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What is outstanding?

By M J Bromley

This blog was written for SecEd Magazine

To view the original article, click here

To read the related article, The ingredients of an outstanding lesson, click here

I spend a lot of time travelling the country speaking to teachers and school leaders, and the question I am asked more than any other is this: what is an outstanding lesson?[1]

My answer? Rather disappointingly: ‘There is no silver bullet.’

Let me explain…

I’ve taught and observed a lot of lessons in my time and I think I’m pretty good at recognising an outstanding one when I see it. I knew – by some sort of sixth sense, I presume – when I’d taught an outstanding lesson (and, acutely, when I hadn’t); I know now when I’m observing an outstanding lesson (and, painfully, when I’m not). I can wax lyrical for hours – as you’ll know if you’ve ever sat next to me on the tube – about all the examples of outstanding teaching and learning I’ve seen and heard over the years and about the ‘spark’ that makes some teachers better than others and some lessons better than others.

Having wasted – I mean, fruitfully dedicated – many a long night to reading the stacks of guidance Ofsted provides for its inspectors, I’m pretty confident I know how Ofsted – the faceless, monolithic institution as opposed to the individuals who toil under its name – differentiates between an outstanding lesson and a good one.

And yet when I am asked that question – what is outstanding? – I struggle to furnish my inquisitors with an answer of clarity or certainty. Why? Because – to quote Ofsted – “there are many routes to excellence”[2]…

An outstanding lesson cannot be reduced to a checklist or formula, although many schools try to do just that. To prescribe a formula for teaching outstanding lessons is to ignore the rather important fact that what makes one lesson outstanding might not necessarily do the same for another lesson, and what works for one teacher with one class might not suit another teacher and another class. As Ofsted says, “No two schools are the same and there is no simple formula that will make a school outstanding” and, I’d add, no two lessons are the same either and there is no simple formula that will make a lesson outstanding. Not very helpful, is it? Or is it? Bear with me…

The chief inspector of schools, Michael Wilshaw, during a speech to the RSA in May 2012, was asked to define outstanding teaching. In reply, he said something which I have long argued myself: that there is not just one but a multitude of definitions. Outstanding teaching can take many forms: as many forms, indeed, as there are teachers and as many forms as there are students. Wilshaw said we – and he explicitly included Ofsted in this – “should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching, whether it be a three part lesson, an insistence that there should be a balance between teacher-led activities and independent learning, or that the lesson should start with aims and objectives [and have] a plenary at the end and so on.”

Wilshaw went on to describe two teachers who he’d worked with at the Mossborne Academy: one was an all-singing-all-dancing English teacher whose ‘whizz bang’ lessons were full of variety and vitality; the other was a didactic Maths teacher who favoured traditional ‘chalk and talk’ methods. Both were outstanding, he said. Why? Because both teachers cared about their students and worked hard to ensure that every student, irrespective of background and ability, made exceptional progress and achieved his or her true potential[3].

The inspection framework echoes this view. It cautions that “inspectors must not expect teaching staff to teach in any specific way or follow a prescribed methodology” and that “not all aspects of learning will be seen in a single observation”.

At the London Festival of Education in October 2012, Wilshaw was challenged by a member of the audience about what Ofsted was really looking for when it inspected schools. It seems I was not the only one to have stared into the yawning chasm that existed between what Wilshaw and his framework said inspectors should do and what his inspectors actually practised on the ground. Wilshaw was asked to confirm or deny that, essentially, “all [that] inspectors are looking for is [the answer to] three questions: 1. Are all pupils being challenged? 2. Are all pupils making progress? and 3. Are all pupils at least engaged and at best inspired?” Wilshaw gave a clear and definite answer: YES! He went on to explain that “Ofsted does not have a preferred style of teaching”. Instead, inspectors “will simply judge teaching on whether children are engaged, focused, learning, and making progress…and in the best lessons [are] being inspired”.

