The Perfect English Lesson: Not What We Thought All Along!

If there’s one thing English teachers should read before they go back to work on Monday, it is the Ofsted document entitled ‘Moving English Forward’.  It is always interesting to hear what Ofsted inspectors think of any kind of lesson, but nothing really prepared me for the full, unadulterated gamut of emotions I felt whilst absorbing this new missive.  I laughed, I cried, I threw it across the room and hurriedly retrieved it, cradling it protectively in my arms like it was my own child.

English lessons aren’t the easiest things to plan because the study of English is so open to interpretation.  Schools of thought over the years have focused on seemingly opposing approaches – the grammatical, technical, literacy not literature approach versus the creative and therefore nebulous, content and enjoyment-based approach.  This dichotomy can also be named the Michael Gove approach versus Michael Rosen approach.  I don’t think there’s an English teacher that manages to combine these things all in one go on a daily basis.  The sub-sections of English teaching mean that, quite often, planning a lesson becomes an awkward juggling act, trying to equally balance rigour, monitoring, assessment and progress with fostering a love of the text, the spoken and written word.  I love English teachers.  We are conflicted individuals who deal with the most fundamental aspects of society and we do it every day, not without complaint, but with a distinct feeling that if we keep trying to create the perfect lesson, medium term plan, curriculum map, one day it will materialise in front of us.  Then we can retire, or go into consultancy.

Where does the conflict come from?  Well, we didn’t become English teachers because we enjoyed learning about semi-colons and split infinitives.  Most of us, I imagine, came into teaching because we loved our English lessons at school, because we loved reading and because we wanted to help little people love those things too.  Unfortunately, that illusion was shattered for me early because I was told that the most important thing about my lesson (in my head, so much like Robin Williams’ in Dead Poets’ Society, standing on tables and all) was that I should be able to demonstrate that the majority of my pupils were making better than expected progress.  I was told that Ofsted wanted to see pupils making progress, even in the 20 minutes that they might be in my classroom.

No one said anything about making sure that they enjoyed the learning, or that pupils should show depth of understanding.  The de facto position in lesson observations in two out of my three schools has been that progress is a limiting factor – in essence, if progress was deemed to be satisfactory, the whole lesson would be graded that way.  This is not a concept I disagree with, but it did lead to some interesting developments in my own teaching.  I slowly eliminated my guilty feelings about skimming over the surface of a poem so that I could teach students to analyse lexical choices to get a C grade.  I learned to demonstrate progress within 20 minutes, with advice I was given by people much more experienced than I was in the field.  From ‘make a student stand up and recite the learning objective when an inspector walks in’ to ‘subtly engage a student into a conversation about the level they were working at in a lesson’, from ‘stop what you are doing when an inspector walks in and make students check their learning’ to ‘always squeeze in peer or self assessment so you can demonstrate progress’.  The list goes on.

So, this is where I come back to the ‘Making Progress’ document.  Imagine my surprise when the document outlined a lesson that I instantly recognised as being one that I would teach.  Lesson objectives, starter, card sort, identify devices, mini whiteboards, criteria, samples from work, evaluating effectiveness linked to criteria, produce writing, peer assess.  Sounds like my life.  Except, dear people, Ofsted now say that this was not an effective lesson (quite rightly) because it “concentrated on the pace of activities rather than the pace of learning”.  I’m sighing even as I write this.  Was this kind of lesson not inevitable when progress became a limiting factor?  Ofsted, you created the problem you now seek to address. Some may argue that this view of lessons, in particular in English, may not be an Ofsted-generated issue.  Whether or not that was their intention, schools interpreted Ofsted’s wisdom in many ways.  Like Voltaire (and Uncle Ben in Spiderman) said: “With great power comes great responsibility.” When you take into account the anecdotes of feedback from Ofsted inspectors on English lessons, you can’t really deny that fact.  The most recent example at a friend’s school involved an inspector stating that any lesson where the 20 minutes included extended discussion or writing would immediately be graded ‘inadequate’.  This was this year, post January 2012 Ofsted guidance being issued. English Teachers have become used to creating mini English factories, a production line of activities sequenced so that at any point, one can stop and demonstrate progress.

In what I can only imagine is a tongue-in-cheek, aren’t we so funny subsection of the guidance entitled ‘Some common myths about good teaching’ (you jokers, you), Ofsted declare that the reason that the teaching in English has improved but the learning hasn’t, is that teachers do not allow sufficient time for extended reading, writing or discussion.  Poems are taught for their component parts, texts read in extract and personal response jettisoned for the more measurable skill of analysis of words, structure and style.  GCSE skills that lead to C grades, for how else is a school judged other than by league tables that demonstrate only a school’s ability to teach to an exam?

After Ofsted reveal the essence of a good English teaching, my favourite bit of the guidance is encapsulated in the immortal line: “Teachers need to remember that it is unlikely that all these features will be found in a single lesson.”  They are absolutely right, of course.  What is difficult to gauge is a teacher’s individual ability to disregard the last ten years of advice and guidance about what constitutes a good English lesson and go left-field, teach a lesson in which an Ofsted inspector sees students discussing their personal response to a text for twenty minutes or more.  Bravery exists in many forms and one of them is holding your nerve whilst an inspector takes notes on a lesson that goes against all the advice you’ve been given in your career.  Sounds it like it would lead to sweat patches.

If it sounds like I’m throwing down the gauntlet and challenging all English teachers to do this; that’s not my advice at all.  I’m firmly holding the aforementioned gauntlet in my hands, surveying the lie of the land and deciding where to toss the thing.  I think in that time, we should have a few more Ofsted publications to peruse and yet more advice to heed.  Wait and see, people, wait and see.

Right, I’m off to plan the perfect lesson.  See in you in a few hours?



    • Emma

      Jack: I can only imagine how much you must hate yourself for then going to the effort of commenting so negatively!

      Personally, I think this post really rings true for a lot of the committed and passionate English teachers I’ve worked alongside.

    • Ela

      Jack – You’re an idiot.

      Also, “I” is always a capital letter, unless you’re ee cummings, then you can do whatever you want.

  1. BreitIdeas

    I love literature. I write for a living. I hated English at school and got a C at A Level. I think if you enjoy something, you engage with it, and you make progress. I’ve learned a lot more about English as a language and creative writing since I began working in an industry that allowed me to engage with and enjoy this discipline. I feel like the attempt to gauge pupil progress and teaching skill with quantative markers just interferes with the process of learning, which ultimately, should be fun.

  2. Helene

    You made me laugh there because my reaction to reading the report on the day it was published was very similar! I was baffled, angry, amazed, eager to read the rest…
    A very interesting post which certainly reflects my own feelings!

  3. Don't Feed The Pixies

    there is certainly a feeling these days that it’s all about results, results, results – and so long as you can pass an exam then it doesn’t matter what you actually learned along the way.

    My English lessons were, much like most of my school time, grim – i was fortunate enough to be able to discover a love of language and reading for myself.

    For me as with everything there has to be balance – yes, we should be able to come out of school able to pass exams, but also i think instilling that love of language, of learning even, is more important

    Mind you i had to laugh that Spiderman films have apparently become just as quotable as the ancient writers!

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