The Myth of Progress Within Lessons

Posted on February 12, 2013


My heckles are risen so I need to post this and post it quick.  Let me nail my colours to the mast here and make a bold, unequivocal statement:

There is no such thing as progress within lessons.  There is only learning.

And let me make a second, equally bold and unequivocal statement to back it up:

The main perpetuators of the myth of ‘progress within lessons’ are leadership teams within schools, not Ofsted.

Right, now that we all know where we are let me explain further, and let me start with my evidence that it is NOT Ofsted asking for the mythical ‘progress within lessons’ by picking out some key quotes from the Inspection Handbook rewritten as recently as December 2012.  In the section on “Quality of Teaching in the School” it starts beautifully:

“The most important role of teaching is to promote learning and to raise pupils’ achievement.” Ofsted 2012

Nothing any of us wouldn’t agree with in that and no sign of the phrase ‘progress in lessons’ either.  In the second paragraph we do get a hint of the creature when we see the word progress, but it is attached to the words ‘over time’, not ‘in lessons’:

“The judgement on the quality of teaching must take account of evidence of pupils’ learning and progress over time. Inspectors must not simply aggregate the grades awarded following lesson observations.” Ofsted 2012

And then there comes the section entitled ‘Observing Learning’.  Surely this must have a reference to ‘progress over time’. mustn’t it?  After all, given how many people on #SLTchat bang on about it, then if it is going to be anywhere it will be there.  It says, and I quote in full:

“When inspectors observe teaching, they observe pupils’ learning. Good teaching, which includes high levels of expertise and subject knowledge, with the expectation that pupils will achieve well, enables pupils to acquire knowledge, deepen their understanding, and develop and consolidate skills.” Ofsted 2012

I see “high levels of expertise”.  I see “high levels…of subject knowledge”.  I see “expectation that pupils will achieve well”.  I see “enables pupils”.  But I still don’t see the phrase ‘progress in lessons’.  Strange thing that!!!!

But here comes the confession.  It is there, in the very next section on “Inspectors must consider whether…” which says, amongst other things:

  • pupils’ responses demonstrate sufficient gains in their knowledge, skills and understanding, including in literacy and mathematics

  • teachers monitor pupils’ progress in lessons and use the information well to adapt their teaching        Ofsted 2012

So there it is, eh?  My whole argument blown out of the water?  There is such a thing as ‘progress in lessons’, right?

Wrong.  Or at least wrong in that the meaning of the phrase, as executed by school leaders and classroom teachers, is very different to the intention within these bullets.  Look at the bullet before the offending one. It talks about what I would consider learning to be: “gains in their knowledge, skills and understanding”.  They are things that inspectors will be looking to see from the students.  Where progress is mentioned, it is not something that inspectors will be looking to see from students, because it is about the effectiveness of monitoring that they will be looking to see from the teachers.

Am I splitting hairs there?  I don’t think so.  I would rather suggest that what inspection teams will be looking for will be to see that teachers are looking to see teachers monitoring or student “progress (gains in knowledge, skills and understanding) in lessons”, with the parentheses to blend the two bullets being the most important thing in that sentence.

Later, in a section called ‘Observing Learning Over Time’ the Ofsted Handbook 2012 states that scrutiny of pupils’ work, should pay attention to:

  • how well and frequently marking, assessment and testing are used to help teachers improve pupils’ learning
  • pupils’ effort and success in completing their work and the progress they make over a period of time.  Ofsted 2012

Again that distinction between ‘learning’ and ‘progress over time’ because, much to our shame, even Ofsted (the big organisation but sadly not always the individual inspectors or inspection teams) realise that ‘progress’ is simply a numerical measurement of the distance between a start point and an end point and therefore CANNOT IN ITSELF BE OBSERVED IN LESSONS other than through assessing how much students have learned.  ‘Progress in lessons’ is the very definition of a black box into which we, as teachers and leaders, need to shine a light.

The final part of the Ofsted Inspection Handbook from 2012 to look at for the mythical ‘progress in lessons’ is the Grade Descriptors for the quality of teaching.  At the outstanding level they say:

Much of the teaching in all key stages and most subjects is outstanding and never less than consistently good. As a result, almost all pupils currently on roll in the school, including disabled pupils, those who have special educational needs and those for whom the pupil premium provides support, are making rapid and sustained progress.” Ofsted 2012

This is the most often used points made by some school leaders, and even teachers themselves, to justify decisions about the judgments of observed lessons and yet the bullet point as a whole is very clearly talking about the aggregated performance of students across a school and over time.  If ‘progress in lessons’ is a mythical black-box dweller, then ‘rapid and sustained progress in lessons’ is its Yeti-like cousin.  This bullet point should never be made as a judgment about a lesson unless the particular lesson happens to have on its register “all pupils currently on roll in the school”.

The remainder of the bullets in the outstanding criteria relate to something non-mythical:

  • All teachers have consistently high expectations of all pupils. They plan and teach lessons that enable pupils to learn exceptionally well across the curriculum.
  • Teachers systematically and effectively check pupils’ understanding throughout lessons, anticipating where they may need to intervene and doing so with notable impact on the quality of learning.
  • Teachers and other adults generate high levels of engagement and commitment to learning across the whole school.
  • Teachers use well-judged and often inspirational teaching strategies, including setting appropriate homework that, together with sharply focused and timely support and intervention, match individual needs accurately. Consequently, pupils learn exceptionally well across the curriculum.

