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'Wittgenstein proves that you can’t simply learn to inspect schools from a course'

Colin Richards, a former HMI and a primary sector specialist adviser to Ofsted, writes:

In a previous opinion piece, I tried to characterise the nature of school inspection and focused on the importance of complex judgment related to the equally complex activities of teaching and learning. I used a quotation from AE Housman to illustrate the kind of expertise required of a skilled inspector sensitive to the immeasurable nuances of classroom life.

But how is expertise in making such professional judgments acquired and developed? Although originally formulated in an aesthetic context, a second quotation, this time from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, gets as close to answering that question as anyone. In considering how a “connoisseur” makes aesthetic judgments, he commented:

“We learn certain things only through long experience and not from a course in school. How, for instance, does one develop the eye of a connoisseur? Someone says, for example, ‘This picture was not painted by such-and-such a master’. He may not be able to give any good reasons for his verdict. How did he learn it? Could someone have taught him? Yes – not in the same way as one learns to calculate. A great deal of experience was necessary."

The great philosopher goes on: "That is, the learner probably had to look at and compare a large number of pictures by various masters again and again. In doing this he could have been given hints. Well, that was the process of learning. But then he looked at a picture and made a judgment about it. In most cases he was able to list his reasons for his judgment, but generally it wasn’t they that were convincing. The value of the evidence varies with the experience and the knowledge of the person providing it, and this is more or less the only way of weighing such evidence since it cannot be evaluated by appeal to any system of general principles or universal laws.”

Applying these insights to school inspection implies that professional expertise cannot be acquired from “a course” or, at least, not just from a course or series of courses, nor can it be acquired from experience, however long or distinguished, in just one or two schools. It involves learning from a very wide range of teaching and inspection experience in a variety of relevant contexts, preferably not confined to a single geographical area or phase of education. It requires an extensive process of induction under the tutelage of an experienced colleague. It involves looking at and comparing a large number of lessons by “various masters again and again”. It is not like “learning to calculate” or its equivalent – learning from an inspection handbook or tick list. It involves learning from others more experienced in making judgments of teaching quality who can “hint” at what is required and who can discuss the complexities and intangibles of classroom observation – hopefully as a result, in part, of joint observations.

Like “connoisseurs”, inspectors should be able to “list reasons” for their judgments, but these can never be absolutely “convincing” given the difficulties involved in interpreting teaching and learning. The value of the judgments and the evidence they use to back them up depends crucially on the experience and knowledge of the person making them. Quoting Wittgenstein again, “this is more or less the only way of weighing such evidence since it cannot be evaluated by appeal to any system of general principles or universal laws” enshrined in any inspection handbook or subsidiary guidance.

Only those with the relevant experience and insight into the complexities and imponderables of the inspection/observation process can appreciate, live with and defend the tentative, partial but necessary judgments involved in high-quality inspection.

Related links:

How to make Ofsted fairer for schools in disadvantaged areas

Colin Richards: the DfE's primary accountability measures are deeply flawed





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