Ofsted and activities

Posted on 04-02-2012

In my last post I spoke about how a lot of classroom activities and projects don’t work because they distract pupils from the real content you are trying to teach them about. Most of the examples I spoke about in that post were American, drawn from an article from the American Educator archive and Dan Willingham’s excellent book Why Don’t Students Like School?

But you don’t need to look far to see that similar things go on in English schools – and, depressingly, that the schools inspector seems to be citing them as examples of good teaching.

Here is a report by Ofsted from May 2011. It’s called ‘Excellence in English’ and gives detailed descriptions of what it considers to be excellence in English lessons. Firstly, there are some examples of distracting and trivial content and activities.

The class with less able students worked together, looking first at a Gary Lineker webpage, then at a news item about his impending divorce. Working in pairs, they highlighted a range of techniques used, including graphics as well as language, and identified the target audience and the intended effect. There was vigorous, informal discussion about the rights and wrongs of the case….

When the class split into groups for more independent work, there were four activities…a third group, again led by an assistant, had a bag of ‘body parts’ which they felt ‘blind’ and tried to describe before taking them out to develop their description further. A fourth group worked with the teacher as scribe on building a narrative using a model of a castle and a range of figures…

Some of the Key Stage 3 units of work are innovative and highly distinctive. For example, younger students especially enjoy the ‘Mr Men’ unit of work. While this might seem on the surface to make limited demands on the ability of secondary-age students, the work involves a great deal of grammatical and linguistic analysis. The unit begins with an exploration of the notion of stereotypes. Students then review and extend their knowledge of grammar focusing on the use of adjectives, onomatopoeia and alliteration. This leads into an analysis of Mr Men characters, analysing the author’s use of these techniques before students create their own new character. Students also study the various plot lines in existing Mr Men stories, for example the way that a negative character is made good by the actions of a second character or the focus on the typical events of one day.

Secondly, there is no acknowledgement of the importance of background knowledge for reading comprehension. But there are plenty of examples of lessons involving reading skills and strategies, despite the fact that we know these have limited value.

The different activities were as follows. One group was led by a pupil selected by the other pupils. This was a productive exercise in enlightened decision-making: ‘We’re not judging people. We choose a leader to be happy. We give a turn to everybody.’ As pupils took turns to read aloud, the leader’s role was to encourage others and to clarify, predict and question. Pupils shared ideas and knowledge, noting things down in their logbooks. As ‘teacher’, the group’s leader took on considerable responsibility. If anyone else seemed stuck, it was his or her role to suggest an answer.

Finally, what these lesson plans don’t mention is as revealing as what they do mention. It isn’t just that I have cherry-picked the worst examples above. For example, not one of these sample excellent lessons suggest that teaching grammar explicitly is a good idea.  Shockingly, their description of one lesson even seems to misunderstand what grammar is:

Students then review and extend their knowledge of grammar focusing on the use of adjectives, onomatopoeia and alliteration.

Adjectives are a grammatical feature. Onomatopoeia and alliteration are not. They are stylistic devices. Such confusion of categories is sloppy but also damaging. If the schools inspector is promoting this kind of sloppy approach, is it any wonder 17% of English school leavers are functionally illiterate?

I don’t know what else to say about this other than that I find it really demoralising.