Tuesday, 17 December 2013

What does learning look like?

by John Yandell, Institute of Education

In the dominant educational discourse, there is a simple answer to this question. 

This is the Ofsted model, a view of learning promulgated by everyone from former Ofsted chief Chris Woodhead to current Ofsted head Michael Wilshaw and that has been normalised in school practices by two decades of the inspection regime.

The Ofsted model looks something like this: Learning is the product of teaching, the output produced by definite, pre-specified and discernible inputs. It happens in individuals. It is linear.  It is easily measured, not only through standardised tests but also through more immediate metrics (question and answer sessions, traffic lights, exit passes and a cornucopia of other lesson plenaries).

I want to question each of these assumptions.  Before I do so, however, it is worth exploring why this model is so seductive – and who has been seduced by it.

For governments of a technical-rationalist bent it provides the perfect managerial tool, since it enables the complexity of schooling to be reduced to data – solid, comfortable, numerical data – data that enable robust comparisons to be made between individual learners and groups of learners, between teachers and schools. 

For if this is what learning looks like, it is entirely reasonable to represent learning as a national curriculum level: learning to read then becomes the same thing as attaining a level 4. The level 4 becomes a thing in itself, and literacy levels can be ascertained by nothing more complex than totting up the number of learners who are proud possessors of a level 4. 

There is a further stage to this process of reification (turning abstractions like levels into concrete things), and it is a particularly grisly stage: the child becomes the level. Thus it is that teachers refer to learners along the lines of “She’s a level 5” or “He’s a level 3” – and children talk about themselves in the same terms: “I am a 4c.” 

The next stage in this process is that six-year-olds are to be deemed to have learnt how reading works if they make the right noises when confronted with forty decontextualised words (or non-words).  (If they make the wrong noises more than six times, they will already be judged to be on the slippery slope to terminal illiteracy.)

This process of reification matters hugely.  It transforms learning and learners into data and schools into data-rich environments. Equally important, though, is the assumption that learning is straightforwardly the product of teaching.  This means that teachers, individually and collectively, can be held directly accountable for learning (the learning that is represented in those neat data-sets).

The implications of this are made explicit in the recent Ofsted Evaluation Schedule: “The most important role of teaching is to promote learning so as to raise pupils’ achievement” (Ofsted 2012: 11). It is worth pausing to note that learning here appears, very clearly, not as an end in itself but as a means to an end: learning is for raising achievement.  One might also want to ask what raising achievement is for.  Is it for the benefit of the learner, the teacher, the school, the nation? 

Elsewhere in the same Ofsted document, the official meaning of “achievement” is spelled out:

When judging achievement, inspectors should take account of:
•        pupils’ attainment in relation to national standards and compared to all schools, based on data over the last three years ...
•        pupils’ progress in the last three years as shown by value-added indices for the school overall and for different groups of pupils, together with expected rates of progress
•        the learning and progress of pupils currently in the school based on inspection evidence (Ofsted 2012: 6).

Each of these three sources of “evidence” raises its own problems. The first, which, in effect, frames and informs every Ofsted inspection, could be summed up by the title of one of Michael Wilshaw’s recent speeches: “High expectations, no excuses” (Wilshaw 2012)  In the Ofsted model, raw results are the measure of every school and every pupil – and to suggest otherwise is to hide behind mere “excuses”.  This fits in well with Wilshaw’s mythological approach to the history of schooling:

Certainly, Ofsted was key in transforming my life as a teacher and headteacher. Our education system is much better because of greater accountability in the system. Those who think we haven’t made progress need to remember what it was like before Ofsted. I certainly do. In the seventies and eighties, when I worked in places like Peckham, Bermondsey, Hackney and West Ham, whole generations of children and young people were failed.
The school where I was head before moving to Ofsted, Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, stands on the site of Hackney Downs School, which in its day represented the worst excesses of that period. But there would have been many others just as bad that never hit the headlines and got away with blue murder (Wilshaw 2012).

In describing this account as a myth, I am not suggesting that everything in the garden was lovely before Ofsted came along.  Young people were failed by the education system before Ofsted – but they are still being failed by the education system today.  And there are other stories to tell of Hackney Downs, stories of exemplary work by dedicated teachers, stories of local curricula developed collaboratively, stories of a shared commitment to social justice.

There is, too, in Wilshaw’s version of history a crucial sleight of hand: the fact that Mossbourne stands on the site where Hackney Downs once stood might lead one to assume that the intake of the two schools was also the same – and that really would be a mistake.  If your school wants to play the Ofsted game in relation to achievement, the first thing to sort out is the admissions policy.

The second source of Ofsted’s evidence on achievement might look much more nuanced, more attuned to issues of diversity.  After all, the mention of “value-added” suggests an awareness that learners are different, come from different kinds of home, have different needs, and so on. 

But one shouldn’t get too carried away by this vestige of New Labour. There is still the assumption that learning is a matter of linear progress, still an obsession with the reductive abstractions of units of data.  Accountability becomes nothing more than data tracking and monitoring, equality is reduced to questions of access and social mobility. 

What matters here are the questions that cannot be asked: questions about curriculum content and design, questions about students’ different histories, cultures, funds of knowledge, values, affiliations and aspirations.  These things matter because they shape profoundly students’ sense of themselves as learners and their day-to-day experiences in the classroom.

The third source of evidence about achievement embodies the assumption that judgements about the learning and achievement of pupils can or should be based on twenty minutes or so of lesson observation.  

Before I launch into what is wrong with this assumption, I should make a couple of things clear.  I believe that teachers and schools should be accountable.  I also believe that that accountability should involve the observation of lessons by a range of different people, including people who are not teachers. 

What gets missed out of the Ofsted model, however, is any sense of complexity – the complexity of classrooms, the complexity of the interactions that take place within them, the complexity of any halfway adequate understanding of learning as a process.

The Wilshaw version is breathtakingly simple.  Schools are “good” or “outstanding” – or they are not (and if they are not, they “require improvement”). If a school is “outstanding”, the teaching is similarly “outstanding”; if a school is less than “good”, the pupils suffer from an unremitting diet of less-than-good teaching.

These reified judgements about a school are themselves an abstraction from a series of separate abstractions, reified judgements of individual teachers and individual lessons.  Just as learners become the level that is attached to them, so teachers become “outstanding” or “satisfactory” – sorry, “requiring improvement”.

Of course, if someone tells you that you are outstanding, it tends to make you feel better about yourself – and even to accept the validity of the label. That’s why the process can be seductive for teachers, too.  If, on the other hand, someone tells you that you’re merely satisfactory, that can be pretty devastating – and it is hard not to internalise this judgement.

This grading system has two pernicious effects.  The first is that it tends to undermine collegiality, to produce in reality the atomised, divided, individualist system that it purports to describe.  It has the same corrosive effect on teacher identity as the testing regime has on learner identity. 

The second is that it adversely influences teaching itself.  It encourages teachers to teach to the Ofsted model, to reconfigure their practice to conform to their sense of what is prescribed.  Learning becomes bite-sized, specified by objectives or “outcomes”, measurable within the space of a single lesson, or even a single activity within a lesson.

In the first phase of Ofsted, this was less significant.  Teachers might vary their practice when the inspectors came to call, giving them the lessons that they understood they wanted to see, but would generally revert to more diverse pedagogies in the spaces in between inspections.

Now, however, the problem is less Ofsted itself than Ofsted-in-the-head: enforced through the monitoring and observation of school management teams and consultants, the routines have become internalised.  The danger then becomes that we all take the Ofsted model as valid, as if it told the truth about learning or teaching, as if the labels were the reality. 

I want to finish by returning to my initial representation of the Ofsted model, to propose alternatives to each of its foundational assumptions.
1.       Learning is the product of teaching, the output produced by definite, pre-specified and discernible inputs.
No, it’s not. Teachers have a responsibility to plan for learning and to intervene in the learning process, to introduce learners to new concepts, new experiences, new ways of seeing themselves, each other and the world.  But learning is unpredictable, messy and polymorphous; it is contested, mysterious and often elusive.
2.       It happens in individuals.
No, it doesn’t.  Learning is irreducibly social and hugely contingent.  It involves – and arises out of – the interaction of human beings with each other, with particular resources in particular places.
3.       It is linear.
No, it’s not.  The idea that someone has to master the basics before they can progress to more advanced stuff is deeply problematic.  And it is simply false to assume that something is learnt once and for all: learning is recursive, layered, and multidimensional. Getting a picture of what learners know or can do is worthwhile, but always fraught with difficulty.  (A child holding up a green card at the end of a lesson isn’t hard evidence of anything other than a desire to please the teacher.)
4.       It is easily measured, not only through standardised tests but also through more immediate metrics
No, no, no. The only things to do with learning that are easily measured are things so trivial as not to be worth bothering with in the first place.  Real, worthwhile learning is always complex, and it tends to happen – and be observable – over much longer periods of time than a single lesson. Teachers have an understanding of learning that is inseparable from their long-tem, always-changing, picture of learners and their development: that is what makes teaching both difficult and massively rewarding.


Ofsted (2012) The evaluation schedule for the inspection of maintained schools and academies January 2012, No. 090098.  Available online at <http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/evaluation-schedule-for-inspection-of-maintained-schools-and-academies-january-2012>

Wilshaw, M. (2012) “High expectations, no excuses” (speech to the London Leadership Strategy’s Good to Great conference, 9 February 2012). Available online at <http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/news/high-expectation-no-excuses-sir-michael-wilshaw-hmci-outlines-changes-ofsted-inspection-drive-delive-0>

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