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Spielman confirms the need for understanding and skills

In 2012 Michael Gove accepted E D Hirsch’s view that knowledge is the most important part of learning and made it central to the new National Curriculum. Since then there has been a huge and largely welcome growth of interest in teaching knowledge. The place of direct instruction in teaching a knowledge-rich curriculum has been vigorously debated. Cognitive Load Theory has been summoned as underpinning. Tweets and blogs are full of discussion of recall, retrieval, low-stakes quizzes, interleaving, knowledge-organisers, etc.

For the first time, Ofsted is turning its attention to schools’ curriculum and it seemed for a time that Ofsted would prioritise the teaching of knowledge in its new school inspection framework. However, it seems not. Amanda Spielman has declared that there won’t be “an Ofsted-approved curriculum” and in her recent HMCI commentary she says:

“There are some who have suggested that because I have spoken about knowledge in the curriculum, I am advocating a pub-quiz approach to education, perhaps at the expense of developing skills or deeper understanding. This is just not true… Knowledge and the capacity it provides to apply skills and deepen understanding are, therefore, essential ingredients of successful curriculum design.”
HMCI commentary: curriculum and the new education inspection framework, page 7.

She is actually restating long-standing Government policy. Ever since the National Curriculum was introduced in the early 1990s, statutory guidance has included a requirement for schools to teach knowledge, understanding and skills equally. The current statement is:

“The national curriculum provides an outline of core knowledge around which teachers can develop exciting and stimulating lessons to promote the development of pupils’ knowledge, understanding and skills as part of the wider school curriculum.” (emphasis added)
National Curriculum statutory guidance, paragraph 3.2.

Ofsted’s view

This requirement has always informed Ofsted’s judgements. In the current School Inspection Handbook, the descriptors for Outstanding include:

Teaching, learning and assessment (bullets 3, 5 and 9)

  • Teachers provide adequate time for practice to embed the pupils’ knowledge, understanding and skills securely.
  • Teachers provide pupils with incisive feedback … about what pupils can do to improve their knowledge, understanding and skills.
  • Pupils … are curious, interested learners who seek out and use new information to develop, consolidate and deepen their knowledge, understanding and skills.

Effectiveness of leadership and management (bullet 8)

  • The broad and balanced curriculum inspires pupils to learn. The range of subjects and courses helps pupils acquire knowledge, understanding and skills in all aspects of their education…

There are similar descriptors for Good.

This isn’t surprising when you think about it as education requires all three elements: knowledge (information), understanding (‘placing’ information in relation to other information) and skills (using knowledge and understanding to solve problems). And they can only be acquired in this order. Knowledge comes first; hopefully it is retained and related to other knowledge in the schemas of long-term memory; and both knowledge and relationships between knowledge (understanding) are drawn on when making judgements and decisions.

It would be very strange if Ofsted were to omit any of these three elements from its new School Inspection Handbook and Amanda Spielman has confirmed that they won’t.

Ofsted has begun retraining its inspectors to engage SLTs in detailed discussion of the effectiveness of the teaching and learning they provide, rather than relying on data spreadsheets. (It’s possible that, now the old National Curriculum sublevels have gone and schools create or buy in their own data packages, inspectors may not understand their fine detail and will turn with relief to discussing the reality of what students experience. Spielman has referred to “byzantine number systems which can often be meaningless”.)

In the first week of September, all Ofsted inspectors received a day’s training on the new approach to be implemented in September 2019. This focussed largely on knowledge as a necessary first stage. It will be interesting to see how understanding and skills appear in later training.

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