Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

You've been framed

Man gesturing with hands

Frustrated by the absence of any detailed guidance, Tim Hann has devised and tested his own criteria for pinpointing what distinguishes an outstanding lesson.

You know it when you see it..." "It's got the 'wow' factor... " "It's the one with all the bells and whistles..."

These are some of the clichés I've heard used to describe an outstanding lesson in recent years. And while they are all true, they are not likely to hold up to the scrutiny of an Ofsted inspector.

Ofsted guidelines give some generalised, whole-school pointers as to what makes a lesson better than 'good' but they don't go into enough detail. And if you leave a vacuum, something will fill it - in this case, an abundance of lesson observation policies and observation forms on school and local authority websites.

Most of these constitute a list of vague features for which the observer ticks a box indicating one of the four Ofsted grades. But there is seldom a descriptor to clarify what differentiates an 'outstanding' lesson from the rest.

I have researched how to bring about 'outstanding' learning as part of my own professional development and drawn out some essentials which I am sharing here. Colleagues reading this might not agree with all of the conclusions, and this article is written not as a tablet of stone, but I hope it will encourage debate, research and deeper understanding.

For my research, I drew on Ofsted's website and their supporting materials, online research papers and websites, and then slowly assembled my ideas, trialling, reviewing and adapting them with my own lessons and those of other department staff. I then submitted my findings to the school leadership with a research proposal and adapted this further so that it was applicable across the curriculum.

The principles and descriptors I identified have been accepted as part of the school's self-evaluation process and are now used in all subjects to decide whether or not lessons can be judged as 'outstanding'.

What I offer here is a checklist, based on my research, which can be used by staff in the planning and self-review of their lessons. More importantly, it can also be used by observers, coaches or mentors to objectively and accurately award outstanding or to provide specific indicators for teachers to incorporate and review in their practice.

There is one caveat: such a system is not 'stand alone'; it can only have real impact if it is part of a unified, comprehensive and sustained strategy to raise the standard of learning, one which has the principles of Assessment for Learning (AfL), personal, learning and thinking skills (PLTS) and social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL) woven into its fabric. In a school that is serious about this work, it is also backed by a framework of leaders in learning at all levels, who promote, advise and mentor teachers in the theory and practice of learning.

Essential criteria

I have separated the features of outstanding lessons into 'teaching' and 'learning'. There is a criterion that I believe must be met in each case:

Teaching The teacher establishes specific learning targets for the lesson. They exceed expectations, based on the abilities of all students, and include an explicit element of new learning.

Learning The progress and degree of learning achieved by the vast majority of students exceeds expectations of them, based on their abilities.

Ofsted also underlines the importance of exceeding expectations: a good lesson only requires that students' learning is in line with expectations and includes a recognisable element of new learning, whereas outstanding learning must go beyond expectations and include an explicit new learning target at that level. Not everything taught in a lesson needs to be new learning or to be set at a standard beyond the expected ability level of the students. Learning objectives for a lesson can start with 'good' targets and build to 'outstanding' ones. After all, multiple, differentiated targets matched with multiple, varied and differentiated learning packages are the essential framework of high quality learning lessons.

Facilitating learning

Setting an 'outstanding' learning target is easy; students achieving it is quite another matter. Student achievement is the measure by which a lesson is primarily graded and as such, it constitutes a direct judgement on the teacher and whether their practice has created the best conditions for learning beyond expectations.

A teacher who is seeking an 'outstanding' learning outcome should be able to meet these indicators for teaching:

  • The teacher's class presence and management conveys enjoyment, enthusiasm, self-confidence and a 'can do' philosophy about the challenging learning to be acquired. Praise is well-focused, frequent and sincere.

  • The teacher's rapport with, and knowledge of, the students is inspirational, knowing exactly what intrigues, excites and motivates them to learn independently and at their best, both for themselves and with each other.

  • Periods of teacher-led information transfer are short. They use ingenious techniques and innovative aids and resources, directly facilitating student curiosity, query, engagement, and a desire to tackle the learning.

  • Student-led learning activities dominate the lesson, and are differentiated, varied and flexible, facilitating and challenging students of all abilities and preferences to discover and learn for themselves and with each other.

  • Review sessions are frequent, crafted to be student-led, offer a variety of feedback means, and enable a voice for all. The final session confirms the learning of the lesson and its applications elsewhere.

Many Ofsted and internal observations - including those rated outstanding - do not continue to the final plenary of a lesson or even cover the period when the specifically outstanding learning target is being taught and achieved.

From this we can deduce that, provided an observer sees that an 'outstanding' learning target has been set, then witnessing the specific indicators of outstanding learning being displayed by students will give the observer sufficient evidence to give an informed judgement. The indicators of outstanding learning include:

  • Students display enthusiasm and excitement for learning. They feel safe, valued, intrinsically motivated and very confident. They tackle learning without fear of difficulty or failure. They openly seek praise and reward.

  • Students know their target and how to improve their learning and outcomes, which they clearly want to do for themselves and for their teacher. Their efforts to learn show resilience, resourcefulness and responsibility.

  • Students engage fully with the transfer of learning, showing themselves as active and engaged participants in it. They ask sensitive and insightful questions and observations and discoveries are made to the teacher and to each other.

  • Students engage eagerly and confidently with the learning activities set. They investigate independently, discovering and learning for themselves and with each other, showing that the learning is owned by them.

  • Students engage fully and independently with interim and terminal learning reflections/ reviews. They give feedback to the teacher and each other that is comprehensive and accurate, and which confirms outstanding learning.

Student responses like this are exceptionally unlikely unless the teacher sets the best conditions possible for them.

Together, the two sets of indicators on teaching and learning provide the indicative criteria ('how it happened in class' - teaching strategies and learning responses witnessed) that enable the mandatory criteria (learning targets and learning outcomes) to be met. They can be used to validate the award of outstanding, and/ or provide pointers for future development and improvement by coaches and mentors responsible for raising the standard of teaching and learning in the school.

The criteria offered here have been carefully researched; they incorporate the principles of AfL, PLTS and SEAL; they have been subject to rigorous review at all levels; and have been 'test run' in numerous lessons, validated by both moderated internal and formal Ofsted observations.

With so many schools now achieving good inspection reports (the largest proportion of grades awarded since the new Ofsted inspection regime was introduced), there is surely a need to engage with what exactly constitutes outstanding lessons.

Even those schools already at this level will, I hope, acknowledge that there is always scope for renewing pedagogy and practice. If we get teaching and learning right, then all else follows.

Tim Hann is head of English at West Exe Technology College, Devon.

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