Can (free) schools avoid nonsense 4 (Behavior)?

Before writing about behavior it’s important to be clear about what is meant by good and poor behavior. I intend to write about behavior in a general sense and behavior for learning separately.

What these things mean is not uncontroversial and in my opinion they are best kept simple. So:

What is good behavior?

I define “good behavior” as behavior that makes the environment a pleasant one to be in for staff and pupils alike and does not disrupt learning. This is a starting point from which things like politeness, helpfulness, following instructions etc flow.

What is poor behavior?

I define poor behavior as behavior that makes the environment less pleasant for staff and pupils or disrupts learning. Again this is just a starting point.

What is good behavior for learning?

Good behavior for learning is exhibited when a pupils takes charge of or takes responsibility for their own learning/progress.

What is poor behavior for learning?

Poor behavior for learning is exhibited when pupils abdicate responsibility for the learning and/or progress to the teacher, the school, their private tutor, their parents etc.

So how can schools show that the behavior in their school is good without nonsense? (I mean “good” in the traditional sense and not the OFSTED “good” which can actually be pretty appalling if some of the schools I know of that have been rated “good” for behavior are anything to go by)

Showing that the school has a clear behavior policy  and robust systems that staff and pupils all know and that everybody follows is a good start.

Consistency of (good) practice with respect to behavior across all the lessons the inspectors sees seems to make a BIG difference along with the behavior policy and all the systems being used effectively. (Difficult to do though)

Good record keeping, communication and clear planning with respect to behavior.

Internal and external exclusion data.

All of this is pretty straightforward provided that the school is trying to show that the behavior is what it is. In my experience the nonsense creeps in when schools try to claim that the behavior in their school is better than it is.

How can schools show that behavior for learning in their school is good without nonsense?

This is much more difficult in my opinion. Pupils being on task in lessons, engaged with their learning, active participants in the learning process, completing their homework, knowing their targets and how to improve to meet those targets all help.

I would argue that as poor behavior for learning is far more detectable than good behavior for learning the best way to show good behavior for learning without it being somewhat contrived is to show an absence of poor behavior for learning.

Sadly far too many observers have over the years required certain types of lesson be taught in observations if good behavior for learning is to be shown. These people are still inspectors, they still observe and while they may not be allowed to have a preferred teaching style any more I doubt their opinions and attitudes have changed one bit.

This is particularly the case in my opinion when people are observing outside of their subject specialism.

Typically when I say this about people observing out of their specialism lots of people disagree (some quite vehemently) and seem to take it as some sort of personal affront. I am talking about myself here as much as anyone else when I say this as I have conducted many observations outside of my subject area over the years. I do not mean to insult or offend anyone by saying this.

Outside of my subject and the other subjects I’ve actually taught I don’t know what level the work is. I don’t know what grade the work is. I don’t know if the teacher has assessed the pupils correctly. I don’t know if the teachers have got it right when they say this work is “level x” or “grade y”. When the teacher says “your work would be better if…” I don’t know if they are right or not. I don’t know whether what is being taught in the lesson is of an appropriate level for the pupils (particularly if the class is mixed ability in a subject where the task is open like writing an essay or analyzing a text). I don’t know if the pupils are better at geography or not when the end of a geography lesson rolls round. I can have idea of whether they have learned what the teacher has just taught but that’s not the same thing. It’s sometimes hard to know whether learning has taken place in a lesson in a subject I know well so how on earth would I do it in a subject I don’t know?

In my experience observers look at proxies for learning as opposed to learning when observing outside their subject areas. That’s one of the reasons why OFSTED had a preferred teaching style for so many years. It made it easier for them.

In my experience the following proxies for learning tend to be used by people observing outside their subject areas. If they see enough of them then they assume (often incorrectly if the joint observations I have done in Maths are typical) that learning has taken place.

  1. Pupils appear to be on task
  2. Teachers ask open ended questions. Pupils engage with and answer those questions
  3. Pupils appear to listen when the teacher is talking
  4. Pupils engage with the task and discuss their work. The talk is mostly relevant to the task.
  5. That pupils are familiar with the type of activities in the lesson (that good practice be “embedded”)
  6. Teacher circulates assessing understanding of the task and picks up mistakes/misconceptions.
  7. It is evident the teachers has planned for the needs of all students.
  8. There is differentiation evident and a range of activities appearing to cater to the needs of all students.
  9. Teacher assesses learning in some sort of plenary. Pupils appear to have learned whatever the objective of the lesson was.

Observers also look for progress over time and would want to see:

  1. That the books are marked
  2. That teachers are making it clear to pupils how too improve with comment based marking
  3. That pupils are responding to the comments
  4. That the data show that pupils are making progress
  5. That pupils are aware of their level, their target and how to move from one to the other.

The problem as I see it is that it is quite possible for all of these things to be present and for no learning to have taken place. It’s also possible for many of these things to be missing and for lots of learning to have taken place.

Now none of the things above are bad things. None of them are things that teachers shouldn’t be doing. Some of them are not necessarily good things. That’s not the point I’m making. What I am saying is that assessing those things is not the same thing as assessing learning but often in my experience observers observing outside their subject area behave is if it is. This is particularly true of the progress within a lesson proxies although I will write more about progress over time in my next blog about performance related pay.

I remember observing a lesson with a member of SLT once. It was a low ability group and  most of the pupils had MLD. The lesson starter assessed the pupils current knowledge of what the lesson was about. Pupils used mini-whiteboards to answer.Quite a lot of them got the questions wrong. The teacher then showed pupils 2 methods of answering the questions and got them to do a group activity (matching exercise) followed by a “follow me” task. All the pupils were engaged with the task. All the pupils were getting most of it right and in the plenary when asked similar to questions to the ones in the starter all the pupils got them right. All of the books were marked, comments were in them and some responses were there. Pupils knew their levels and their targets etc. They appeared to be making some progress over time. The person I was doing the joint obs with thought outstanding…

So what’s the problem?

Well firstly the topic was one that the pupils first learn in year 3. All the pupils knew how to do it. They were familiar with the methods of answering the questions that the teacher showed them already. They probably would have got the questions in the starter right given more thinking time (as they were in the plenary). Thus despite their engagement and their enjoyment of the activities NO LEARNING TOOK PLACE. I knew that. The person observing with me did not. Thus their judgement was based on the pupils inability to answer the questions in the starter rather than a knowledge of the curriculum.

I was also interested to note that all the pupils had been given a new book within the last few weeks apart from the school-phobic pupil. There can be valid reasons for this but it’s a well known trick used by those who don’t mark and I was proved to be right in my suspicions when we emptied the cupboards after he left and found all three end of term tests for the year in the cupboards unmarked (with the made up results on our spreadsheet showing great progress) along with their unmarked, half finished books.

I would argue that if a teacher like that can appear outstanding then is it not possible that an outstanding teacher can appear worse than they are if they do not show what the observer wants or expects to see?

While there haven’t been many joint observations quite as extreme as that one there have been many where I have disagreed with the other observer because one of us has detailed subject knowledge and the other does not.

I would argue that while there isn’t a preferred teaching style (apparently) it would be far more difficult in certain types of lesson to tick all the right boxes for someone who is a non-specialist in the subject area. This is especially true when a lot of the observers DO have a preferred teaching style. Thus showing good behavior for learning whilst teaching in certain ways would be extremely difficult and nonsense hard to avoid.

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