Has lesson observation become the new Brain Gym?

//Has lesson observation become the new Brain Gym?

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.

2013-11-17T11:30:15+00:00November 16th, 2013|training|


  1. misterconnor1 November 16, 2013 at 2:58 pm - Reply

    A really interesting post, David (as usual), and one I will be taking to my Learning and Teaching group. Final point, number three really rang a bell for me.

    However, I’m interested to know how you envisage the observation process can be utilised to improve the performance of teachers who genuinely are not effective, and have no desire to change their practice.

    • David Didau November 16, 2013 at 3:10 pm - Reply

      If a teacher is genuinely ineffective and has no desire to change their practice, than lesson observation is hardly going to work. Sack ’em. Their results should bear this out. If the only argument for judgemental lesson observations is that we need to drive out ineffective teachers then it’s a pretty weak argument. Look at their books, talk to their students. The point is, we know who our ineffective teachers are already.

      • stuffaliknows November 16, 2013 at 3:27 pm - Reply

        Whilst I agree that lesson observations are not going to help to identify a teacher who are ‘genuinely ineffective’, there is a danger again that their results may not in themselves be a fair indicator of their performance. Who is to say what is an effective teacher? So much depends upon external factors that are not always in the gift of the teacher to influence for the benefit of the student. One example is the amount of prescriptive curricular used in institutions. Teachers are provided with these specifications and expected to ‘deliver’ them to their students. Some teachers have lost (or never gained) the skills to derive curricular from scratch.
        Great blog BTW. How can we find the courage to bring these arguments out of the blogshere and into the public domain? Dr Matt O’Leary’s book is a start – https://www.academia.edu/3205067/Classroom_observation_a_guide_to_the_effective_observation_of_teaching_and_learning

        – however it still only speaks to teachers and teacher educators. Policy makers will take little notice as it doesn’t serve the dominant ideology regarding audit/control.

        • David Didau November 16, 2013 at 4:43 pm - Reply

          Hang on! You’re saying there might be ‘ineffective’ teachers with good results? That doesn’t really stack up, does it?

          • Colin Goffin November 17, 2013 at 7:35 pm

            I know you like an evidence basis and admittedly this is only from a blog, but apparently one the policy makers listen to, but I read recently that results aren’t enough and we can’t use these as a basis for assessing teacher performance.

            “I can think of several reasons why teacher might get better results than teacher B which have nothing to do with their relative merits as teachers.”

            To be fair the author does amend standpoints rather regularly but only to question their own viewpoint. It would appear that once a month is about regular enough for a turnaround, I mean, reflection.

          • stuffaliknows February 1, 2014 at 11:58 pm

            Sorry for the delay – only just found this! Yes of course it stacks up – the logic is clear to see if we look behind the prevailing techno-rationalist discourse. It’s about the criteria upon which we are judged. We can be ineffective in many important ways, but still be able to produce good results against a narrow set of criteria. For example I know of many examples of teachers who can contribute to league table indicators of success. By an institution’s account they are effective but a disaster in the longer term for the young person who has been spoon-fed the A* grade yet cannot apply their knowledge in real situations. Let’s not reproduce performative cultures.

    • Rebecca White November 16, 2013 at 6:20 pm - Reply

      Come on guys- We’ve all worked darned hard to get our qualifications and teach. Everyone can have a pants lesson, no matter how much prep they do. Mine are often the ones I “over prep” actually – less fluid and reactive. Yes, there are the few staff members who fall by the way side, but I think an SMT member worth his/her salt doesn’t need to observe their lessons to recognise who these are. What we really ought to be doing is observing the learning going on in classrooms; note when the pupils become disengaged; see if you can work out the catalysts to their disinterest, then repeat the tweaked lesson back to the teacher you observed with another group, to see if it has improved. These provide valuable experiences for both of you, surely?

