Wilshaw and Gove not aligned on teaching styles

Henry Stewart's picture
In his 3rd Feb speech, Michael Gove stated "[Michael Wilshaw] has demanded a move away from faddish attachments to outdated styles of teaching and a new emphasis that any style of teaching is welcome as long as students make progress”

Janet Downs has already pointed out the contradiction in this sentence, that you can't "allow any style of teaching" while outlawing certain styles. Gove lavished praise on his "outstanding Chief Inspector", but in fact revealed a key difference in approach between the two of them. The Secretary of State has made clear (for instance, here) that he wants a return to traditional teaching. Supporters like Allison Pearson have explained that this means teachers talking from the front rather than, for instance, the class engaged in collaborative learning.

But this is not what Sir Michael is saying in his now famous letter to inspectors. He is not saying good lessons are about teachers talking and he is not criticising students working together. What he is criticising is a rigid formula of what teaching should look like. And teachers will welcome this. One of the most common criticisms of Ofsted in the past has been a rigid approach to what makes a Good or Outstanding lesson. You will not find teachers on the barricades demanding the return of a tick-box straightjacket approach from Ofsted.

On the day the letter became public I was at a conference of Hackney governors and talking with a governor from Mossbourne. I expressed surprise that Wilshaw was advocating a "what works" approach, rather than a belief in one style of teaching. She explained that I had misunderstood him. While there is a very clear common approach to discipline at Mossbourne, and the learning motto must be recited at the beginning of every lesson, Sir Michael has apparently always supported a range of teaching styles.

Video: Wilshaw - "Its about what works"

She pointed me to this video of an RSA debate on "What makes a good teacher". The Chief Inspector (from 1 min to 9 mins on the video) contrasts two teachers at Mossbourne. The Head of Maths took a traditional teaching-from-the-front approach. The English teacher had students working in groups, some dressed up for the part, to explore Merchant of Venice - while using the Al Pacino film for inspiration. These are two very different methods but, he points out, each had a style of teaching they were comfortable with. "A good lesson is, for me, about what works" he emphasises.

A good lesson is one, he explains, which is enjoyed, where students are engaged, focused, learn a great deal and make real progress. He made a plea for "pragmatism not ideology" in the approach to teaching.

On the day of the row between Gove and Wilshaw I tweeted "We may not agree with Wilshaw's approach but he knows and understands education. Gove does not." Andrew Old expressed surprise and suggested @localschools_uk was on #teamofsted. I have to say, on this crucial issue of whether you focus on whether teaching works or insist on an approach based on ideology, I am on the side of Sir Michael.

Focus on the learning

Some years ago the school I chair called in consultants for a mock Ofsted. The key part of the feedback, as they monitored classes with our team, was "you are focusing too much on the teaching". The natural reaction was to say "yes, of course we are focused on the teaching. We are a school." But the response was clear and obvious: "You should be focusing on the learning". It was the same message as that of Michael Wilshaw, in the video above, and it was hugely liberating for teachers. Its not about whether you've followed the 3-stage or 7-stage or 14-stage approach. Its about whether effective learning is taking place.

So I was taken aback when Gove's white paper was called "The Importance of Teaching". What about the importance of learning? In her article Allison Pearson dismissed collaborative learning as "15-year-olds chatting among themselves". This is ideology. The evidence contradicts her. The Education Endowment Foundation found in its toolkit that collaborative learning was probably the most cost-effective way to get increased impact and more progress.

My day job is in commercial education. Two weeks ago I attended the "Learning Awards", previously known as the Training Awards. The organiser, previously a Training Institute, is now called the Learning & Performance Institute. Instead of Training Company of the Year, we now have Learning Provider of the Year and the Trainer of the Year is now the "Learning Professional of the Year". Imagine the scorn that Toby Young or Allison Pearson would pour on a school that renamed its teachers as learning professionals. But that is how my world, the business world that Gove so admires, sees it. It is no longer about training, but about enabling people to learn - by whatever means.

And this is the difference between the two Michaels. Michael Gove and his supporters have an ideological approach, and seek one style of traditional teaching. Michael Wilshaw is not in that camp. He may have many faults but on this one I believe he is correct. He is focused on the learning and has made clear he is open to whatever works to create that learning.
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Henry Stewart's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 21:37

In following this debate I've been keen to work out exactly what is traditional teaching, and what exactly is the "progressive" approach that is so criticised. I am grateful to Andrew Old for sending this useful explanation of his view:

"Progressive teaching is that which rejects any of the pillars of traditional teaching.

These are

1) the existence of a tradition i.e. a body of knowledge necessary for developing the intellect.
2) The use of direct instruction & practice as the most effective methods of teaching.
3) The authority of teachers in the classroom.

Progressive teaching will not necessarily reject all 3 all the time, but it will challenge at least one of the three,"

Toby Young also send a useful link to Hirsch, who appears to be the principle theorist on the traditional side: bit.ly/1mvrtaA

Andrew's definition itself prompted this analysis from Sue Gerrard on her logical incrementalism blog: http://bit.ly/1jjhgt0

Sophie Lovett's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 22:12

I agree in principle with Wilshaw's 'what works' approach - and would definitely choose this over being wedded to the traditional methods as defined above any day. However his choice of the word 'passivity' really doesn't sit comfortably with me.