Although he was at pains to make clear that Ofsted does not have a preferred style of teaching, he did set out what style of teaching it hopes never to see: “We don’t want to see lessons that are too crowded, too frenetic, with too many activities designed to impress”, he said.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph in November 2012, the chief inspector said too many teachers were attempting to break lessons up into bite-sized chunks instead of allowing pupils to complete extended reading or writing tasks. In some cases, he argued, the ‘big show’ teachers put on to impress inspectors led to worse teaching and to inadequate lessons. Ofsted’s 2012 annual report (also published in November 2012) said that the worst lessons relied too heavily on worksheets and on teachers talking too much. “We don’t want to see that,” Wilshaw warned afterwards; “We want to see children learning…and if they are reading a text or doing extended writing – and all the teacher is doing is monitoring – then that’s fine”.

‘Fine’ might not be as strong a word as ‘outstanding’ but it’s still empowering stuff, isn’t it? After years of being told our teaching has to fit into a particular mould and after years of being given lesson plans with a growing number of tick-boxes of things we must include (from De Bono’s Thinking Hats to WALT and WILF), we are now being accorded the freedom to do it our own way. I can hear Frank Sinatra’s band striking up in the distance…

Still sceptical? Wondering if Wilshaw and I are to be believed? Well, I don’t blame you for having reservations: we’ve all heard tell of – or indeed experienced for ourselves – an inspection whereby the Ofsted team arrives at the school gates with a very fixed mindset, only willing to pin the ‘outstanding’ rosette on teachers whose preferred style of teaching precisely matches the HMI’s and, even then, only if the observed lesson achieves perfection in every way, not a technical glitch nor bored pupil in sight. And, more often than not, inspectors are looking for “whizz-bang” not “chalk and talk”.

It does seem to guile many school leaders that Wilshaw preaches the need for robust, rigorous leadership when it’s clear he hasn’t yet got his own house in order. When the dichotomy between Wilshaw’s words and his troops’ actions was pointed out to the inspectorate in early 2013, it simply said that ‘some inspectors are being moved on’. So, yes, there is a dichotomy between what the chief inspector says he wants and what his inspectors actually look for in lesson observations. But, to give Wilshaw his credit, he’s articulated his ‘horses for courses’ approach to pedagogy on several occasions since coming to post and he really does seem to believe it. I disagree with him on many, many things but on the subject of the elusive ‘outstanding lesson judgment’ we happily concur.

So we know what an outstanding lesson is not… it is not formulaic, it is not frenetic, it is not bite-sized learning and a side order of teacher-talk. But what is it? It’s easy to say ‘do it your way’ and hope for the best, but that’s not why you’re reading this. You want some help… well, here goes…

As I’ve already pointed out, in his speech at the Festival of Education, Wilshaw defined ‘outstanding’ as being when “children enjoyed their lessons, were engaged, were focused, learnt a great deal and made real progress”. An outstanding lesson, Wilshaw said, was “about what works” and he made a plea to his inspectors to apply “pragmatism not ideology in the way we judge the quality of teaching”.

So my advice is this: we should take Wilshaw at his word and challenge any inspector or school leader who observes our lesson and judges it on whether or not it fits a particular mould, on whether or not it is a three- or four-part lesson with objectives at the beginning and a plenary at the end. Instead, we should strive to teach lessons in which all our pupils are challenged, all our pupils make progress, and all our pupils are at least engaged and at best inspired.

Before I go on, I’d like to linger awhile on that word ‘progress’ because I think there’s a misunderstanding of what ‘progress’ actually means in practice. I have heard horror stories about schools which dictate that every teacher should stop every lesson every ten minutes in order to ‘check progress’. This, for me, is a classic example of the adage, ‘weighing the pig doesn’t make it fatter’. In other words, stopping pupils’ learning to check whether those pupils are learning necessarily starves them of the time to learn: they can’t make progress because they’re not given the opportunity to do so.