  2. […] via Can we make lesson observations worthwhile? | David Didau: The Learning Spy. […]

  3. Jack Vass November 16, 2013 at 4:17 pm - Reply

    This really resonates with me. My experience of inspections is that judgements are made based on data anyway so why bother with the obs?! Current low trust/high scrutiny culture seems to be doing more damage than good – stressed and anxious teachers won’t get good results. A lot of thought needed but a process that is seen as developmental and supportive has to be better than one intended to judge (and now impact on salary progression!).

    • Ian Lynch November 16, 2013 at 6:04 pm - Reply

      Hi Jack,

      I agree that stressed and anxious teachers won’t get good results. I doubt many people would disagree with that at least not on a prolonged basis. But then again unchallenged and complacent bad practice would not get good results either. And this is the dilemma. Parents in jobs that have high levels of pressure and scrutiny, targets and unforgiving environments are not going to see any problems with inspection and it’s good for political points. Some jobs have more severe accountability systems than in teaching and some less. For that reason none of the major political parties is likely to abolish inspections even if they are a sledge hammer to crack a nut.

      In sectors with fierce competition, apart from regulation to stop people cheating, there is little need to inspect people in terms of occupational competence because the weak simply don’t get any work. In sectors where there is not a competition for supply, regulation is the only means of QA. Politically it is necessary that such regulation is seen to be independent – like independent setting and marking of exams for children – otherwise it does not have public credibility. The profession can devise all the internal alternatives it wants to but it is unlikely that politicians are going to sanction something seen to come from people with a potential self-interest. Probably the best strategy would be to sell something to the politicians that looked draconian but was in fact better than the current system 😉

      • David Didau November 17, 2013 at 8:23 am - Reply

        It’s interesting that we want independent inspection of schools but we’re happy for Ofsted to inspect and monitor itself. A big reason why it fails on the public credibility measure.

        • Ian Lynch November 17, 2013 at 2:50 pm - Reply

          No, it fails on the teacher credibility measure which is a very different thing. I don’t think OFSTED is any more or less accountable than other regulators, they are funded by government so if they do things that makes government popular they are likely to continue to get funded. This is politics, the price to pay for working in the public sector.

          • David Didau November 17, 2013 at 3:55 pm

            I don’t know if OFSTED is any more or less accountable than other regulators either. But I do know that they’re not very accountable. Individual inspectors often work for franchises and have been known to ignore the rules in the Inspection Handbook. Arguably, Ofsted do more to undermine Gove’s policies than anyone else. Make of that what you will.

          • Ian Lynch November 17, 2013 at 4:33 pm

            When I was inspecting, complaints about inspectors ignoring the rules were taken seriously. If several schools complained about an inspector and the evidence supported the complaints they simply didn’t get any more work. That happened at a team level since the RgI decided who would be on the team and only a masochist would want people that attracted complaints, and at an OFSTED contracting level. Things might have changed but there were the same “who inspects the inspectors” questions then. Of course OFSTED is not likely to publicise who it decides to exclude from contracts just as schools tend not to highlight which pupils didn’t do too well in their school. Few people like being scrutinised – maybe we should bear this in mind when assessing the effect of assessment on the motivation to learn? In a public service monopoly provided on behalf of the tax payer such scrutiny goes with the territory.

  4. John Tomsett November 16, 2013 at 6:07 pm - Reply

    “As the current system stands, we can get away with crap results as long as we can jump through the hoops of an observation.” Not at Huntington School. We focus really hard upon following the golden thread through to student outcomes, and our Performance Development system has student outcomes as the main source of evidence for judging the effectiveness of teaching. As for observations, well, I think we should stop grading individual lessons too. We have to make the time we invest in observations impact positively upon teachers’ practice. Tom Sherrington is great on how we do this and we’ll be producing something soon which will revolutionise how we approach understanding how a teacher is performing in the classroom which is developmental rather than summative/punitive…

    • David Didau November 17, 2013 at 8:26 am - Reply

      Of course we can devise systems that take the problems into account, and I would expect nothing less from Huntingdon School. But this isn’t really my point. Maybe just stopping grading lessons isn’t enough. If Prof Coe is right and classroom observation is the new brain gym, maybe we need to get rid of it as an accountability measure. And maybe we also need to start thinking about whether there are more effective ways to drive improvement.

