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I’ll Accept No Excuses for OFSTED

September 27, 2013

My last blogpost listed a whole bunch of examples of recent OFSTED publications which showed an organisation still wedded to the progressive orthodoxy that teacher talk is bad and students should work independently and maybe even discover things for themselves. There was one particular line of response to this I was expecting, and I did predict it, but I didn’t predict where it would come from. Mary Myatt, who was an OFSTED inspector who was lead inspector on one of the inspections whose reports I quoted and also writes a rather good blog, blogged the following in response:

First of all, teacher talk is neither good or bad per se. But the quality of teacher talk does matter. There are lessons where the teacher talks for a long time, but the talk is definitely adding to learning because it is usually explaining, outlining problems, highlighting difficulties and encouraging pupils to engage with the topic. Other lessons where the teacher is talking for too long are not contributing to learning. And this is usually because pupils already know what they are expected to do and are keen to get cracking. So we need to think about how much talk is needed and when to let the children start their own work. And again whether this work is silent and solitary or paired and voluble is neither good or bad in itself. It is good or bad in so far as it contributes to learning.

So I think Andrew has a case if the inspection reports he found had said that teaching was not outstanding because there was no use of six hats, coloured cups or Kagan structures etc. However the reports are identifying some of the things which stopped progress being as good as it might have been. So it is not unreasonable to say that in these circumstances the quality of teacher talk was not having the impact it might have had. [my italics]

I was expecting somebody to make the argument that just because OFSTED repeatedly attacks teacher talk, that doesn’t mean they are in any way against it. It just means they happen to have seen some teacher talk and, objectively and without prejudice, decided it was bad. Although I was expecting this argument to appear in the comments from one of my regular commentators rather than in a blog, I had done my best to pre-empt it. I had written:

I don’t want to suggest that there is never a problem with teacher talk and that it would be fine just to lecture, but reports which condemn teacher talk for its quantity, rather than its quality, suggest an ideological position about the best way to learn that still urgently needs to be addressed. [emphasis added]

I had added this to indicate that I would challenge any attempt to spin the OFSTED reports as condemning only particular instances of poor quality teacher talk rather than showing a hostility to teacher talk. Evidently I didn’t make this clear enough. So let me spell it out:

  1. I easily found multiple examples of teacher talk being condemned, I found only one example of an explanation being praised. This does not suggest neutrality.
  2. The phrases used explicitly complain about the quantity of teacher talk, not the quality. There were five separate instances of the words “too long” being used to describe talking or explaining. There were no explicit descriptions of the quality of the talk.
  3. Other phrases used showed clear preferences for teaching methods. It is apparently possible to be “too didactic” and for lessons to be “too dominated by the teacher” for OFSTED’s tastes. Students should be working “independently” and “find things out for themselves” or “explore”.
  4. This is an organisation whose bias against teacher talk has been observed or suggested countless times before. Enough times for the secretary of state for education to condemn it; enough times for consultants to offer courses in “Talkless Teaching” to impress inspectors; enough times for teachers up and down the country to report that they had been given arbitrary time limits on talking during lesson observations by their schools. It is also an organisation whose utterances are studied by schools to identify what is wanted. Even if the anti-teacher talk message in the reports was accidental, they are still culpable as the likely consequences are obvious.

So, no, this excuse fails to convince. If it convinces you, come back to me when you find a recent OFSTED report complaining that teachers did not spend enough time explaining content, that students spent too long working independently, or that learning was harmed by reliance on students discovering things for themselves rather than being told about them by their teachers.

17 comments

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. Perfectly explained. We have to keep fighting the lack of expertise in OfSTED observations.


  3. Oooh hear hear!!! When I was studying on my PGCE course, we were constantly being told “Don’t talk or tell your students things”. In the observations, we were not allowed to “talk” for more than 10 minutes and even that was deemed to be “didactic”. I was once told I was too “schoolmarmish”. The subject I taught required that I explain, then show students how to do x or y before giving them an opportunity to try it for themselves and then to practice it. But that wasn’t deemed to be good practice. I was told I should let them “find out for themselves”. This was IT – if that is the case, why am I even there? (I would say that though I passed my PGCE a while ago, I decided I didn’t want to go into teaching in any sector (school or FE) – I just couldn’t bear the silliness and ideology that was involved.)


    • Same here, alas. Any kind of explaining was frowned upon. The only talk allowed was instructions for inane activities, which I was embarrassed to inflict upon my students. (I had no choice!)

      My PGCE memoir: readergetsangry.notlong.com


  4. When I tutored for Teach First I observed dozens of trainees teach dozens of lessons, in a lot of different schools. I had a form to complete for each one linked to a set of standards, which I imagine is reasonably analogous to an Ofsted inspector’s practice.

    Perhaps some of them might do what I choose to do which was expend as little time and effort on the paperwork as the system demanded but as much time as possible and always the same day, in listening to and talking to the teacher I’d observed, about their lesson, in detail.


  5. That’s a fair point Andrew and indeed you did include it in your original post. Overall though I think quality has to trump quantity, which leaves us free to talk as long as we think necessary. In the reports you identified it was the amount of talk which affected quality of progress. The practice you highlight in your last para is usually described in reports along lines of lessons lacking focus.


    • I think you are contradicting yourself here. One moment you admit it’s about quality of talk, then you complain about the quantity. Saying the quantity affected “the quality of progress” doesn’t get round the problem that a complaint about quantity suggests that quantity, not quality, is the issue. It would be ridiculously kind to interpret all complaints about quantity of teacher talk in OFSTED reports as veiled complaints about quality, particularly given the background.


      • The amount of talk is an issue when students are keen to start and it’s also not great for progress when students are working but are interrupted for things like ‘checking’ on how much they’ve learnt when they are barely underway.


        • Surely that’s the sequencing, not the quantity?


          • Yes, you are right in identifying the latter as sequencing rather than quantity. I stand corrected!


          • I have known teachers who really just needed to shut up. But the complaint should *never* be quantity alone, particularly after all that’s happened.


          • Agreed. If you come across any reports which refer only to quantity without making any reference to impact could you let me know? I’ll also do the same.


  6. I have just read the following discussion on TES:

    http://community.tes.co.uk/tes_opinion/f/31/t/678016.aspx?pi2132219857=2

    Of course, if you care to trawl the Inspection Forum you will find many more of a similar vein.. It really does beggar belief.


  7. “If you come across any reports which refer only to quantity without making any reference to impact could you let me know?”

    Hang on, if it mentions quantity and a negative impact it still implies that the quantity was the problem. A reference to impact shouldn’t get anyone off the hook.


    • Well in so far as students wanting to get cracking then the quantity of talk having a negative impact is not just implied it is explicit. You are right to say that quantity of itself should not be identified as a problem.


      • Why? Kids wanting to work immediately does not mean that they should.


      • If kids want to get cracking straightaway, it’s generally because they aren’t listening, and so haven’t a clue about what they’re supposed to do. It’s hard to see how that could be a good thing.



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