UPDATE: Since writing this post in July 2013 a lot has happened. Ofsted has stopped grading individual lessons and many schools have recognised the futility and harm caused by lesson grading. Here is my most recent post on the subject.

Can we define an outstanding lesson?


I get asked this regularly, and I’ve really tried. But I don’t think it’s possible. I can describe a specific example of a lesson which was judged as outstanding, but that really isn’t helpful for three reasons.

1) Stand alone lessons don’t provide evidence of much except the performance of the teacher and the students at that particular moment. This is something I went into a great deal of detail about here. Briefly, learning can only be inferred from performance. Sometimes students perform really well but have forgotten everything by the next lesson. Sometimes they perform really badly but actually seem to remember what they learned. Learning is messy and takes time. Lessons are a snap shot. As such they can be useful in helping to triangulate a judgment on teaching and learning across a whole school, but they tell us little in and of themselves.

2) ‘Outstanding’ is a chimera. You can’t bottle lightning and you can’t show someone how to be outstanding. The only thing, in my experience, which offers any kind of cast iron guarantee of progress, is a thorough knowledge of, and an excellent relationship with, your class. If you know what they know you almost can’t help but help them make progress. And this is the point: we are the experts. No one else knows our students in our classrooms as well as we do.

3) Ofsted themselves say there is no such thing as an outstanding lesson! There is just outstanding teaching quality across a school. You doubt me? Here’s what they say on their website:

Typically, inspectors would visit a series of lessons or parts of lessons, gathering evidence on different and observable elements – teaching, standards and so on – and the lesson grades awarded would be collated and used to arrive at overall judgements about the school.

Since 2009, inspectors have been instructed not to grade the overall quality of a lesson they visit.

Why do Ofsted inspectors observe individual lessons and how do they evaluate teaching in schools?

Anyone guilty of offering post lesson feedback which goes along the lines of, “I wouldn’t have done that, I’d have [insert latest faddish nonsense]” needs stringing up by their thumbs. I really don’t care what someone who is less expert than me might have done. Regardless of how vaunted their pedagogical content knowledge might be no one knows my kids in my classroom like I do. I’m happy to discuss the choices I made but please don’t tell me what you might hypothetically have done! Worse still is the observer who says, “It was great but I can’t give you a 1 because [insert stupid reason here].” There is a special hell reserved for such people.

Lesson observation, if it is to be productive and actually help teachers improve, needs to focus less on making judgements and more on teasing out teachers’ expertise. To that end the observer needs to adjust their stance and assume that the teacher knows far more about their class than they are likely to pick up in the 20 minutes or so that they hang around. Instead of making silly comments like, “That boy made no progress.” They need to ask, “Has that boy made any progress?”

Now, if as a teacher, we answer, “I don’t know.” Then we’re asking for it. We’re giving up our right to be treated like an expert. But if we can demonstrate our knowledge of said student and point (in his book) to the progress he has made over time, what rational human being could argue with this?

Observation feedback should be a series of questions with the observer genuinely trying to find out what was going on in the snapshot they were privileged to have seen. Some questions worth asking include:

  • Where does this lesson fit into your sequence of teaching?
  • What have students had to learn in order to get to this point?
  • What did they already know?
  • How will you develop what students have done so far?
  • How might the next lesson be adapted in light of what happened this lesson?
  • How do you know if students are making progress?
  • Why did you make the decision you made today?
  • Is there anything you might do differently?

Also, here are some jolly useful questions from Tom Sherington’s post on observing a sequence of lessons:

  • Is this learning activity compatible with an overall process that could lead to strong outcomes?
  • Is it reasonable for progress to be evident within this lesson or might I need to see what happens over the next week or so?
  • What general attitudes and dispositions are being modeled by teacher and students? Do they indicate positive learning-focused relationships compatible with an overall process that leads to strong outcomes?
  • Does the record of work in books and folders, with the feedback dialogue alongside the work itself, tell a better story than the content of the one-off performance in front of you?

These sorts of questions assume that teachers are professionals and make informed judgments about how and what they teach. If answers to these questions reveal confusion or uncertainty then that is where we can help. If however the answer show that the teacher has thought about their teaching and knows their students really well then that is an opportunity for us to learn.

And if you get observed by someone who is clearly an idiot? My top tip is staple a transcript of this speech from Sir Michael Wilshaw to your lesson plan, and politely inquire how and why their views differ from those of their boss.

Reclaim your expertise, and refuse to accept shoddy observation feedback!


I’d be grateful if you would add examples of some of the awful (or indeed useful) lesson observation feedback you’ve received below. Thanks.

Related posts

What’s the point of lesson observations?
Are teacher observations a waste of time?
Live Lesson Obs: Making lesson observations formative