Even if the teacher is taking the lead for any given period of time the notion that it's ok for students to be inactive and submissive implies a lack of engagement - and fundamentally a lack of thinking. I don't know if that's really what Wilshaw meant - I doubt it somehow - but my experience as a teacher and leader of secondary English has taught me that it's all too easy for students to be passive (ie not thinking or learning) when they are being talked at for any length of time. Admittedly it may facilitate the mere transmission of knowledge more directly than a collaborative approach, but so much other potential for learning is lost along the way.

I wrote about this in the context of the calls for character and resilience education here http://wp.me/p4dHxS-9x, but I think these concerns are just as valid if we're looking at more academic skills.

I imagine that Wilshaw's choice of words could well have been politically motivated, but I really hope we're not going to return to a time when our students are just passive empty vessels waiting to be filled.

Henry Stewart's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 22:55

And this definition of progressive teaching from Chris Machers:(@cstimmo_s):

Progressive teaching is characterised by the following-

1) A belief that learning is not compartmentalised into artificial 'subject' boundaries.
2) Learning is deepest when it exists within an authentic/real context.
3) Learning is a collaborative activity. Humans are social creatures and learn best through sharing ideas.

Traditional teaching will not agree with one or all of these fundamental principles.

And what's wrong with progress anyway?

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 21/02/2014 - 13:57

According to Dr David Green, Civitas, speaking on Newsnight recently, progressive education was child-led. This was in response to a statement by the head of the London Academy of Excellence that teaching should be child-centred.

This was immediately changed by Dr Green to "child-led" which implies children doing what they want with no direction from the teacher.

But that's misrepresentation. "Progressive" methods are often misrepresented - see my thread below about when Gove girded his loins in tartan to attack the "Blob":


The same is true of "traditional", of course. But most teachers use a variety of methods, whether defined as "progressive" or "traditional", to match the subject matter (the "knowledge") with particular pupils in particular circumstances.

Sir Michael understands that - Gove and his supporters don't.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 21/02/2014 - 14:00

Sophie - I, too, was uncomfortable with the word "passive". It implies lack of engagement. I don't think Sir Michael meant that but it was an odd word to use.

PiqueABoo's picture
Fri, 21/02/2014 - 21:51

Presumably as a consequence of the blogger-meeting earlier in the week, there is this from Ofsted (Mike Cladingbowl) today:

Why do Ofsted inspectors observe individual lessons and how do they evaluate teaching in schools?

agov's picture
Sat, 22/02/2014 - 12:18

And we can all trust Ofsted inspectors to diligently implement these requirements because otherwise Ofsted might have to change the wording of reports to prove that it didn't matter anyway.


Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 22/02/2014 - 16:42

Regardless of what is taught and how it is presented, learning is always ultimately under the control of the learner, not the teacher. In the school context factual information becomes available on the 'social plane' and each learner individually has to personally internalise that information in a way that makes sense to the learner (Vygotsky).

This requires the learner to attach the new information onto a personal conceptual framework in a way that is meaningful to the learner. This can be a subconscious or conscious process. Kahneman's 'Slow Thinking' points to the advantage of its being conscious.


For some learners this cannot be readily achieved because the personal conceptual framework is insufficiently developed to be up to the job. This results in 'cognitive dissonance' (Piaget). For learning to take place may require the refinement or even the replacement of the personal conceptual framework in the context of the mental challenge presented by the new information (Vygotsky and Piaget).

A good school is one where pupils of all abilities are confident, comfortable and accustomed to such mental challenges. They expect to have to explore some personal cognitive 'dead ends' in the process (learning resilience) and their teachers need a repertoire of ways of helping and supporting pupils through the process.

These will require the learner to be involved in discourse related to the seeking of personal meaning. 25-30 pupils cannot simultaneously be involved in such discourse with the teacher, but they can with each other in groups of 5 or 6, which is the justification for collaborative learning.

"A good lesson is one, [Wilshaw] explains, which is enjoyed, where students are engaged, focused, learn a great deal and make real progress. He made a plea for “pragmatism not ideology” in the approach to teaching."

It is important to recognise that 'progress' is not just the learner adding to her knowledge base, but also the refining of her personal conceptual framework.

Some teachers will be more comfortable and effective with particular methods and approaches. Expert didactic presentations may be favoured over collaborative class activity or vice versa. Different teachers can make different approaches work for them and should be allowed the freedom to do that in the context of challenging professional debate within departments and across the school about what works.

The dichotomy of view between Wilshaw and Gove that Henry so clearly illustrates is real and important. The English education system under the pressure of marketisation and high stakes testing has for some time been drifting towards behaviourist approaches that prioritise the 'delivery' of knowledge rather than the developmental approach that recognises the personal internalisation and accommodation of factual information for each learner as the critical stage of the learning process.

This is a battle that it is important that Sir Michael Wilshaw wins.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 22/02/2014 - 17:15

Roger - you are absolutely right that a range of methods should be equally valued. It depends on a teacher's preferred styles and what approach is appropriate for a particular group of pupils at a particular time.

PiqueABoo's post below (21/02/14 9.51pm) links to Ofsted guidance. It gives examples of two lessons. The first is all-singing-all-dancing-bells-and-whistles lesson with a range of different strategies being employed. This is the type of lesson which it is claimed Ofsted favoured. But the guidance says the inspector graded it as inadequate because the pupils' books were scruffy and unmarked.

The second lesson was silent reading (not a lot happening on the surface). However, the inspector checked the impeccably marked books and judged the teaching good or better.

Glad to hear that - I used to use silent reading a lot. And I always, always read aloud to my English classes - probably one of the most important things I did to get pupils to appreciate stories and good writing. Not sure whether that would be classed as "traditional" or "progressive" and I don't much care.

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