More WHAT less HOW – or ‘your shepherds pie requires improvement’

I am most interested in what children are taught, within an education system that is obsessed with  how they are taught it, as an end in itself. You know when you are tempted to buy a delicious looking cake from the bakers and you bite into it only to find it is too dry or tasteless. I think many of the lessons most admired are similar. They are beautifully crafted and so may well be tempting, or ‘highly motivating’ but many of the ones I read about deliver limited substance. Ofsted don’t help. Inspectors are meant to check if children are learning though there is plenty of evidence that in the last few years they have been more concerned with style over substance.

I am now going to horribly mix up my metaphors because I have another food based analogy to illustrate my point.

For just a moment imagine that there were inspectors checking that families provided their children with adequate nutrition (Ofeat). At least that was the reason they were set up but in this report they appear to have extended their brief!

Report on the F family meal:

The shepherds’ pie in this setting requires improvement. While plate clearance was good there was no evidence that the setting was promoting a life-long love of nutritious eating. Poor attitudes to eating were observed with one nine year old heard to complain, ‘not shepherds’ pie again’. The cook included too much mushroom and this led to a lack of engagement in the meal. In another outstanding setting, enthusiasm for nutritious eating was actively promoted through encouraging eaters to follow their own interests and make their own pizzas with a wide range of possible toppings on offer to encourage creativity. However, when the shepherds’ pie was served too much dependence on the cook was shown, with one five year old having to be cajoled to clear his plate. By contrast another local setting had been trained to craft ice cream into the shapes of nutritious vegetables. The eaters of all ages, including the youngest eaters, in this setting showed high levels of eating engagement and were able to name with confidence all the ice cream shaped vegetables eaten. Vegetable themed decorations and well-chosen background music further promoted eater engagement.

(Perhaps you think the ice cream shaped vegetables analogy is a bit over the top but then maybe you haven’t heard about studying Romeo and Juliet through puppet making!)

Now to get back to being serious… I admire really well-crafted lessons and I’m sure I could improve my teaching by taking more care over the final delivery aspect of planning. However, I think beautifully presented ‘Ofsted’ lessons are only one part of good teaching (the icing on the cake). Well-crafted lessons can tempt students in like a wonderful iced cake or great dining ambience but if that cake is full of saw dust then a plain sponge (or shepherds’ pie) would have been better and most of the time it is all we have time for.  When I read Ofsted lesson observations or suggestions for great lessons on teacher forums, I read some comments on what content is appropriate but much more focus on great presentation ideas. This is despite the former being crucial and the latter simply preferable. All curriculum content isn’t of equal value. What you choose to emphasise and whether it fits into a broader framework that you have been carefully constructing for your students,  is central. It is also important that what is taught is remembered.

Teaching mainly KS 4 and 5 history, most of my planning time is taken up with ensuring the ‘story’ I deliver hangs together and planning how new content will build on what students already know. I spend lots of time thinking about how I can help students grasp the detail they will need, to structure sound arguments in their essays.  No matter how many years I teach, I still need to really dive back into the content of a fresh topic to remind myself how it all hangs together and what I will need to stress. At this point I remember likely misconceptions, notice what will be complicated to explain and the bits that are too easily forgotten by the students and bearing all this in mind, I plan ‘what’ I should teach. After all that planning I then think about what activity might address weaknesses I have noticed in the light of the last batch of marking. Finally I then plan how I will deliver all this but there is limited time left for crafting all of it into a beautifully presented learning experience and I often have to rely on a limited repertoire of simple tried and tested types of activities.  This may be weakness in my teaching (although I prefer to view it as a pragmatic choice of priorities given limited time). If my classes are more challenging I do make certain sure that all my activities are totally watertight but given that time is not endless and we must all prioritise, the bottom line is still the content over imaginative tasks or variety of activities. The ‘best’ lessons I read about are planned with little interest in everything I consider most important and I have no idea how they can be examples of good teaching unless there is real interest in what decisions have been made over content as outlined above. Why do I never read about these crucial choices in Ofsted reports or similar?

The Ofsted report you rarely read: “It was clear that students had been carefully taught the ideas and concepts necessary to understand the current content. Programmes of study were ambitious but carefully structured to systematically build understanding so even the work of the weakest students showed a reasonable grasp of the detail. Teachers clearly had strong subject knowledge meaning that they were able to explain with clarity and questioning showed they were anticipating common misconceptions.”

How often have you seen anything along those lines? Discussion is largely of stand-alone lessons and comments on a series of lessons are generally because the snazzy task described takes lots of time.

One of the main reasons content is side-lined and certain activities are prioritised is the belief that these activities will develop skills such as creativity or problem solving and encourage motivation. I would say that the onus is on those claiming those skills can be taught to prove it. This is where my shepherds’ pie analogy really comes in as the aims of ‘Ofeat’ were similarly problematic. It is actually highly contentious to claim that skills can be taught out of context or transferred readily between contexts – let alone that the trendy activities advocated are the best way to achieve these desirable skills based outcomes. While motivation is undoubtedly important, I don’t think we really know how far certain activities create long term motivation. For every kid that enjoyed ‘history Cluedo’ I can point you to one that just loves history because of the stories his or her teacher told and is desperate to learn more.

It is hard to decide what content children should know and understand. It is important that this decision takes account of what the most successful schools achieve because the priority on methods can lead to lower expectations in terms of outcomes (see here). I have strong views on the effectiveness of different methods but my specific point here is that we have a problem because teaching is being judged by whether certain methods are being used rather than whether the right content is being taught or learnt. (That said if the ‘what’ is realistic but non-negotiable, then some methods will be less effective for most teachers.)

So to conclude, I’ve served up meals I’m not especially proud of but I would argue that my shepherds’ pie was just fine!

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