The Cult of Outstanding™: the problem with ‘outstanding’ lessons
First of all I need to come clean. Up until pretty recently I was a fully paid up member of the Cult of Outstanding™. Last January I considered myself to be a teacher at the height of my powers. In the spirit of self-congratulation I posted a blog entitled Anatomy of an Outstanding Lesson in which I detailed a lesson which I confidently supposed was the apotheosis of great teaching, and stood back to receive plaudits. And indeed they were forthcoming. I was roundly congratulated and felt myself extraordinarily clever.
And then Cristina Milos got in touch to tell me that there was no such thing as an outstanding lesson. I was, she patiently pointed out, deluding myself. When I sputtered my objections she directed me to a video of Robert Bjork explaining the need to dissociate learning from performance. Now no one enjoys being told they’re a fool, but I have to say that I’m profoundly grateful to Cristina for not pulling her punches; nothing else has had anywhere near the impact on my thinking about teaching and learning. When you start thinking in this way, it becomes increasingly obvious just how little we know and understand about what we do.
The more I’ve read and the deeper I’ve delved into this, the more convinced I’ve become that in our efforts to cast teachers in the mould supposedly preferred by Ofsted we are unwittingly, but actively, undermining our pupils’ ability to learn. Understandably, this is not a popular message. A lot of very influential people have got an awful lot invested in the belief that the pedagogical methodologies popularly understood to result in ‘outstanding’ lessons are the right way to teach. In fact it may well be easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than for an Ofsted inspector, an education consultant or a school leader to admit that they’ve been wrong.
But are they wrong? So far this is just a piece of polemic and can be easily dismissed as the ravings of a loon. Well, I think you’d agree that most teachers in most schools are expected to teach lessons in which students make visible progress. Although the past year or so has seen the pernicious myth of ‘progress in 20 minutes’ rightly debunked, as a profession we still believe that the best lessons are those in which pupils are learning. Now as a whole raft of academics have proved (at least to my mind) learning is, in fact, invisible. Judging the effectiveness of teaching by assessing what pupils can do during a lesson is arrant foolishness. It would be like me telling you that the capital of Poland was Warsaw and then asking, a few minutes later, what the capital of Poland was. What’s that? Warsaw, you say? Oh jolly good. Marvellous progress. This is an obviously risible example but not really so very different from the literally thousands of lessons I’ve taught in which I’ve shown pupils how to do something and then proudly watched them do it themselves. They are merely responding to cues. They may have learned something, but this can only be inferred from their performance.
Now the truly mind-bending bit of all this is that sometimes (often?) current performance is not only a poor indication of learning, it actually seems to prevent it. When we design lessons that boost pupils’ performance, the net result is that we are retarding the likelihood that they will learn. Conversely “Conditions that induce the most errors during acquisition are often the very conditions that lead to the most learning!” (Bjork 2013) So are all those slickly outstanding lessons we’ve venerated for so long really just fluff and nonsense?
Lessons which are generally judged to be outstanding are characterised by pupils being visibly engaged and ‘getting it’. Ofsted’s criteria for outstanding teaching and learning include the following:
- Sustained & rapid progress
- Consistently high expectations
- Excellent subject knowledge
- Systematic, accurate assessment
- Well judged, imaginative teaching strategies
- Sharply focused & timely support
- Enthusiasm, participation & commitment
- Resilience, confidence & independence
- Frequent & consistently high quality feedback
- Engagement, courtesy, collaboration & cooperation
In order to thoroughly expose the Cult of Outstanding™, we might do well to investigate each of these criteria in turn.
