h1

The Open-Ended Hypocrisy of OFSTED

September 16, 2013

A few weeks ago I drew attention to the ever increasing number of statements in the OFSTED handbook about having no one preferred style of teaching. This looked like progress. Something  also indicated by the following from a recent speech by Michael Gove:

…Ofsted’s guidance provided too little clarity about what constituted good teaching; or allowed inspectors’ personal prejudices and preferences to be interpreted as ‘the Ofsted way’.

As a result, and as teacher bloggers like Andrew Old have chronicled, time and again too much emphasis was given to particular practices like group work and discovery learning; while Ofsted inspectors marked teachers down for such heinous crimes as ‘talking too much’, ‘telling pupils things’ or ‘dominating the discussion’.

The good news is that Ofsted – under its inspirational new leadership – is moving to address all these weaknesses and give us a system of inspection of which we can be proud.

It was followed by an interview with Michael Wilshaw in the TES where he again said there was no one correct way to teach. Could we finally be moving on from OFSTED approved teaching methods?

I’m sure you can guess the answer.

A little earlier this evening on Twitter I was talking to @saraherowland . She was asking about “open-ended” questions. The idea of asking open-ended questions was big with the “thinking skills” people a few years back. The basic idea is that a question with a single right answer is a bad thing, whereas a question, or activity, where there is a variety of possible outcomes is a good thing. The underlying ideology is that we should teach thinking rather than knowledge and, therefore, questions and activities should provided opportunity for unstructured thought rather than simply lead to the recall or acquisition of knowledge. I’m a sceptic about this, partly because I think this is a flawed view of how the mind works and partly because I have seen it used by teachers to cover up their own poor subject knowledge.

Sarah explained that her interest was because it is what OFSTED want. And sure enough, I found the following from the last few months (and I deliberately avoided looking back too far.

From the OFSTED report for Treetops Nursery (London NW1) in March:

It is not yet outstanding because staff do not always respond to children’s interests and ideas and they do not always use open-ended questions to encourage children’s critical thinking skills and extend  their vocabulary

From the OFSTED report for Rhymes Nursery (Birmingham) in March:

Staff use some effective teaching methods; they follow children’s lead in their play and ask open-ended questions to extend and support children’s critical thinking.

From the OFSTED report for Hoath Primary School (Canterbury) in May:

It is not yet an outstanding school because…  Occasionally, opportunities are missed to involve pupils in more open-ended discussions…

From the OFSTED report for Oriel Primary School (Hounslow) in June:

It is not yet an outstanding school because… Occasionally in lessons, pupils are not reminded how what they learn can be applied in their day-to-day lives. Some activities are less interesting or open-ended, so pupils are not always fully motivated to learn in these lessons…

What does the school need to do to improve further?…. Increase the proportion of outstanding teaching by … ensuring investigational activities are more open-ended… giving children in the Nursery and Reception classes more open-ended activities…

In some day-to-day work, activities are not as open-ended as they could be, to capitalise on the exciting experiences they have.

Occasionally, activities are slightly predictable and not always openended to make the most of children’s desire to be creative.

From the OFSTED report on The Most Able Students published in June:

Weaker provision included the following characteristics… students being given the same homework tasks as other, less able, students with few examples of more challenging or open-ended tasks

While the OFSTED report for Kid Ease Nursery – Swingfield House in Folkestone does not appear to have been published yet, local press reports:

The inspector particulary liked the natural and calming dcor and noted how this ethos alongside use of natural objects and open ended resources meant that children were not disturbed by bright, noisy, plastic toys.

As ever, OFSTED’s lack of endorsement of specific types of teaching seems a lot less sincere when you look at what their people actually write. You can teach any way you like, as long as it’s open-ended.

19 comments

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. Excellent post! Gove cannot control the Blob.


  3. Ah, not necessarily interested because it’s WHAT Ofsted want – more interested in what they say they want. Many thanks for the conversation – it confirmed much and left much more to ponder.It was a pleasure.


  4. Interesting that many of the examples you found related to early years. I think it is important to add that some children in these settings have very little language and are not really talked to at home. In a nursery or Reception class open questions are a vital tool in getting children to develop their language.

    “Did you have a good holiday?” is likely to be responded to with a monosylable. “What was the best thing you did on your holiday?” will spark off a conversation. If the aim is to be teaching children to write sentences, they MUST have lots of practice speaking in sentences.

