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High Expectations, Not ‘Engaging’ Activities, Will Help Students Thrive

No wonder the gap widens when the myth that engagement equals learning is still out there, argues Helen Howell...

  • High Expectations, Not ‘Engaging’ Activities, Will Help Students Thrive

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. In my first few years of teaching, I know I got it wrong; mostly though confusing good behaviour and engagement with learning.

Towards the end of my NQT year, I began to get ‘outstanding’ observations but, looking back, this is because I was covering SEAL and PLTS objectives and planning fun and engaging activities, not challenging my students to reach their potential.

I remember thinking ‘Aha! I’ve cracked it,’ because my classrooms were suddenly silent places of work – whereas in reality I had (and still have) so much to learn.

I think the myth is still out there that engagement equals learning; and there is certainly something satisfying about watching your class do exactly what you ask them to.

However, after Ofsted’s ‘independence’ obsession ended, I had my own personal lightbulb moment.

I realised I did not have to apologise for behaving like the expert in the room through direct instruction and academic content, and that actually this kind of lesson could be completely engaging because students felt empowered through learning challenging vocabulary, studying challenging texts, and by the sky-high expectations they were consistently experiencing.

It was at this point that my bottom sets started writing like high-ability learners, and I have never turned back since.

Cultural capital

My teaching changed to include a lot more modelling and teacher-explanation.

Students are given lots of time to practise a given skill (this is why many of our schemes are now termly, allowing for lots of retrieval practice and interleaving), and I don’t feel obliged to include lots of activities or engaging resources.

I also, perhaps controversially, don’t share lesson objectives any more. I have never seen the point in asking students to write these down, and I think that if the aim isn’t clear from the content of the lesson, something has gone wrong at the planning stage.

At worst, must/could/should objectives or objectives with grades attached can lower expectations, allowing or even encouraging some students to meet the lowest stated outcome. No wonder the gap widens.

My thinking has been highly influenced by David Didau and his mantra that every child, regardless of ability, deserves access to ‘the best that has been said and written’.

I welcome Ofsted’s new framework that emphasises the need to challenge disadvantaged cohorts, offering them cultural capital.

No longer should they be completing comic strips of the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or reading the cartoon version of the story, leaving them even further behind their peers.

Observation issues

We have adapted our KS3 curriculum in light of these ideas. All students, regardless of ability, study the ‘story of English’: canonical texts from Homer to Orwell. The aims are the same for all our learners, it is just the amount of scaffolding that is different.

Reading highly academic blogs from ‘tweachers’ such as Tom Needham (eg developing topic sentences using noun appositives) and visiting schools such as Michaela Community School in a deprived area of Wembley, which models high aspirations for all students, has reinforced my belief in this approach to teaching.

I feel that Ofsted is moving in the right direction and that this will hopefully be reflected in its lesson observations – however, I am not convinced that internal observers (particularly non-subject specialists) will always be able to recognise what Didau calls ‘desirable difficulties’ as something positive.

I worry that many still look for engagement or ‘performance’ as an indicator of learning.

Observers often perceive students understanding the work or speaking confidently about it as evidence of ‘outstanding’ teaching; whereas a struggle to understand can be a better proxy for long-term learning. Perhaps it’s time to put an end to high-stakes, graded observations completely?


Helen Howell is English and literacy AST at The Radclyffe School, and is passionate about creating challenge and cultural literacy for all.

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