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Does Sir Michael Wilshaw Know What OFSTED Good Practice Looks Like?

February 26, 2013

While I have recently discussed the continuing domination of trendy teaching ideas over OFSTED there’s one subject where one would assume traditional methods still hold sway if one has listened to Sir Michael Wilshaw. When signalling his departure from enforcing progressive teaching he hasn’t hesitated to identify secondary mathematics for his examples of the acceptability of chalk and talk.

In his RSA speech he described an outstanding maths teacher he knew in this way:

[The teacher] was somebody in his late fifties. He was the head of maths. He was a very traditional teacher. He taught in a pretty didactic way, but the kids loved him across the ability range. He knew how to teach maths. You know what a great maths teacher does?  Builds block by block to ensure that youngsters don’t move on until they understand the ground rules. He would spend many, many hours in the evening every night preparing powerpoints for himself and for the staff in his department and he would disseminate good practice, in terms of how to use powerpoints, to other people in his department and beyond his department to other schools in Hackney and beyond. And he produced absolutely fantastic results although some people would say he was a very didactic teacher.

He also mentioned that “the structured reinforcement of mathematical formula” was an acceptable use of time and in his London Festival of Education speech he even said:

If a teacher on a wet Friday afternoon is doing a fairly boring lesson on quadratic equations but the children are learning, that’s fine as well.

So nobody can doubt that OFSTED have nothing against fairly traditional maths lessons where things are explained rather than discovered and no gimmicks are used to make it entertaining. Well nobody could doubt it except those who work for OFSTED. Here’s what they actually like. This is the only maths good practice video added since Sir Michael made those speeches. Update 30/3/2013: The OFSTED good practice videos were all removed immediately after I blogged about them. If you’d like me to send you a transcript, email me.

Update 5/5/2013: Current version of video below:

Highlights include the teacher, Katharine, saying:

I’m not going to tell them how to do anything. So the challenge for me is the questions that I’m going to be using to make sure that they get out everything that they want to from the lesson. And that they discover things for themselves rather than me just telling them, oh this is how you do it – in algebra we write 3N instead of 3 times N. So I want them to find things out for themselves which sometimes you need to really think about the questions that are the probing questions that I’m going to be going round and asking them.

We then see the students try to work out how algebra works from discussing the 12 Days of Christmas.

The HMI who, as I understand it, is one of the top “specialists” in maths explains:

Katharine teaches for understanding throughout her lessons. She does that in various ways… she doesn’t just leap in with the right answer at any stage…If we contrast that with what we often see in other lessons we tend to see a compartmentalised approach to algebra. Where students are just taught a basic skill about you replace a letter by a number… And no really understanding about the role of the letters involved. So this school, this early work on algebra contrasts very sharply with what we see. And I would encourage all schools to think very carefully about laying the foundations for later learning of algebra in ways, similar ways to this.

Clearly this HMI was unaware that far from condemning a “compartmentalised approach” her chief inspector actually favours building “block by block” and “structured reinforcement”. Or perhaps she doesn’t care because it is her, and not Sir Michael, who will actually be judging maths teachers in lessons. Still, I’m sure the three recent studies of best practice in secondary mathematics  have more traditional contents.

How about the one for Loreto High School in Chorlton? What maths teaching methods does that describe? Well there’s no reason to think they don’t use plenty of traditional methods, but this is what is singled out for praise:

Students enjoy a range of sorting and matching activities, often in pairs or groups that promote discussion and help to develop their understanding. Students of all abilities, but particularly those who are less able, respond well to opportunities to explore mathematics through, for example, recording their ideas informally on mini-whiteboards.

What about Archbishop Temple School?

The outstanding teaching in the department makes use of published resources, such as text-books and worksheets, but only selectively. There is no set text-book. Teachers aim for active learning, using a range of sorting and matching activities that engage students and encourage discussion.

So more discussion and card sorts.  How about Allenbourn Middle School? Not strictly a secondary school but there should be some overlap.

Working from that secure starting point four years ago, and with pupil behaviour that was reliably good, the first step was to begin to encourage teachers to try new approaches. The only constraint placed upon staff was that outstanding quality of learning in mathematics in the school was to involve pupils using and applying their learning for the majority of theirlessons and, as a part of this, always wanting to ‘get right into the corners’ of their understanding. They made it clear that this approach wasn’t to be reserved for the occasional lesson – it had to become the way that mathematics is learned and taught throughout the school.