    I have taught across the primary age range, and in my opinion open questions are vital in the early years. I would be disturbed if I was observing EYFS staff who never used them. When moving up through the school and teaching content rather than social skills, however, closed questions are a valid tool.


    • I would have thought that closed questions were often important at any age.


      • Closed questioning is a valid tool. As is open questioning. The point is, if the latter (effectively used) is more likely to extend student thinking and observers see little use, or indeed see good use of open questioning, they are bound to comment and consider it in their judgement. Is that really an issue?

        I concede however, that the excerpts you have uncovered are, on the whole, trite and uninspiring examples of feedback from the inspectors.


        • The point is, if the latter (effectively used) is more likely to extend student thinking

          The point is that is not actually true, but is an opinion based on a particular pedagogical theory (and one which I would argue has little to support it). There’s no point OFSTED saying they have no preferred teaching style, and then enforcing such beliefs.


    • I am very much with you on the need to encourage young children to expand on ideas in their speech and think you make a very valid point. However, the reports also say things like these open ended questions are ‘to encourge children’s critical thinking skills’. That assumption is much more fraught.


  5. I read a very recent OFSTED report which included the following sentence under the section on teaching and learning (the school received a 3):

    ‘Teachers spend too long explaining things rather than allowing students enough time to learn by finding things out for themselves.’

    There was I thinking explanation was part of what we should be doing.


  6. “The idea of asking open-ended questions was big with the “thinking skills” people a few years back. The basic idea is that a question with a single right answer is a bad thing, whereas a question, or activity, where there is a variety of possible outcomes is a good thing. The underlying ideology is that we should teach thinking rather than knowledge and, therefore, questions and activities should provided opportunity for unstructured thought rather than simply lead to the recall or acquisition of knowledge. I’m a sceptic about this, partly because I think this is a flawed view of how the mind works and partly because I have seen it used by teachers to cover up their own poor subject knowledge.”

    I think this is the first time that we readers have been let into your thinking processes. I have found this paragraph very enlightening.

    You suggest that asking open ended question was big with “thinking skills” people a few years back. Your opinions of “thinking skills” are probably well known on here and it is interesting that you try to link the two in order to rubbish thinking skills and therefore open questioning.

    The “basic idea” is your perception of the issues that single answer is a bad thing whereas open questioning is a good thing. All teachers I know would argue that in some situations open questioning is appropriate and clearly on others closed questions are approapriate.

    You then shoehorn the thing back into the now laboured “knowledge is being squeezed out” assertion.

    I would be interested to know why you think the idea that sometimes open questions are appropriate in some learning situations is at odds with current understanding of how the mind works, but I understand that you might be reluctant to explain.

    The idea that you might have seen people using open questioning to hide their subject knowledge is interesting. I feel however that in this instance you are extrapolating beyond the data. Most teachers I have ever seen have asked a mixture of closed and open questions as appropriate illustrating their subject knowledge and their ability and willingness to engage in discussion which is often to be welcomed.

    None of the quotes you supply as evidence(?) suggest to me that Ofsted’s view is that closed questions are bad and open questions are good. None of these quotes suggest/imply that Ofsted’s view is that thinking skills should be given preference over knowledge acquisition.

    I read every example you quote as indicating that there should perhaps have been a better balance between closed and open questioning.

    And laslty…..

    “The point is that is not actually true, but is an opinion based on a particular pedagogical theory (and one which I would argue has little to support it).”

    Maybe you should have used the term “assert” as the last thing you are likely do is “argue”. It is most unlikely that you will present any argument for your assertion even though you will dismiss the assertions of others as opinion.

    I believe you are in danger of believing your own marketing. You repeatedly quote Michael Gove’s comments that include your views and blogs, but I think many are impressed that you seem to be with a Secretary of State for Education who makes policy based upon the writings of a few bloggers.

    You are doing a sterling job of refashioning the Glove/Old Andrew relationship but I think many will see your informal mutual admiration agreement as a little thin.

    I think this blogpost was one of the least thought out in recent times. Perhaps an attempt to be first off the blocks and perhaps an attempt to extend the lifespan of the old “Ofsted are at odds with Willshaw”, but either way it seems a bit misguided to me.


    • I’m slightly amused that you have identified my post as “the first time” for something and “one of the least thought out” because your response is pretty much what you write whenever an issue of pedagogy comes up.