      • johntomsettJohn Tomsett November 17, 2013 at 9:06 am - Reply

        We have a comprehensive programme of coaching trios – I’m in a trio with a young drama teacher and an experienced ICT teacher – and I wonder whether that’s all we need? Do we need Appraisal-style observations? Like I said, we need to make “observations” “developmental rather than summative/punitive”.

        • David Didau November 17, 2013 at 9:10 am - Reply

          It sounds good and from what I know of you I’m sure you make this work. I worked with a head who tried something similar a few years ago but he ended up bullying and harassing everyone to ‘do it his way’. There has to be room for mistakes and risk taking without fear of reprisal if we really want to see improvement. Good job sir!

          • Ian Lynch November 17, 2013 at 11:31 am

            No system will ever be perfect so whichever one you take you will be able to hold up anecdotes of particularly good and bad practice. The question is how typical are they? We once did an exercise for OFSTED with two inspectors observing the same lessons and independently grading them sealing the findings in an envelope and sending to OFSTED. I wonder what happened to that data? It would at least tell us something more about consistency. In the end schools can decide whatever system they think best but it is likely to reflect what OFSTED does as school assessment for kids tends to reflect public exams and national assessment. The Gods of HMI devised lesson observation and there is no political imperative to do anything that would look like weakening teacher accountability. The change things needs more than teachers constantly debating how bad the system is for the same reasons journalists are now not trusted to police themselves.

          • David Didau November 17, 2013 at 11:35 am

            Of course no system will ever be perfect. In other news the sun is hot.

            I’m not trying to reform Ofsted Ian (although that would be great) I’m examining the fact that there is no evidence that lesson observations do what Ofsted claim they do.

          • Ian Lynch November 17, 2013 at 8:54 pm

            Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. If the only means of objectively measuring quality of teaching is exam result outputs and these have gone up steadily since OFSTED was started they will say its all down to them. You will no doubt say it is despite them. So we end up with a political argument that is unlikely to be resolved using controlled objective analysis. I should think that the “policy makers” that read this blog are well aware of this.

  5. Paula Hillman November 16, 2013 at 6:07 pm - Reply

    We have good and outstanding teaching in a school with 60% FSM and deprivation index as bad as it can go and have now been told we will never get an overall outstanding grading because we don’t have 38% plus accelerated progress rather than good progress and we never will because we have 45%SEN and the mix of these children don’t make linear progress because of circumstances… they do mage 2 levels progress which is excellent for them considering the increasing impact of their lives as they increase in age..there will be NO outstanding schools in deprived areas in the future whether teaching is outstanding or not!

    • David Didau November 17, 2013 at 8:28 am - Reply

      Hi Paula. This doesn’t sound right. There’s nothing in the Inspection Handbook to bear out what you’ve been told. I’d check it out with someone from Ofsted.

  6. Richard Watkins November 16, 2013 at 8:24 pm - Reply

    This is a really thoughtful piece outlining the limitations of lesson obs. I strongly agree that lesson obs are really only useful if they take place within a formative – low stakes – atmosphere. It has been my experience as an observer (and I feel obliged to have to apologise for that!) that nearly all the teachers I have worked with have genuinely appreciated this formative approach. In many cases this has led to improved outcomes. Therein lies the paradox: one-off high stakes obs are more likely to simply measure the quality of the teaching ‘show’ on the day; a formative obs with follow-up is far more likely to record an improvement in the quality of learning.

    • David Didau November 17, 2013 at 8:30 am - Reply

      Well, that’s what we intuitively think isn’t it? But I think unless observation is reciprocal and focussed on jointly planned lessons it’s likely not to result in improvement in the quality of learning no matter how well intentioned the observer.

