Ofsted inspector: So, Socrates, we’ve completed our inspection of your teaching, and as you know, we have introduced a new framework for our inspection procedure. We don’t wish schools to merely be exam factories, and so we have a new focus on ensuring that a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum is being taught, and I’m afraid that we have concluded that we are very concerned. I have been unable to find any evidence that you are teaching anything that could be described as being knowledge, never mind ‘knowledge-rich’. Therefore, I have to tell you that we consider you to require improvement.
Socrates: Ah what a shame! Well I certainly bow to your superior knowledge. If Ofsted have decided that my teaching practices require improvement, then they must require improvement.
Inspector: I appreciate your humility. It is humility isn’t it? I hope you are not being sarcastic. Our new inspection framework is very evidence-based and therefore we can consider our judgements to be fairly objective.
Socrates: That is reassuring. So we now know what counts as a ‘good’ school because the evidence defines it as such?
Inspector: Well yes and no. We have looked at some examples of excellent practice and from those examples, we at Ofsted have drawn our definition of what makes an effective school.
Socrates: Oh. Now I am a little confused. Does Ofsted judge a school to be good because it is good, or is a school good because Ofsted have judged it to be so?
Inspector: Haha no, Socrates. You won’t catch me out with that. A school is good because it accords with the research that shows what counts as good.
Socrates: But, as I am sure such an esteemed personage as yourself is aware, not all research is in agreement with each other. Indeed, research often contradicts other research. How do you decide which research to follow?
Inspector: I think that it is fair to say that there is broad consensus on many issues. It is well recognised that retrieval practice, for example, is fundamental to retaining things in the long-term memory.
Socrates: I have no argument with this, but our essential dilemma remains unsolved, it has merely moved elsewhere: is a school good because its actions are in agreement with the research, or does the research agree with the actions of a school because the school is good?
Inspector: I’m not entirely sure what you’re going on about, Socrates.
Socrates: Well let me give you an example. You would not say that my ‘curriculum’ (if it can be called such) was ‘knowledge-rich’, no?
Inspector: Certainly not! I have not seen any evidence that you even have a curriculum!
Socrates: But how are you defining a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum? Is a curriculum knowledge-rich because it imparts knowledge, or can it be knowledge-rich in itself?
Inspector: Of course, a school might have an excellent curriculum that is taught badly.
Socrates: But can a school have a knowledge-rich curriculum which is taught well, but where the students still don’t learn anything?
Inspector: Of course not.
Socrates: So a curriculum is only knowledge-rich if students learn from it. It cannot be knowledge-rich in itself.
Inspector: That seems fair.
Socrates: So how then do you establish whether or not the students have learnt anything?
Inspector: Ah! I see your trap here, Socrates. You think that I will now resort to saying that we know whether a student has learnt anything because of their test scores! I’m afraid I’m too quick for you. Nope, I’m not going to fall for that, the research says that learning is change in the long-term memory.
Socrates: Yes. I’ve read that peculiar idea myself. And how do we establish whether such a change in the long-term memory has occurred? Not through tests or exams?
Inspector: Oh come on. I accept that the research methods might not be quite up to scratch yet, but education research is a young science. Our methods will improve with time.
Socrates: So you think that one day we will have a better method of establishing whether a student knows something?
Inspector: …or a collection of methods. Yes.
Socrates: And how will you establish whether those methods are actually more reliable?
Inspector: How do you ever establish how reliable a method of measurement is? Surely, for example, you would agree that measuring the length of a table is more accurate if I do so with a ruler, rather than my hand-span?
Socrates: I would certainly agree that we would have less to quarrel about if we used a ruler rather than your hand-span, but in which case a more reliable measure is simply a measure about which we have less cause to quarrel.
Inspector: Well I agree. And so we simply need to find methods of measuring knowledge which will entail less disagreement, no?
Socrates: And then we will truly establish whether or not a student knows something and so be able to infer whether or not a curriculum is knowledge-rich?
Inspector: Yes! Precisely!