And what is progress anyway? To the best of knowledge, Ofsted only mentions the notion of progress being made in a lesson once in its hundreds, nay thousands of pages of advice and guidance. It refers to pupils making ‘progress over time’ quite a lot but this is something that is judged, not solely through lesson observations, but through an analysis of progress data and by talking to pupils and staff. ‘Progress’ is something that can be demonstrated over time because, given days and weeks, teachers and pupils will have engaged in some form of formative assessment and will know whether or not the pupil has moved closer to achieving his or her target. It’s not always possible to demonstrate real progress within an hour and even more of a challenge when there are thirty or so pupils to assess. Also, progress can sometimes be the culmination of a number of interconnecting factors; it can be a circuitous journey not always traversed in a straight line. Some lessons might involve pupils reading in silence for an hour or writing an essay in exam conditions[4]. Progress cannot confidently be measured during such a lesson. It is only when the teacher has had sight of the pupil’s work that that they will know if the pupil has made real progress or not.

No, ‘progress’ is something that takes place and is measured over time; ‘learning’ is what needs to take place in every lesson. I think it’s useful to replace the word ‘progress’ with the word ‘learning’ when referring to individual lesson observations because, as I say, it might be impossible or obtrusive to measure progress within a lesson but we need to be confident that every pupil has learnt something in every lesson or else what’s the point? And by ‘learning’ I mean that every pupil knows something at the end of the lesson that they didn’t at the beginning, or that pupils have been accorded the opportunity to apply and therefore secure some prior learning; or that pupils have acquired a skill during the lesson, or that pupils have been accorded the opportunity to apply and therefore secure a skill they’d acquired previously. If we can’t confidently say that all the pupils in our class have done this then surely our lesson has failed. And let me make clear that the knowledge or skill being acquired or applied can be anything that enables progress. If you’re about to start teaching a new poem, for example, one lesson could be usefully spent igniting a ‘spark’, drawing pupils in to the ideas, themes, and attitudes and emotions in the poem, bringing the poem to life and helping it to make sense. If the poem is, say, Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ (which my eldest daughter, who’s in Year 5, studied today), then a lesson could fruitfully be spent bringing to life the Crimean War so that pupils had a deep understanding of the events and themes in the poem and could connect more fully with it when presented with the text. I know the response this suggestion will elicit from some: we haven’t the time to ignite sparks – we’ve a syllabus to get through! I do know the pressures and I do know how much ‘content’ has to be taught but I also know that deeper learning is achieved when pupils are engaged, are hooked, and that a lesson spent drawing them in will pay dividends over time. Also, there are ways of managing the ‘content’ such as using homework for some reading and writing tasks, and lesson time for the kinds of learning that need a teacher and a group of pupils talking to each other, sharing ideas. I also know that a lesson spent engaging pupils will lead to much faster learning next time – so a lesson spent exploring the Crimean War will ensure a much speedier – not to mention, deeper – analysis of the poem later.

And, yes, I also walk the walk… When I taught the poem, ‘Blessing’, to a GCSE class a few years ago, I spent a full lesson talking about water. I entered the classroom flustered and frustrated[5]. I told the class I wasn’t in a very good mood because the water had been cut off at home over the weekend. I painted a vivid picture of the distress it had caused my family, I listed all the inconveniences it has created and explained how my initial agitation had grown into anger as I’d started to appreciate how integral water was to my life: I had not been able to wash, clean my teeth, flush the toilet, cook a meal or make a cup of coffee (the actual list was much, much longer than this) for two days. I told the class that when the water was eventually turned back on late on Sunday afternoon, the pipes made a ‘glug-glug’ sound before spewing out dirty water. To prove the point, I produced a glass of dirty-water with mysterious bits of brown floating in it[6] and asked the class how desperate they’d have to be to drink it. I said I had got pretty close on Sunday and dared the class to take a sip, promising them a merit if they did so. After some bartering, a pupil (a burly boy, obviously) volunteered and much ‘urrghh-ing’ ensued.

