I have some half-formed ideas floating about in my head that reflect some misgivings I’ve had for some time. These relate to dominant ideas about teaching, learning and the whole nonsense of ‘lessons’. When I met a new head, many years ago, I remember her saying to me that what she wanted to see was ‘at any given time, there was learning going on’. Well apart from it being highly unlikely that there would be no learning going on (unless, I suppose one is unconscious), I took issue with the whole idea of ‘snapshots’ showing anything useful at all. This is because I don’t believe it’s all about lessons and particularly not about whether learning has taken place between the start of the lesson and the end of the lesson. For ‘lessons’ read ‘sessions’, since this is what it seems to mean to school leaders, OFSTED and many teachers.
I don’t want to see that my pupils have made progress from the start to the end of the session. I don’t care about that. I want to know that I’m educating my pupils – something which is not defined or limited by their behaviour changes within periods of time assigned to sessions. To wax anecdotal for a minute, I know where some of my best learning came from in my own primary school and it wasn’t about any single lesson. It was about taking a subject area, whatever it was, driving it forward over a period of time and taking it as far as we wanted to go. It required teacher expertise and access to quality materials. There may have been ‘lessons’ or even ‘sessions’ but I wasn’t aware of them as discrete events.
I think, for a long time, we’ve been forced (particularly for observations) to teach ‘show’ lessons; to perform a lesson, hoping for the best and hoping that they see what we’re trying to do and that it doesn’t end in tears. I’m glad that OFSTED are suggesting a move away from this focus, but it’s taken long enough. I may also have finally persuaded leaders in my own school to look at lessons in context and to hold a discussion with teachers about what they’re doing and why – where they’re going with the lesson – where it’s come from. That’s also taken long enough. But it’s still about observing lessons – about snapshots – and they’ll still expect to see whether pupils ‘have learned’ within that lesson. As if that’s something that can be seen, anyway. What if the learning were being measured, even according to the greatly flawed, ham-fisted, descriptors we’ve been given? What if they all showed ‘learning’ at the end of the lesson? Are they actually being educated? I wonder if much of the frustration at the failure to embed effective AfL practices can be laid at the door of this type of lesson. We’re still not doing it properly, apparently. We don’t have time for it in our lessons. We’re not assessing the pupils’ learning properly. It’s all a bit of a shoe-horn operation. But I wonder if we’re focussed on educating, rather than teaching lessons and measuring learning, whether the formative assessment wouldn’t just be a part of the whole process.