Ofsted · pedagogy · Philosophy of Education

On Ofsted’s definition of learning and designing an alternative


This blog, outlines the problematic nature of Ofsted’s definition of learning, offering an alternative 1.

Ofsted defines learning as:

(…) an alteration in long term memory. If nothing has altered in long-term memory, nothing has been learned 2.

Learning causes alterations in memory but so does forgetting. You could easily replace learning with forgetting and Ofsted’s definition would work equally as well.

Ofsted suffers from the scientism that afflicts educators when translating scientific findings from fields such as cognitive psychology into education. In his book, Object-Oriented Ontology, Graham Harman, identifies four problems that occur when science offers universal definitions 3:

1. a trivialising of the social and an over-stating of the physical worlds;

2. an over-emphasis of simplistic cause and effect relations;

3. the view that everything that exists must be real in some way;

4. the over-use of simple propositional statements.

Ofsted ticks all the boxes.

Establishing a definition  

Instead of generating a definition based upon the natural sciences, I am going to adopt a more philosophical approach based upon 1. the nature of its knowing 2. the nature of its being. Social constructs are usually defined by the former whilst natural objects are defined by the latter.

For example, the Oxford dictionary defines learning by the former:

 The acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught.

Learning is defined by the constituent activities that bring it into being or more simply put the acquisition of knowledge (or skills) through learning experiences. Conversely,  water is defined by the latter :

A colourless, transparent, odourless liquid that forms the seas, lakes, rivers, and rain and is the basis of the fluids of living organisms.

Water is a compound of oxygen and hydrogen (chemical formula: H₂O) with highly distinctive physical and chemical properties: it is able to dissolve many other substances; its solid form (ice) is less dense than the liquid form; its boiling point, viscosity, and surface tension are unusually high for its molecular weight, and it is partially dissociated into hydrogen and hydroxyl ions (see ERD).

The dictionary definition of learning is a good definition and with some slight amendments, because this is a definition of formal learning, satisfies criterion 1.

Learning is:

(…) the cohering of a curriculum object occurring when a learner interacts with a sequence of designed learning experiences.

But what about 2. the nature of its being, and the issue of an object-oriented alternative?

Designing an object-oriented alternative

Harman defines an object as:

(…) anything that cannot be entirely reduced either to the components of which it is made or to the effects that it has on other things.

Based upon the initial definition outlined above and following Harman 4, I argue that educational learning needs 4 constituent objects that cannot be reduced to their component parts 1. curriculum 2. designer/teacher 3. learning experience and 4. learner  (see Figure 1).

learning experience_a

Figure 1

Each object has sub-objects, which reflect the complexity of the object. In Figure 2, the learning experience object has constituent sub-objects.

learning experience

Figure 2

Sub-objects are dependent on the type of learning experience and the approach adopted by the teacher-designer. Figure 3 illustrates the point by using sub-objects in the design of an individual instance of learning constrained by time, space and resource 5.

learning experience

Figure 36

Educational learning is therefore defined as:

(…) the cohering of a curriculum object occurring when a learner interacts with a sequence of designed learning experiences.

Learning has 4 constituent objects curriculum, teacher/designer, learning experience and learner. Each object has sub-objects, which are dependent upon the circumstances of learning and the approach adopted by the teacher/designer. Individual instances of learning are finite and cause relatively unstable biological representations of knowledge in cognition; therefore, learning is a process of cohering through iterative interactions.


You cannot define something solely by its effect particularly if that definition is equally true of other things. Natural objects are often defined by their nature; conversely, social objects by how we know them because their nature is contested.

In this blog, I design an object-oriented definition of learning, which combines the two based upon its constituent properties and an established philosophical tradition, object-oriented ontology.

In future blogs, I intend to build on this definition and further consider object-oriented learning experience design.


  1. I use learning and educational learning interchangeably but in all cases, I am referring to formal educational learning.
  2. Ofsted introduced this definition in a presentation on the Education Inspection Framework 2019 (schools)
  3. The problem of scientism in education has been addressed by numerous scholars. I have cited one recent paper (2018) but there are many more.
  4. In this blog, I use knowledge objects and curriculum objects interchangeably. Graham Harman  writes interestingly on objects defining them as:

(…) an object is anything that cannot be entirely reduced either to the components of which it is made or to the effects that it has on other things.

5. I see the learning experience and Rosenshine’s instructional principles as broadly compatible. The Iterative phase roughly equating to Rosenshine’s points 10:15.

6. In Figure 3, the action button memorised could also refer to mastery where knowledge/skill is being enacted or improved.

3 thoughts on “On Ofsted’s definition of learning and designing an alternative

  1. Hi. Lots to like here not least the acknowledgement of complexity. I like the model in Figure 3 but do not think you need the ‘memorised’ decision box as this still makes an assumption (?) that the aim of the learning is to place into memory – whilst this may be desirable and I am not convinced it should be. So I think that the loop should be to the summative assessment and then this would loop back – the summative assessment being one which may involve recall, but may also involve application or another process.

    1. Many thanks for commenting. I had this feedback from Sue Cowley but was 1. too lazy to change it 2. the software I required to change was at work so I added a note 6 making that point. But I’ll look at it again in light of your comments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s