Sustained & rapid progress
I’ve already written extensively about the problems with progress so let me summarise by asking this: if we do something really quickly is it likely to last? I contend that rapid and sustained progress are mutually exclusive: they cancel each other out. You can have one or the other. We have to choose and I’d strongly recommend sustained progress. The problem is that the route to sustained progress is deeply counter-intuitive. We’re all a lot more comfortable with the idea of making rapid progress because it ‘feels right’. But there’s a significant body of research which suggests that slowing performance and increasing the errors made during instruction has a significant impact on our ability to retain and transfer skills and knowledge. Simply put, we learn better by struggling. But this is not what happens in an outstanding lesson where pupils are expected to demonstrate rapid progress and not look confused as they grapple with challenging concepts.
Consistently high expectations
On the face of it you’d think I would have little to argue against here. And on the face of it, you’d be right. But consistently high expectations of what? If our expectation as teachers is that pupils perform to a high level only in our lessons then we may will be guilty of engineering a situation which makes it harder for them to retain and transfer what we’re teaching. This leads to a culture where it becomes routine for pupils not to remember or be able to apply the basics. Consider this: in a Year 11 English lesson, we read an article about Barrack Obama taking a 5% pay cut to show support for the plight of the American economy. We decided to award him a nicely rounded salary of $150,000 and calculate what this 5% reduction might represent. I was appalled when the class, which contained some very bright mathematicians, signally failed to work out what is, even for me, a pretty simple sum. I’m fairly sure the same thing goes on when students I know for a fact can spell and paragraph accurately in my lessons suddenly lose this ability in, say, geography or science.
Excellent subject knowledge
OK, you got me. Having expert subject knowledge is highly desirable and likely to result in pupils making significant gains in their learning. In particular, it pays teachers to understand the likely mistakes and misconceptions pupils are likely to make in a given subject. If these mistakes are anticipated and headed off before they become ingrained then a great deal of harm is avoided. Naturally it’s not sufficient to merely have great subject knowledge, but it is necessary and your kids ain’t gonna get very far if you’ve not got it.
Systematic, accurate assessment
Again, this seems obvious doesn’t it? How can systematic and accurate assessment be a bad thing? The short answer is that it can’t. But the problem is that very little assessment is accurate and systematic in the right way. Most mark schemes are highly subjective and do little to encourage accuracy. Daisy Christodoulou has written eloquently about what she calls ‘the adverb problem‘ and this is something of which we should be ever mindful. Our assessment is a lot more inaccurate and vague than we’d like to admit.
Well judged, imaginative teaching strategies
Of course well-judged teaching strategies are brilliant. But if we believe that improving pupils’ performance is the desired outcome then it’s highly unlikely that the strategies we select will be well-judged. It’s certainly very rare for a lesson to be judged outstanding if pupils are still struggling by the end of the lesson; this is normally judged inadequate. But if sustained progress is our goal then neat resolutions and slick performances will undermine our aim. And we don’t really mean ‘imaginative’, do we? What we mean is ‘conforming to a fairly narrow set of expectations of what constitutes good teaching’. And that just isn’t the same.
Sharply focused & timely support
Providing effective support is, of course, highly desirable, but too much support will create learned helplessness. Also we often support pupils because we’re obsessed with improving their performance. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with struggle, in fact it’s often essential for information to wend its way from working to long term memory. So why are we so squeamish about children being stuck? We’d do better sometimes to set out our stall to celebrate what’s hard and damn what comes easily. There’s a toxic trend in our society to dismiss hard work as the preserve of thickos and plodders. It’s in our language: ‘Hard luck!’, ‘Easy does it!’ All this sharply focussed support may well be eroding the confidence and resilience we so desire in our students. The point of scaffolding is that it must be removed. The problem with outstanding lessons is that they rarely devote the time necessary for effective explanations or modelling (see below) for fear that the teacher will be accused on talking for too long.
Enthusiasm, participation & commitment
These, along with engagement, are the very stuff of Robert Coe’s ‘poor proxies for learning’. These things are lovely and certainly sociably desirable, but the tell us nothing about the quality of pupils’ learning. It’s relatively well-known that doodling can increase your retention and in the past I’ve taught children whose apparent attention is lessons is minimal and yet they learn. One boy I shepherded through GCSEs spent 2 years building piles of rubbers only to get an A*! We can, and should, insist on good behaviour because the alternative is horrible. But we must be informed and honest enough to acknowledge that observation feedback like ‘that boy at the back was off-task for 3 minutes’ is utterly meaningless.
