Does anyone really know what great teaching looks like?

Millthorpe’s Assistant Headteacher, John Bates, begins the process of examining what makes teaching and learning great for children by asking the teachers; ‘does anyone really know what great teaching looks like?’

I have been unlucky enough to have been observed by Ofsted 4 times in 12 years. Each time I have been judged as outstanding. And, each time I have done some something completely different. Or, have I? The lesson contexts have all varied widely, from bottom set Year 8 Geography to Year 13 Business Studies A level, the inspections were in 3 schools, in 3 different LEAs, and the Ofsted framework has been tweaked so often that it is unrecognisable from over a decade ago. But, when I examine my teaching style: my manner with students, the balance of teacher input, student-led activity and Q&A, and my planning and sequencing of learning over the course of a lesson, little has changed in my practice.

I don’t say this to congratulate myself or profess that I have the ‘secret formula’. On the contrary, I am frustrated that I can’t put my finger on what great teaching is. Teachers (and I include myself in this) have been suppressed by a system that regulates teaching rather than improving it. The Ofsted model of observations has led to schools imposing systems that mirror an inspection. And, of course they have. They would be foolish not to, as the consequences of not performing at inspection are deleterious. I have done this myself in two schools and I have been congratulated by Ofsted for the accuracy of our self-review and evaluation on the Quality of Teaching during our recent inspection. I am also, perhaps surprisingly, opposed to the notion of Ofsted observations without judgements. So, where, exactly, do I put my flag in the ground on this issue?!

My concern is that I know what ‘Outstanding’ teaching is, not ‘Great’ teaching. I have lost count of the number of times I have ‘unpicked’ the latest Ofsted framework. Senior Leadership Teams (SLTs) across the country will have a similarly strong and tenacious handle on this. In my previous school, for example, my pro forma for observing teaching reached version nineteen in consultation with SLT before it was even seen by a member of teaching staff! The problem is that in its current form, it is the process itself that is leading the actions of teachers, rather than observing the outcomes. We have become reliant on a misguided set of inputs; A checklist to outstanding. ‘How do I show progress over the course of my lesson?’, ‘How can I get outstanding with my bottom set, if I have to address behavior issues?’ ‘Do I need to show students peer marking and responding to their targets?’ are, I am sure, questions many of us have asked and been asked all too often. Similarly, schools and their teachers suffer from the ‘Flip-flop’ effect. There is a big drive on a specific teaching and learning priority, so everybody jumps to it. It is observed that there has been a massive improvement in this area, so the priority shifts to the next ‘big thing’ along with people’s efforts. It is not that teachers don’t think each priority is important or highly effective in the classroom, it’s that there is a genuine limit to what is possible within a single lesson, a school day, a school term, or even academic year. So why not abolish graded lesson observations?

As a profession, we cannot hide from the fact that judgements will be made about our performance and, despite popular ‘teacher bashing’ stories in the media, that we are highly accountable. Therefore, if no judgement is to be made about the quality of an individual’s teaching, the means of measuring performance will be the performance of classes, scrutiny of books and student voice alone. How we teach day-in, day-out, will not bear any relevance. From a whole school point of view, on what basis can you argue with an overall judgement on Teaching and Learning if you or they have reached no judgements?! This is a nonsense. Ofsted are making judgements, they simply aren’t telling us what they are. Then we can’t argue with the outcome. Similarly, I am perturbed by removal of comments relating to teaching styles. In a recent study by Civitas, 76% of a sample of 130 Ofsted reports showed support for specific teaching and learning approaches in 2013. With the exception of reference to group work, these were notably absent in the same sized sample from 2014. However, this was not due to a change in the comments and judgements of the inspectors, but rather that the removal or rewording as part of the redrafting process. I would encourage anyone to take a look at the full Civitas study but, in short, two worrying things emerge from this: one; Ofsted can’t agree or don’t know what outstanding teaching looks like; and two: inspectors are still making subjective judgements while in lessons, which informs their overall judgement. Even if this is not, and I believe it is, a masking of the issue and Ofsted genuinely believe in not reaching judgements or making comments pertaining to pedagogy and its impact, why turn up at your lesson at all?!

Teachers are not afraid of judgements. Nor are they averse to trying new strategies that yield a high impact with their classes. Since September 2013, I have handed my written observations of a lesson, including references to pedagogy and its impact, to the teacher as I leave. I leave their lesson with nothing in my hand. There is no judgement written at this stage, just statements, comments and questions. This gives the feedback to the person who owns it: the teacher, and allows them to digest the information prior to a feedback meeting, where we can engage in professional discussion and reach a shared judgement. We discuss what the students said and the marking and feedback in books and come to an agreement on the strengths and areas for development. Running alongside this staff commit to professional learning communities to explore teaching strategies and develop them in their own way to maximize their impact. The only INSET training day we’ve had on Teaching and Learning was delivered by all the staff to all of the staff, where they delivered and attended each other’s workshops. This was, without a doubt, the best INSET day I have organised, and apart from introducing it, I barely said a word. However, I still get drawn in to conversations about meeting the Ofsted criteria: ‘If I wrote “well done you have responded to your target”, would this show the learning journey?’, ‘Should I get the students to show their lack of understanding at the beginning of the lesson to prove they’ve made progress?’ And, there is still the temptation to show me what I want to see from the staff briefing last Wednesday morning. How do we get away from what has become so ingrained in all of us?

I recently addressed my teaching staff at a staff meeting, where I posed the question: “does anyone really know what Great teaching looks like?” ‘Great’ not ‘Outstanding’. Great teaching every lesson, every day, not something that stands out as above all else. Not every lesson can stand out above the last. I collated their responses and read each one. 68 teachers made insightful comments and produced far more criteria in an hour than I could have done if I made it my focus for the year. Does anyone know what great teaching looks like? Yes, teachers do!

This is the start of our journey to re-write our own framework and focus on great teaching in every lesson, every day. 68 heads are better than one!

John Bates
Assistant Headteacher