      Once again, you have defended a method of teaching only by attributing an extreme position to anybody who criticises the hype in favour of it while glossing over the extent of that hype or the lack of sound arguments for that method. Once again you make a whole bunch of personal comments while complaining about other people’s lack of arguments. Once again I am left looking at my post and wondering what was not blatantly clear.

      Now, if you can demonstrate that open-ended questions are objectively better than closed questions (without making assumptions based on ideology) or if you can demonstrate that OFSTED have ever asked for fewer open-ended questions (i.e. there is something to balance the views quoted in the post) then you might have some kind of argument against what I’ve said. As things stand though, nothing you have said seems to cast any doubt on the key point here that OFSTED are promoting a particular type of teaching and it is one which reflects a particular philosophy of teaching, but it does cast doubt on your capacity to reflect accurately what others have written.


  7. This touches upon a comment I made a few months back.

    Over the years I have found some inspectors and teachers are dogmatic about their beliefs about AfL and open ended questioning and in my view ARE dismissive of any form of extended lecturing or explanation.

    I also know of kids that are sick to death of ‘discovery learning’ and discussion based activities. I have heard many kid say “Miss/Sir- can’t you just teach us/tell us?”.

    Not only have I observed that in classes, I have dealt with some parental complaints along those lines– and if I am honest, I have had the odd kid say it to me.

    But my main issue is with the quotes OA has provided. BT0558 is suggesting the inspectors are making a comment on the RATIO of closed to open questions (if I understand him/her correctly)

    But I would ask how could the inspectors possibly know?

    Unless they watch a SERIES of lessons back to back with the same class how CAN they make comments about the open/closed questions ratio OVERALL?

    There was a time when a well explained demonstration, a clear theoretic explanation, a couple of clear worked examples and well chosen written questions, polished off with an appropriate homework being set and summary discussion to ensure understanding were seemed competent teaching. Nay- good teaching.

    MUST we now have coloured cups, 15 video clips, 2 discovery projects and 30 scribble boards to qualify as good?

    Im sorry if some think Im parodying but I really am not (much). Myself I like variety in my teaching up to a point but some teaching is a bit formulaic and some lessons more inspiring than others- but all the lessons have their place and worth.

    From what I can garner there is still a gap between Wilshaw and his staff ‘on the ground’ – I think its helpful OA raises a debate on this issue.


    • Rob, very recently, the person in charge of learning at my school, claimed that a recent Ofsted training day showed film of what had been considered outstanding teaching by AST teachers. It is now considered to be Requiring Improvement.
      How can this be I ask myself? Unless there is a particular form or way to teach that has changed over time – the goalposts moving. I can see and understand the need to show progress, in a lesson and over time- in many ways it’s back to the future, as those who went through the original Ofsted inspection will remember work scrutiny was part of the process. But to me it’s like the new and improved formula Daz – what was wrong with the old one and why wasn’t it seen at the time?


      • Well for those of us who have been in this game for quite a few years, you get used to moving goal posts and fads.

        My solution? Throw enough different things at the kids so that whatever boxes the inspector has on his/her sheet you have a chance of enough ticks.

        For me, good Q&A is the trick with classes. Judge that right and the kids will like you and they will gain from your expertise.

        If I had to run my own school I would insist on lots of judgement-free peer observations, regular internal standardised testing and a very strict behaviour policy that all staff had to stick to.

        If those 3 things are in place I say let the teachers teach in the way they prefer.

        As for OFSTED week? I’d stick my finger in the wind to try and judge what the OFSTED current vogue is and ask my staff to do a few OSTED friendly things to hedge our bets a bit but otherwise to carry on as normal.


  8. […] Wilshaw has been at pains to point out that Ofsted has no preferred style or method of teaching as chronicled by the teacher blogger Andrew Old, so that comment seems out of sync with these announcements. An assembly to launch work experience […]


  9. “I have taught across the primary age range, and in my opinion open questions are vital in the early years.”

    Thanks, Sunshine. I’m not sure that I ‘get’ the whole argument but I can’t understand why ‘open questions’ arene’t important, particularly for children who don’t have much experience of language-rich environment.


  10. […] as Andrew Old has catalogued at length in his campaign against them, many OFSTED inspectors still aren’t listening to Wilshaw’s claim that they ‘aren’t looking for any particular teaching style’. Many are […]


  11. […] believe that a severe limitation of this model is the lack of challenge and access to higher order thinking skills, but as noted here, multiple choice questions can be extremely challenging if constructed […]



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: