Progress bar

Ofsted 2012: How do pupils understand how to improve their learning?

by FGTO on March 26, 2012

This post has taken a long time to think about. So much for rashly saying  that I’d be posting two a week.

It’s been a difficult one to write without sounding patronising, and that’s certainly not my aim, so I decided to write it from a personal perspective, as a reflection on my own learning, in the hope that it will stimulate you to also reflect, and to apply your own thinking to the question.

I had thought I’d got it done and ready to go, until I did some training on conducting effective work scrutinies with a great group of secondary teachers.
Unsurprisingly, the discussion soon got round to the issue of learners knowing whether or not they were making progress, how much progress they were making and how they know.

In the post as I’d written it so far, I’d included the usual things about whether learners were fully aware of the big picture, whether they fully understand the success criteria, what’s the quality of the feedback they’re getting etc., which was why I’d come to a temporary halt in the proceedings.  This discussion has been bouncing around for years, and still the question hangs in the air….”How do they know how much progress they are making, and what to do to improve?” The focus on it in the Ofsted schedule only serves to heighten the issue.

One of the many points that came out in our discussion was that many learners who do know about their progress, don’t necessarily do themselves justice when asked about it. One colleague who had just been inspected, reported that when the inspector asked a pupil what level they thought they were working at, their answer was “Well, I think I’m working at level…….” The inspector immediately jumped on this as an indication that the pupil was unsure. In fact, the pupil had a very good understanding of their level of work and rate of progress, but in truly English style, wasn’t prepared to commit to an absolute answer to someone who might well have come back with a contradiction.
Most people, when asked how good they are at something would probably answer “Well, I think I’m OK”, or “I think I’m quite good” (notice the modifying “quite”), or more often than not, in many schools “I’m rubbish at it.”

How many senior leaders are reluctant to give themselves an absolute judgment on a SEF because it lays them open to correction? If, prior to observation, an inspector asked you how good a teacher you are, would you be absolutely confident in replying “Good” or “Outstanding”?

I often hear teachers (and myself) say “I’m no expert at…..”, “I’m not a mathematician.”
I’m no good with technology.” (Well, actually I’m quite good with technology – but that was very hard for me to write!), Would we say that to an inspector? If we did, what would they make of it?

Inspectors please take note – learners and teachers saying “I think….” doesn’t necessarily indicate lack of understanding, feedback or communication, it might just be due to natural modesty and reluctance to commit.

Even inspectors say it! ;-)

Now here’s the personal bit.

The whole discussion sent me back to thinking about how I feel whilst learning.

I like to know the following things:

  • Overall, what I’m supposed to be learning and why;
  • How much time I have available;
    This gives me a sense of pace and urgency.
  • What tasks I need to complete and when they need to be completed by;
    Again, this gives me the information I need to be able to set my own work schedule.
  • What “the best” is;
    What should I be aiming for? How will I know if I’ve done well?
  • What elements need to be mastered in order to achieve “the best”?
    What aspects of the overall topic or course of study do I need to be able to do?
    What must good geographers understand?
    What must they be able to do?
    What must they know about this topic/subject?
    How do they think?
    How do they behave?
    How do they communicate?
  • What resources I have available to me and how can I access them;
    Where can I find out more?
    What format can I learn in? Text, internet, audio, video, e-readers etc.
  • Who can I go to for help if I get stuck?
    Who else has done the same course?
    Who else I can learn from?
  • How my achievement and progress compares to the others in the group;
    Am I doing enough?
    Am I behind or ahead of others?
    Do I understand what everyone else does?
    Is anyone else struggling with this?
  • How I can share and discuss my learning with my peers, and to help them where I can;
    Am I thinking the same way as the others? If not….how is my thinking different?
  • What I’m doing well and what I’m not doing so well;
    I need to know what I‘m good at, as well as where I need to improve.
  • How to put right what I need to, and what strategies I can use to do so.

For me, information is the key.
The more I know about what I’m expected to do, by when and with what help, the more secure I am in knowing how I’m progressing.

Whilst doing this blog, I am constantly learning. I look at what other bloggers are doing, I compare mine with theirs to get ideas as to how I could make it better, then look for information and tutorials on how to do it.
I ask others how they do stuff, I try things out and change them if they don’t work.

I know that it isn’t perfect, I know that there are lots of things I’d like to improve, but at the moment, there are lots of things I don’t know how to do, so I have a list of things to learn.

What feedback do I use?

  • It’s still working;
  • People are signing up for updates;
  • My subscribers are professionals in the field, not just family, friends and blog-junkies;
  • I have a few positive comments submitted;
  • People give me positive feedback when I meet them;
  • Some of my posts are tweeted;
  • People ask me to work with them;
  • People suggest how things might work better.
  • People tell me when things aren’t working.

