“Are you ready for your annual lesson observation Mrs Crane?”
It is clear that the topic of lesson observations is an emotive one for all teachers. Few topics arouse fear and unease like the prospect of being judged on your ability to teach in a singular lesson. Still, too often, the norm is that this fear is exacerbated by the fact that such observations are a rare, all-eggs-in-one-basket occurrence. They take on disproportionate importance – necessitating disproportionate planning – with the result becoming a disproportionate and often ill-judged measure of what we do in the classroom.
Chuck ’em out is the bold and brave call. Evidence from respected academics like Professor Robert Coe, has ploughed the furrow of extensive research to unveil the catalogue of bias that attends these lesson observations. The Gates Foundation has undertaken vast research that opens a can of worms regarding their validity.
Yet, the nagging doubt – no, the immovable obstacle – is the stranglehold of accountability that attends our school system. It is a brave – or foolish- Headteacher who disbands graded lesson observations if our inspectorate is breathing down their neck with an imminent visit to judge whether they are ‘Requiring Improvement‘ or not. The inconsistency of such inspection visits makes any school leader pause for thought. If results are beyond reproach perhaps, but for the vast majority of schools that position of safety is not the lived experience.
And yet…and yet…
Our experience, and the growing body of evidence, would appear to prove that such judgements are unreliable. Considering they can also have a corrosive effect on staff morale, as well as not proving useful in actually developing teacher practice in the classroom, we must question using them at all.
We must have lesson observations as part of our performance development process in my view. How can we improve our teaching without some feedback on our performance in the classroom? Indeed, ‘lesson study’, peer observations and ungraded, formative observations appear to be a much better model to promote the improvement of pedagogy – and therefore student attainment – in our schools.
I feel that in my position as a performance development reviewer, I can give useful formative feedback about pedagogical knowledge that promotes a useful dialogue about teaching and learning. I also think that I can observe whether behaviour is positive and that fertile conditions for learning are established.
I am much less confident about judging whether students are making genuine progress in their attainment and their learning in any given hour of time. Learning indeed is often invisible, which encourages a ‘show’ of performance. It can encourage style over substance – the classic one-off showpiece lesson. I know whether any learning is happening, but estimating whether achievement, and indeed teaching, is ‘Good‘ or ‘Outstanding‘ is too often a dodgy judgement call.
In light of my experience, albeit limited I should add, I would propose that lesson observations are conducted, without graded judgements, as part of a raft of approaches to judge teacher effectiveness. Work scrutiny and internal and external assessments are a much better indicator of student achievement. Observing a lesson can simply be a place to talk to students about their learning, bolstering and unpicking the analysis of a work scrutiny.
If we consider that we can establish an evidence base of work scrutiny, student attainment, 360 degree reviews, evidence of planning and schemes of learning etc. then surely the potentially corrosive impact of graded lesson observations should be removed. Each school can create a sound, rounded model to judge teacher effectiveness, where no one indicator becomes disproportionately important.
I think the difference between ‘Outstanding‘ and ‘Good‘ is particularly arbitrary. Does either label help us become a better teacher? Perhaps as much as damning a student with the label of being ‘4a’ does. If in our experience of lesson observations the behaviour of students is patently an issue, or the subject knowledge is lacking, surely these can be more reliably observed. We should therefore abandon the OFSTED model and define our own model of formative observations that do have a mechanism for recognising a significant ’cause for concern’.
As a parent of young children I would be happy for this system to be in place, knowing what I know about how we improve as a professional and the limits of our judgement. I would be happy for school leaders to apply their wisdom and judgement.
This topic is gaining real traction with people thinking very deeply about teaching and learning. Here are some very useful links on the topic:
Professor Coe presents the evidence base here.
David Didau composes a cogent argument for learning over performance here and his practical post about how observations should be here.
Joe Kirby presents an impassioned rallying call to be rid of lesson judgements here.
Stephen Tierney presents a Head’s perspective on improving the system here.
Ross McGill presents a really useful collation of the views and resources related to the topic of lesson observation here.
An excellent article by Mary Myatt on solutions beyond graded lesson obs here.