A few years ago an Ofsted inspector told me I talked too much and that as a result the lesson that had been observed was ‘satisfactory’. I was gutted. I was also determined to do something about it.

The task of getting out of the way so that my students are free to learn for themselves has been challenging but also without doubt the best thing that has ever happened to me. As an educator I mean – obviously the birth of my children etc. was way cooler!

Following some training with Zoe Elder on Observing Learning, I began experimenting with the idea of observing students working in groups and noting down my observations without making any kind of judgement. Sounds pretty straightforward , but was (to me at least) a radical approach.

In the past I have approached group work as something which needed to involve me ‘sitting in’ on groups and making suggestions and pouncing on any off-task behaviour. It was pointed out that whenever I do this the students stop working as a group and all turn to look at me. Far from promoting effective group work, I was actually preventing it. Imagine my chagrin!

Hearing this forced me to take stock of my practice and consider how I could allow students to work together more naturally. I’m a big fan of a Critical Skills approach and this seemed like something that would fit in seamlessly.

What I now try to do with all my classes, is to set up group tasks with clear success criteria and teams in which all students have a clear area of responsibility and then give them the freedom to approach the tasks without any interference. This can be pretty nerve-wracking, especially when watching a team ‘getting it wrong’.

Once students start work  all I have to do is circulate and scribble observations onto post-it notes. Some of these are stuck on the board to discuss later; others I stick onto the group’s table with no further comment. Observations include, “I notice that no one is speaking”, “I heard you mention…” or, “I saw you doing…” Students are at first very interested in seeing what I write and this can impact on their group dynamics. I once heard a student say, “Whenever I see sir writing I start thinking about what I should be doing.”  I’m not sure if I missed the point, but this was music to my ears.

At the end of the lesson, I ask students to reflect on my observations and asked them to interpret them. Some of what they said was pleasantly surprising. One boy responded to my observation, “I notice you have your head phones in your ears,” with an explanation about how they weren’t plugged in and that having them in helped to block out distractions. This was a revelation to me: in the past I would have at the very least told him to take them out and might even have confiscated them. Maybe I’m gullible, but I believed him.

The point of all this is that it gives students an opportunity to take all the responsibility for interpreting their actions. This has always (at least in my classroom) been the teacher’s preserve and my judgement would determine the success or failure of the work students had done.

The next step was see if I could free myself up even more. Learning spies are basically my rebranding of student observers and have been an important part of making this happen. Quite simply, instead of me having to keep an eye on what students working in teams get up to, the spies do it. They get a pro forma to keep track of what they see, what they hear and the group interactions they observe. Needless to say, I always use Critical Skills teams with clearly defined roles and responsibilities for all and often set up challenges that cannot be completed without the active participation of all concerned. The role of the spy though is much more important than mere behaviour management – if they are well trained they can become a powerful and immediate way to provide fantastic formative assessment for their peers to act upon.

A learning spy in action

A learning spy in action

This leaves me free to wander round and get a feel for the progress learners are making and collect ‘evidence’ of what I’ve observed. At various points during lessons, I have 1-1 chats with learners where I confront them with this evidence and ask them to interpret it. At other times I might take a team member aside for a chat about how they feel their team is getting on. Is the team leader doing a good job? How are they managing their own role? etc.

My spies are doing the same thing. They will have been busily scribbling down key interaction and their effects as well as making decision about how they will offer feedback. They’re empowered to have ‘learning chats’ with their classmates and ask them to interpret their observations. Asking questions like this is much more powerful than me (or the spies) simply saying, “You weren’t on task”. One of the things I’ve learnt through working in this way is to give students the benefit of the doubt. Who knows? Maybe the student resting their head on the desk isn’t asleep – maybe they’re thinking. The point is if I (or the spy) says, “I noticed you had your head on the desk, can you tell me why?” then we sometimes get some interesting and surprising answers.

The argument about the vital importance of this kind of feedback was won a long time ago (See Inside the Black Box if you need convincing) and the fact that I am completely freed from the burden of actually running the lesson gives me incredible opportunities to do just this. Because I have the time and freedom to really watch the learning taking place, I can write detailed and specific notes about what students are doing and how they might improve.

What do the spies get out of it? Well, when I’ve asked them to reflect on the process, they have reported pretty unanimously that they have actually learnt more through watch others struggling to get to grips with something than if they had been doing the struggling themselves. They also say that they end up working at least as hard, if not harder than those they’re observing.

At the end of the lesson, and at strategic points throughout, spies are required to lead a plenary where they feedback to their groups about the skills and dispositions they have been watching and then chair a discussion about the group’s interpretation.

It might not come as surprise that kids vie for the opportunity to spy on their peers, but might it surprise you that they clamour equally as hard after experiencing how hard they have to work? Certainly surprised the bejesus out of me!