I’ve thought a lot about lesson observation over the past couple of years and have come to the conclusion that it is broken. What is most worrying is that it is almost universally accepted as the best way to bother hold teachers accountable and to drive improvements in the quality of teaching and learning in a school. My contention is that these beliefs are, at least in the way the observations are currently enacted, wrong. Lesson observation distorts teaching, makes teachers focus on performance instead of learning and creates a system which is more interested in short term fluff than real improvement. So why has it become so hegemonic?

I first started questioning how lessons were judged when I wrote  What’s the point of lesson observations? in July 2011, and then in February 2012 I asked Are teacher observations a waste of time? and made the point that observation should focus on students rather than teachers. By the time I wrote Live lesson obs – making lesson observations formative in February 2013 I thought I had the answer. But the following posts dwelt on the continuing problems which appear inherent in lesson observations:

I have been heavily influenced by Joe Kirby’s contention that we would be better off as a profession if we abandoned judgemental lesson observations and by Chris Moyes’ description of how this is enacted at the school he works at where no lessons are ever graded. And to cap it all, I’ve been reading Matt O’Leary’s scholarly tome on lesson observation: Classroom Observation: A guide to the effective observation of teaching and learning. Now, I had hoped to have finished Matt’s book by this weekend but as ever, life conspires to intrude. However, to attempt a very brief summary, his thesis is that observation has become fetishised, hijacked and abused over the past 20 years. This blog post Does lesson observation still have a role to play in teaching? gives you a flavour of his thinking.

We all know that lessons observations have become the tool of choice for judging teacher performance and that schools such as Chris Moyes’ which choose to abandon the Ofsted model are rare indeed. The weight of critical opinion would suggest that grading lessons is both unhelpful and unreliable.

Professor Robert A Bjork has made a convincing case for the fact that learning should be separated from performance, and that we need to acknowledge that in a lesson observation we can only see students’ performance. My position is that the idea of ‘progress’ can be deeply harmful to both teachers and students. Much better to acknowledge that students are ‘making progress’ rather than being deceived into thinking ‘progress has been made’. We can infer whether learning has taken place but we can’t know. As Graham Nuthall said, “learning takes time and is not encapsulated in the visible here-and-now of classroom activities.” What’s the use of students being able to do something at the end of a lesson but not remembering how to do it next lesson? Professor Robert Coe, director of Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, has declared that schools inspectors in England are basing their verdicts on evaluation methods which may not be reliable. Coe says that we use the following proxies to judge whether learning has taken place:

  • Students are busy: lots of work is done (especially written work)
  • Students are engaged, interested, motivated
  • Students are getting attention: feedback, explanations
  • Classroom is ordered, calm, under control
  • Curriculum has been ‘covered’ (ie presented to students in some form)
  • (At least some) students have supplied correct answers (whether or not they really understood them or could reproduce them independently)

Coe even goes so far as to suggest that classroom observation might be the new Brain Gym. He questions both the validity and impact and points out that there isn’t even one single, solitary study that provides real evidence that observations lead to improvement in teachers’ practice. Who knew?

This is not, perhaps unsurprisingly a position shared by Michael ‘The Man’ Wilshaw. This blog post summarises his response to the view that schools inspectors in England are basing their verdicts on evaluation methods which may not be reliable as “tosh and nonsense”. Good to know. But even if , like SMW, you don’t accept this argument, it’s worth at least considering the fact that lesson observation hacks away at teachers’ expertise, creates massive anxiety and is highly artificial.

Of course not everyone agrees. Lead Inspector, Mary Myatt thinks that we should accept lesson observations as being ‘only fair’:

Every profession or business has quality assurance built into the system. And education is no exception. It is not unreasonable that over £55bn of public funding on education should be checked. And the focus of the checks is the achievement of young people. Given their starting points, how much difference are we making to the lives of students in our schools and in our classrooms?

I have no problem with holding teachers to account for the achievement of young people, but I would point out that no other profession would accept being held to account in the way teachers are. Is it a good idea to joggle a surgeon’s elbow with a tick list of expectations, or acceptable grade barristers on how well they cross-examine witnesses?  Much better to look at data. As the current system stands, we can get away with crap results as long as we can jump through the hoops of an observation. Isn’t this bonkers?

But isn’t lesson observation a crucial tool for developing teachers? What if we did get rid of judgemental observations and lesson grading? Wouldn’t that result in a utopian dream in which the teaching profession would enter a golden age of positivity and progress? Well, not without serious re-thinking of how we organise observations it won’t.

As things stand, the main beneficiary of lesson observations is the observer. I get observed a lot, and very rarely have I ever had any feedback on my practice which has actually improved it. I’ve had some interesting conversation about why I’ve made various choices but very little real insight into how these choices could be improved. You know why? Because I am the undisputed expert on my own classes; we all are – or should be. I know more about how they learn in my subject than any observer. How dare you criticise me because ‘that boy was off task’! I happen to know his grandmother’s just died but perhaps if you looked in his book you’d see the remarkable progress he’s made since September!

That said, I have learned loads from watching other teachers teach and if I’m working with a teacher on improving their practice I will make sure I take them to observe loads of lessons so we can talk about what other teachers do. This doesn’t happen nearly enough. So my point is that observing lessons should be acknowledged as the privilege it is. Observers should be trained to assume that they know less than the teacher they’re observing and that any ‘judgements’ need to be filtered through careful questioning.

One possible (and very fashionable) alternative to the present system is Lesson Study. The idea here is that observations are reciprocal: teachers plan lessons together, watch each other teach, and then reflect together on what happened. The process is of course a lot more nuanced than that and you can read about it here. But I can really see how this might be a useful process for both parties; the observer will have a sufficient understanding of what they’re observing to have something genuinely useful to offer as feedback.

So to summarise, here are my recommendations:

  1. Accept that learning and performance are not the same things and that our measures for learning in a lesson observation are but ‘poor proxies’ of learning. You cannot accurately judge progress in lessons. If we want to judge progress we’re better off looking in books.
  2. Stop grading lessons. You don’t need to do it. The excuse that Ofsted force schools to judge lessons is just that: an excuse. Mary Myatt, makes the point that there is no expectation that this must happen here. She says, “What sometimes goes wrong is that some schools take the judgement on the quality of teaching from the inspection handbook and apply this to individual lessons. But it wasn’t intended to be used like this. It is not a tick box, it is a descriptor which is used to make a judgement on the overall quality of teaching in the school. Not, repeat not, for individual lessons.” That seems clear enough, doesn’t it?
  3. Observing teachers teach in the traditional manner doesn’t make them better teachers. If you want to improve teaching in your school, focus on training teachers to observe. Sadly, the people who teach least observe the most, and if we’re really serious about teachers’ professional development school leaders need to use their time to cover colleagues’ lessons so that they’re free to observe each other. Make observing lessons a privilege. Acknowledge that the observer gets more out of the process than the observed and should be bloody grateful for the opportunity.
  4. Introduce Lesson Study or something similar. This is an important caveat to point 3. The Teacher Development Trust is doing stirling work in this area and the National Teacher Enquiry Network (NTEN)  is a very sensible starting point.

So let’s tear down the walls of unthinking, ineffective classroom observation and build our new Jerusalem. Let’s string up clip boards and burn the effigies of observation checklists on the bonfire of Ofsted’s vanity! Yeehaw!

Sorry about that – got a bit carried away. I’m sure that there are lots of other things that could usefully be done and when I’ve finished Matt O’Leary’s book I’ll report back on his views in greater detail. In the meantime, any other suggestions would be gratefully received.

UPDATE – As luck would have it, Tom Sherrington has also written about Lesson Study today! Gotta love that zeitgeist.