The journey to outstanding doesn’t start from ‘good’
In the fourth and final article of this short series on outstanding teaching and learning in science we conclude our analysis of some of the issues around the good to outstanding agenda.
Outstanding achievement is embodied in the ability of learners to exercise ‘exceptional independence’ and operate as embryonic adult scientists
Previous articles have used Ofsted’s supplementary subject-specific grade descriptors for science to highlight the differences between good and outstanding practice. We have seen that outstanding achievement is embodied in the ability of learners to exercise ‘exceptional independence’ and operate as embryonic adult scientists. Learning should be focused on the big ideas of science, with key questions and issues explored through a process of ‘guided discovery’. In outstanding science lessons the teacher acts as a passionate and enthusiastic catalyst for learning, presenting students with genuine opportunities to learn. This should be through exploration of the ‘scientific phenomena’, which should, according to the criteria, be ‘the core focus of lessons’.
Outstanding learning opportunities in science are designed so that the ideas and concepts are placed in exciting, relevant and accessible contexts. A creative approach creates room for the students to ask searching and rich questions to allow them to build their own mental models of the scientific phenomena.
There is a high degree of skill and expertise involved in facilitating this process. An outstanding teacher will, for instance, use the spread of ability in a class to provide opportunities for students to explore differentiated contexts that contribute to the wider consideration of the big idea of the lesson and/or sequence of lessons. They will involve students in the process of the scientific method, rather than presenting them with a predetermined set of facts and procedures which need to be carried out in order for the content to be learned (ie, understood).
What we are effectively seeing therefore involves students in developing a relational understanding of their science
What we are effectively seeing therefore involves students in developing a relational understanding of their science, where ideas and processes are driven by the process of guided discovery, rather than an instrumental understanding where, in effect the learning intentions and the learning itself are predetermined, with attention then predominantly focused on delivery. The diagram below summarises the differences in these approaches:
An instrumental approach may be required for certain topics, for instance where a high degree of precision is required or perhaps as a fix where a more creative approach hasn’t worked. But it is clear that if this approach is adopted too often there is a danger that students will not develop the ‘exceptional independence’ required for achievement to be outstanding. It is then likely that inspectors will see that the ‘Ofsted lessons’ wheeled out for their visit do not represent the everyday experiences of students in the science classroom.
In effect, we can argue that outstanding lessons should be thought about differently and possibly from a different direction to good
The challenge for the teacher is to enable students to achieve at least the same level of mastery with an approach that creates opportunities for critical and creative thinking as would be achieved using a more instrumental approach, where there may be a greater emphasis on teaching to the test.
The creative spark
We have seen in our exploration of Ofsted’s supplementary subject-specific grade descriptors for science in previous articles how the descriptors for good sometimes do not provide an indication of the creative spark that would make a lesson potentially outstanding. In effect, we can argue that outstanding lessons should be thought about differently and possibly from a different direction to good. The remaining criteria in the subject survey guidance present the difference between good and outstanding in a way which usefully illustrates the potential of this argument.
|In particular, pupils have many opportunities to show and apply their knowledge, skills and understanding of science, and give extended explanations.||They provide a wide range of activities that require pupils to operate as scientists. This includes scientific investigation and practical work, research using a range of resources, evaluation, discussion, and giving and receiving high quality presentations.|
|As a result, they [teachers] use an appropriate range of resources and teaching strategies to promote good learning across all aspects of the subject.||Teachers use a very wide range of innovative and imaginative resources and teaching strategies to stimulate pupils’ active participation in their learning and secure outstanding progress across all aspects of the subject.|
In the criteria above, the descriptors for ‘good’ really only tell us that good learning is extended, varied and enriched by an ‘appropriate range of resources and teaching strategies’ and that pupils are able as a result to give extended explanations. This all sounds like faint praise when compared to what Ofsted have to say about outstanding.
‘Good’ learning could be achieved by the instrumental approach we have illustrated above, because the emphasis could be placed on securing understanding and producing good progress and achievement across ‘all aspects of the subject’. On the other hand, outstanding learning is described as requiring students to ‘operate as scientists’, effectively in role and with the expectation that learning will be challenging, with active participation and innovative learning methodologies in routine use.
Developing outstanding practice
We would suggest that science departments currently engaged in attempting to develop outstanding practice and those who have a specific interest in teaching and learning for the more able, should take full account of this contrasting perspective, which is profoundly more interesting for all sorts of reasons. We have seen quite a bit of evidence that for science, the journey from good to outstanding should perhaps not start from good. And whilst this is an apparent contradiction, it is one that certainly needs to be resolved if the aim of providing outstanding teaching and learning is to be achieved.