Resilience, confidence & independence
I’m all for pupils being resilient, confident and independent. Who wouldn’t be? The problem here is that we’ve got ourselves into the perfectly understandable muddle of believe that independent learning will result in independence. It doesn’t; independent learning actually makes pupils more dependent. If we really value independence and want our pupils to be confident and resilient then we’re much better off teaching them. I’ve written extensively about the teaching sequence for developing independence, but just to recap, the process is broken down into 4 stages:
- Explaining – you can’t think about what you don’t know so if we want our pupils to do anything interesting or creative we must give them the vocabulary and background knowledge required to explore a subject.
- Modelling – no one is ever going to get good at anything unless they go through the process of deconstructing high quality examples and then ‘seeing’ the expert thought processes which go into creating an expert example. The road to hell is paved with vague success criteria.
- Scaffolding – once pupils have had new concepts explained and had great examples modelled then they’re ready to have a go. Our job is to make sure that everyone is challenged to do something they will find difficult and help them deal with the frustration of not being able to get it.
- Practising – pupils are now ready to work independently. Our role is to be aware of the fact that practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent. We must be vigilant about the mistakes pupils are likely make and prevent them prevent them becoming embedded.
Frequent & consistently high quality feedback
Yet again this appears entirely desirable. That is until we examine the staggering weight of research that suggests that delaying and reducing feedback, while having a negative impact of short term performance gains, tends to boost long term retention and transfer. This leads us, inevitably, down a rabbit hole of trying to determine exactly what ‘high quality’ feedback might be. Is it high quality if it visibly supports pupils’ performance in the classroom? Or is it high quality if it means that they’re more likely to pass an exam? This issue is that one of these is easy to check for during an observation and the other isn’t. Guess which we tend to prefer?
Contrary to what almost everyone else would have us believe, Bjork tell us this: “Numerous studies—some of them dating back decades—have shown that frequent and immediate feedback can, contrary to intuition, degrade learning.” This is an earth shattering bombshell and goes completely against the grain. I intend to devote my next post to dealing with this at length.
Engagement, courtesy, collaboration & cooperation
We’ve already dealt with engagement above and no right thinking teacher would object to politeness except to say that it has very little bearing on learning. But collaboration and cooperation betray a preference for group work. There’s a time and a place for group work: it slots in neatly to the scaffolding phase of teaching. But the idea that all lessons should contain collaborative or cooperative learning is preposterous. Thank goodness that the subsidiary guidance to inspectors added in December 2013 confirms this:
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.
It’s become abundantly clear to me that what might appear to be passive may well conceal a vigorous and seismic inner turmoil that heralds real learning. So the next time you think you’ve seen an outstanding lesson, think again. There’s no such thing! We can certainly have outstanding teaching – it’s the preserve of those teachers who get consistent and startling results, where students really learn. The received wisdom on what an outstanding lesson is, actively obstructs outstanding teaching. We all need the humility to accept that our preferences and biases are just that: ours. They do not lead to better learning. And further, it is my considered and contentious opinion that the pursuit of outstanding lessons has done more to damage education than any of the more obvious goonery like VAK and Brain Gym that we’ve had to put up with over the years.
The fact that Ofsted appear to be officially distancing themselves from some of the more deluded facets of Outstanding™ lessons can only be good news. But that still leaves us with a situation where most inspectors and school leaders have got where they are on the strength of their ability to dance the rapid progress jig. Will they be able to admit the possibility that they were hoodwinked by the Cult of Outstanding?
I’m sure you’ll have an opinion on all this and I look forward to discussing it in the comments below.