In order to be helpful to those who may be missing the wood for the trees (or the non-mythical for the mythical) I have underlined the key words in each of these bullet points.

So there we have it.  Only one reference to ‘progress in lessons’ in the Ofsted Handbook 2012 and that one reference is an instruction to inspectors to take into account how teachers monitor it, not an instruction to make a judgment on it.  Instead Ofsted are urging us repeatedly to focus on learning, learning, learning and yet more learning.

And yet the mythical creature of ‘progress in lessons’ has come increasingly to dominate the judgments made of the lessons of classroom teachers as if it was something that really existed.  At the very best it is a spectre or ghoul, a translucent and barely visible shadow of something else.  In these instances what we are actually looking at is the ghost of learning that has somehow died in the lesson, and so we should call it by it’s real name.  To re-label this apparition ‘progress in lessons’ is to put a nail in its coffin.  If, instead, we talk about it as learning that has died a death we at least allow it to be resurrected in the future lessons of the colleagues we are observing; the very definition of formative feedback.

At its worst though this mythical creature of ‘progress in lessons’ has become a folk-tale boogeyman, deployed (unwittingly in the main one would hope, although witlessness is hardly an adequate defence) in order to spread fear among the villagers, moderate unwanted behaviours, keep people from venturing beyond the ‘safety’ of the designated pathways, and generally ensure that rulers of fairytale kingdoms can maintain order.  Remember, I used the word unwittingly.

And boy how the villagers are scared!!  The boogeyman stalks through staffrooms, creeps through classrooms and prowls through parents evenings.  In order to ward off its mythical propensity to devour teachers (and students) whole a variety of black magic and voodoo (hoodoo) is deployed; a whole suite of charms and potions and curses deployed in lessons to demonstrate ‘progress in lessons’: From ‘thumbs up, thumbs down’ to ‘level ladders’ to ‘pit stops’ to ‘exit passes’ to ‘green, amber and red cards’ to any other number of tricks.

Let be clear, none of these are bad strategies in themselves, but they are frequently deployed not to help students demonstrate (or even instigate) learning, but to prove that all students have made ‘progress in lesson’.  There is a whole world of difference between the two, especially when the techniques are being deployed with such eye-blurring and head-spinning frequency that they actually break up real learning in favour of a progress check.  Have a look at this example that is all too typical in this boogeyman dominated educational world we live in:

“The lesson was planned in detail. The first phase involved an explanation of the learning objectives and a starter activity where students worked in groups to complete a card-sort activity. In the next phase of the lesson, students used a grid to identify persuasive devices on mini whiteboards. The teacher then took them quickly through the criteria for assessment at Levels 5–7 and gave students examples of extracts from two essays on capital punishment. Students were asked to choose the more effective piece, linking it to the assessment criteria. They were then asked to produce at least one paragraph of writing on the topic of capital punishment. In the final part of the lesson, students were asked to peer-mark two other students‟ work, then to look at and review their own work and check the comments. One further activity was introduced before students were asked to say what they had learnt in the lesson. The lesson closed with a final activity where students revised persuasive techniques on the board.”  Ofsted 2012

It is from the wonderful (yes, you read right) Ofsted report ‘Moving English Forward’ and the analysis of the lesson concluded:

“The teacher in this lesson concentrated on the pace of activities rather than the pace of learning. The centre of this lesson should have been the opportunity for students to show what they had learnt about persuasive techniques by producing a piece of their own writing. The desire to complete all elements of the planned lesson meant that the writing task could not be completed and the fast movement from one activity to another limited students‟ development of new learning or their consolidation of existing learning. This pattern is noted regularly by inspectors.”  Ofsted 2012

The idea that the teacher was focusing on the “pace of activities rather than pace of learning” is partially correct.  Instead I would propose that it is clear that the teacher is focusing on the “pace of proving progress” rather than the pace of learning.  This is acknowledged later when the same report concludes that:

“In lessons observed, significant periods of time were spent by teachers on getting pupils to articulate their learning, even where this limited their time to complete activities and thereby interrupted their learning! Pupils need time to complete something before they can valuably discuss and evaluate it.” Ofsted 2012

And so, on behalf of children in classrooms across the UK who are being thwarted in their learning because their teachers are so scared of the boogeyman or ghost of ‘progress in lessons’, I implore members of senior leadership teams to ban this mythical phrase from their teaching and learning policies, observation feedback, NQT Induction packs, and one-to-one conversations with teacher-colleagues.  Every time you use it you are perverting the doctrine of Ofsted, distracting yourself from a focus on learning and alienating yourself from the teachers you need to make your school wonderful and your children effective learners.

And if you are a teacher, do not allow yourself to be frightened by the myth of ‘progress in lessons’.  Stand up to it, shine light onto it, print off this blog or better still the Ofsted Handbook 2012 and challenge your line manager to find the place in which progress comes before learning.  It’s time to slay the boogeyman.  He doesn’t exist and we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

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