The best maths teaching
  
In January 2018, the National Director (Education) of Ofsted, Sean Harford, tweeted about his idea of what the 'best maths teaching' looks like:
  
The best maths teaching I have seen starts with the basics for a short period for all pupils and then ramps up to the next and more difficult stages (for everybody to try) and then looks to scaffold for those who need it. And involves lots of teacher explanation,demonstration etc
  
Well, you might say, this sounds like a pretty standard teacher-led maths lesson, which is the staple diet of hundreds of thousands of students in UK secondary school classrooms. When challenged on twitter for evidence that it is, indeed, the best, Harford claimed he did not have time for a conversation. He went on, however, to defend his description by saying that it is "the predominant way of teaching maths in China and the outcomes are accepted as being very good in maths."
   
There are two issues with Harford's intervention in the debate about maths teaching. Harford is the national director of an inspection body that wields great power over schools. Many leaders of schools in the 'requires improvement' or 'inadequate' Ofsted categories feel forced to look for any indication that will improve their chances of a favourable report on re-inspection. Declarations from Harford about 'best teaching' are bound to attract their attention and will inevitably lead to pressure on innovative maths departments to change their practice.
   
What is more troubling, however, is Harford's comment seems to directly contradict Ofsted's official position laid out in guidance about inspection 'myths':
 
  
Ofsted don’t prescribe any particular teaching style. We know that different things work for different teachers and trainers. Inspectors are only interested in how much progress students make.
   
Indeed, 'best' maths teaching in the official inspection handbook bears only a passing resemblance to Harford's description. According to the handbook, a maths lesson is to be judged on how well it "fosters mathematical understanding of new concepts and methods, including teachers’ explanations and the way they require pupils to think and reason mathematically for themselves." The focus on the students' depth of understanding is completely lost in Harford's prescription for 'lots' of teacher explanation, demonstration and scaffolding.
   
Of course, Harford is simply a mouthpiece for government ideology. Official funding now only goes to those who support the Department for Education's 'mastery' programme, which ministers claim to have adapted from practices observed in Shanghai. Just as teachers, consultants and academics are being sucked into the programme through the hubs network and the NCETM, Harford seems to have abandoned his own organisation's neutrality towards teaching styles in favour of the government's teacher-centred approach.


Andrew Blair
February 2018


For a reply to Harford's claim about the advantages of the Shanghai model, see this previous blog post. On the weaknesses of the NCETM's variant of mastery, see here.