For some years now I’ve been of the opinion that while lesson observations can be useful learning opportunities the person doing the observation learns far more than the person being observed. This is a bit of a problem as, in the main, the people who observe the most teach the least. This means many schools end up with a class of teachers who know an incredible amount about teaching but don’t do all that much of it.
Consequently, I usually advise school leaders to use some of their non-contact time to free up colleagues to be able to observe more. As a senior leader, offering to cover a main scale teacher’s class on Monday morning is far more likely to lead to the kind of professional development we claim to be after than observing that teacher teach their class.
Over roughly the same time period I’ve also spent a lot of time advising teachers on various aspects of teaching and, inevitably, this has involved me watching a lot of lessons. This has been fantastic for me, but less useful for anyone else. One of the frustrations I’ve experienced is that a lot of the planning and thinking I’ve done with teachers rarely seems to transfer to classroom practice. Teachers I’ve worked with are invariably enthusiastic but when it comes to applying what they’ve learned the gains don’t appear to be worth the time. Maybe, I started to think, it would be more useful if they could observe the kind of practice we’ve only previously discussed. What if they had the opportunity watch someone apply the expertise they’ve acquired the years over the years instead of just being told about it. Gradually, an obvious solution began to present itself.
To put my money where my mouth is – so to speak – for past year or so I’ve been offering schools I work with an additional service. I now routinely offer to plan lessons with teachers and then teach the lesson while they get to watch me, and then afterwards discuss their observations. The change has been dramatic. Most of the things I advise teachers to do are pretty straightforward but, as every teacher knows, explaining something to someone who doesn’t share your knowledge base can be challenging and all too often results in vague maxims and proxies which necessarily omit some of the crucial details that need to be demonstrated rather than explained. In addition, watching someone else teach your class can be much more interesting and instructive than observing another class being taught: you can spot dynamics of which you were only peripherally aware and make connections that are only half-formed. It’s been a revelation to me that when teachers watch me teach, things that seemed mysterious or confusing suddenly become clear. I’ve become used to teachers saying, “Oh, that was much easier than I expected,” or “Now I’ve watched you do it it’s easy to work out how I‘d do it.”
One of the schools I’m currently working with wanted some advice on reducing marking workload in a way which wouldn’t detract from the quality of feedback students received. I suggested using Daisy Christodoulou’s idea of reading though students’ work and adding feedback to a one page pro forma. When the school leaders had seen the possibilities I offered to demonstrate how this would work in a lesson. One of the English teachers I was working with emailed me a piece of work his students had produced and I read through it, jotting down my comments which I then used to plan the lesson. My experience is that reading students’ tends to the enjoyable part of marking. I spot mistakes and misconceptions very quickly and generally have a clear idea of what they need to do to improve. The chore is turning my ‘expert’ observations into a sufficiently clear and detailed comment which will be useful to the student in question. Teaching children how to improve is a lot easier than writing down an explanation.
So, I then pitched up to teach a group of students I’d never met before and spent an hour discussing with them how to improve their work, reading though a model I’d written and then getting them to engage in some guided practice. Nothing fancy, nothing I haven’t done many times before but for the teachers watching me it was something of a revelation. At the end of the lesson they were excitedly planning how they would try the same process with their students and each of them felt very clear about exactly how this might work.
None of this is to claim that I know better than anyone else how to teach or that my model lessons always proceed according to plan. They often don’t. Post lesson discussions are often far richer when a student does something particularly unexpected or an assumption I’ve made leads to a problem. I think it’s refreshing for teachers to see that no one will get it right all the time and that we all, inevitably and invariably, make mistakes. I’ve come to believe that making myself vulnerable in this way builds trusts and credibility. Of course, this isn’t a magic bullet. There will still be problems and issues – some of which I’m probably not even aware of. But it’s a hell of a lot more useful than the standard post-observation feedback teachers are routinely given.
This takes us back to the two principles with which I began:
- The person who observes the lesson will tend to learn more than the person being observed.
- Those who observe most tend to teach least.
If you make observation a tool for modelling rather than for accountability then you are more likely to get more of what you want.
If any of this sounds useful and you’re interested in me modelling any of the things I’ve written about on this blog to your students in your school, please get in touch.