Ofsted’s current curriculum review, which is feeding into its new framework for inspection which is due out for consultation within the next month, remains extremely controversial.
Although much of what the inspectorate is currently saying about the framework’s likely changes appears at face value welcome – I am thinking about the concern about results-driven teaching – there seem to me to be serious questions about other aspects.
For a while Ofsted has stated that it has no favoured position on the content of the curriculum as taught in schools – “what is taught”, as it puts it – it seems to be setting forth very strong views with implications, surely, for how schools teach curriculum content and, in turn, the judgements that inspectors make.
From the available evidence, this seems based on unequivocal views at Ofsted on the conclusions of cognitive science, a complex field into which the inspectorate seems to be venturing in detail for the first time, but with as yet no explanation of the basis for its current conclusions.
More detail may make the above a little clearer.
A seemingly categoric statement which Ofsted has been using in recent months, and which appears on the slides it has usefully made available on the emerging findings of its curriculum research, created a mini-stir on social media this week.
The statement is: “Progress [for pupils] means knowing more and remembering more.”
It appeared in a blog by Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national director for education, published in April about the discussions of a spring conference for inspectors. As well as featuring in a recent round of workshops in which Ofsted explained its work on the curriculum, it also appeared in more recent training for inspectors (see below).
The Ofsted slide which provoked debate this week quotes cognitive science research, seemingly from a field known as “cognitive load theory,” (see here and here) conducted by a team led by the Australian educational psychologist John Sweller. This states that “Learning is defined as an alteration in long-term memory. If nothing has altered in long-term memory nothing has been learned.”
At the bottom, in states: “Progress means knowing more and remembering more.”
This statement seems to me, at face value, very contentious. I have searched for an explanation as to its evidence base, including asking Ofsted about this, but have not found one, with the inspectorate only stating that a “research commentary” on its current work will be published next month.
The slides also reference, again seemingly putting this across as incontestable fact, work from what Ofsted describes as a “landmark” American study, published in 1995 by the researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley. This identified that children from families receiving “welfare” were exposed to 32 million fewer words than those in “professional families”.
This seems part of Ofsted’s justification for putting far more emphasis on schools increasing children’s vocabulary.
Meanwhile, an Ofsted booklet for inspectors seems to go further into the specifics of the inspectorate’s interpretation of cognitive science research and its implications for schools.
The booklet, headed “to be used for internal training purposes [presumably for inspectors] only”, states: “The four key principles about memory that can be indicators of informed curricular thinking and delivery.”
Four principles are then set out: “deciding what content needs to be deeply embedded in long-term memory;” “considering what pupils pay attention to;” “avoiding overloading working memory;” and “providing spaced repetition for ‘overlearning’”
Another page states: “Lesson activities should focus thinking on the learning objective and avid [sic] overloading pupils’ working memory.”
There is a lot more of this. But, without going further into the detail, it seems important to raise some points.
First is just to note how contentious some of this appears to be. I am no expert on the science, but a statement such as “progress is knowing more and remembering more” seems highly dubious, certainly without further explanation.
I have a personal anecdote. In my professional life, on the above definition I could choose to make more “progress”, for example, in relation to my knowledge of the OECD’s PISA test results by, say, painstakingly learning the country-country rankings for each round of the tests.
But I think my understanding is better – and more powerful – in being based on recall of perhaps just three key insights: that results from PISA need to be treated cautiously; the rough outline of the results; and where to go to find the detailed country data when I need it.
(The latter, by the way, is not an argument that factual recall is unimportant now that we have google – I disagree with that profoundly- but that it is not the volume of facts known which is necessarily important, but their characteristics and how useful they are, taking into account the world in which we live).
Am I wrong? Well, if “knowing more and remembering more” is taken to be an invitation to schools to concentrate on the volumes of facts taught, it should become clear why the detailed evidence base – what does the research say on its correctness or not? - becomes important.
So I wonder why Ofsted is going so deep into a research field in putting forward views which seem at least contentious and without, staggeringly, as yet having published its evidence base.
Ofsted responded to my enquiries by stating that its new inspection framework would be based on "evidence from research and inspection practice". The "research commentary" would be published alongside its consultation on the new framework in mid-January. But, again, is it right to be making unequivocal statements about research findings without publishing detailed expositions of the evidence at the same time?
This, after all, is not how academic research usually proceeds - a concern levelled at Ofsted in relation to other aspects of its current curriculum work. And social science is complex. It seems a questionable message to be sending, as an education body, to schools and pupils that such fields can be reduced to simple, unequivocal statements.
Even if the science were unequivocally right, it seems a legitimate question as to whether a regulator should be getting involved in promoting its findings through its inspection regime, rather than leaving this as a matter for professional discussion and implementation.
Perhaps the findings from science are so powerful that school inspectors feel it is their job to ensure they are being implemented in classrooms. If that is the case, Ofsted should surely state this clearly, explain why and point us all to the detailed evidence base.
Without this, concerns that the inspectorate has been captured by a particular viewpoint, usually associated with the traditionalist side of England’s polarised prog-trad argument, seem unlikely to go away.