Good Teaching and Learning in Geography

The public face of Ofsted, Sir. Micheal Wilshaw; has been widely quoted in the press, and not always speaking positively about the teaching profession. For example BBC Article and another BBC Article. The workshop led by a HMI was totally different.


This workshop was led by Leszek Iwaskow, the HMI National Advisor for Geography. Leszek gave high quality and realistic advice about what Ofsted are looking for. The comments he made were sensible and extremely realistic. A real breathe of fresh air. These are my notes from the session.

He began by pointing out the advice that is available on the Ofsted website:

An Example from English

Leszek began by giving an example of an English lesson. This initially appeared as a bizarre example but was actually really useful and applies to Geography.

This was taken from the 2012 English Subject report, Moving English Forward. .

We were asked to evaluate the following lesson:

The lesson involved a Year 9 class working on techniques of persuasive writing. The lesson was planned in detail. The first phase involved an explanation of the learning objectives and a starter activity where students worked in groups to complete a card-sort activity. In the next phase of the lesson, students used a grid to identify persuasive devices on mini whiteboards. The teacher then took them quickly through the criteria for assessment at Levels 5–7 and gave students examples of extracts from two essays on capital punishment. Students were asked to choose the more effective piece, linking it to the assessment criteria. They were then asked to produce at least one paragraph of writing on the topic of capital punishment. In the final part of the lesson, students were asked to peer-mark two other students’ work, then to look at and review their own work and check the comments. One further activity was introduced before students were asked to say what they had learnt in the lesson. The lesson closed with a final activity where students revised persuasive techniques on the board.

Although the example was English we were able to discuss the relative strengths and weaknesses of the lesson.

The English subject report then gives some of the failings of the lesson.

Pace. There seems to be a belief that the faster the lesson, the better the learning. While pace is important – a slow lesson is likely to lose pupils’ concentration – teachers too often concentrate on the pace of their planned activities rather than the pace of learning. For example, a teacher told an inspector that they had been advised that a starter activity should never last longer than 10 minutes. While this may be a sensible starting point for discussion, the inspector’s view was that a starter activity, like any other activity, needs to last only as long as is needed to ensure effective learning.

The number of activities. As implied above, some teachers appear to believe that the more activities they can cram into the lesson, the more effective it will be. This is often counterproductive, as activities are changed so often that pupils do not complete tasks and learning is not consolidated or extended.

Over-detailed and bureaucratic lesson plans. Teachers are encouraged to plan individual lessons in considerable detail. Inspectors sometimes note that excessive detail within these plans causes teachers to lose sight of the central focus on pupils’ learning. 

An inflexible approach to planning lessons. School policies sometimes insist that all lesson plans should always follow the same structure, no matter what is being taught. In addition, evidence from the survey suggests that teachers often feel that they should not alter their plans during the lesson. The notion of a three- or four-part structure to lessons with certain key elements, such as a lively starter activity and an opportunity to review learning at the end, is helpful to teachers. However, teachers need to have the confidence to depart from their plans if early indications are, for example, that the pupils know more or less than the teacher had anticipated. The key consideration should be the development of pupils’ learning rather than sticking rigidly to a plan.

Limited time for students to work independently. A constant criticism from inspectors was that pupils rarely had extended periods to read, write or discuss issues in class. Indeed, inspectors observed lessons where pupils were asked to self- or peer-assess work before they had been able to complete more than a sentence or two. No doubt, teachers feel that they need to be actively engaged when they are being observed. However, this shows a degree of misunderstanding as inspectors’ priority is above all to evaluate the quality of pupils’ learning in lessons.

Constant review of learning. As noted above, in lessons observed, significant periods of time were spent by teachers on getting pupils to articulate their learning, even where this limited their time to complete activities and thereby interrupted their learning! Pupils need time to complete something before they can valuably discuss and evaluate it. To invite self- or peer-evaluation before pupils have had time to engage fully with learning is counter-productive although the principle of self- or peer-assessment remains important.

Geography Lessons

Throughout the session Leszek gave some sound advice for Geography Teachers.

  • Ofsted has no prescribed teaching requriment; there is no need for three or five part lessons; there is no need to introduce learning objectives at the beginning of hte lesson.
  • A good barometer of the Geography department of a school is the number of students choosing to study Geography at GCSE. If it is greater than 25% geographers are doing quality geography. If it is less than 10% there is a serious concern.
  • Most students have poorly developed map work skills – map skills is frequently limited to specific examination requirements.
  • There is often a lack of opportunity for writing at length; this limits opportunity for students to show their understanding. 
  • Students have poorly developed core knowledge; students do not have a coherent picture of the world.
  • Teaching is better at KS4 than KS3, this is frequently because KS3 is taught by non-specialists.
  • It should not be the teacher that is doing more work than the students.
  • Frequently book scrutiny is more valuable than lesson observation – is the work that students are doing now showing progression since September?
  • His key message was that Geography lessons should focus on Geography; lessons should not focus on literacy – good Geography will naturally bring in literacy.
  • Focus should be on pace of learning not pace of activities.
  • Teachers at KS4 should not be ‘teaching to the test’; Ofsted don’t want to see every lesson linked to a GCSE Question.
  • In addition learning objectives should be geographical!
  • Pupils should develop locational knowledge – they should know where places that are being studied are located.

He also pointed out the Good Practice materials on the Ofsted Website, something I had not been aware of before.

He also expressed concern about early entry and two year Key Stage 3 programmes.

This is a series of posts about the Geographical Association Annual Conference 2013; the index to my GA Conference posts can be found here. -this link will work when I have finished all articles – probably tommorrow!