A big thank you to anyone who fits into any of these categories – it means a lot!
Feedback is vital for learning!
Although, feedback in the style of “That post wasn’t as bad as the last one.”, could just err on the side of destructive as opposed to constructive.  ;-)

It has to be said, that my learning in this case is very independent.
I would probably do well to invest in a teacher to guide it and hence speed it up.

So, what strategies could your learners use to make progress?

Based on this train of thinking, I’ve tried to build a list of activities they might use in order to gauge and then improve on their progress. It certainly isn’t definitive or exhaustive, but could be used as discussion points with learners so they at least have a chance of talking about them if asked by inspectors.
The key to their success is that the learners are aware of what they can do, and take responsibility for their progress.

Gauging progress:

  • Clarify understanding of objectives and success criteria;
  • Clarify what constitutes progress;
    (Vital here that teachers to know too. With rapidly changing curricula and specifications, this is a major issue for some!)
  • Compare own performance with that of the best;
  • Compare own performance with that of others;
  • Ask for feedback on specific aspects of work;
  • Identify how much progress has been made so far – look back over previous work or even re-do previous tasks to see how easy they now are.

Improving progress

  • Generate questions
  • Reading around the topic.
  • Ask for help on specific aspects (being specific is important here – they have to be able to identify what they’re trying to improve.
  • Generate their own ideas and test them out
  • Practice – but ask for feedback on the practice so that the right skills are embedded.
  • Answer questions
  • Ask for feedback on specific aspects of work.
  • Re-do tasks to improve them
  • Creating a timeline- past and future to plot progress and anticipated progress
  • Try learning in different ways.
  • Learn about how they learn

What can teachers do?

Give learners the big picture


  • an overview plan of the unit or year showing how the learning builds up.
  • a timeline of units showing the progression of units.
  • plenty of examples of the best they could achieve.

Expect and encourage:

  • Aim for the highest level – Giving learners the success criteria, asking them to do enough for a “pass”, then to do a bit more for a “merit”, then a bit more for a “distinction” is hardly motivating.
    Try starting  with the distinction and differentiate from there. (I know it’s idealistic but that’s what learning should be…..shouldn’t it?)
    An aspiring athlete doesn’t need a dry list of techniques they have to demonstrate in order to pass a test. They need to see the best, and compare themselves to it. Then, by analysing (with your help) what criteria make the best so good, they can identify and work on what they need to do to get there.
  • Review previous achievement regularly so they can get a sense of scale and pace of their achievement.
  • Include tasks set at levels previously achieved in order to highlight how far they have progressed.
  • Encourage learners to build their own timeline of progress.

It’s never going to be easy, and of course there are many more variables at play and pressures to deal with, not least of which is human nature,  but the main conclusion I came to about my own learning from  writing this post is that informed = empowered!

Any thoughts?

Related posts from elsewhere:
Inquire within:
Assessment: Who’s in Control?


The other posts in this series -




{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jodie February 2, 2013 at 7:24 am

I was wondering what your view would be in children in lower primary schools knowing their levels. At the moment I am working with 5 – 6 year olds and with a wide range in my class we have had a few higher able children becoming complacent with their work as they can see that they are able to achieve more, or they understand that the other children’s work would be easy for them. We’ve been looking at changing our perspective to not being better than others but to compete with yourself. The best work is the work that is getting better and how you know it is better, what is different or improved. My concern is that giving the children their levels could repeat the complacent “I’m working on a higher level than you so I don’t need to work as hard.” I just wondered what your view would be. Many thanks


2 FGTO February 4, 2013 at 11:51 am

Hi Jodie,
It’s an interesting moral as well as educational argument that just goes on and on and I really feel for you and every other teacher caught in this dilemma.
Certainly, if learners of any age don’t know where they are on the scale of progression, how can they be expected to know why or how to move on? However, knowing where they are, will always lead to some believing that as long as they’ve done enough to be ahead of the others they’re OK. A bit like the old joke:
Question: How fast do you have to run to escape from a bear?
Answer: Faster than your friend!

In my view, we can encourage the “compete with yourself and not others” philosophy, but it’s human nature to compare ourselves with others, especially if we don’t see any disadvantage in our position, otherwise advertising wouldn’t work. In reality it’s how we mostly judge our own performance; schools and teachers are doing so every day. (Well, the DfE is anyway!) Indeed, I feel that a lot of the disengagement with education in the UK is due to just the same type of complacency. We lack the hunger and perception of need for education that fast developing countries have.

Children are very good at gauging whether they are working at a higher standard than other children, regardless of whether we use levels or not, and I think what’s happened is that we have set so much store by achieving a certain level by a certain time that once achieved, children (not unreasonably) think they can relax.

I wish I had a clear-cut answer, but it comes down to just my view here, and there isn’t time for me to rant (as I can) about the way levels are used and abused. I absolutely agree that we need to have a way of gauging progress and communicating that to the learner, but as a marker of progress over time.
E.g. The whole journey is from London to Edinburgh, and whilst my fellow pupil has reached Rugby, I’m already at Manchester, so I’m ready to move on to Preston, rather than, I’m at Manchester, so I can stop now until everyone else has caught up. (A very rough and ready analogy, but I think that’s how the children, and adults often think of it.)
The Levels were originally intended to be an indicator of progression and not a set of stages to achieve at certain times, but in my opinion using them to judge schools and the quality of teaching has corrupted the original recommendations. (National Curriculum Task Group on Assessment and Testing-an interesting read to see how far things have changed.)
When the aim is to “get to level X” then it’s no wonder learners stop when they think they’ve got there.
Perhaps it would be worth reflecting on the way levels are talked about in the classroom and what messages children are getting from their parents about their expectations. E.g. is level 2 or 3 seen as a prize to achieve or a consistent standard to be working at? Without knowing your school or the way in which things are done, it’s hard to comment specifically or offer pointers, but I can certainly empathise!

Thanks for the comment!


3 Racheal October 16, 2012 at 9:37 am

A really great site with so much supporting, practical advice. In our school children are given flightpaths for subjects indicating what (sub) level they should aim to reach each term (challenging targets of course!). This encourages them to see overall progress and helps us to identify intervention needs. The system has taken over a year to embed but now children want to know how they are doing against their flight path and are starting to come and ask what to do to improve. This means a lot of differentiation and clear understanding of levels, but also means that not all students are aiming to complete (as eg) distinction level work. I wonder what your thoughts are on this approach and if you (or your readers) have come across it before? There is much less comparison with other students and much more of how well each student is progressing according to their baseline staring point;everyone gets to celebrate their learning success and everyone is resonsible for making progress.


4 FGTO October 16, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Thanks for your comment Racheal,

What you’re doing sounds really interesting.
I agree that once everyone is clear about what progressing from one level/sub-level to the next means in plain English, the chances of progress increase and many students (and staff) become far more motivated. I also think that differentiation and AfL are much more manageable when progression is clear, and it sounds as though your hard work is paying off!

Is the ‘flight path’ model/analogy a straight line? I’m just wondering how you manage the reality of the non-linear nature of progress throughout the year or even through a topic.
How does your school manage the expectations of students and parents where they might see relatively slow progress at some times and quicker progress at others?

This is something I’ve been researching recently and would relate to some work I’m doing on pupil voice so I’d be interested to get your input as you’re developing the practice on a day to day basis with a wide range of learners.

Thanks again, look forward to hearing from you.



5 FGTO September 23, 2012 at 7:30 pm

Jane – sorry, had missed your comment in the approval list. wasn’t ignoring you.
Thank you!


6 FGTO September 19, 2012 at 7:32 am

Lou and Donna, thanks for your comments. Will do my best to carry on making them useful!


7 Donna September 19, 2012 at 6:13 am

A great site.. As a School Governor your blogs are giving me a much better understanding of how teachers and schools could be performing in relation to the Ofstedd criteria. Interestingly much of what you write about is replicated in lots of business areas… engaged staff, inspired workers, creative thinkers…. I am reflecting on your posts at work not just school!


8 jane hinge August 14, 2012 at 7:23 pm

I have found your ideas and thoughts very supportive. I am new to reading blogs (very ashamed) and now feel a sense of enlightenment. Thank you for all your effort and I look forward to more good posts to come.


9 Lou May 25, 2012 at 7:18 am

Have read one article so far but totally agree with the idea of modelling distinction work as the standard. It gives students a clear objectives and aims and ways and strategies to achieve. In my experience if you show a pass then some students will do just that and no more. Looking forward to reading more.


10 Mags April 7, 2012 at 2:04 pm

Wish I’d found this site earlier than today! I really liked the advice: What can teachers do? I do most of this, but will print it out and keep it in my planning file to remind me. Will share with others.
I also like the seeming simplicity of all the advice and information: it guides without alarming or scaring! If all this sounds fawning, sorry!
The various articles will underpin future CPD. We do lots of that, but a fresh format is always welcome.
Thanks again!


11 FGTO April 7, 2012 at 6:34 pm

Thank you for your kind comments Mags. Not fawning – much appreciated, and just glad you’ve found my ramblings useful.

I do try to apply common sense and to try to find realistic and manageable ways of working.
Theory, research and dare I say it, rhetoric are OK until you have to put into practice with 30+ children needing your attention.

Thanks again,



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