From there, the class – not me – started to talk about parts of the developing world where water is precious and only available at the end of a very long walk through difficult terrain and in unbearable heat. They conjured up images of women carrying jugs of water on their heads and of starving children agitated by flies. They – not I – imagined how these people would feel if they were suddenly given the gift of running water like I had on Sunday afternoon. They said it would be like being given loads of money, like silver coins pouring from the kitchen tap[7]. They said my story had made them think about how we took running water for granted. And I knew I had them exactly where I wanted them. I knew that when I turned to the poem, they’d understand it, picture it, empathise with it and, crucially, be able to write about it in an exam with enthusiasm and feeling, if nothing else then because they’d remember the time “Mr Bromley’s water was cut off and he just came in and ranted about it instead of making us do proper work”[8].

Did that lesson conform to any formula? Did it tick boxes? No. Did it start with objectives and end with a plenary? No, it was rambling and fluid. Could I demonstrate real progress? Not really, not in any tangible sense that could be pegged to assessment objectives. But did that lesson have impact? Did pupils learn something that helped them to make progress over time? Yes and yes. Their verbal responses to the poem a lesson later, and the written responses that followed, gave me all the proof I needed that they understood the emotions and attitudes the poet was trying to express and – helping pupils to access the higher attainment bands – they were able to provide a personal response to the poem or, to use the language of the assessment objectives, they were able to “respond to texts imaginatively” and “relate texts to their social, cultural and historical contexts” explaining “how texts have been influential and significant to self and other readers”. I know this is an example of an English Literature lesson but the idea of igniting sparks by doing something different, something that does not conform to formula, applies equally to every subject.

So the word ‘progress’ is, I believe, misleading. Instead, our ‘key ingredients’ for an outstanding lesson should be these:

- all our pupils are challenged,

- all our pupils learn something,

- all our pupils are at least engaged and at best inspired.

If you want more, then this is my longer list of ingredients…

An outstanding lesson is the culmination of:

- engagement,

- challenge,

- questioning,

- independent learning,

- assessment,

- progress.

And then there’s outstanding behaviour which isn’t about compliance but is actually outstanding behaviour for learning.

I explain each of these six ingredients in detail here

If you’re still not content, then Michael Wilshaw has also shared his own, longer recipe for success. Wilshaw’s recipe contains the following ingredients, each of which I explain and comment on below:

1. Planning

Wilshaw has said that, in every outstanding lesson he’s seen, “planning was everything”. Teachers planned their lessons so that they knew what they were going to do, knew what resources they were going to deploy, and knew roughly how long each activity would take. “But,” Wilshaw said, the teachers “also understood that planning shouldn’t be too detailed.” And once again I find myself in agreement with Wilshaw. When it comes to planning, less is definitely more. I know some teachers who spend at least as long planning a lesson as it takes to teach it. This is unsustainable and, more importantly, ineffective. Intricate lesson plans encourage the teacher to stick to the plan. If a teacher has spent half an hour or more planning a lesson, then they’re less inclined to go ‘off plan’ and allow for tangents because this would be to admit that the time they spent planning was wasted. Such detailed planning also tends to be done a week or more in advance, perhaps at the weekends, which is also problematic because lesson plans should plan for progress: in other words, the lesson should be planned in order to allow gaps to be filled and those gaps will only become apparent at the end of the previous lesson or once the teacher has marked the work that pupils completed during the last lesson. In this sense, assessment is itself a form of planning because only by marking pupils’ work will a teacher know what each pupil has and has not grasped and, therefore, what they need to teach next.

Wilshaw goes on to say that the best planning acts as a framework which accords teachers the “necessary flexibility to adapt to a different way of teaching at key moments in the lesson when the mood of the class, as it inevitably does, changes”. The best teachers recognise that “the worst lessons are those where the teacher ploughs through the lesson plan irrespective of how well or badly the lesson is going”.

