The knowledge question

The recent post by teachingbattleground, centred on the arguments around a knowledge-based curriculum reminded me that, while nobody – surely – is arguing that we should not teach children knowledge, it might be timely to explore what we mean by teacher knowledge.

There has always been a narrative around the skills (knowledge? art? craft?) of teaching and, since I frequently get invited to provide CPD in this sphere, I find it helpful to link thinking to the Teachers’ Standards. As a teacher trainer, I often refer trainees to the old QCDA fourfold explanation of teacher knowledge because it sits quite well with aspects of the 2012 standards.

Teachers’ Standard 3 has three key elements: secure subject knowledge, critical understanding of developments in the subject and the personally correct use of English. The two other aspects relate to knowledge of phonics and early maths teaching. Add to this the expectation, in Standard 2, that teachers should know how children learn and we can now see that the QCDA fourfold explanation is a helpful model. This states explains teacher knowledge as:

  • Subject knowledge per se;
  • Pedagogical theory and practice;
  • Understanding how children learn; and
  • The teacher’s own attitudes to learning.

So, this means that teachers and trainee teachers, must pay particular attention to:

  • Their own subject knowledge and its application so that they teach accurately and in sufficient depth.
  • The way that children learn in order to present material that can be quickly assimilated.
  • The effectiveness of the pedagogies they employ so that material can be effectively deconstructed and presented conceptually.
  • Their own openness to key ideas about teaching and learning so that they do not limit their teaching by what is familiar to them.

If the re-think of the national curriculum and its assessment did anything, it moved the focus away from what the outgoing HMCI once called, ‘a stultifying methodology’ towards a more simple view of ‘what works’ and, as Sir Michael pointed out, ‘what’s good is what works’.  We are still waiting for many headteachers to catch up with this and move away from the straitjacket of WALT, WILF, or whatever set methodology they expect. Improve teachers’ fourfold subject knowledge and we should not need the straitjacket.







Some more thoughts about pedagogy

It was way back in 2012 when the Chief Inspector, speaking at the RSA, referred to the ‘stultifying’ effect of formulaic lesson planning. I agreed then and I agree now. And we’ve moved on a bit from 2012; since then we’ve had the Mike Cladingbowl missive on why Ofsted will no longer be grading teachers or lessons, we had the Ofsted  document about what they don’t expect schools to do and we’ve had it all bolted together in the Common Inspection Framework giving a clear lead to inspectors NOT to expect any particular pedagogy or assessment system, or frequency of lesson observations.

This is very reassuring, so why is it the schools and school leaders still get nervous about requiring a particular approach?  I don’t want to get political here – that’s the OTHER Education Monkey on blogger – so, having spent much time in advising teachers on how to plan lessons, I thought it worth a few minutes on questioning the whole thing.  In the first instance I’ll stick to the learning objective.  This is nothing new, I’ve said all this before, but I’m repeating it because if continues to be a source of stress to teachers and leaders.

Let’s not get hung up on what it’s called; lesson objective, learning objective, learning outcome… who really cares?  And if you think the kids do, then you’re wrong.  Sure, kids like to know what the lesson is about and teachers MUST understand the specifics of what they expect pupils to learn but, you know, these two things do no necessarily join up!  This is heresy to some school leaders, so I’ll whisper it – you really don’t have to display the learning objective at all. Some of the best lessons I’ve seen have not involved WALT, or WILF, or TIB, or any other members of this menagerie of characters that populate the world of lesson planning. Sometimes kids like to work to what the focus of the lesson has been for themselves. This way, you can be sure that they will let you know if YOU weren’t clear about it. Quite often they like the challenge in the form of a question. And, as soon as you make it a question, you shift the focus onto learning. So, rather than the tedious ‘We are Learning To…’ or “I can…” both of which are too frequently followed by an activity and not the learning (we are learning to write an autumn poem, I can name the parts of a plant…) why not try a question?  Ask yourself, how exciting is it to a ten-year-old to copy down ‘We are learning to understand the key features of a play script’ (yawn)?  So, why not ask simply, ‘how can actors remember all those words? With the supplementary question, ‘…and how do they know what to do?’  I guarantee you spark kids’ interest more keenly, you’ve saved all that copying out of a convoluted objective, and you’ve immediately given yourself the beginnings of an assessment protocol.  Dylan William, making a similar point, asks, ‘why can’t we just ask students, “why is it colder on top of a mountain when it’s nearer the sun?’

