Progress in Lessons: Another Stick to Beat Teachers With?

Progress in lesson is the name of the game – the area that all (or at least a lot of) teachers are talking about and something that is causing some concern given that Ofsted will be looking for progress in lessons during observations – so what does this all mean?

Firstly let us consider the opposite – regression in lessons. Do we want learners to regress in lessons? Obviously not or actually potentially -YES?  Surely this cannot be correct?

Well there is a epistemological argument that can suggest that part of learning is revealing how little you know and effective teaching and learning can leave you knowing how little you know – effectively you know less than when you started – a form of regression.

Equally you can also argue that regression is sometimes necessary in order to achieve progression. In sports often you have to regress to progress as in you have to go back to basics before you can start to improve. So all is not so clear in the progression world!

Now at this point you may be more confused then when you started, which reinforces my example that sometimes, in fact often, learning and progress are far from linear. Unfortunately however there is a prevailing myth that progress is a fairly straightforward characteristic of effective teaching and learning and my first line of argument is that this is not true, particularly when looking at single episodes of teaching and learning as progress really needs to be viewed by considering the learners needs and the context in which the learning is taking place. However over time the expectation is that a learner will not be in deficit in their understanding and that progress in a skill, concept or knowledge will advance over time.

But what does this mean and what are the requirements?

Well the Ofsted requirements for this are fairly clear in that the inspection framework indicates that the ‘judgement on the quality of teaching must take account of evidence of pupils’ learning and progress over time’. Therefore it would seem to recognize that learning is sometimes unpredictable and that progress over time is the most important feature.  This does not however give license to keep talking about the ‘big picture’ learning at the expense of individual lessons going to pot as a characteristic of good teaching is constantly monitoring the learning to identify if progress is being made in the right direction. Ofsted have identified this as: “teachers monitor pupils’ progress in lessons and use the information well to adapt their teaching” which is central to the aims of Assessment for Learning and good teaching.

I don’t think there is much that is contentious here except for a couple of reasons this is also where there is confusion within the system and where there becomes a distortion of practice for a variety of reasons:

Firstly it needs to be recognized that learning is incredibly messy and the more complex the learning the messier the learning can be. Learning is not always linear and progress in learning cannot always be broken down into small measurable binary chunks of I know/understand or don’tknow/understand.

Secondly progress of individuals is equally not consistent – we all progress at different speeds in different ways with different ways of learning and with different amounts of learning retained, understood or able to be applied.

There is a danger with this in that in order to try to meet a perceived expectation, practice becomes distorted which then represents coercion and collusion in learning in that the teacher attempts to give the appearance of progression when in fact there may be little (often to be seen in plenaries). Or learning becomes reduced to low-level recall activities, which facilitate recording of progression into binary chunks of learning but where the learning is almost meaningless and of little value to the learner.

So what is my point? Well – whilst progress in lessons is seen as a threat by some  and another stick to beat teachers – the biggest threat is not that progress is attempting to be inspected, but that bad practice gets adopted in the belief that it is the expected practice. As a result practice becomes distorted and learning may be reduced. Hearing teachers starting to discuss what progress in learning might be is really positive and should be welcomed but unfortunately it is often a deficit view of what is being done to them as a teacher rather than an informed and autonomous discussion as to what does learning mean in my lesson, with my pupils and what does progress over time look like.

In all of this comes the values that each person holds as a teacher – as to what do I value in my teaching and how is my valuing of this translated into pupils progress in learning over time. These are not straightforward questions with simple answers and it is important that ‘progress in lessons’ isn’t characterized as a stick to beat teachers with but is seen as a genuine opportunity to discuss the value, nature and pedagogical strategies associated with different aspects of learning in different contexts.