Planning is not one of the ‘5 drivers of workload’ says Ofsted boss

Janet Downs's picture

Amanda Spielman, Chief Ofsted inspector, told the ASCL annual conference yesterday that she wants a ‘frank discussion’ about teacher workload.

As she saw it, there are five ‘major drivers of workload’:

  1. ‘Government policies and requirements, which schools and teachers must follow.’
  2. ‘Accountability through performance tables and inspection.’
  3. ‘The consequences of accountability – what governing bodies, LAs, MATs or RSCs do as a result of an Ofsted judgement or a set of results.’
  4. ‘The fear of litigation if schools do not take a belt and braces approach, particularly on things like health and safety.’
  5. ‘And finally, how policies and accountability measures are translated by school leaders into day-to-day management tools such as policies for planning, assessment and marking’.

Planning appears in fifth place.  But it’s not planning alone which is criticised but policies for planning, assessment and marking.

The chief inspector made it clear that what matters is good teaching and a coherent curriculum.   Ofsted had initiated a survey to discover what a ‘good curriculum looks like’.

Unfortunately, Spielman appears to have already decided what a good curriculum. Using the jargon of the moment, it is ‘knowledge-rich’.

Let’s be clear: knowledge is essential.   Being without knowledge is to stew in ignorance.  But the term ‘knowledge-rich’ has been hijacked by those, schools minister Nick Gibb included, who deride the skills that are needed to analyse and apply knowledge.  If this weren’t bad enough, their derision is compounded by sneering at ‘child-centred education’. 

But none has ever explained who or what is the centre of education if not the child.  

These knowledge-rich advocates claim to know the contents of a knowledge-rich curriculum.  For example, Core Knowledge UK is used in high-profile schools such as West London Free School and Cuckoo Hall (recently judged Inadequate).      It’s a UK (some might say English) version of a curriculum devised in the USA in the early 1990s inspired by E D Hirsch and based on the notion of ‘cultural literacy’.   

Nick Gibb is a huge fan of Hirsch.   Policy Exchange hosted a lecture by Hirsch in 2015.  It was accompanied by supportive essays including one by Gibb.  

Core Knowledge UK is available as an ‘oven-ready’ resource of the kind advocated by Policy Exchange in its recent report.    If schools use an off-the-shelf curriculum and just tweak it a bit to suit their pupils then teacher overload would be much reduced, Policy Exchange claimed.

But curriculum design is not, and the Chief HMI agrees, a major driver of teacher overload.  Curriculum design is essential.  Devising and delivering a curriculum is one of the most exciting aspects of teaching.

Schools should be encouraged to design their own bespoke curriculum.  This could be based on what’s already available but shouldn’t be swallowed whole.   And there should be a degree of scepticism applied to any curriculum zealously promoted by a schools minister whether it comes from the Right (as now) or the Left (maybe, in the future).  Such interference is dangerous.

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 13/03/2018 - 14:36

The Hirsch solution to understanding hard stuff is to first learn by heart the basic knowledge. According to Hirsch, failure to understand derives from failure to learn the basic facts. Who would argue with that? It appeals to common sense, but when it comes to how learning actually takes place, common sense is frequently wrong, as it is here.

A digression on the general common sense fallacy is needed. It cannot be easily summarised except to state that the laws of nature and the nature of reality are frequently contrary to common sense. This is especially true in relation to learning and the acquisition of knowledge and understanding. Here are some suggested references.

The Unnatural Nature of Science, Lewis Wolpert (1993, new edition 2000)

Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman (2011)

The clearest statement of why Hirsch is wrong is perhaps this from Vygotsky, who is the main historic learning theorist whose work underpins ‘The Growth Mindset’.

As we know from investigations of concept formation, a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level.

As a retired science teacher I know from more than thirty years of classroom and laboratory experience that Vygotsky is right. Take, for example, Newton’s Second Law of Motion.

Force = Rate of Change of Momentum

Understand it? No? Perhaps this is because although force is not too hard to understand (a push or a pull), what about momentum?

Well, momentum = mass x velocity

Does that help? Thought not. Is this just because you don’t remember what mass and velocity are, or because you confuse mass with weight? Then there is, rate of change. What does that mean?

If I gave you a list of all the scientific terms involved in Newton’s Second Law of Motion and forced you to learn their definitions by rote so you could chant them on demand, would you then be guaranteed to understand Newton’s Laws of Motion? The answer is no and the reason is that given by Vygotsky. Piaget’s life work also helps a lot. In order to understand Newton’s Laws of Motion a student must have attained a sufficient level of cognitive sophistication. Piaget describes this level as ‘formal operational thinking‘. Kahneman calls it ‘System 2 Thinking‘.

‘Alice’ a hypothetical student whose cognition is at the formal operational level, who understands Newton’s Laws of Motion, will also be able to apply her System 2 thinking ability to all concepts that are similarly hard to understand. ‘James’, a student whose cognition has not developed to that level will not only be unable to understand Newton’s Second Law of Motion, he will have the same difficulty with any other concept with the same level of cognitive demand, including those outside maths and science, no matter how hard he tries or how much ‘basic knowledge’ he learns by heart.

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