This often meant turning traditional lessons on their head. For example, in a Year 8 lesson on percentage increase and decrease, pupils don’t spend any time listening to reminders of the basic ideas about how calculations are done; they move straight into a buying and selling simulation with laminated ‘money’ and cards representing merchandise in the six ‘shops’ around the room. Traders are told the cost price of items and set prices; and buyers are encouraged to haggle by requiring percentage reductions. Reductions in prices in multiples of 10% are used initially and it is evident that some pupils can handle the idea quicker than others; it is also clear that those that can’t appreciate that understanding how someone can rapidly calculate a 30% reduction on a price of £5 is an important skill! Pupils learn quickly from each other and the lesson gets pacier and more demanding as some begin to demand 35% reductions and more complex discounts. For more complex calculations calculators are allowed, but they have to be used intelligently and this brings in the need to turn percentages into decimals quickly and fluently in order to keep up with the pace of haggling. Throughout, the teacher is closely monitoring pupils’ rates of understanding and skill acquisition. The plenaries are short and sharp, focused on specific skills, and are continually ratcheting up expectations. By the end of the lesson, all pupils have developed a ‘feel’ for the topic and have the capacity to deal with the mathematical concepts confidently and with a fluent recall of knowledge. Just as significantly, they show a rare level of confidence in problem solving.

Similarly, in a Year 5 lesson reinforcing techniques for addition and multiplication, pupils do not spend time responding to a long list of questions from a text book. Instead, it’s a game of Cluedo. The various clues around the room require a range of calculations to be made (and checked using an alternative method) and the answers provide pieces of evidence for these young sleuths to identify the killer. (It was Professor Plum!)

Oh. Well that’s all I can find about good practice in secondary maths that’s been published recently. Can anybody else find anything OFSTED have published about secondary mathematics which in any way suggests anybody other than Sir Michael will celebrate, or even tolerate, traditional teaching in the subject?

If you are wondering why I have singled out maths here it’s because the other good practice videos don’t need this much explanation. I’ll come back to them later in the week. The English one is just great.

Update (2/3/2013): There has been some discussion (not so much in the comments but elsewhere) as to the effectiveness of the lessons shown here, so I thought I’d add a few comments.

The point of this blogpost was to show how much OFSTED’s example of good teaching in secondary maths differed from that of its chief inspector rather than to say that these were particularly bad lessons. There is much that is praiseworthy within the lesson, one could almost believe it is the work of a highly effective teacher who was just putting on a show. However, if the case was to be made as to why the lesson shouldn’t be an example to all, I would suggest that some of the methods fly in the face of the evidence. Firstly, children “discovering” the ideas for themselves is not as effective a teaching method as telling them. The key paper to read about this is here. Secondly, the use of a sorting exercise is not necessarily particularly effective. I haven’t looked into the primary evidence but according to this blog the effect size for manipulatives in general is 0.37 and for manipulatives in algebra is 0.21. If you are familiar with the use of effect sizes, you are probably aware that John Hattie suggested that anything below 0.4 was of below average effectiveness. Finally, with regard to the content, if the whole “12 days of Christmas idea” is meant to make substitution and formulas more accessible, one has to wonder what the use of negative numbers in the second class was meant to mean  (“On Christmas minus five days, I debited my true love’s account with 10 presents”?)

Now these considerations do not mean that children will never learn well from these methods; even I am not that prescriptive about methods. Whether the teacher shown is effective or not would have to be judged by looking at the success (or otherwise) of her students. However, there is no good case for OFSTED repeatedly presenting this sort of lesson as good practice, and criticising the alternative when even their own chief inspector is aware that traditional teaching in secondary maths can be highly effective. There is definitely no excuse for OFSTED’s chief inspector going around telling teachers that traditional teaching is fine while his organisation is using their unaccountable power to enfore the progressive consensus quite brutally at the school level.

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26 comments

  1. Didn’t Wilshaw also give another example of an excellent lesson which was more, to use your terminology, progressive?

    I do hope you’re not being selective.


    • He did, but it was English not maths. I have been very careful here not to imply that he ever demanded traditional teaching or even praised it in all subjects the way he has for secondary maths.


  2. I’ve nothing against any of the lesson ideas presented per se (pretty much all lesson type can serve a purpose at some point if planned aprropriately) but to think that every maths lesson being like that would lead to some wonderous leaps forward in the quality of mathematical learning in England does not tie in with my experience.

    There is a need, at some point, for students to just get down and become fluent in using a skill answering suitably differentiated questions.

    I also have concerns at the assumption that if a student ‘figures something out for themselves’ then that is always better.

    Look at Pythagoras’ Theorm for example – yes I could set up some contrived lessons of practicals etc. where students eventually work out that a^2+b^2=c^2 – but why not let me share my knowledge with students so they can access a range of interesting problems using it much more quickly?


    • Not only, but… arguably, “standing on the shoulders of giants” is ITSELF a fundamental skill – assimilating the knowledge that has gone before, because if everyone had to figure everything out for themselves, we’d all still be hacking flints, not computers!


      • Absolutely. The whole point is some topics in maths lend themselves to solving complex problems, some to reasoning, some to discovery but others are better more didactically especially when exams and the society may require some things to be done in a specific often arbitrary way. How the hell can some deduce something that is technically arbitrary.


  3. I am not a maths teacher but I liked the way the clip suggested the teacher was anticipating later problems with algebra and addressing them in this early lesson.
    I agree that claiming it is better that children discover a rule is worrying and the relentless focus on these sorts of lessons when illustrating best practice is depressing.


