You can push and prod people into something better than mediocrity, but you have to encourage excellence.

David Lammy

We’ve all experienced the dread and agony of formal lesson observations, haven’t we? We’ve sweated blood over our preparations, filled in inch thick lesson plans and obsessed over meaningless details in our presentations. Or is that just me?

A while back now I read something (I forget exactly what) by Phil Beadle which went along the lines of “Be brilliant and they’ll forgive you anything.” This nugget has rattled around in my stony heart ever since with the result that I’ve started to relax somewhat when I’m observed. But, I’m still an obsessive by nature and find it hard to resist staying up late the night before ‘tweaking’.

For sometime now I’ve felt unhappy about the process of lesson observations. It’s widely accepted that giving students a grade for their work gets in the way of them acting on feedback and actually learning something; most schools even have ‘comment only’ marking policies to enforce this very thing. So, why do we insist on grading lesson observations? Doesn’t this prevent teachers from learning too?

I fully understand the pressure on a school to compile databases on its teachers’ effectiveness and am sanguine about the reality that we all exist somewhere on spreadsheets as 1s, 2s and 3s: it’s just a fact of our (somewhat truncated) professional lives. But while I accept the inevitability of grading, there’s a very real danger that there’s not much point to lesson observations other than to add to the already groaning burden of teachers’ accountability. Unless, that is, the observation is developmental.

I try to make all my observations developmental. Instead of trying to decide if what I’m observing is any good or not, I focus on how my feedback might result in the teacher improving their teaching, and, like the canine pets of Russian behavioural psychologists, improving their students’ learning. I work on the assumption that if teachers are waiting to find out what grade I think their lesson is they won’t hear very much else. And as soon as I’ve told them, they’re either too relieved or devastated for any kind of developmental conversation.

At Clevedon School we have a healthy balance of judgmental and developmental observations. Every single teacher in the school has received a judgement so far this year and our spreadsheet is duly updated and kept in readiness in the event that the inspector should call. Whilst no system can ever be perfect, we’ve put some real thought into how we can take some of the pain out of the process and make observations valuable development for all. concerned.

Firstly, we wanted to get rid of all the time hanging about after an observation waiting to find out the result. Of course every effort is always made to see the teacher with 24 hours but even when this does happen the situation is cold. The lesson has happened and any opportunity for learning is diminished by time and distance. The other stone we wanted to shake out of the observation shoe was the fact that while we had to make a summative judgement of some sort, could the process not be, at least in some way, formative?

The result of all this cogitation has been christened, the Live Lesson Obs. Here’s the paper work we use:

The idea is, and this is a bit out on a limb, that the observer should actually speak to the teacher. And vice versa. As an observer you would run your finger down the proffered dishes available for each of the given courses and select a prompt for a conversation to have with the teacher being observed. This has a number of real advantages:

  1. There is an expectation that teachers have to let students get on with some work and give them strategies to cope constructively with being stuck.
  2. As a teacher, you get to explain your thinking to the observer as the lesson progresses. You can explain why particular students are doing particular things and why you may be deviating from the lovingly crafted plan you’ve given them. In my case, I take the opportunity to explain exactly why what the students are doing makes the lesson outstanding. In the same way that Ofsted’s judgements on schools’ effectiveness often come down to whether the head teacher is more assertive than the lead inspector, a successful observation comes down to the teacher’s ability to articulate why the lesson has been designed as it has and to point just how students are making progress.
  3. As an observer, you get to ask teachers why they have made particular decisions and (this bit’s my favourite part) you get to prompt them to make changes or suggest possible improves at the point of teaching. This makes the process truly formative. If I see something going wrong, I don’t have to just sit and watch as the train wreck unfolds; I can ask questions and offer advice that might improve students’ learning and the teacher’s teaching.
  4. As the feedback takes place during the lesson, there’s no need to go through that anxious wait to find out what the observer thought: for better or worse, you know.

Maybe you worry that this sort of process may be open to the abuse of incompetent observers? To a degree, any system of observation depends on the skill and integrity of the observer but another part of our observation process is that the observer becomes the observed. We usually operate in triads where the discussions between teachers are made transparent. Of course mistakes may still be made, but this should minimise them.

This makes the whole process of observations feel more like it’s being done with teachers than to them. Teachers feel empowered by being able to explain their thinking and observers get to check out their judgements by asking the teacher if what they’re interpretation of what they’re seeing is accurate.

None of this is unique or particularly innovative, but the effect can be magical. We’re all agreed that improving the quality of teachers is the key to improving standards and this has helped to turn what is often merely a laborious way of monitoring into a system rooted in professional development and growth. Having experienced both in the fairly recent past, I’m unequivocal about which I prefer.

Related posts

What’s the point of lesson observations?
Are teacher observations a waste of time?
Feedback: it’s better to receive than to give