      • Ian Lynch November 17, 2013 at 11:37 am - Reply

        Depends on the purpose of lesson observation. In school it could well be formative, for OFSTED its just about making a judgement on the current quality of teaching in that school. It’s like assessing students. Is taking a GCSE maths exam intended to be formative? We can combine formative and summative assessment with a little thought but the tradition in English education is to separate them. We love analysing things into compartments and that is useful in many ways but it also has some very significant down sides.

        • David Didau November 17, 2013 at 11:50 am - Reply

          I had thought the post addressed both the formative and summative aspects of lesson observations. My recommendations at the end of the post should make clear what I think has to happen if you want to make observation a worthwhile tool for formative assessment.

          How would you go about combining the summative & formative elements of observation?

          • Ian Lynch November 17, 2013 at 2:12 pm

            If you are focused on formative assessment then we should all forget OFSTED. It’s not their function. Sure focus on formative assessment and hope it results in the good teaching on which OFSTED then make their judgement. But does this happen with teaching children when there is a high stakes exam at the end? Teaching to the test becomes almost inevitable.

            To combine the two for learning we get pupils to self assess and peer assess their fundamental competence against sets of criteria and get the teacher to confirm it and then sample for external verification. Those that agree they meet the standards can then take an externally set and marked exam to grade them if they want to. No-one is forced to take the exam. The benefit is they have the chance to get a high grade and the kudos that goes with it but they know if they don’t they were at least judged to be basically OK and are not in fear of having nothing to show for whatever hard work they put in.

          • David Didau November 17, 2013 at 2:20 pm

            I agree.

            But my point is that there is no evidence that lesson observations produce improvement.

  7. Observations | Pearltrees November 16, 2013 at 9:35 pm - Reply

    […] Lesson observation is broken – can we fix it […]

  8. Debbie Hepplewhite November 17, 2013 at 1:14 am - Reply

    I have enjoyed reading the posting and following the links.

    I would like to suggest that the very word ‘observation’ does not give enough clarity to the processes involved and the way they are conducted.

    Take for example, the expression ‘comfort eating’ which has warm tones to it. More often than not, I suspect, ‘comfort eating’ amounts to ‘punishment eating’ – along the lines of ‘I’m actually feeling depressed and sorry for myself so although I know that I’m actually overweight (for example) and want to be careful with what I eat, instead I’m miserable so I’ll punish myself further’.

    In other words, the notion of ‘comfort eating’ is not the right expression at all in many cases.

    I think this is the same with the term ‘observations’. This word has become too much of a cover-all.

    Head- teachers have in many cases been forced to become more akin to ‘stealth-inspectors’ and this is surely the case when adopting formulas for ‘observing’ which are closer to Ofsted inspections – using the criteria, the terminology – and so on. Is this really fit-for-purpose for creating a learning culture within the school and the ‘head-teacher’ leading the professional development in genuinely supportive and collegial ways.

    I think not.

    Further, once teachers try to over-plan their lesson because it has, in effect, become extraordinarily ‘high stakes’ even within the ordinary day, then this in itself can actually ‘skew’ the practice that might otherwise be the actual usual day-to-day practice.

    In other words, if ‘observations’ are in reality more akin to inspections, then does the observer really see, or even understand, the general practice of the teacher being observed?

    There is much terminology being used which is actual a cover-all for stealth inspection and it’s dangerously all a bit insidious.

    Let’s take, for example, the ‘learning walk’. I have had many examples of this being nothing short than an intimidating process of observation dressed up in almost child-like speak.

    The truth of the matter surely is that teachers don’t get enough opportunity to have good in-depth discussions with head teachers, colleagues, line managers, governors, inspectors, advisors, politicians, about their general practice. That is, the complex jigsaw of classroom management, the dance, the tapestry of their practice.

    Furthermore, in many cases nowadays the tapestry is being stolen from the teacher by being told so much of ‘how’ they must conduct their classroom management.

    Perhaps ‘tapestry’ is the wrong choice of words yet again because actually there is so much pressure put on class teachers nowadays to provide their practice through group-work activities and by fragmenting whole classes into groups squeezed into every obscure corner of the school to be taught by teaching assistants that many teachers are effectively disempowered and not entirely in charge of the children/pupils who should be in their care (in primary schools anyway).