And don’t give me that nonsense about writing down the LO as the title because then you can assess if it was met or not!  If you are clear about the intended learning then surely, both you and the pupil can remember that a lesson entitled ‘How can ice and steam be the same?’ was about solids, liquids and gases.

It takes a bit of getting used to, this use of learning questions, but it’s fun. It’s a lot more fun than some of the stultifying lesson aims I’ve seen. You need to practice. Have a go, now.  I won’t tell anyone,

Understanding learning objectives

According to @TeacherToolkit, pupils lose up to 32 hours per year simply writing out the learning objective. And that probably sums up the mess we have got into with this business of WALT, WILF and the rest of the menagerie of introductory devices. We probably have to thank Shirley Clarke and her work on assessment in the 1990s for this idea of displaying the Learning Objective (or Learning Intention, as Clarke prefers). This thinking, in turn, emerged from that seminal work, Inside the Black Box, by Paul Black and Dylan William, where the principles of Assessment for Learning were first laid out and disseminated.

And Clarke was right; teachers had spent far too long being vague about the focus of the lesson and the new focus on assessment meant that the learning had to be sharply focused if the assessment was going to mean anything. This has led to a culture of learning objectives that has caused immense stress to teachers hoping to get them ‘right’ and equal stress to headteachers who are nervous that, if teachers don’t each do the same thing then they won’t do it at all. Now, Ofsted have never stated that they expected to see a particular style of lesson presentation yet isolated inspectors have probably helped to create the idea that, ‘this is what Ofsted expect’.

Times have changed. Not only does Ofsted make it very clear that they don’t expect any pedagogical approach – they are interested only in outcomes. Also, we are at last beginning to realise that we can be a bit more flexible about lesson objectives.

A clear focus on the learning

This is a first principle – however we express it – every lesson needs to have a very clear focus on what knowledge or skills pupils will develop or consolidate during the lesson. This is not for the pupils; it’s for the teacher. Unless you are clear about the learning, then how can you assess it?

A focus on the learning means the learning and not the activity. A lesson objective that says, ‘we are learning to write an autumn poem’ is not about learning. It’s about doing. You need to identify what outcomes you are looking for and be clear about it. Unless you know what you are expecting as outcomes, you cannot guide pupils to achieve it.

Displaying the learning objective (LO)

Although many schools and headteachers are nervous about this and this may lead to a school-wide expectation that all lessons must include a shared LO (or LI), the reality is that, while it helps pupils to know what they are learning and it may sometimes be appropriate to express this as a LO, it is not essential. What is essential is that you know what you are teaching.

Phrasing the LO

The trouble with using a formula like WALT or ‘I can..’ is that is can anaesthetise pupils against learning objectives. They say things like ‘can I write the WALT?’ which misses the point somewhat. If you are displaying the objective, try writing it as a question. This is because, as soon as you make it a question, it must focus on the learning. The nice thing about questions is that they also help you to populate the plenary through assessment. ‘What was the question we were answering?’ Then ask yourself whether the objective will engage the pupils? How interesting is an objective that says, ‘we are learning to identify the key features of a playscript’? Not very! Now, turn it into a question, ‘how can actors remember all their words? And it’s both more interesting and more intriguing. Dylan Wiliam says. ‘why can’t we just ask, ‘why is it colder on top of a mountain when it’s nearer the sun?

Questions are good but keep it fresh by varying your practice. Remember, you don’t actually need to display an objective. Pupils could just have a heading (‘The Roman invasion’ is arguably better than ‘I can describe Caesar’s landing in Kent’). Or, how about having ‘the question of the day…’ You could write it up at 9.00 but not address it until after lunch. It’s about keeping the kids intrigued. Or how about ‘hidden in a golden envelope is a question. Find the envelope and discover the question.’?

With the new appreciation that Ofsted are not looking for any particular pedagogical style, schools can afford to relax. There is nothing magic about a learning objective and sometimes they get in the way. However, there is simply no excuse for not being clear about what you expect pupils to learn or consolidate in the lesson. If you do write a learning objective, make sure that it is rooted in the learning and not the doing.