Socrates: I’m not convinced.
Inspector: What can you possibly disagree with here?!
Socrates: Let’s use your table example again. So we agree on a method of measurement – we hold a ruler against the table, and read off the mark.
Socrates: And then what have we achieved?
Inspector: Well we can now apply that measurement in other places. We can decide whether or not the table will fit in the space under the stairs, for example.
Socrates: And what is the equivalent with regards knowledge? What ‘stairs’ are we trying to fit these knowledgeable children ‘under’?
Inspector: Presumably, we want these children to fit into society?
Socrates: So then your measurement will only be any good if it is also applicable to society? It would be no good if we were to measure the table with one kind of ruler, and the space under the stairs with another, if we could not translate the one to the other.
Socrates: So your measurement of knowledge is in fact a measurement of how well students fit into society?
Inspector: Yes. That seems fair. Would you disagree with that? Is that not the aim of education, to lead students out into society?
Socrates: That doesn’t seem to be quite the same as a student being knowledgeable. There are numerous examples of very knowledgeable people not fitting into society.
Inspector: But knowledge is what enables someone to fit in!
Socrates: I might remind you, inspector, that despite being described by the oracle as knowledgeable, I was once sentenced to death by society. Was I simply in possession of the wrong knowledge? Was it not powerful enough?
Inspector: But if we don’t provide students with the knowledge they need to fit in, then we aren’t being just! We are not giving the students their ‘entitlement’ to knowledge. And surely, you would agree that the purpose of education is justice!
Socrates: Ah now that I would agree with. I am not sure that we could call someone who was unjust truly knowledgeable.
Inspector: So we are in agreement then.
Socrates: But you would describe justice as fitting in? or having opportunities?
Inspector: OK, I will accept that fitting in is not a good definition, but having opportunities seems reasonable.
Socrates: So to summarise, a school is good only if it has a knowledge-rich curriculum. And a school has a knowledge-rich curriculum only if the students it produces are knowledgeable. And the students are only knowledgeable if they have opportunities.
Inspector: Yes. That seems very fair.
Socrates: So a slave cannot be knowledgeable, and must have gone to a rubbish school. Yes, now I understand.
Inspector: This is sophistry Socrates! And you know it! You know precisely what we mean by knowledge-rich!
Socrates: Oh don’t be cross with me, inspector. Please remember I am obviously without any expertise in this area. You told me so yourself that I require improvement.
It just seems to me that at every turn, we are getting into a muddle. Whenever you attempt to describe education in terms of its purpose for something else, we end up feeling as if the measurement is somehow lacking. I don’t know whether we are measuring the table with the ruler, or the ruler with the table, so to speak.
Inspector: Of course, I accept that schools must be allowed to teach according to their own values, their own ends. But surely we can establish whether or not the methods that the school is using are likely to achieve those ends?
Socrates: I dare say that someone as well-informed as your good self might be able to make such a judgement. Am I therefore allowed to hold any such values that I like? Can one of my values be having a ‘knowledge-lite’ curriculum?
Inspector: Within reason, Socrates!
Socrates: Whose reason? Society’s?
Inspector: We are going round and round in circles.
Socrates: Indeed we are. I am none-the-wiser as to how you know whether or not a student knows what they have an entitlement to know, nor how you know that they have an entitlement to know it.
Inspector: Well, at least I am trying. You have not yet offered me any definitions or means of measurement or judgement yourself.
Socrates: I’m not entirely sure that’s fair. Have I indicated at any point that I know anything?
Socrates: But clearly, since you have judged my teaching to require improvement, you at least perceived yourself to know some things?
Socrates: …yet when questioned, it appears that you don’t seem to know quite what you thought you did know.
Inspector: Perhaps things were a little more confused than I thought.
Socrates: Would you describe yourself as wiser now, or before this conversation?
Inspector: Well now, I suppose. But only insofar I no longer fancy that I know something that I do not know, and now I know that I do not know.
Socrates: In which case I’d give myself an outstanding. Lesson objectives achieved! Progress made!