Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper.
Francis Bacon

To paraphrase Rob Coe’s seminal research, yesterday’s National Teacher Enquiry Network (NTEN) conference at KEGS in Chelmsford was a triumph of experience over hope. just hoping we’re doing the right things is potentially worse than useless: it might be downright damaging.

This was a gathering of teachers and school leaders from a wide range of settings, all of whom are focussed on trying to move from a ‘hopeful’ approach to improving teaching and learning to a more expectant one. Finally there might the first faint glimmers of a new evidence-led dawn.

But, hang on, what happens if we don’t have hope? Surely that’s a pretty bleak outlook?

I’m not so sure. Consider the following examples of hopeful teaching and school leadership:

  • “I hope you all get on to the final task by the end of the lesson.”
  • “I hope behaviour in our school gets better.”
  • “I hope our exam results improve.”
  • “I hope that what we’re doing works.”

Not really all that optimistic, are they?

As Coe says,

[I]f it is true that despite the huge efforts we have made to improve education not much has changed, there are important lessons for us to learn. One would be that effort and good intentions are not enough; we have to work smarter, not just harder. Another would be that we must look carefully at the strategies we have been using to improve, and replace them with some different ones. A third lesson is that a more critical and realistic approach to evaluation may be required. An uncritical belief that things are improving may be comforting, but is ultimately self-deceiving and unproductive.

And one of the pieces of cold comfort addressed at this conference was that provided by the graded lesson observation.

Here are some of the attitudes that you may encounter towards lesson grading:

  • It’s not perfect, but then nothing is.
  • The appraisal system requires that we evaluate teacher effectiveness, so we just have to do it.
  • We may not like it, but it’s here to stay.
  • Grading lessons is best practice. it must be: Ofsted do it.
  • Lesson grades provide a baseline, we can then focus on improvement.
  • It’s easy enough to spot whether learning is taking place.

All these statements embody the hit and hope approach that is so prevalent in our schools. On the contrary, I would argue:

  • Of all the imperfect methods of we could use to evaluate teacher effectiveness, this is the least perfect. They are completely unreliable. We’d get a more statistically valid and less biased assessment if we flipped a coin. Here are the killer stats from the multi-million dollar MET project which utilised way more rigorous training & observation protocols than we do in England: if a lesson is given a top grade by one observer, there’s a 78% chance a second observer will give a different grade. And if a lesson is given a bottom grade, there’s a 90% chance a second observer will give a different grade! Another robust piece of research found that fewer than 1% of lessons judged inadequate are genuinely inadequate; only 4% of lessons judged outstanding actually produce outstanding learning gains. And overall, 63% of judgements will be wrong.
  • Yes, teachers must be held accountable, but is there another way? Joe Kirby argues that there is.
  • It’s not here to stay. I predict that within a maximum of 3 years, Ofsted will no longer be allowed to grade lessons. it may be a lot sooner than that.
  • Ofsted are not interested in improving teaching and learning. They believe (wrongly) that they can measure learning for the purposes of accountability. But we should be interested in fattening the pig, not weighing it.
  • Lesson grades do not provide a reliable baseline. All they reveal are our bias and preferences. Believing in the accuracy and impartiality of lesson grades is inherently dishonest.
  • Actually, it’s impossible to spot whether learning is taking place. As Nuthall says, “Learning does not take place in the here and now of classroom activities.” What we see is performance, or as Coe puts it, ‘poor proxies’ for learning. There is a vast weight of evidence to support this, it’s not just me making it up.

Liam Collins argues persuasively that in a 5 period day, even the best teachers are capable of teaching a full range of lessons from inadequate to outstanding. Anyone can have a bad day, or a good one. He found that the correlation between lesson grades and exam results was poor: teachers who delivered outstanding performances in lessons did not produce outstanding outcomes. And vice versa.

In his most recent Ofsted inspection, Liam explained to the lead inspector that he did not grade lessons. Instead, a member of his senior team would be walking the school, dropping into lessons every lesson, every day. But, said the lead inspector, one of the teachers you have identified as being ‘good’ has just been seen teaching an inadequate lesson. Liam’s response is wonderful: don’t you think we know our teachers better than you could ever hope to know them from a 20 minute observation? Eventually, they concurred, agreeing that his systems for quality assurance made graded lesson observations unnecessary.

Where does that leave the excuse that we have to grade lessons because Ofsted require us to do it?

This is my bottom line: a belief in the validity of lesson grading is akin to a belief in witchcraft. And for all the difference it will make to improving teaching and learning, you might as well be doing Brain Gym.

But don’t despair. We can still use classroom observation to make a difference. The best way forward for any school wanting experience to triumph over hope is to sign up for membership of NTEN. (Please note – I have no affiliation, I get no kickbacks; I just think it’s really good.)

If you’re interested, these are the slides I used in the presentation I gave at the conference.

And here’s a video of me sounding very Brummie

Finally, I owe a huge debt to the work of Robert Coe, Graham Nuthall and Robert A Bjork – these are giants on whose shoulders I’m privileged to stand.

Related posts

Has lesson observation become the new Brain Gym?
Why can’t we tell a good teacher through lesson observations?
Where lesson observations go wrong
Don’t trust your gut: a little bit more on the problem with grading lessons
How can we make classroom observation more effective?
The Cult of Outstanding™: the problem with ‘outstanding’ lessons