First, some context. Ofsted are the National body in the UK that inspects state-funded education. Recently (January 2012) a new inspection framework was produced that streamlined some 22 categories into only 4. Consequently, we had begun hearing some horror stories of many schools in our area moving down a category – it seemed it was harder to average out at the same grade you had previously been on. Ofsted judges schools in one of 4 ways: 1 – Outstanding, 2 – Good, 3 – Satisfactory and 4 – Inadequate.
Of course, our fears were that we would move down a category, losing our good status to take on that dreadful label – ‘satisfactory’. It was not to be. We came out as a ‘Good’ school and the report reads particularly well (I think).
So what of the data?
Well, we knew in our hearts that we do a good job for our children. The school is set in a part of Birmingham within the highest 20% of deprivation in the country. The children enter the school well below average and leave the school broadly in-line with national expectations, but how could we prove that in numbers?
It was a function and 3 Google Spreadsheets that came to the rescue.
I keep tracking sheets for reading, writing and mathematics for all students and looking at them, I could see that the children who we’ve taught for a while achieve better than those who’ve just joined us. In other words the children we teach, do well; we have a small but significant group of children who join us late and don’t make as much progress.
So I used my Google Spreadsheets to calculate a range of measures from current attainment in each subject, to the progress being made. The function that helped me the most was the ‘countif’ function – I’d recommend finding out how it works if you don’t already – there’s guidance within both Excel and Google Docs.
I used the countif function to help me calculate 12 important numbers for each group – overall, boys, girls, SEND (special educational needs or disabled), FSM (free school meals) and higher achievers. This data showed that all groups who had been taught by us through the Key Stage 2 department (ages 7 to 11) were achieving at or above national expectations
In addition, a second sheet showed that in each year group, progress in reading, writing and maths was good or outstanding.
Sample of the progress data for each year group (if you’re a UK education data guru, you’ll understand what those numbers mean.
In all, I used the spreadsheets to calculate 363 separate numbers to demonstrate to Ofsted that we are still a good school.
I was helped in this process because we use an assessment system called Incerts, which fills up my spreadsheets with meaningful numbers from teacher’s assessments. Once we demonstrated that our monitoring of this assessment was effective by analysing current samples of teacher assessments in books, the inspection team were content to believe that our data did indeed demonstrate that we are doing a good job for our children.
And next time we’ll be ready to argue for ‘outstanding’.
It has taken 15 years and 8 Oftsed inspections, but I have finally achieved an Outstanding lesson at Ofsted.
For those people not from the UK, Oftsed is the national body that inspects state-funded education, and ‘Outstanding’ is the highest grade they give.
I’m aware that I could be answering the question “why has it taken you so long?” Or “what on earth have you be doing all this time?” But instead I’m going to tell the story of how I achieved outstanding.
It began the day before when the lead inspector briefed the staff. Gathered in the staff room, sweaty palms and hearts thumping, he introduced himself and went on to give us some friendly advice.
“Just be yourself,” he assured, in his soft Welsh tones. “Perhaps now is not the time to try that experimental drama lesson you’ve been wondering about, but if you were going to take a risk, then take it. Just be yourself.”
At this point the teaching assistant I was working with looked nervously across it me. Not only does my teaching demonstrate a tremendous lack of risk-aversion at times, but I had already planned some experimental drama that week. And the teaching assistant was leading it. And it was in a maths lesson.
The second piece of advice the lead inspector gave us (and I would recommend this to anyone about to undergo an inspection) was to do a ‘mini-plenary’ as the inspectors walk into the room. Inspectors used to watch whole lessons, but these days their time is so tight, they can generally only see half-an-hour chunks. A mini-plenary is where you would stop the activity or whatever was going on, check on how much the children have learned, remind them what they were aiming to show they had learned by the end of the lesson before proceeding with the rest of the session. The idea is to show the inspectors that progress has been made (even though the inspectors might not have seen it) and more progress is still expected. Inspectors get very excited when they see progress.
Of course I didn’t follow this advice either. Experimental drama and no mini-plenary? And I have the cheek to call myself a teacher.
Admittedly, the lead inspector was a little bemused when he walked into my room. Or so he told me afterwards.
It was 9:30am on the second day of the inspection. The lesson was half an hour old and the inspector could see:
one student playing shops with the teaching assistant;
another student playing dominoes with myself;
assorted apparatus scattered on the floor;
fraction cards stuck to the wall;
the rest of the students intently staring at the screens of their Chromebooks.
Half an hour later, when he walked out he said one word to me. “Stunning.”
So what had turned a potential mess of different activities into a ‘stunning’ outstanding lesson?
Answer: Google Docs
You see, Google Docs had enabled me to have high quality interactions with three different groups of learners, using only two adults. Here’s how.
Group 1: The experimental drama
I have some children within the class who, despite being eleven years old and nearly at secondary school, have great difficulty remembering maths facts and them applying them to real life situations. They just don’t get the link. Hence the maths role play area.