Yes, less is definitely more. And now there is no formal requirement for teachers to produce lesson plans there is no excuse but to embrace the brevity of the five minute plan. Not only do inspectors no longer require a lesson plan but they will actively refuse to accept one when it is proffered. Ofsted differentiates between a lesson plan and evidence that a lesson is planned. This might sound like plain old semantics to you but there is a real difference: a lesson plan is a piece of paper which may bear no relation to what actually happens in the classroom, it is the best case scenario, a showcase. But evidence that a lesson is planned comes from observing it, from being able to see that the teacher knows the pupils well and is providing them with an opportunity to fill the gaps in their learning and/or to build on or apply their prior learning. Evidence of planning is evidence that the teacher is joining the dots and planning for progress over time.

2. Self-reflective teaching

Secondly, Wilshaw calls for “reflective teachers who … adapt their lesson plans when things [don’t] go well” and asks that, at the end of a lesson or the end of the day, teachers “go back to the lesson plan and change it”. Because the best teachers are reflective people, they know they don’t have all the answers and are prepared to learn from their mistakes and from colleagues. In practice, this might mean talking about their teaching and willingly, nay eagerly inviting other teachers into their classrooms in order to observe and give feedback on their teaching, as well as observing other teachers’ lessons as often as possible. Wilshaw says the best teachers acknowledge that, no matter how experienced they are, teaching is a learning experience.

Teacher Learning Communities, which I talk about in detail here, are a great way to get teachers into the habit of self-reflection, as are planned programmes of peer observations.

3. Perceptive teachers

Thirdly, the best teachers are very perceptive people who understand the dynamics of the classroom. They quickly notice when the pace of the lesson falters and when students become disengaged and attentions start to wander. Wilshaw says the best teachers “are quick to notice when the classroom hubbub [has] reached an unacceptable level [and when] Jack the Lad [is] messing about at the back of the room”. Crucially, these teachers are also quick to notice when a pupil finds the work difficult to understand and needs more help. “In other words,” Wilshaw says, the best teachers are “highly interventionist [and know] how to dictate the pace of the lesson”. I like to think of it as spinning plates. The cliché of the teacher who’s got eyes in the back of his head is a cliché for a reason.

4. Good progress

Fourthly, the best teachers understand the maxim that nothing is taught unless it’s learnt. They measure their success on whether children are learning in every lesson and making rapid progress over time. Wilshaw said that whenever he observed outstanding teachers, “they would stop the class at regular intervals and say ‘I just want to check that you’ve learnt this’ [and] they were all great at picking out the inattentive child to ensure that he or she understood the importance of keeping up”. This might seem to contradict my earlier statement about checking progress every ten minutes. Yes and no. I do disagree with Wilshaw that the lesson has to be ‘stopped’ in order to check that every pupil has learnt something… checking learning should be part of the lesson not an aside. But I think he is right to suggest that good teachers know that every pupil is learning. Sometimes, checking learning (notice I don’t use the phrase ‘checking progress’) is as easy and unobtrusive as sensing that pupils are with you, are following the flow of the lesson. Yes, I think we teachers – if we know our pupils well – are intuitive and sometimes ‘just know’… but that’s not always enough. Sometimes we need to make the learning visible; we need not only to check that pupils are learning but to show them that they’re learning so they, too, can recognise the progress they’re making over time. Showing pupils what they’re learnt has the advantage of motivating them and this can propel them forwards, eager to learn something else or to apply their learning. Also, making the learning visible helps pupils to understand not just what they’re learnt, but how they’ve learnt it. This is a transferrable skill that will help them to make further progress.

Here are a few examples of how we can check learning without stopping the lesson:

- Traffic lights: give pupils red, amber, and green cards (or make them a part of the student planner). Red means ‘I’m struggling and need some help’. Amber means ‘I’m ok but I could do with some help’. Green means ‘I’m happy, I know what I’m doing’.