    So, let’s get real about our language. Teachers should ask themselves whether the observations in their schools are really collegial events designed to genuinely develop their skills and professionalism – or whether they are actually subjected to mini inspections which may actually be counter-productive to honest discussions about how to hone teaching skills.

    I agree entirely that it is a privilege to observe – and I also agree with someone’s comments that it is important to look at both the teaching and the learning – but the missing ingredient is invariably the in-depth conversation when the observed has the chance to explain his or her thinking behind both the lesson in the immediate sense but also the long-term plan.

    • David Didau November 17, 2013 at 8:31 am - Reply

      I agree that ‘learning walk’ is a particularly nasty piece of double speak. The focus of such a thing should be to learn and never to judge.

  9. julesdaulby November 17, 2013 at 8:57 am - Reply

    A genuine ‘open door’ policy seems to me to be the most sensible option. My door was always open and anyone was welcome in at anytime(still are). My old head used to walk round school, popping into classes, smiling and laughing at my stupid jokes – he only ever said thank you and then left. I felt supported and valued and never judged. Another colleague reported that once he sat down and joined in when he was discussing etymology of words then told the class how lucky they were to have such a knowledgeable and interesting teacher – there was never any fear with this drop-in style, neither was there any written feedback – all I can say is the opposite happened when OFSTED arrived – it turned me to jelly, caused sleepless nights and I was a terrible teacher for a week before and a demob happy teacher the week after.

  10. Colin Goffin November 17, 2013 at 9:27 am - Reply

    As someone who observes a vast amount of lessons as part of my role I would say that they are often as formative as the observed teacher wants them to be. As a matter of course our SMT observations (which are used as part of faculty review more to QA what a faculty head says than to form a final judgement on a teacher’s level – one obs can’t do this) are followed by a developmental conversation and often lead to changes in practice that teachers come and say have been beneficial and they appreciated the conversation. In some cases we have gone from this to joint planning, team teaching and then further observations to see the progress made which have been welcomed and rewarding for a teacher who saw their progress recognised. If it remains as a summative judgement with no formative conversation to help move things forward it’s generally – and I’m please to say theses are very few – because the teacher who has been observed decides not to have the follow up conversation and offers to take things forward rather than any judgement only structure. I do want to know the quality of teaching in the school and I will use lesson observations as part of the information that helps me make that decision and inform my SEF writing but always enter into it with the standpoint that we only look at where we are to work out where we go next and am glad that the majority of those I work with see this as well. So maybe it’s not that broken and just depends on how you use or look at it – to put it another way “first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”

    • David Didau November 17, 2013 at 10:34 am - Reply

      That Bible quote is excellent advice and I would encourage you to always consider your practice in light of it.

      I wonder if you got as far as reading my recommendations at the end of the post? If you can say that this is your approach then we can agree that your observation methodology will be worthwhile.

      • Colin Goffin November 17, 2013 at 11:21 am - Reply

        Little bit insulting to suggest I’d not read the whole post. That said I have some degree of approval that my methodology meets your lofty ideals so can at least go through the rest of my day with some sense of self worth. Thanks everso.

        • David Didau November 17, 2013 at 11:28 am - Reply

          Seemed a reasonable assumption based on the patronising nature of your original comment. Not meant as an insult – more to point out that I had already addressed your concerns.

          You appear to be using the word ‘lofty’ either in a pejorative sense or to be sarcastic. Shouldn’t our ideals be lofty? What else is the point of an ideal?

          Language has power.

          • Colin Goffin November 17, 2013 at 11:40 am

            Does lofty need to be sanctimonious?

          • David Didau November 17, 2013 at 11:52 am

            My goodness Colin – you’re the one quoting the Bible! Where is it that you think I’m being sanctimonious?

