I spent two hours earlier this evening in a web seminar delivered by one of the major exam boards, whose specification my department is thinking of adopting. The session was ostensibly about teaching outstanding lessons; it served to remind me just how polarised the profession still is. The session began with a reference to Ofsted’s guidance that there is no preferred teaching style, though this was not drawn from the latest statements regarding the acceptability of formal teaching, teacher exposition and ‘passive’ learning.
There followed an undiluted diet of progressive methodology, including the view that 14-16 geography can be taught through baking cakes, carving jelly and playing in sand trays. The emphasis at all times was on Fun, learning through play, and ‘learning without even realising it’. There was quite a lot about moving bits of card around and making models. Peer assessment featured quite strongly as it is important to give learners ownership of the process – even if it is the teachers who are the subject experts. There was nothing about promoting inherent subject interest, but a lot about how to ‘snag’ pupils via lesson starter gimmicks such as using pop songs to define a topic. (Hint: not all teachers – or pupils – should be assumed to value or know about pop music, let alone whether it needs further endorsement in the classroom).
Assessment for Learning also featured strongly, with no apparent awareness that this too has come under sharp criticism from some quarters. The overall message was explicit: “This is what Ofsted wants to see in outstanding lessons” – even though this is patently no longer true.
I’m not going to criticise the teacher who delivered the session: in a free world we would all be at liberty to choose the methods that worked best for us. His own school would appear to be very successful, and its take-up rates for his subject higher than ours. Quite what to make of this last point, I don’t know – unless it is that a lot of pupils like playing with Play-Dough, or they actually do a lot of more formal teaching alongside. (They did mention doing past-question practice, though whether this constitutes learning as opposed to exam drilling is a moot point in my mind). What we were presented with did not, in my own mind, amount to a rigorous approach to developing older pupils’ intellects and preparedness for higher study.
However, one teacher’s personal preferences are one thing, and wheeling them out under the official auspices of an exam board is another. The message that came across was clearly that this exam board considers its course should be taught by progressive methods – and by extension was perhaps prepared with them in mind. There was not even passing recognition that there clearly exists (at least) a large minority of teachers that still prefers more traditional methods, and that there is a strong intellectual case being made for their validity. For example, there was no awareness shown that many progressive activities simply divert pupils’ attention away from the content towards the transient process of what they are doing.
I ended up feeling extremely disenfranchised by the experience, and left wondering whether we are doing the right thing to adopt a specification that takes such an unbalanced approach. It would seem that this Board has yet to incorporate the latest views from the inspectorate its training, and accommodate the rehabilitated traditional wing of the profession.
For all the high-profile blogs by various traditionalists, the progressive wing still commands the majority of our institutions and does not seem to think that it even needs to make passing acknowledgement that there are those who do not subscribe to this sort of orthodoxy.