‘Great teaching is easy to recognize, but hard to define. The truth is that there are as many great teaching styles as there are great teachers. The effort to find a one-size-fits-all recipe for classroom success is therefore fruitless’ (John C Jeffries, Virginia Law School, 1973).

Every primary school and headteacher hopes that teaching in their school is outstanding and aspires for an ‘outstanding’ judgement from Ofsted. A key factor in achieving outstanding status is the quality of teaching and learning. The Ofsted grade descriptors for outstanding teaching include a focus on pupils making exceptional progress as a result of inspiring teaching, from teachers having excellent subject knowledge and the innovative use of new technology.

Outstanding teaching looks different depending on the circumstances and context. An outstanding KS2 maths lesson on algebra will look very different to an outstanding KS1 PE lesson. However, outstanding teaching and learning underpins every effective school. Research shows that all the best teachers motivate their pupils to work hard and assess them regularly. How teachers use pupil assessments to plan and shape future lessons is an important factor in outstanding teaching. This is one aspect of the culture of outstanding schools.

Whole-school factors contributing to outstanding teaching

Highly effective teaching is usually only consistently seen in schools where there is positive and thoughtful leadership. Two years ago Ofsted identified the characteristics of very effective primary schools in challenging circumstances and these features included the following factors:

  • A structured environment which provides stability and purpose.
  • An environment which develops self-belief and confidence.
    Teaching pupils the things they really need to know (by taking charge of the curriculum) and showing them how to learn for themselves.
  • A place which gives opportunities, responsibility and develops trust (for both pupils and staff).A place which listens to pupils and acts on what they say.
  • An organization which builds bridges with parents, families and communities, working in partnership with other professionals.
  • An organization which has high aspirations, expectations and achievement and has a positive ‘can-do’ culture, where praise and encouragement prevail and self-esteem is high.
  • Ofsted also stressed the crucial role of the quality of leadership: ‘There is no denying the pivotal role of the headteacher in creating the ethos of the school and in exercising strong pedagogical leadership’ (Twenty Successful Primary Schools in Challenging Circumstances, Ofsted, 2009).

The key features of outstanding teachers

The TES carried out some research in 2009 looking at the key features of highly effective teachers. The research, headed ‘The Seven Secrets of Great Teaching’, was similar to the approach of Steven Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It showed that very good teachers could deliver outstanding lessons due to the use of a variety of key skills. These included:

Building confidence

Effective teachers are very good at building pupils’ self-esteem. For one headteacher in the research, building confidence (for both pupils and staff) was part of her personal and professional ethos. This was based on celebrating success and achievement.

Ability to make difficult decisions

The outstanding teachers exhibited the strength of being able to make difficult or unpopular decisions.

Developing others

This behavior is collectively the most prominent among teachers. It’s about developing your own and others’ capabilities by providing opportunities, and this was the area that successful teachers were most confident of doing. An example of this is when teachers give up their own time to help other colleagues acquire new skills or deal with difficult pupils. An interesting quote from one of the teachers involved in the research was, ‘Everyone’s got their own strengths and in the schools that I’ve worked in; we always make the most of them by supporting colleagues.’

Good communicators

The key skill of good communication was identified as a significant factor in effective teaching. Many successful teachers gave examples of using songs, analogies and multi-media displays to communicate with and engage pupils. One head had effectively used the song ‘Proud’ by Heather Small to convey a message of confidence throughout the school.

Being nonconformists

A large number of successful teachers were classified by the research as nonconformists, as they enjoyed trying out new ideas. This quality goes against the norm, as teachers are often faced with perceived timetabling restrictions and curriculum boundaries. The role of school leadership was considered vital in the creation of an environment where innovation is valued and encouraged to allow excellent teachers to succeed.

They thrive in the company of others

Good teachers enjoy the company of others, both teachers and pupils, and often have some extrovert personality traits. This links in well with being a good communicator and indicates ‘fellowship’ towards others and that most teachers thrive on working with colleagues.

They see the ‘bigger picture’

Interestingly enough, the selected teachers in the project were strong at looking at the bigger picture, rather than the minute details of planning or administration. They were keen to see good practice in others’ schools and counties and were always proactive rather than reactive.

Indicators of outstanding teaching

In Ofsted terms an outstanding lesson is one with many significant strengths and no areas for improvement. This should also be very closely linked with clear evidence of effective learning and progress for every learner in the class. It is often more important to focus on what the pupils are doing than what the teacher is doing. What the pupils do and learn in a lesson is often a better indicator of the quality of a lesson. The key factors include:

  • Are the pupils highly engaged?
  • Do they move from listening to being positively motivated?
  • Do they learn and make progress?
  • Do they obviously enjoy the lesson and have fun, and are they keen to discuss what they have learned and what they might be doing in the next lesson?
  • Do the pupils ask appropriate (and challenging) questions?
  • Do they show a keen interest in the tasks?
  • Are they proud of their work?
  • Are the pupils involved in deciding any part/content of the next lesson on the topic?

Effective teachers who obtain an outstanding grade from inspectors add value to lessons by using special approaches and features. These are usually on top of the normal good teaching approaches and may include some of the following:

  • subject expertise and flair
  • the involvement of every pupil in the learning process
  • intelligent questioning involving every pupil
  • the use of a wide variety of resources as appropriate including new technology
  • involving pupils in the learning process and developing independent learning.

What makes an outstanding lesson?

Ask an average class teacher and they might say, ‘A lesson which is well planned, has the buzz factor and in which the pupils behave well.’ Ask a pupil and they might say, ‘A lesson which is fun and in which we learn something.’ Ask some headteachers and you may receive the answer, ‘A lesson which carefully follows the school teaching and learning policy and fulfils all the Ofsted grade criteria.’ Ask an inspector, and you might hear, ‘The teacher displays outstanding subject knowledge and challenges and enthuses pupils, and assessment indicates that the whole class have made significant progress.’

