The outstanding lesson

Quality of teaching is at the core of school improvement. Dave Weston discusses how schools can get it right and what Ofsted are looking for

‘Great teaching is easy to recognise, but hard to define. The truth is that there are as many great teaching styles as there are great teachers. The effort to find a one-size-fits-all recipe for classroom success is therefore fruitless’ (John C Jeffries, Virginia Law School, 1973).

Every primary school and headteacher hopes that teaching in their school is outstanding and aspires for an ‘outstanding’ judgement from Ofsted. A key factor in achieving outstanding status is the quality of teaching and learning. The Ofsted grade descriptors for outstanding teaching include a focus on pupils making exceptional progress as a result of inspiring teaching, from teachers having excellent subject knowledge and the innovative use of new technology.

Outstanding teaching looks different depending on the circumstances and context. An outstanding KS2 maths lesson on algebra will look very different to an outstanding KS1 PE lesson. However, outstanding teaching and learning underpins every effective school. Research shows that all the best teachers motivate their pupils to work hard and assess them regularly. How teachers use pupil assessments to plan and shape future lessons is an important factor in outstanding teaching. This is one aspect of the culture of outstanding schools.

Whole-school factors contributing to outstanding teaching
Highly effective teaching is usually only consistently seen in schools where there is positive and thoughtful leadership. Two years ago Ofsted identified the characteristics of very effective primary schools in challenging circumstances and these features included the following factors:

  • A structured environment which provides stability and purpose.
  • An environment which develops self-belief and confidence.
    Teaching pupils the things they really need to know (by taking charge of the curriculum) and showing them how to learn for themselves.
  • A place which gives opportunities, responsibility and develops trust (for both pupils and staff).
    A place which listens to pupils and acts on what they say.
    An organisation which builds bridges with parents, families and communities, working in partnership with other professionals.
  • An organisation which has high aspirations, expectations and achievement and has a positive ‘can-do’ culture, where praise and encouragement prevail and self-esteem is high.
  • Ofsted also stressed the crucial role of the quality of leadership: ‘There is no denying the pivotal role of the headteacher in creating the ethos of the school and in exercising strong pedagogical leadership’ (Twenty Successful Primary Schools in Challenging Circumstances, Ofsted, 2009).

Indicators of outstanding teaching
In Ofsted terms an outstanding lesson is one with many significant strengths and no areas for improvement. This should also be very closely linked with clear evidence of effective learning and progress for every learner in the class. It is often more important to focus on what the pupils are doing than what the teacher is doing. What the pupils do and learn in a lesson is often a better indicator of the quality of a lesson. The key factors include:

  • Are the pupils highly engaged?
  • Do they move from listening to being positively motivated?
  • Do they learn and make progress?
  • Do they obviously enjoy the lesson and have fun, and are they keen to discuss what they have learned and what they might be doing in the next lesson?
  • Do the pupils ask appropriate (and challenging) questions?
  • Do they show a keen interest in the tasks?
  • Are they proud of their work?
  • Are the pupils involved in deciding any part/content of the next lesson on the topic?

Effective teachers who obtain an outstanding grade from inspectors add value to lessons by using special approaches and features. These are usually on top of the normal good teaching approaches and may include some of the following:

  • subject expertise and flair
  • the involvement of every pupil in the learning process
  • intelligent questioning involving every pupil
  • the use of a wide variety of resources as appropriate including new technology
  • involving pupils in the learning process and developing independent learning.

What makes an outstanding lesson?
Ask an average class teacher and they might say, ‘A lesson which is well planned, has the buzz factor and in which the pupils behave well.’ Ask a pupil and they might say, ‘A lesson which is fun and in which we learn something.’ Ask some headteachers and you may receive the answer, ‘A lesson which carefully follows the school teaching and learning policy and fulfils all the Ofsted grade criteria.’ Ask an inspector, and you might hear, ‘The teacher displays outstanding subject knowledge and challenges and enthuses pupils, and assessment indicates that the whole class have made significant progress.’

This shows how difficult it is to succinctly define the outstanding lesson, but many of these features are found in very effective teaching.

An interesting model on what contributes towards an outstanding lesson can be based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. An outstanding lesson can be described as a lesson where appropriate resources are used by a teacher who is enthusiastic about their subject in delivering a learning experience which takes into account the varying needs of each pupil and inspires them to take risks, make connections and learn while constantly checking that they are meeting high expectations and are becoming independent learners.

Relating this to Maslow’s hierarchy would indicate that the base of the pyramid would include appropriate resources and subject knowledge and enthusiasm. The next layer would include planning and differentiation to ensure personalised learning. The next would relate to communication and motivation and would emphasise learners evaluating their own progress. The apex of the pyramid would include high aspiration and expectation with the overall aim of developing independent and reflective learning. This indicates the varying skills that the highly effective teacher needs to demonstrate to deliver outstanding lessons.

by Dave Weston.

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