03 October 2009

On an "outstanding" lesson

I've just been channel-hopping and came across Teachers' TV. It was citing an example of an "outstanding" lesson on elementary geometry for, I guess, 9-year-olds. "Outstanding" is Ofsted's term, by the way.

Not only was the lesson poorly constructed, but just under the surface it was teaching rubbish...

  1. The teacher gave several instructions but then qualified them with, "but before that, you need to..."

  2. She put up a small text slide outlining the lesson objectives. Why? This is teacher-speak, which means nothing to learners, who have no interest in framing stuff this way. Basically, in order to make sense of this kind of specification of steps towards a goal (if that is actually a good metaphor) you need to be able to stand outside the experience, to see the map of the journey; and of course very few learners can do that. Indeed, probably none of them... not even postgrads. So all this "explanation" does is to confuse further.

  3. Most egregiously though, it reproduced precisely the offence I experienced at the same age. I can remember the class vividly. It was the first half of a Friday afternoon, just before Art or the Story which wound down the week, probably in the Spring of 1953 or thereabouts.

    We were given exactly the same exercise as the pupils in the programme. Construct a triangle (actually, these pupils had the triangles drawn and cut out for them), then use a protractor to measure the angles, and add them up to arrive at the magic total of 180 degrees.
Except that they didn't! As I recall, my total was about 183 degrees, and the girl next to me got 178 degrees. Neither our understanding nor the teacher's (OK--to confuse the issue but to explain much else, this was the bizarre year when my mother was also my class teacher) could cope with "margins of error". So there was a meta-learning in this lesson:

The theory and received wisdom is correct. If your experience differs, it is wrong. 

It was repeated many times afterwards, in practically every "science" lesson in particular throughout my schooling. To be fair, it wasn't surprising in those days. I was in secondary school in the late '50s when budgets were very tight, and the improvisation of equipment was taken for granted. 

But things have changed; we are no longer constrained by limited facilities (at this level). And while I and my peers understood at some level that our practicals were just playing at science, children today are accustomed to something more definitive.

I don't want to get hyperbolic, but forget "objectives" and aspirations, and get down to more realistic "takeaways" including the unintended ones.

About twenty years or more ago, there was a late night Open University programme on "Professional Judgement". [See; Dowie J and Elstein A (eds) (1988) Professional Judgement; a reader in clinical decision making Cambridge; Cambridge U P] It was fascinating, and I am amazed now to find out how old it is, but the relevant point is that at the end of each programme, there was space given to --as I remember-- an academic from the LSE, to critique the assumptions and the methodology of the preceding argument.

That's the way to promote sound development of practice, not facile and fiddled "demonstrations" of what "ought" to have happened.

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