Does learning & ‘showing progress’ always have to involve new content?


A teaching & learning leader told me that to be able to show progress in a lesson you cannot be just dealing with what you already know. There has to be new content. Gaining confidence in something was not acceptable and would result in no progress and therefore the lesson would be inadequate.

I ignored her at the time and carried on teaching as I always have. Of course when observed, I played the game and ensured it happened to be a new content section being observed. I knew she hadn’t actually thought about what she was saying. She was just repeating what the expensive Ofsted consultant had told her. What she actually meant was that, in the opinion of the inspector, you will not be graded outstanding unless everyone in the room can recall something at the end of the lesson that they didn’t know at the beginning.

So why don’t  I believe this to be true?

Firstly she has reduced a complex matter of learning down to one simple outcome. ‘You can tell me something you couldn’t have told me at the start of the lesson’. In a way, it didn’t even really matter what it was or how complex the idea was, just that you could prove they didn’t already know it.

Secondly, she failed to acknowledge that when we ask children what they already know, they’re not always accurate or have the same criteria for ‘knowing’. If I was to ask a student ‘Do you know the differences between the Catholic Church and the Church of England?’ they may respond ‘Yes’ only for me to find out that all they know is that one of them allows divorce. They’re correct but that’s not really just what I was after. It depends on what and how we ask them about prior knowledge as to what they will say they already know.

Keeping with this point, I am convinced there are children out there who have cottoned on to this. They know that if at the start of the lesson they say they know nothing, it will take less effort for them during the lesson to go through what they actually already know than to learn something new. Essentially we are lazy learners and the easy life is much more preferable.

Next I have reflected on my own learning to see if what she said is true. In the past 12 months I have immersed myself into Twitter, blogging and have attended as many of the edu events around the country that I could afford to. I will be honest, I haven’t ‘learnt’ anything new in some of the optional sessions that I have attended. I mean I heard things I’ve heard before. However, I believe that I still learnt from these sessions. By listening to things I already knew I thought about them more, I reconsidered if they were applicable/useful to me in my practice, I patted myself on the back if I felt I was doing it well already and some times I day dreamed and thought through things I wouldn’t have normally had time to think about regarding my practice. In these cases it wasn’t the ‘knowledge’ that was important but my own reflections, how the sessions made me feel and how they boosted my confidence.  Time for reflection has been key to my learning. Cheesy as it sounds I was nourished by being surrounded by like minded people. People that cared so much about education they’d given up their own time and possibly money to be there. That in itself was part of my learning. This would all be ‘inadequate’ using her criteria.

Finally, her reasoning was that unless you could somehow display your learning then it hadn’t occurred. If there wasn’t anything on the post-it note at the end then learning hadn’t happened and the child had made no progress. As we know, this is utter nonsense. Learning does not necessarily happen in neat chunks. Its not always visible. And interestingly the learning that has happened may not be exactly what the objectives said it should be. In my case, in the sessions where I had already heard the content, my learning was probably not as the presenter had planned nor what they would ever know about. It was personal to me.

Many schools have woken to the realisation that this Ofsted myth was in fact exactly that, a myth. In the meantime  it has destroyed the confidence of thousands of teachers across the country, me being one of them. The damage it has done is immeasurable. Should we all write it on a post-it to measure it?

I know the whole progress in a lesson thing is old news but like a bad relationship it has taken me a while to get over the insanity of it all. I haven’t done much reading around this area and maybe should but my instinct is that the answer is ‘no’. Learning is more than learning facts in a 60 minute period that can be regurgitated at the end. Learning is more subtle and in many cases far too difficult to pinpoint. We need to consider individuals and their learning instead of making broad statements about progress. We need to engage with research and theory rather than with expensive consultants who come to ‘tell us’ things*. We should be wary of just accepting things education and be open to discuss learning instead of telling people how to teach. Only then can we genuinely start to reflect on our own teaching and what ‘works’.

* There are some fabulous consultants out there. It’s the way in which schools use them that is the problem.

One thought on “Does learning & ‘showing progress’ always have to involve new content?

  1. I think of learning as being a messy series of loops, not a nice, neat straight line.

    Other than the classroom, is there any area of life where continuous, constant, and measurable progress is demanded on an hourly basis?! We don’t get observed much in my school, but I think about the last time I was, I was told I couldn’t get an outstanding rating because it was a revision lesson (for a pre-exam A level class), so I couldn’t show progress. It’s an obviously flawed approach that ends up with teachers teaching for the observer rather than the students: At my last school, some teachers would teach the same lesson over and over again during observation week, regardless of whether it followed on from previous lessons or was even being taught to the right year group! All that mattered for them was that it was a good ofsted lesson.

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