  4. Actually having reflected on that clip my impression was that although she was clearly a great teacher and the buzz of purposeful activity created was admirable, a minority of those children were distinctly shaky on more basic stuff that was foundational to the activity. As a non maths teacher it looked like an interesting activity if comfortable with the calculations but for the weaker ones would the activity time have been spent reinforcing misconceptions?


  5. Personally if I was in the class I’d have enjoyed it without cut-and-stick cards which I used to absolutely hate. It seems good to attack questions like ‘will 2-n ever be the same as n-2′ in the way they did. I can imagine when they learn the usual method for solving equations like that it would actually all fit together quite satisfyingly. It forces them to learn why it works rather than just a method to recite.

    Having said that, being allowed to make errors repeatedly, being denied certain answers, and moving on without clarifying certain things would be very frustrating.

    It’s worth pointing out that this would only work with a class such as this, where the students show some interest in learning. Mixed ability/disruptive classes won’t stand not knowing the answers and having to ‘discover’ things for 2 minutes before they start complaining that it’s too difficult, the teacher should just tell them etc.

    I don’t think I ever sat through a cut and stick lesson which didn’t become anarchic after about 10 minutes because as soon as the teacher sat down to help one group the rest of the class realised they could get away with not working. That’s just how it goes. Discipline reform should come way before all this.


    • “It’s worth pointing out that this would only work with a class such as this, where the students show some interest in learning.”

      I think there is a really important more general point here.

      One of the examples posted on this blog recently came from St. Albans School for Girls; which has to be one of the least comprehensive comprehensives on the face of the planet. So of course the “progressive” lesson “worked” – sitting on your behind and doing absolutely flat NOTHING would probably “work” in that school. And have just as much wider applicability.


  6. I would LOVE to see all the OFSTED inspectors work for 4 weeks in rough uk schools with hidden cameras.

    I would pay handsomely.

    And not just a couple of honeymoon lessons… 4 solid weeks on a full TT and TG. (and SLT were not allowed to suddenly implement convenient exclusions)

    Thats time enough to experiment with their ‘voyages of inspirational discovery’.

    I suspect some inspectors could make a real go of it… but I bet plenty would full flat on their arses…. and what telly it would make!

    Cos your average UK school is NOT like St Albans Girls, let alone a bad UK school.

    As OA may have mentioned… its a battleground out there….


  7. The second lesson seemed much better than the first. There was more structure and the questions were much less of the ‘Guess what is in the teacher’s head’ sort of questions.

    Notice that when they are in groups , one kid often explains to the other in a very direct ‘These are the facts. Deal with it’ manner – the very sort of teaching that the teacher was trying to avoid.

    Why, in groupwork, do children attempt to teach other using such traditional methods as one child telling the other exactly what to do , while the other is silent, otherwise known as ‘Direct Instruction’?

    You would think that, once in groups, one child would let the other ‘discover’ the answer for themselves. But that never happens. They try to teach other other using ultra-traditional ‘talk and point’ methods.


    • Perhaps – Heaven forfend – that means that the children know more about good teaching practice than the teachers…


      • I have often wondered why one student ‘telling’ another student the answer is perceived as better than the teacher telling them the answer? I know this becomes a parody of what is often good ideas (getting students to discuss or work together) but when ofsted end up identifying ‘good practice’ it almost inevitably becomes that. Please some common sense and recognition that lessons are part of a process and should be a mix of different experiences.


  8. I am shocked this is an example of good practice. 5mins in there are several students with their hands up, for quite a while. They are clearly not ‘learning’ for this period of the lesson. One presumes therefore the lesson cannot be outstanding surely they must be learning for ALL the lesson!


  9. “You know what a great maths teacher does? Builds block by block to ensure that youngsters don’t move on until they understand the ground rules.”

    Must be great to be able to teach with no reference to a SoW in which a,b&c must be flown through before the next module test.


  10. […] (to a certain extent) to disregard Ofsted’s definition of outstanding teaching and learning (though even Ofsted struggle to agree on that)  and make our own minds up about what constitutes […]


  11. […] you may recall, my last blogpost (and the one before it) highlighted how OFSTED good practice, as featured in a series of youtube videos, tended to either […]


  12. […] schools. A number of blogs I have read over the past few weeks really struck a chord with me (particularly this one), as they so accurately reflect my own […]


  13. Looks like the clip has been taken down??


    • Yes, they all vanished right after I blogged about them. I can send you a transcript if you like.


  14. The video does not exist when I try to play it!


  15. […] and then the evidence of what good practice videos OFSTED present – see his blogpost here: http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/does-sir-michael-wilshaw-know-what-ofsted-good-…. With the uncertainty regarding ‘what OFSTED wants’, it only opens the door for […]


  16. […] and then the evidence of what good practice videos OFSTED present – see his blogpost here: http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/does-sir-michael-wilshaw-know-what-ofsted-good-…. With the uncertainty regarding ‘what OFSTED wants’, it only opens the door for fearful, rushed […]


  17. […] the extreme trendy end and I summarised them (and compared them with Michael Wilshaw’s views) here. Worse, OFSTED have claimed (for instance, in these course notes released under the Freedom of […]



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