          • Ian Lynch November 17, 2013 at 11:49 am

            I didn’t find the original comment patronising at all. Seems to me a comment based on experience but from observation through the other end of the telescope 😉

            Sure language has power to enlighten or obfuscate 🙂

          • David Didau November 17, 2013 at 11:56 am

            Maybe I didn’t make it clear in the original post: I have quite a lot of experience of both observing and being observed. But maybe you are right and Colin didn’t mean to patronise with his Bible quote. Maybe he could let us know so we don’t have to guess?

            And thank you for repeating and expanding on my point about language. Quite so.

            As I side issue, I’m curious about your use of emoticons. The wink is normally used to express some sort of collusion or solidarity. But this doesn’t seem to be what you intend. Seems more, how can I say it? Patronising?

          • Colin Goffin November 17, 2013 at 12:07 pm

            Umm. The bible quotation was yours from a previous post. I believe it was used to show that looking from another’s viewpoint we might question our own. 😉

          • David Didau November 17, 2013 at 1:36 pm

            As the links to posts over the past 3 years were meant to demonstrate, I have consistently questioned my own viewpoint and will always continue to do so. = 0

          • Ian Lynch November 17, 2013 at 1:59 pm

            Wink was really to say that most people here are looking at it from a “victim’s” perspective. If you had an equal number of posts from informed lay people or OFSTED inspectors, how would that change the overall feel of the discussion?

            This is a political issue so anyone on the receiving end or the delivery end is not likely to be objective even if they think they are.

            OFSTED’s job is to be judgemental not formative. If that is wrong yo need to convince people other than teachers to put pressure on the Minister.

          • David Didau November 17, 2013 at 2:18 pm

            Fair enough. But I’m more interested in persuading school leaders and other teachers that they don’t need to what Ofsted do.

            But I’m fortunate that several people in education policy read my blog. We eat an elephant a spoonful at a time.

          • Toby Devlon November 17, 2013 at 7:01 pm

            You’re not the only fortunate one. I’ll be on my knees at bed time wishing those in power had your wisdom. Although they do seem to do a decent job of ignoring views that aren’t their own so maybe they are listening already …

  11. marymyatt November 17, 2013 at 9:41 am - Reply

    I agree with your point that the teaching profession has brutal mechanisms for checking quality. This is partly because we largely work in isolation, just us and our classes. My concern with going just with the data is that it is possible for results to be good, but the routes to get there are not securing learning. If more schools were working on the lesson study model or Chris Moyses model, this would provide a more honest picture. Any process which has formative rather than summative principles at its heart. I also think that tools like Iris could have potential, although I’ve not looked at this closely. I agree that the observer gains more than the observed, which is why we should all be doing more of it. Hattie referred to this towards the end of this article http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6290240 Mick Waters has argued that Ofsted teams should be regularly teaching themselves. I always have a teaching project on the go because I don’t think I can make judgements about others’ practice unless I am also doing some myself. Have downloaded Matt’s book.

    • David Didau November 17, 2013 at 10:36 am - Reply

      I’m deeply troubled by the idea that an Ofsted team is empowered to make judgements on the routes we get to good results not representing secure learning. How on earth can a snapshot inspection hope to come close to understanding such a complex process?

      • marymyatt November 17, 2013 at 11:35 pm - Reply

        When I’m analysing the exam results for Suffolk RE and I’m looking at the data for the highest performing departments I know there are broadly two routes to the outcomes. One, where they have been taught to the test and very little beyond it and others where students show a ‘thirst for knowledge’ and ‘love of learning’. Data the same, but the quality of experience for students different. When a classroom is working to the PEEL principles, for example, it’s pretty evident that students are getting a good deal. Your second point, you are right, it is complex and hard to do in two days which is why the LOs are part of, not the whole picture.

        • marymyatt November 17, 2013 at 11:40 pm - Reply

          Rereading my original comment it should have read ‘may not be securing learning’ rather than ‘are not …’

  12. teachingbattleground November 17, 2013 at 10:25 am - Reply

    I find myself wondering if there is a levelling off point where even the observer learns very little. When I was a new teacher watching other teachers was very useful. Nowadays, I wonder when was the last time I gained anything from it other than a depressing realisation of how low other people’s expectations were.

