An HMI Inspector told me, yesterday, that the main criteria for an outstanding lesson is that it involves outstanding learning.
It shouldn’t have, but it completely threw me. As an AST, I’ve spent a number of years now, dissecting and experimenting with the criteria that teachers are judged by, trying to itemise what it is they are really looking for down to the exemplification of these ideas in activities or, as a colleague used to call them, “tricks and stunts”. But could it really be simpler than that?
I was both unlucky and lucky enough just the other day to have to partly play host to a visit from an HMI Inspector to my school. He was conducting part of an inspection of one of our local Teacher Training Institutions and they had asked if he could observe one of my NQTs who had trained there to see how his training had impacted. Aware that this was happening, but not when, true to form of working in schools I found out in the car park on the morning of the visit. With some stellar organisation on the part of one of my colleagues we got the visit organised and I was to conduct a joint observation with him.
In our discussions and deliberations about the quality of the lesson, I learned more about Ofsted and observing than I had at any time before or, possibly, had allowed myself to be aware of.
His first focus was on how the pupils were made to feel. The NQT is a great prospect, and one of his strengths was in his slick management of this bottom set Year 7 group (with only 5 kids in it!). The inspector commented straight away in terms of SMSC and the value that the teacher clearly had of those kids and how he showed it. That, in turn, impacted on the behaviour which was positive, both as a result of good differentiation but also in his clear but always positive management of the kids and their responses.
We talked about the fact that, because the learning was appropriate to the group, the kids were engaged and could complete the activities they were given with some support and challenge. We talked about a secure focus on basic literacy, particularly appropriate to this group and how it supported the learning.
We talked about regular marking of books and the difficulty that students with these levels of literacy would have in responding to the targets. And we talked about the fact that the kids did make progress.
We talked about the tricky delineation of objective and outcome and the fact that it doesn’t matter, if the learning is outstanding and the kids know what and why they’re learning what they’re learning.
We talked about the importance of the subject in any lesson, in this instance, a Science lesson. How students need to know why what they are doing is Science, or English or Maths or Drama or Art etc. The interplay between the content and the development of skills is a consideration but not a deal breaker.
Above all, the Inspector was human, interested in the teaching and the teacher and how that made the kids feel. He was very interested in supporting me and the NQT in judging how good the teaching and learning was and offered more support beyond that particular meeting.
I took the opportunity to quiz him about the aspects of particularly AfL that were or weren’t present in the lesson and how they are viewed in observation in general. The answers he gave were generic enough to be general and clear enough to be useful. He talked with knowledge about the Kings Medway project and then the impact the National Strategies had on AfL and how we see it in our lessons and drilled down into the core of the concept, in that teachers basically need to know where kids are at and support them to get where they need to be. Whatever form that takes, as long as it is effective, is fine.
We talked about the power of inquiry in lessons and the fact that bells or lesson endings and beginnings shouldn’t necessarily be seen as endings of the learning. We made links between the Early Years Foundation Stage and how those teachers skilfully allow students the opportunity to choose what they’re interested in and then teach them everything through that interest or engagement. The power of getting things finished was clear. Doing things properly and gaining mastery and the enjoyment and fulfilment that everyone gets from that needs to be at the forefront of what we do.
Appropriate learning experiences seems to be the unspectacular spectacular message.
There is no need, unless it is appropriate, to organise a lesson into three or four parts or to aim for three twenty minute periods with mechanical or unnecessary feedback or evidenced progress. Books and routines will or should evidence this and these both make up part of the judgement of our teaching. The fact that students aren’t surprised by something that you do, even if they groan with familiarity, shows they have done it before and that it is a part of the routines you put in place for their learning. Engagement can take many forms and can last for as long or as short as is appropriate. As long as students are valued, guided and directed to enquire or discover appropriately. The creativity of many great teachers can play with these ideas perfectly. Breaking down the elements of lessons to discover new or rediscover old patterns and or routines that work or are, appropriate.
Appropriate learning opportunities are outstanding learning opportunities:
- Value students, their presence, their responses, their work and the way they interact with the learning and you the teacher – show, if you can, that you’re happy to be there
- Manage behaviour positively and proactively
- Establish routines within the lesson and through marking and feedback – allow students the chance to act on feedback
- Ensure that challenge is appropriate enough to contribute to engagement
- Value your subject in the lesson; aim to demonstrate other skills such as literacy within the context of your subject and its content
- Definitions of objectives or outcomes aren’t as important as students’ abilities to know what and why they are learning
- Don’t use “tricks” at the expense of deeper learning
- Plan the “shape” of your lesson to be appropriate to the learning; don’t feel the need to break it up into chunks that may not be necessary to the learning
- Get things finished. Encourage mastery as part of enjoyment – transcend the bells if necessary.
We spend a lot of our time looking for the magic formulas that will allow us to both create outstanding learning experiences but also to transmit how to do it for other teachers. We want to break down the criteria we are to be judged by and create a win win situation whereby students progress, are engaged, and above all learn but also, and more importantly than perhaps we’d like to admit, so that we are successful in the eyes of leadership and Ofsted. (see @headguruteacher’s teachers Stockholm syndrome theory) We do it because we’re teachers, and educators, I think, tend to have an inbuilt capacity to want to share.
It’s possibly a good idea to issue a slight disclaimer in that the light bulbs described above are my gleanings from, what I felt was a really enlightening meeting with one HMI and what may well not be the views of the “management”. However, when one does compare it with other accounts such as the words of Sir Michael Wilshaw himself and the brilliant @TeacherToolkit, maybe outstanding isn’t that remote from our instincts tell us it is after all.