their mistakes as well as from their colleagues. In practice, this might mean talking about their teaching and inviting other teachers into their classrooms in order to observe and give feedback on their teaching.
Outstanding teachers are very perceptive people who understand the dynamics of the classroom. They quickly notice when the pace of the lesson falters and when students become disengaged and attentions start to wander. Crucially, these teachers are quick to notice when a pupil finds the work too challenging or not challenging enough and needs help.
Outstanding teachers, Sir Michael says: “Never let failure get the better of them; they learn from it and (come) back stronger, tougher and better teachers.” Teachers also need to model good learning for their pupils. We are, as professionals, always learning and should receive feedback warmly and with enthusiasm, for it will help us to be better teachers and will help our pupils to make better progress, which is surely why we do what we do.
So, as you have seen, there is no silver bullet; there is no simple formula: to quote Sir Michael paraphrasing Tony Blair: “What works is what’s best.” But if I were to define – in just three short words – the “spark” that makes some teachers outstanding, it would be as follows: know your pupils.