Ofsted’s preferred science teaching style

The English schools inspectorate, Ofsted, have made it clear in recent times that there is no preferred teaching style that they are looking for when observing lessons. This follows pressure from bloggers such as @oldandrewuk who exposed the preferences of inspectors for group work and a minimal level of teacher talk.

I was therefore a little surprised to see via Twitter the following slide being presented at a conference for English science educators by Ofsted’s science lead, Matthew Newberry.

The slide is based upon Ofsted’s 2013 ‘Maintaining Curiosity‘ report on science teaching. Ofsted have since abandoned writing subject-specific reports, no doubt due to the tendency of these reports to promote particular teaching styles.

I explored the context a little via Twitter and it was clear which message Newberry was sending. For instance, Newberry seemed to be claiming that the Maintaining Curiosity report was still current:

By now, we should all be well aware of the effect of a senior person from Ofsted making such a statement. Schools will reasonably conclude that Ofsted want to see students designing, planning and conducting their own experiments in science lessons.

This is troubling, especially given the recent evidence from PISA that, within any given country, these approaches are associated with a lower ability to apply scientific concepts and reasoning:

This evidence is clearly more robust than that produced by collating pre-announced Ofsted observations.

When I raised the issue with Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national director, rather than distancing himself from Newberry’s comments, he effectively endorsed them:


Harford then referred me to the English National Curriculum that includes a statement about ‘working scientifically’ which states, “pupils should be taught to… select, plan and carry out the most appropriate types of scientific enquiries…”

So this is apparently what Ofsted want to see, even in schools to which the National Curriculum does not apply (I pushed Harford on this). Therefore, there is an Ofsted science teaching style.

‘Working scientifically’, a vague phrase that seems to imply inquiry learning, can be effective but only when students already possess a great deal of content knowledge. Ironically, this is why trained scientists, experts in their scientific fields, who then become science teachers often fail to think scientifically about the process of learning and therefore find themselves susceptible to believing in semi-mystical constructivist learning theories where a student conducts an experiment and thus a miracle happens.

Note: I am aware that Newberry did state that Ofsted have no preferred teaching style in his talk but this is clearly not consistent with promoting ‘Maintaining Curiosity’.

Update: This post by @Rosalindphys picks up on an even more killer slide than the one above; a slide that argues that schools need to schedule more time for enquiry-based learning. She also makes a further important point about teaching inquiry versus teaching through inquiry.


8 thoughts on “Ofsted’s preferred science teaching style

  1. Tricky one, this. I think part of the issue is the language used (“working scientifically”).

    There is no doubt in my mind that
    a) when “Maintaining Curiosity” came out (and a few years after) the suggestion was that there should be a lot of pupil led investigations happening in class. Pupils learning theory from experiment. I’ve seen Brian Cartwright, the chief HMI for Science, say as such on a number of occasions
    b) “Maintaining Curiosity” still gets used as a frame of reference, if not by Ofsted, then by Local Authorities, consultants etc.

    The question, for me anyway, is how does that fit in with the evidence on teaching effectively, the issues with inquiry based learning etc?

    As a science teacher, my interpretation of “working scientifically” (or “how science works”, as it used to be called) is that we want pupils to be able to plan and carry out an investigation, control variables, make measurements, collect and analyse data, evaluate the quality of the investigation. I think that pupils can learn to do this whilst still having a limited amount of content knowledge. For example, most pupils can investigate how length affects the period of a pendulum without having to understand simple harmonic motion. Employers and universities have often bemoaned the poor investigative skills of pupils when they arrive from secondary school, so the demand appears to be there.

    This is not the same as saying that the science curriculum should be taught through inquiry based learning (and not, for example, didactic teaching). To be honest, I think the balance of the new GCSE and A-level specifications is about right. There’s a LOT of content, plus a (fairly small) number of required practicals. The scientific thinking skills are built into the exam papers (and tied in with subject content).

    I also think that, in reality, there are very few science teachers that have the curriculum time to take a inquiry based approach to teaching the new courses (should they want to). The amount of content means that most will end up using more efficient methods 😉

    Having read that through, it all feels a bit like a brain dump. Sorry if it lacks clarity.