The week before we had set up a ‘stationery shop’ in the classroom – everything was priced from pencils to sparkly sharpeners. With the teaching assistant as the shopkeeper their task was to choose items for less than a set amount, say £10 – then work out how much they would have to pay and how much change they would get. The teaching assistant is particularly good at teaching the children how to add up quantities with differing amounts of digits, like £3, £1.15 and 45p – something that often causes confusion.
By the time these sort of children get to eleven years of age, they have often labelled themselves as maths failures. For them, maths become a grey despair. The drama adds a light-hearted element to their maths learning. Enjoyment brings engagement, engagement leads to motivation and motivation accelerates learning. The inspector was impressed by the motivation of these lower-attaining children and recognised that it was accelerating their progress.
Group 2: The dominoes game
Some of my children don’t know any games. Draughts, Monopoly, chess – they’re all a mystery. We have some marvellous versions of dominoes that are brilliant at showing the equivalence between fractions, decimals and percentages. However for many of the children I can’t use the game because the very act of playing dominoes is too much of a barrier.
In this lesson I was able to use dominoes 1:1 because the Google Docs (which I’m coming too) enabled me to. The advantage of playing dominoes with a child 1:1 not only could I support them with the game, but when they were stuck finding an equivalent for the dominoes in their hand, I could unpick their misconceptions and teach them the concepts. For me, a 1:1 interaction with a student provides the best moments of teaching and hence the most powerful learning. The inspector was impressed that I’d planned time for these 1:1 interactions to take place.
Group 3: The Google Docs
Often, whilst a teacher works with a small group or an individual, the rest of the class complete tedious worksheets or engage in something known as ‘group work’. Not with Google Docs.
Each child worked individually on a small part of a Google Drawing to represent what different fractions would look like. This particular group of children need lots of concrete examples to help them understand the abstractness of fractions. Showing a child the digits ¾ is often not enough – children need to represent it with apparatus and images. In this case the children demonstrated to the inspector when he spoke to them that they were really understanding fractions in a way they hadn’t previously.
Moreover, when the students were stuck, they contacted me via chat. So instead of shouting out (and disrupting their peers), or bringing their work over to me as the teacher (and thereby disrupting the domino game), they were able to silently ask questions of me.
I had opened 4 Chromebooks on the table next to me, each displaying one of the fractions Google Docs that different children were using. Two fifths had the most activity, but other children attempted five sixths and three eighths.
The inspector was particular impressed that the children supposedly on an ‘independent activity’ still had the means to seek adult support, and therefore be taught, rather than spending the whole lesson being stuck. And the Google Docs chat feature minimised the disruption to other learners.
The Google Docs them prompted some excellent discussion at the end of the lesson, particularly the five sixths pictures, which two students had drawn incorrectly. Each had drawn five sevenths instead of five sixths. The discussion in the plenary draw out their misconceptions and we were able to correct them collaboratively on the Chromebooks.
Google Docs had enabled both myself and my teaching assistant to work more effectively as teachers – to spend more of our time actually teaching. As a consequence the children were motivated and enjoyed their learning and so the inspector could only see outstanding progress being made during the lesson.
I blogged a couple of days ago about a mistake an Ofsted inspector had made during a headteacher’s briefing meeting.
It might be somewhat predictable, that as a teacher who’s been through 5 Ofsted inspections, I should seem to enjoy pointing out when an inspector makes a mistake. I’ve had enough of my own shortcomings identified during inspection that it might look like merely petty revenge…
Here’s another mistake anyway.
Part way through the briefing, the inspector, talking about the inadequacies of some aspect of teaching that she had seen somewhere, came up with the quote that makes the title of this post.
“The trendy word is scaffold.” She even raised her eyebrows as if it was some kind of new-fangled educational fad.
Wasn’t it Bruner who first related the word ‘scaffolding’ to teaching sometime in the 1950s? He was working on Vygotsky’s idea of the Zone of Proximal Development and came up with the concept that teachers could put structures in place to support learning. And isn’t that what teaching is? Teachers either fix the steps the students most go through to learn something, or they negotiate the steps with the students and guide them through those steps. Two ways if scaffolding – rigid and negotiated.
So, teachers scaffold learning. Some prefer the rigid approach, others negotiate the learning targets, and some mix it up. I’m not convinced that any one approach to scaffolding learning is better than any others, nor have I met any teachers who don’t scaffold their lessons in some shape or form.
I have seen some people get confused between lesson resources and scaffolding. Maybe this is what the inspector was getting at. For example I’ve seen writing frames given out to support a particular style of writing and been referred to as ‘scaffolding’. But that’s not trendy, it’s just wrong – Bruner referred to scaffolding as the interaction between the student and the teacher, not the handing out of some photocopied worksheet – photocopiers had barely hit the mass market by the time Bruner was doing his work anyway.
Maybe Bruner should be pleased that scaffolding is finally trendy. And maybe Ofsted will be raising their collective eyebrows at the work of others academics – a sly laugh at Piaget or a muffled cough at Vygotsky. Don’t worry though, these new fads won’t fool Ofsted.