This shows how difficult it is to succinctly define the outstanding lesson, but many of these features are found in very effective teaching.

An interesting model on what contributes towards an outstanding lesson can be based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. An outstanding lesson can be described as a lesson where appropriate resources are used by a teacher who is enthusiastic about their subject in delivering a learning experience which takes into account the varying needs of each pupil and inspires them to take risks, make connections and learn while constantly checking that they are meeting high expectations and are becoming independent learners.

Relating this to Maslow’s hierarchy would indicate that the base of the pyramid would include appropriate resources and subject knowledge and enthusiasm. The next layer would include planning and differentiation to ensure personalized learning. The next would relate to communication and motivation and would emphasize learners evaluating their own progress. The apex of the pyramid would include high aspiration and expectation with the overall aim of developing independent and reflective learning. This indicates the varying skills that the highly effective teacher needs to demonstrate to deliver outstanding lessons.

Outstanding teaching in the 2009 Ofsted framework

The 2009 Ofsted framework for inspection expects inspectors to evaluate how well teaching promotes learning, progress and enjoyment for all pupils. They are expected to look carefully at the range of teaching styles and activities and to what extent they sustain pupils’ concentration, motivation and application. Ofsted state that judgements about the quality of teaching cannot be made in isolation. The quality of teaching is linked closely to the context, including behavior, assessment and, crucially, school leadership and management. There is an emphasis that when evaluating teaching, inspectors should focus on the impact on pupils’ learning. A key question asked by Ofsted which is very relevant is: ‘What are different groups and individual pupils actually learning as opposed to doing?’ (Guidance to Inspectors, Ofsted, 2009)

For outstanding teaching Ofsted expects pupils to understand in detail how to improve their work and that they are consistently supported in doing so. The role of the teacher should have a striking impact on the quality of learning of pupils.

Outstanding teaching in the proposed 2012 Ofsted framework

The draft proposals for the new Ofsted framework (due to be implemented in January 2012) talk about strong leadership creating the climate in which effective teaching and pupil achievement flourish. It also refers to the need for effective leaders knowing their school well and having high expectations and setting ambitious targets for raising standards. Leaders will be expected to monitor teaching and learning rigorously and track pupils’ progress meticulously. There seems to be more emphasis on monitoring and tracking rather than teaching styles.

There is an increased expectation that effective leadership will focus on ‘classroom practice and develop consistently good teaching and learning’. Ofsted stress that this area will have enhanced attention in future inspections, with far more ‘inspector time’ being spent in classrooms observing lessons. There is further emphasis on the importance of linking a broad, balanced and relevant curriculum with increased pupil motivation and better outcomes.

High-quality teaching is further emphasized in judging the overall effectiveness of a school: ‘Similarly, the quality of teaching is critical to securing good progress for pupils and we believe an overall judgement of “good” for the school would require teaching to be good.’
The proposals plan to judge the quality of teaching on six key areas, which focus on:

  • teachers having high expectations and ability to motivate pupils
  • teachers setting challenging tasks
  • teachers’ subject knowledge
  • teachers carefully assessing pupils’ progress
  • supporting the needs of all pupils, including those with SEN
  • the effective teaching of reading and skills in literacy.

These areas of focus reflect Ofsted’s agenda in terms of effective teaching and provide a template for teaching an outstanding lesson for inspection.

Ten tips for an outstanding lesson

The headteacher has a key role in creating the climate for outstanding teaching. The leadership of a school can provide the environment for everyone to strive towards the very best standards of teaching and learning. This includes ensuring appropriate resources (including support staff), developing an atmosphere of trust, an ambitious agenda and a culture where creativity and risk-taking is encouraged: ‘High-quality leadership is essential to promote, support and sustain the drive to perfect teaching and maximize learning in schools’ (Twenty Outstanding Primary Schools in Challenging Circumstances).

The headteacher can also support outstanding teaching by developing the skills of teachers. This may include the professional discussion of the theory of learning styles, multiple intelligences and personalized learning. The encouragement of kinesthetic lessons and outdoor learning should be part of the educational philosophy of a successful school. There is no one approach which will ensure a teacher will deliver an outstanding lesson but the following strategies can underpin outstanding teaching. Very effective lessons may well include:

  • an exciting introduction which focuses attention and excites pupils and sets the scene
  • progression from one body of knowledge to the next step building on prior learning
  • clear expectations based on challenge for every pupil
  • knowing every pupil as an individual
  • relationships based on mutual respect
  • teaching methods matched to the content and pupils
  • buzz factor – which enthuse and surprise pupils and create interest
  • pace – teaching styles that move the lesson along maintaining interest
  • dialogue – discussion and questioning to ensure everyone is involved and understands
  • great ending – which helps pupils to reflect on what was learned, celebrates achievement and identifies the next steps.

In conclusion

Outstanding teaching is hard to define but school leaders can create the climate and environment for excellent teaching to thrive. Sometimes it is more important to focus on outcomes rather than process and a key point is for headteachers to celebrate diversity in teaching styles.

Outstanding teaching can involve using tactile activity, an activity that encourages discussion, some individual interaction with the teacher, a visual stimulus, a written stimulus and a creative stimulus, with the needs of pupils at the core of every lesson. It is important to have a school structure in which every pupil is valued, motivated and confident and in which teachers feel supported and able to innovate and take risks.


  • Stephen Covey: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Free Press (1989)
  • Abraham Maslow: Motivation and Personality, Harper and Row (1954)

Former SIP Dave Weston is now an educational advisor