    There may be other factors in this. I teach a subject where I suspect the quality of teaching has actually got worse over the last 10 years as the dominant ideas have changed for the worse.

  13. Daniel November 17, 2013 at 10:29 am - Reply

    Enjoyable post David. From my own experience, I have to agree that the least helpful forms of observation have been the summative ones, for performance management and for Ofsted preparation.

    I have had very positive experiences with informal observations. On an ‘Outstanding Teaching’ course we ran with an external consultant, we were filmed across three lessons with helpful feedback on small, changeable elements between the lessons. I think the benefit came from not having a rating of the lessons at the end, but a particular T&L focus (e.g. the use of questioning).

    Conversely, our school brought in staff from the LA to run a mock Ofsted inspection in the last week of the Spring term, knowing we were due for the real thing in the Summer term. Imagine the levels of motivation…

    • David Didau November 17, 2013 at 10:39 am - Reply

      I should say that there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. If lesson obs are conducted with sufficient thought then they may well be useful. The process you describe sounds great. But it also sounds very different to most teachers’ day to day experiences.

      • Daniel November 17, 2013 at 10:56 am - Reply

        Oh it was different, a one-off training course that the school had paid for, spread over a term. Since then though, our professional development team have offered peer observations as part of our CPD, where we are paired up with another teacher and plan/observe/reflect together. Also very useful, and not too dissimilar from the Learning Study approach you’ve outlined.

  14. Jennifer McKillop November 17, 2013 at 11:05 am - Reply

    We engage in a non judgemental triad of observations: 2 observers who unpack the lesson with the observed teacher. Interaction with students is encouraged. The observers generally walk away with a new strategy, and all 3 get to talk pedagogy in an authentic setting. 90% of teachers report it as a positiv, worthwhile experience.

    • David Didau November 17, 2013 at 11:07 am - Reply

      Excellent. This is exactly the sort of thing I’m advocating. Sadly, it isn’t the norm. But then you probably know this.

  15. […] I’ve thought a lot about lesson observation over the past couple of years and have come to the conclusion that it is broken.  […]

  16. Rosie Hughes-White November 17, 2013 at 5:30 pm - Reply

    Sensible ideas at last. I’ve sent this to some members of SLT in my school for discussion. Maybe they will also see the sense in these suggestions.

    • David Didau November 17, 2013 at 5:33 pm - Reply

      One can only hope. Keep me posted – I’d be happy to help

  17. Brian W November 18, 2013 at 1:22 am - Reply

    Unfortunatly, the information age is harder to apply in an old, established system.The educational system has to fulfill a lot of expectations, and most of them come from different eras. Many times, the decision makers are those who were the best achievers 30 years ago – so they will consider necessary the things they were good at,. And those things were chosen by the decision makers in charge 30 years ago, who…you have guessed…were the high achievers of 60 years ago.

  18. CareyEnglish1 November 20, 2013 at 3:37 pm - Reply

    Grading always adds the temptation to ‘add extra’ – when I observe (as a HoD) I often KNOW this isn’t the teacher’s ‘real’ teaching and thus any advice or feedback I give won’t be that useful. They don’t do it to be dishonest… who wouldn’t sneakily look at the ‘answers’ if they were offered before a ‘test’! But of course – the result is nothing to do with day-to-day learning and teaching. I try to model ‘teaching as I would everyday’ when I am observed but it tests my mettle because I’m being compared within a culture that doesn’t.
    For half our year, our observations are ungraded … guess when most of our useful feedback and problem-solving, supportive observations happen..?