  2. Ofsted-style observations still happen in schools as part of performance management, even though Ofsted themselves claim not to grade individual lessons anymore. As Ofsted has not published new guidelines, I suppose the lessons are evaluated following Ofsted’s old evaluation criteria, which favoured discovery and “learners” talk. As consultants and SLTs active nowadays have been trained in the “old regime” these misconceptions will exist for a while.

    You point out in your blog about how to read PISA reports that the effect of changes in policy can take up to ten years to be noticeable. Many in our educational system believe in discovery teaching and “thinking, not memorising”, as a non-specialist consultant said to me when giving me feedback on a lesson that started with my students recalling the vocabulary they would need for the rest of the lesson. It was clear to me that he was monolingual, and to add flavour to the fruitcake, possibly daft as a big box of frogs. Though of course I could only support that assertion with further discovery based inquiries.

    Any person with the slightest training in linguistics (or a good inquiry based training, I might add) could work out that language is arbitrary, as stated by Saussure in the nineteenth century. If students don’t learn vocabulary by heart they cannot use it, and they cannot creatively come up with how to say “sing” in Spanish if they have never heard it before. Memorising might be a “lower thinking skills” activity in Bloom’s taxonomy, but this taxonomy does not explain how to learn a language, just classifies tasks that we can set to our students to practise the language they have learned. The lack of drilling and memorisation favoured by discovery learning is in fact bad teaching for beginner students of a foreign language, bad teaching that was encouraged to be “Ofsted-ready”.

  3. Pingback: Dear Ofsted: Enquiry-based learning is not the same as scientific enquiry | The Fruits Are Sweet

  4. Ben Duckett says:

    I think that the post by @RosalindPhys articulates what I have been thinking. In essence I think that there are two components: Scientific knowledge and Scientific Process. The former is definitions, laws, theories etc and the latter is the process by which that knowledge is gained. I don’t think you can teach one without the other.

    The question which is more complex is how do you teach them? I taught Hooke’s Law for years before I realised that replicating an experiment which has been replicated by students every year was pointless. However, using Hooke’s Law to determine the spring constant of combinations of springs and then explaining the answers is a more productive use of time, however, I couldn’t do the enquiry without the knowledge.

    I did once try to teach Hooke’s Law in reverse – get the students to figure out that extension is proportional to force and when I told them it was called Hooke’s Law and it had been around since the 17th century, they did comment that I should have just told them that in the first place.

  5. Victor Minkov says:

    “Achievement was highest when individual pupils were involved in fully planning, carrying out and evaluating investigations that they had, in some part, suggested themselves”
    – Maintaining curiosity

    “‘Working scientifically’, a vague phrase that seems to imply inquiry learning, can be effective but only when students already possess a great deal of content knowledge.”
    -G. Ashman

    Looks like they haven’t seen your two-axis model of approaches to learning and are focusing on the success of the implicit side of things when pupils already have good content knowledge. They are forgetting that if the students don’t have the prior knowledge, explicit teaching is more effective https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2016/03/10/a-two-axis-model-of-approaches-to-learning/

  6. Iain Murphy says:

    My worry here is that Olsfed is arguing an idea using their own data. Greg is suggesting this idea is bad (which is the theme of his blog an why I read it) and cites one piece of evidence to support this argument. Isn’t this what Olsfed is doing? Add to that the PISA results are solid but their data on the pedagogy seems pretty bad. Asking students a bunch of questions about teaching practices is always going to give crap results (I haven’t found a good study yet, but am happy to be proven wrong). So the PISA numbers are not the best argument.

    I wonder if the argument could be made that students can be given direct instruction on creating experiments to test the relevance of variables to an explicitly taught concept of scientific theory (knowledge). This might be analogous to having a learner use a dovetail in woodwork where they are shown why it is the strongest joint while getting direct instruction on how to achieve it and give space to practice it to success.

    • 1. The survey questions used by PISA did not ask them for their views on teaching methods. It asked them how often certain activities took place in the science class. This is a more neutral set of question less susceptible to bias than in most student survey data.
      2. You are right that I cite one piece of evidence in this post. Most regular readers will be aware that there is plenty more. This paper is a good start:

      Click to access kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf

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