This evening, there will be debate on the role lesson observation in England’s schools with such educational luminaries as Professor Robert Coe, David Weston (the man behind the Teacher Development Trust), Lead Ofsted inspector Mary Myatt, Sam Freedman (Director of Teach First and ex-special advisor to Gove),, Dame Alison Peacock (Headteacher of The Wroxham School) and, er… me. Quite what qualifies me to participate beyond having a big gob and a stubborn streak a mile wide I’m not sure. However, I’m pretty damn excited to have been asked and, despite suffering with an appallingly debilitating cold, am sure it will be an excellent event. You can, I’m assured, watch it live on the net even if you can’t be there in person.
Now some background. In his post, Classroom observation: it’s harder than you think, Professor Coe lays out 5 very sensible reasons why we are so prone to misjudging lessons:

  1. Observation produces a strong emotional response – if we like a thing it must be good, if we don’t it’s obviously rubbish
  2. Learning is invisible – we rely on (often very poor) proxies to make judgements about whether pupils are learning. And, worryingly, good performance is not necessarily a sound indicator of learning.
  3. Accepted ‘good practice’ may be more fashionable than effective – we are often victims of the ‘cult of the new’. Just because a teacher is doing something pedagogically interesting doesn’t mean it’s effective.
  4. We assume that if you can do it you can spot it – classroom observation is a very different skill teaching (although there are of course overlaps.) Grading lessons based on pupils’ progress is problematic because it takes an almost Herculean effort of will to concentrate on the pupils and not be distracted by the teacher.
  5. We don’t believe observation can miss so much – if we focus on one area, it is almost a guarantee that we will miss other stuff. We’re tremendously poor at predicting what we will be able to do and are often victims of our intuition. Very often the facts are counter intuitive. A useful rule of thumb, in all areas of life, might be to assume that what ‘feels right’ is probably wrong.

Now all this is, I hope, so clear and persuasive as to make you at least doubt your ability to accurately judge a lesson using something so vague and poorly designed as Ofsted’s criteria for assessing teaching and learning. Frankly, if you’re not doubting your ability at this point then I can only assume that you’re dangerously incompetent!
But let’s assume that you’re only beginning to doubt and, as yet, have no plans to abandon judgmental lesson observations. Well, consider this: there is a pretty compelling body of research that suggests that good performance might actually be preventing learning! In a scarily comprehensive review of research into learning and performance over the past century, Bjork and Soderstrom have amassed enough material to at least cast serious doubt on the idea that students’ current performance will in any way correlate with the likelihood that learning will be retained and/or transferred to other domains.
For instance:

[E]arly research demonstrated that learning could occur without changes in performance. More recently, the converse has also been shown—specifically, that improvements in performance can fail to yield significant learning. In fact, numerous experiments in the domains of perceptual-motor learning and verbal-conceptual learning have shown certain manipulations—including distributing practice, varying the conditions of practice, reducing feedback, and testing/generation—to have opposite effects on learning and performance: Conditions that induce the most errors during acquisition are often the very conditions that lead to the most learning! Furthermore, that performance is often fleeting and, consequently, a highly imperfect index of learning does not appear to be appreciated by learners or instructors who frequently misinterpret short-term performance as a guide to long-term learning. (p 2)


The early experiments on latent learning and overlearning suggested that learning can occur with no discernible changes in performance. More recently, the converse has also been
demonstrated—namely, that performance gains during training can impede post-training learning compared to those conditions that induce more errors during performance. This dissociation has been demonstrated by manipulating the practice or study schedules of to-be-learned skills or information. (p 13 my emphasis.)


Mannes and Kintsch 1987 finds that providing outlines organized differently from a studied text passage promoted a deeper understanding of that passage compared to when the outline was organized similarly to the passage. Furthermore, increasing the variation of problems during an acquisition phase enhances analogical reasoning(Gick and Holyoak 1983), geometrical problem-solving (Paas and Van Merrienboer 1994), and complex troubleshooting (Van Merrienboer and de Croock 1997) of novel problems, as well as one’s ability to solve previously encountered anagrams (Goode, et al. 2008). (p 21)

This research also cast doubts on some of our darlings. The role of feedback has been much documented and there is universal consensus that more is better. Or is there?

Numerous studies—some of them dating back decades—have shown that frequent and immediate feedback can, contrary to intuition, degrade learning. (p 23)

The problem is this:

Although the learning-performance distinction is overwhelming supported by empirical
evidence, there appears to be a lack of understanding on the part of instructors and learners alike
that current performance is a highly imperfect index of long-term learning; consequently, how
we learn is often vastly misaligned with our metacognitive assessments of how we think we learn. (p 33)

I know I’m not the only teacher to have taught an ‘outstanding’ lesson where pupils performance has been exhilarating only to discover that they’ve forgotten it all next lesson. And I also know I’m not alone in having presided over watch seems a car crash only for student to come back having apparently learned what I wanted them to learn.
Despite the fact that we’re often mistaken in our beliefs about what is or will be effective, it’s much more comfortable and much easier to carry on doing what ‘feels right’. In lots of areas this doesn’t really matter but when it comes to judging teachers’ careers based on ignorance and misinformation it’s quite another matter. How would, for instance, Tristram Hunt’s pie-eyed proposals on teacher MOTs fit into this? Would those given the right to ‘strike off’ teachers be trained in the nuances of classroom observation and have read and understood the staggering weight of evidence documenting the differences between learning and performance? Would they?
For now, let me leave you with these suggestions:

  1. Understand the distinction between learning and performance and, for God’s sake, tell others about it!
  2. Assume that you don’t know, especially when judging others. Don’t trust your gut!

Related posts

Has lesson observation become the new Brain Gym?
Where lesson observations go wrong
Get ahead of the curve: stop grading lessons