  19. drmattoleary November 24, 2013 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    Reply to stuffaliknows – Whilst I agree that my book is primarily targeted at teachers, teacher educators, students, education researchers (or anyone else for that matter!) with an interest in observation as a form of intervention, that doesn’t mean to say that it’s not relevant to policy makers. For example, see the comments of some that have read and reviewed it to date: http://goo.gl/7n44v1. It doesn’t pull any punches on what’s wrong with current policy and what needs to be done/changed. Whether or not policy makers decide to take any notice is of course a different matter, but then that’s nothing new to the way in which politicians selectively use to ignore educational research!

  20. […] read several blogs about teacher observation.  This blog clearly points out that having a lesson observation in his class for one hour is not […]

  21. Roly December 1, 2013 at 10:17 am - Reply

    Hi I have enjoyed reading your blog enormously. It has made me think. And…. I have thought that if I sit in a classroom for some time, watch children at work, look through the books and talk to children afterwards about what they have done this term, I can form a reasonably reliable view about whether the deal those youngsters are getting is a good one or not. I am kidding myself? When my view has been that I wish they were getting a better deal we have tried to support that situation.

    I feel schools are much better than they were 25 years ago when I started teaching, some of the teaching that was around then just is not tolerated now. The phrase ‘holding to account’ feels horrid to utter, I’m not sure why, and isn’t the truth that the sometimes ugly and costly methods to improve schools have yielded benefits to children? Lesson observations have been part of that rather mixed bag of stuff that have improved schools? That said, I sense I agree that we need to find better ways to do things as the stress on colleagues does not sit with professional growth and learning.

    • ian lynch February 2, 2014 at 12:55 am - Reply

      One thing seems sure, grading lessons is not necessary. Competent or not will do. There are always going to be borderline cases. Like a driving test. In secondary, stats methods with exam results can tell you how teachers in a single school teaching the same kids compare. what you need assuming you think these are the highest priority. Mind I have seen some pretty bad teaching eg n grammar schools where results still held up. Being bright and motivated + private tutors can compensate. But it is a bit of a shame not to be able to recognise talent. I did that a lot more when inspecting than feeding back bad news.

  22. […] shocking mediation of Ofsted criteria by ‘rogue’ inspectors 10th November 2013 Has lesson observation become the new Brain Gym? 16th November 2013 Why can’t we tell a good teacher through lesson observations? 23rd August 2013 […]

  23. […] One of frustrations of a formal lesson observation is that even with an agreed focus there is too much that you have to include and you therefore can lose the detail. I, like many others, also have concerns about the validity of lesson judgements to tell me that much about learning in the school (read David Didau’s thought provoking blog on the matter https://www.learningspy.co.uk/training/can-make-lesson-observations-worthwhile/) […]

  24. […] number of people have written blogs recently about classroom observation, including @joe__kirby, @learningspy, @oldandrewuk, @headguruteacher, @tombennett71, @Cazzypot, @HeyMissSmith, @StuartLock, […]

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

  26. […] number of people have written blogs recently about classroom observation, including @joe__kirby, @learningspy, @oldandrewuk, @headguruteacher, @tombennett71, @Cazzypot, @HeyMissSmith, @StuartLock, […]

  27. […] It was utterly shattering in its implications for school leaders. It turns out we are all complicit in this year’s brain gym. […]

  28. […] It was utterly shattering in its implications for school leaders. It turns out we are all complicit in this year’s brain gym. […]

  29. […] a large number of recent blogs that promote the abandoning of grading of lessons, for example here, here and even from an OFSTED inspector here. It is impossible, say these commentators, to judge the […]

  30. […] 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 […]

  31. […] out. Recently, I have read a spate of fantastic posts from the big-hitters of the blogosphere – David Didau, John Tomsett and Joe Kirby to name but three – all questioning the purpose of graded lesson […]

  32. […] Prolific blogger, David Didau, has written several posts on this subject which you can read here, here, here, here, and here. […]

  33. […] Has lesson observation become the new Brain Gym? […]

  34. […] Has lesson observation become the new Brain Gym? […]

  35. […] excellent critique from Rob Coe). Neither is it a new argument, and here I refer you to an equally excellent blog post from David Didau  @LearningSpy There are more effective ways to improve teaching, which makes me […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: