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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 -




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