What’s your beef? Je ne sais quoi!


What do the horse meat scandal, school inspection and examinations have in common? Professor Mick Waters explains.

What has the horse meat scandal to do with schools? Well, look carefully at the parallels. Schools are highly regulated, just like food. The Food Standards Agency argues that it has been diligent and scrupulous in analysing products to check for micro-organisms, bacteria or disease. 

They wanted to be sure that the food on the plate was safe and would do no harm. They just did not check whether the product they were testing was the one on the label – beef. They checked all the ingredients were acceptable to eat but just never thought to look at the food itself and check that it was actually beef.

Teaching has regulators too. Over the last few years, with each change of Ofsted framework, there has been a move towards more microscopic inspection of what goes on in lessons. 

Observations have been yet more focused and more forensic in their analysis. If inspectors cannot find any progress, the whole lesson is suspect, maybe even contaminated.

Could it be that the school regulators have been busy checking the individual ingredients of teaching – the objectives, the questions, the plenary, the “evidence” – without properly considering whether what pupils are digesting is “learning”.

Chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has provoked a lot comment through his assertion about every school being a good school in Ofsted terms. He is, though, very clear that inspectors will be looking at the whole picture and not just the ingredients. 

The new inspection framework does give hope in terms of the expectations on teaching. Teaching will not be judged on observation alone. Sir Michael is very clear that the notion of the formulaic lesson is false. His inspectors are to look less at the individual ingredients and more at whether the learning is what it says it is. 

They are going to look for learning over time and talk with pupils about the progress they are making and the worth of the experience they have had. There will be a rush in schools to file the evidence for pending inspections, exercise books stored for forensic examination. 

Pupil books are one source but there are many others: surely the evidence of good cookery learning is a healthy meal more than a write up of how to prepare one. The evidence in design and technology is the working prototype as much as the plans. In languages, the capacity to hold a decent conversation is as much evidence as a set of printed sheets.

Another example of regulators of learning is the awarding bodies. Their examinations dissect the sample of learning placed before them and from that they pronounce on its quality. They check that certain traces are present, look for the obvious – but how often do they focus upon the DNA of the subject discipline.

Are exams revealing the true mathematician with an understanding of proof and the way that pattern influences our interpretation of nature in the manufactured world? 

Do exams show us the true historian interpreting the way that civilisation has developed over time with all its successes and all its failure. Do the exams simply test the recall of gobbets of learning strained through the sieve of the course to achieve the latest targets? 

Through exams, schools are judged as effective or not. Over time, exam questions have become more atomised as many have worked to hit the targets being sought by the regulator. Many a teacher bemoans their frustration at the lack of joy in their subject discipline that they are able to impart because the learning has to go through the mincer of exams.

As everyone looks around to apportion blame, we surely can’t blame the school leaders – the equivalent of the grocers, they have been delivering what they thought was required: the descriptors of good teaching. The poor teachers, they have a list of content to cover and mustn’t miss anything out: they surely can’t be to blame. 

And the pupils, well they just eat what is put before them, so often minced up spoon-fed mush that is unrecognisable as learning. They just get it down them as instructed and hope it will do them good in the end. 

Of course good teachers have always known that strong learning comes not only from the ingredients of the lessons being right and assembled in the right order. Everyone knows, especially pupils, that good teaching is sometimes hard to dissect and explain; it just is good. Good teaching and learning has several essentials: planning, preparation, improvisation, authentic contexts, purpose, relationships and intrigue: but there is something else – a sort of “je ne sais quoi”.

We may not know how to describe it, but when we see it we know it is good teaching and learning. So, what’s your beef?

  • Mick Waters is professor of education at Wolverhampton University and a member of the 21st Century Learning Alliance.

Further information
The 21st Century Learning Alliance is a forum with representation from practitioners and industry that debates difficult issues to help stimulate improvement and change. Visit www.21stcenturylearningalliance.org or follow on Twitter @Learning_21C



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