- Thumbs up: similar to traffic lights but with thumbs down instead of red, thumbs held horizontally instead of amber and thumbs up instead of green.

- Write the objectives: don’t share the learning objectives at the beginning of the lesson and instead, at the end of the lesson, ask pupils to reflect on what they’ve learnt and write what they think the objectives must’ve been.

- WWW + EBI: the ‘two stars and a wish’ idea which is like Marmite, you either love it or you hate it. The idea is simple: ask pupils to assess What Went Well in the lesson and to decide an Even Better If…

- The question box: place a box by the classroom door and let pupils know they can drop questions into it at any point during the lesson. The questions can be anonymous in order to avoid the fear of asking and don’t even need to be shared with the class. The teacher checks the question box at various times during the lesson and uses the questions to identify gaps in pupils’ learning which will then inform lesson planning.

- Mini-whiteboards: these can be used in myriad ways. For example, the teacher could ask a question to check that pupils have learnt something and ask pupils to write the answer on the mini-whiteboards and hold them up to show a sea of answers. The teacher can see in an instant where everybody is in his or her learning.

But, above all, I would advocate checking learning through self-, peer- and teacher-assessment, and through the re-drafting process. In terms of re-drafting, there is no better lesson: once you or pupils have marked a piece of work and given it some formative targets (such as, “To get to the next stage, you need to: 1. Write in a variety of sentences, using at least one simple, one compound, and one complex sentence in each paragraph, 2. Write in paragraphs which start with a connective phrase e.g. ‘Firstly’ and ‘Therefore’, 3. Use at least one rhetorical question e.g. ‘Do you think it’s right…?’”), set aside a full lesson for pupils to redraft their work, addressing their formative targets. This has several advantages: it is a perfect example of differentiation because every pupil is working on something different, something unique to their needs; it gives assessment purpose; it affords pupils time to act on feedback and to demonstrate progress over time. The piece of work that results from this lesson will provide solid evidence of learning. It’s easy to see, for example, whether or not a pupil has used a variety of sentences and, therefore, whether or not they have learnt from the feedback.

5. Resilient teachers

Finally, the best teachers Wilshaw observed were “incredibly resilient people who withstood the slings and arrows and the occasional paper dart unflinchingly”. Moreover, “they never let failure get the better of them; they learnt from it and came back stronger, tougher and better teachers”. Teachers need to model good learning for pupils. We are always learning and should receive feedback warmly and with enthusiasm for it will help us to be better teachers and will help our pupils to make better progress which is surely why we do what we do.

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT OUTSTANDING LESSONS HERE.


[1] Serves me right for delivering training courses called ‘The secret of outstanding lessons’.

[2] English Subject Report, Ofsted, May 2012

[3] My words; not Wilshaw’s.

[4] Some readers will shudder at the antiquated idea of silent reading or writing: but remember what Wilshaw said: we need to move away from ‘bite-sized’ learning and provide pupils with the opportunity to engage in extended reading and writing activities. Being able to read or write for an hour is an important skill for pupils to learn and will allow for deeper learning. So long as it is combined with different types of lesson, it is perfectly acceptable and could – placed in context – be ‘outstanding’.

[5] This in itself was unusual – I normally greeted pupils at the door so they knew from the fact I was ‘late’ that something was amiss. It grabbed their attention immediately.

[6] A glass of tap water with a few coffee granules and some broken chunks of chocolate creates a very powerful effect!

[7] The poet, Imtiaz Dharker, uses this simile, too, and I made sure I reminded the pupil who’d first volunteered the idea of comparing water with money that they had made the same connection as a professional poet: they beamed with pride and so did I.

[8] A genuine quote from a pupil in that class: I asked them about a lesson with impact which helped them make progress and some pupils listed this one and told me they learnt a lot without even realising they were learning.

M J Bromley is an education writer, lecturer, and consultant headteacher.

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