Back to consulting the ORACLE

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
Maurice Galton was co-author of a seminal 1970s' report on primary schooling. Now he has carried out a follow-up study that should be essential reading for education ministers as they prepare to review the national curriculum


The ORACLE project is often described as the first major British study of primary teaching. It was carried out between 1976 and 1978 and focused on 60 East Midlands primary classrooms.

Our study broke new ground with its detailed analysis of teachers' classroom behaviour. The Observational Research and Classroom Learning Evaluation looked at the kinds of questions teachers asked, the statements they made, the way pupils responded and the effect on their progress.

It found that primary teaching in the late 1970s mostly involved teachers working with individual pupils. For 56 per cent of the time a teacher's contact was with a single child, 8 per cent of time was spent with a group of pupils and 15 per cent with the whole class.

For the remaining 21 per cent of time, teachers were involved in "silent interactions" - such as hearing children read, marking work, monitoring or carrying out "housekeeping" tasks.

Consequently, while teachers made contact with pupils for most of the day, pupils worked mostly on their own since each could have only five-and-a-half minutes of the teacher's time on average in a typical class of 35.

Many pupils engaged in "intermittent working" when the teacher was in contact or close by but became distracted when the teacher was elsewhere. Time on task was around 65 per cent.

Teachers were also categorised by overall teaching style. These styles were linked to pupil performance using standard tests. Among the most successful teachers were "class enquirers". They carried out above-average amounts of whole-class teaching and were most likely to pose challenging questions. Intermittent working was considerably reduced.

Pupils taught by this style did particularly well in mathematics, a finding that renewed calls to increase class teaching.

But advocates of change overlooked other findings. First, only around 12 per cent of all exchanges between teachers and pupils involved questions, and only a small proportion were cognitively challenging.

The importance of challenging questions was shown by a group of teachers who engaged in high levels of conversation with individuals but also used class teaching when necessary. They devoted more than 90 per cent of the day to conversations with pupils.

They did better than class enquirers on language tests and nearly as well in mathematics.

Furthermore, although intermittent working decreased during class teaching, some pupils resorted to "easy riding". Although pretending to work, they contrived to do as little as possible by, for example, deliberately breaking their pencil in order to waste time sharpening it.


A greater proportion of time is now devoted to whole-class teaching and group work. Our 1996-97 study, carried out in 38 primary schools - most of which had figured in the earlier study - found that teachers now spend only 43 per cent of their time (down from 56 per cent) with individual pupils. Both group work and class teaching have doubled (seefigure 1).

Teachers now spend less time hearing pupils read, marking their work during class and in monitoring and housekeeping. In short, teachers are working much harder because many tasks once incorporated into the teaching day are now carried out after school.

While some will welcome this change, marking children's work in class enabled immediate feedback to be given. In English, much of this feedback consisted of correcting a spelling or grammatical mistake.

Since children now spend more time being taught as a class, time on task has increased. But what teachers and children do during this time remains much the same.

The ratio of questioning to making statements has hardly altered (1:3.6 compared with 1:3.7 in the late 1970s). Thus, the shift to class teaching has substantially increased the amount of talking at pupils.

Furthermore, only 10 per cent of questions were cognitively challenging. Didactic class teaching was found to be particularly prevalent in science lessons.

Pupils in today's primary classes As in the late 1970s, the pupilis generally a silent participant, either listening to the teacheror to another pupil answering a teacher's question. Children still typically experience around 75 per cent of exchanges with the teacher as a member of the class.

What has changed is the nature of group work. Pupil-to-pupil interaction has increased from 18.6 per cent to 26.9 per cent. And while much of the interaction was not task-related 20 years ago, this is no longer true.

However, the growth of class teaching has encouraged "easy riding". Having to sit longer as a class listening to the teacher, children fidget more and teachers constantly break off to tell pupils to sit up straight or move away from a distracting child.

In part, this is because classroom lay-outs have changedlittle. When addressing the class, teachers still generally bring children out to sit around their desk or on the carpeted area. In such crampedconditions children tend to become restless.

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