Well conditioned?

The news broken by Andrew Old here and here that Ofsted has updated its lesson observation guidelines is indeed welcome. I feel it vindicates those of us who have been arguing that it is impossible to pin down ‘good teaching’ to any one style. However, this is tinged with regret at the angst caused and hours wasted trying to conform to the previous highly-specific criteria we have been expected to teach to, all in the name of Ofsted success.

I must admit to having struggled with this – to reconfigure over 25 years’ practice to a set of standards that neither made intellectual sense nor felt instinctively right, has been extremely  difficult, and I was only moderately successful at it. Despite repeatedly good feedback from my students and exam results that were consistent with what experience suggested, I gave up the struggle to achieve ‘Outstanding’ as requiring the selling of too much soul simply to jump through a lot of senseless hoops. To deny that that in turn didn’t have an impact on my morale would be lying. Luckily, my own experience of Ofsted last spring, while highly nerve-wracking, was positive, with feedback that perhaps suggested I was blessed (?) with an inspector not as dogmatic as many.

As Old says, what remains to be seen is whether this is a genuine change or simply a politically expedient retreat. Likewise, whether school managers who have built their careers spouting one orthodoxy are going to be willing to renounce it in the light of this revision.

This brings me to the issue of conditioning, which is perhaps the one aspect of that that Old hasn’t covered fully. One of the biggest arguments I have had is with those who claimed that evidence ‘proved’ that children did not like and did not respond well to traditional academic teaching, that they tended to do less well in it, and opted less frequently for subjects where they had experienced traditional teaching. On the surface, this did appear to have some traction. However, what remains imponderable is the degree to which it became a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Many conversations had with both pupils and parents over the years suggest that innately, they have relatively simplistic expectations of education, which are often founded in a very traditional perception of the practice and the process of schooling. What can alter this is that which they are told by schools themselves – in other words, it is extremely easy to condition people to expect what you tell them to expect. I suspect that most of the clamour for (inflated) exam results, league table data and the rest of it would simply not exist if the politico-educational system had not put it in front of people and told them that is what they needed to be wanting.

Likewise, it has been common practice to tell children entering our school what to expect from lessons in terms of teaching styles, and what things teachers are ‘not allowed’ to do. Expectations were created as to what lessons are like, what the pupils themselves might be expected to do, and what they should want from their teachers. A classic of the kind is the explicit limitations that were imposed on teacher-talk, which all the pupils knew. Another was the expectation that lessons should always be ‘fun’. A whole culture was built up by a few individuals that created an agenda almost before we had encountered the pupils ourselves, and frequently reinforced by management during the pupils’ progression through the school.

This is not to say that it is wrong to create some kind of expectations in pupils or parents – but in my view such a doctrinaire approach became self-fulfilling in ‘demonstrating’ that the officially-approved methods worked better than others. The skills and attitudes required for a more traditional approach were not only not cultivated, but were actively neglected, such that any teacher attempting to use them started at a disadvantage in terms of what the pupils were familiar with and able to respond to. I have foresworn myself not to discuss the specifics of my own school in this blog, but I think it is permissible to suggest that a current issue we have with the lacking academic resilience of some of our sixth form may be an own goal caused by the policies adopted in earlier years.

Whether the new Ofsted pronouncement will make much difference to this remains to be seen; I must say, I’m not optimistic – but I fully intend to make sure that the new guidelines are as widely seen in my school as possible, and not swept under the rug by a system with too much vested interest at stake.

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3 thoughts on “Well conditioned?

  1. A key thing to remember about the point regarding what kids expect from lessons, is that the highest achieving kids, particularly in the highest achieving schools, probably never did change what they expected from teachers. The kids expecting not to be taught overwhelmingly tended to be those same kids who were not expecting to learn. There were exceptions, the middle class kid who wasted weeks of lesson time only to be taught it all by a private tutor, but mainly low expectations were part of a cycle with low achievement. The most depressing comments I ever heard from colleagues about my teaching style were that it was “not for kids like these” or that I’d probably be better suited to a selective or private school. And this was never about ability – kids of all ability levels achieved well with me – it was always about expectations. When we talk about kids not liking traditional teaching we invariably mean they have adapted to low expectations and more often than not these are the low expectations teachers have for working class kids, not for their own.

  2. I remember one particularly astute year 13 student, some years ago, who observed to me shortly before she left, “The one thing this school didn’t give me was a traditional academic education – which is what I wanted”. Which of course, is the one thing that pupils are not allowed to have.

    I don’t think it is low expectations as such in our case, so much as an institution that became absolutely obsessed with doing whatever Ofsted (seemingly) commanded. We have a positively-skewed ability range, many of whom ought to be perfectly capable of being taught academically if only they were given a level playing field and the necessary expectations. An additional problem is that it is, of course, not only pupils who are susceptible to conditioning – teachers and indeed whole institutions can suffer too!

    Like you, l have success teaching even our less able traditionally; what complaints there are in pupil voice soundings tend to be of the ‘we want more fun’ kind, which seem to happen equally to just about everyone, irrespective of their teaching style. The kids don’t tend to know what they mean by it when put on the spot – which may support my points about both initial expectations and subsequent conditioning.

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