Why Ofsted's framework won't work for history teachers

Ofsted's approach to 'knowledge' simply doesn't wash in history and vocational subjects, writes Sam Jones

Sam Jones

Ofsted's new framework: why it won't work for history teachers

There's a lot to like in Ofsted’s new inspection framework. I agree with the Sutton Trust report that a firm grasp of your subject is vital to great teaching and therefore like the emphasis on knowledge, especially updating subject knowledge.

I often work with vocational knowledge and preparation, and not knowing an industry’s practices and expectations can leave students’ unprepared to meet its challenges. I was therefore really pleased to see consideration of updating teachers’ knowledge as part of the new framework.

There were, however, some elements that pleased me less – in particular, how Ofsted conceptualised knowledge. The framework reads to me as if "knowledge" were one thing: that the kinds of knowledge you teach in physics or biology should be treated the same way as that needed for history or plumbing. 

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This seems to suggest to me that Ofsted needs to do a bit of thinking about the structure of the types of knowledge taught across our education system.

The construction of knowledge 

Bernstein offers two basic explanations of how knowledge is constructed (what he calls "discourses"): the first is vertical, the second is horizontal. The vertical discourse has two structures within it – hierarchical and horizontal.

It's this hierarchical knowledge that Ofsted privileges. Hierarchical knowledge is like Lego; it builds on itself working towards overarching theories that explain and tie together the knowledge studied. It's a triangular-shaped knowledge structure and is frequently seen in the metaphor used in the "quality of education" section of the framework.

Ofsted advises that teaching and assessment should "support pupils to build their knowledge" and "is designed to help learners to remember in the long term the content they have been taught and to integrate new knowledge into larger concepts". 

Both of these statements appear to assume knowledge is vertically structured. But what if you teach history or plumbing, subjects that have a horizontal knowledge structure or discourse?

Horizontal discourse is like orange segments: segmentation means that knowledge does not build vertically because it doesn’t have principles that integrates the knowledge. 

Horizontal knowledge structures work out rather than up and is tied together by specialist language and ways of thinking. For example, knowing about the reasons for Magna Carta does not help you understand attitudes towards poverty in the 1930s, neither does knowing how to solder a joint help you to understand how to install a U-bend successfully. Because these knowledges are constructed differently they necessitate different pedagogical approaches. Horizontal knowledge structures need the development of languages and ways of conceptualising the world. Horizontal knowledge structures require modelling and enactment. 

Favouring one type of knowledge 

Therefore, it follows that privileging one knowledge, the hierarchical, may inhibit the development of useful pedagogies and curricula for horizontal discourses and knowledge structures. For example, when considering teaching, we are advised that "teachers present subject matter clearly, promoting appropriate discussion about the subject matter they are teaching".

I'm concerned that Ofsted is looking for vertically framed discussions that "build", which may result in forcing knowledge into frameworks that just don’t fit in, and, in doing so distort the knowledge and pedagogies. 

I'm also worried that this mindset ignores the beauty of performance. Here's a quote that describes a student making a stud wall:

"Charles begins by measuring and marking the 16-inch increments on the horizontal boards, and then lays out the vertical studs accordingly. He measures again. Then he begins nailing the studs in place, driving in one nail, then another. Stopping occasionally to check with his eye or a framing square the trueness of the frame."

This demonstrates bodily positioning, muscle control, tool use, measuring by eye and equipment thus embodying the values of a craftsman. What questions can you ask that can give a fuller answer than this?

And so, I'm giving Ofsted a "requires improvement" judgement for its use of knowledge. They demonstrate a good understanding of the overall importance of subject knowledge, but perhaps an insufficient understanding of the types of knowledge taught. 

Sam Jones is a lecturer at Bedford College, founder of FE Research Meet and was FE teacher of the year at the Tes FE Awards 2019

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