Ofsted Research: Outstanding but Requires Improvement

Ofsted have recently issued their overview of educational research that underpins the draft inspection framework.

It is wonderful to see teaching and learning led by education research. As a young teacher studying school/teacher effectiveness under Professor David Reynolds at the University of Newcastle in the late 1990s that was not the case. Practice and research were separate worlds… never mind conjoined…never mind research leading practice! So, it is really a watershed moment; Ofsted taking the best educational research on the entire planet and using it to underpin their inspection framework. And they have done it incredibly well! Common sense always rises to the top and this approach just makes sense! I particularly like the way the research leads straight into the specific criteria used by inspectors to make judgements. As a former inspector for Ofsted I know how it feels to be making judgements using criteria that have come from ‘nowhere’.

There are a number of real highlights that take former established characteristics of effective teaching (in bold) and reframe them in light of research:

Subject knowledge has become more precisely identified as i) content knowledge (knowing your curriculum journey in detail), ii) pedagogical knowledge (knowing how to teach!) and iii) pedagogical content knowledge (knowing the specifics of how to teach a particular subject or even specific aspects and detail within that subject). (p9)

Pace can be thought of more clearly as the ‘opportunity to learn’ (what a lovely phrase) and acts as a measure of content coverage. This phrase refocuses our thinking when and where needed. ‘Slow lessons’ or ‘fast lessons’ can actually both have maximum opportunity to learn, or alternatively can have very little. (p12)

Plenaries (remember them?) are given value as a strategy for integrating/reinforcing major learning points, but a more common-sense mental title of ‘summary reviews’ gives license to delivering them when needed and better focuses what the content of the plenary should be. (p12)

‘Insufficient challenge’ used to be the automatic assumption of some inspectors if they saw a learner with 10/10 in their book. This used to drive teachers crazy! Clearly, when a child first acquires new knowledge, they need to practise it in order to embed it in long-term memory. It is also useful to simply ‘come back to it’ and check the learning is still ‘there’, and to vary the usage and application, so that the wider understanding of its function and breadth of application are also embedded and solidified. To ‘come back to it in increasingly challenging contexts/problems’ makes the sense of it greater, giving purpose and a bigger picture to the original knowledge. Research confirms all of the above and Ofsted talk with conviction about spaced practiceinterleaving,retrieval practice and expertise-reversal effect.

We see in the research overview of the draft report, a special reference to cognitive load theory (CLT). Do not believe what you may have heard about this research being invalid for primary aged children. This has been responded to through the efforts of Greg Ashman here. Personally, I am delighted to see this huge leap forwards by Ofsted, not least because I have spent the last few years constructing a whole-school approach to use of CLT in primary maths as a response to the CLT research. Ofsted succinctly make neat links from the architecture of the brain, (DELETION) on to how new knowledge is acquired without overloading the capacity of the working memory, by connecting new small parts of knowledge (from a detailed curriculum breakdown) on top of already-fluent parts. This then leads into the pupil-practice, mentioned above, as a means of impacting on long term memory (LTM) and it is that LTM impact alone that allows us to say, therefore, that learning has taken place! This new focus on CLT, whilst sitting behind the inspection framework, is enough to literally change teaching of mathematics across England. Exciting times.

However, there is one aspect of the research overview that requires improvement. The dreaded ‘D’ word…DIFFERENTIATION! Let us take an example that many primary maths teachers face. Let’s suppose you have a small group of learners who are not yet ready to add two 1-digit numbers together, and let’s say there is another group in the same class that are past this point and are ready to learn to add two 2-digit numbers together. There may even be a third group that are past this point and are ready to add several 4-digit numbers together. Indeed, not only is this situation fairly typical, it is often, in reality, a more extreme spread of the abilities that the primary teacher faces. Whilst this spread might not be such an issue in some subjects/domains, it is a huge issue when teaching the basic skills of numeracy. The Ofsted research overview somewhat expects this situation, saying ‘pupils are likely to make progress at different rates’ and that as a consequence, ‘they may require different levels of support from teachers to succeed’ (p 14). When we shine the light of CLT on this issue then we might think, ‘Too blooming right they need different input!’.

So, what is the answer?
How would Ofsted expect to see the teacher manage, given the research? Unfortunately, the research slams ‘in-class differentiation’. It often just does not correlate well with impacting positively on pupil attainment. I often wonder if the research outcomes would have been different if the ‘in-class differentiation’ researched had been rooted in CLT. So, this leads Ofsted to head into the one weak paragraph of the entire document – just when we need them most! They talk about ‘adapting teaching in a responsive way’. Now don’t get me wrong, adapting teaching to respond to learners is – of course – essential, particularly as a well thought-through sequence of learning experiences is gathering momentum over time. But in terms of starting out to plan for a class of pupils with a very definite spread of ability in a very sequential domain like ‘novice numeracy’, then the idea of starting to teach different abilities with a common input (even if it is all under the umbrella of ‘addition’) is instantly in breach of CLT. And what if the teacher then ‘responds’ by going over to a smaller group after the common input, to give an ‘adapted’ input? Well, the damage may already be done in terms of overload on the working memory, and anyway – in-class differentiation has just sneaked back in through the open classroom window, like the annoying summertime wasp that you just can’t get rid of.

From addressing differentiation, Ofsted meander into talking about providing support for pupils who are not making progress, which presumably they consider an unacceptable situation and therefore a different issue to their starting point for this discussion, i.e. the ‘pupils are likely to make progress at different rates’ statement. We then stroll into a clarification that ‘adaptive teaching’ is not constructing differentiated tasks for the sake of it, nor about the lowering of expectations and not about ‘Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic ‘ (VAK – of which the final nail in the coffin was hammered home long before this declaration). The paragraph of concern (p14) is reproduced here;

So, my main point is that a significant real-life issue for many teachers of numeracy, is the spread of ability in their class, and when placed in the context of CLT, then – on paper at least – adaptive teaching won’t support CLT principles in that specific classroom context. A differentiated input would still seem to fit best with basic logic in the ‘here and now’. For what it’s worth, my own view is to completely avoid this scenario happening in the first place by implementing a CLT-driven curriculum journey that takes all learners through a high, yet minimum, standard, and only then makes sense of adaptive teaching to extend more able learners through additional expertise-reversal challenge. In the meantime, though, Ofsted…what to do?!

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