The problem with lesson observations
Lesson observations can be uncomfortable for both parties and are difficult to get right. When being observed it is hard not to feel judged and even defenceless, even though that is not the intent. The abolition of “judgements” following Ofsted’s lead in 2014 did not necessarily do enough to change this dynamic. Partly because there is also discomfort on the part of the observer. As an observer the pressure to offer “constructive suggestions” can force you to look for the negative instead of the positive and the better the lesson is the more wide-reaching can become the search for something “useful” to say.
Furthermore there is often a divergence of goals between the observer and a teacher. As a teacher I want to put on my “best face”. At times this has been quite a fake “show” that didn’t reflect my normal teaching. As I grew more confident I was happier delivering something that more closely resembled my “normal lesson” (whatever that is!) but was still overly focused on aspects of planning and delivery that were about performance rather than substance. However as an observer I want to see difficulties, challenges, classes that are struggling and things that I might be able to “help” with.
There are many other issues with the lesson observation model. To name a few:
- Judgements are often unreliable, and it is unclear that two observers would focus on or even notice the same things or feedback on the same points. When doing joint observations I have often picked up on very different, sometimes entirely contradictory things from a fellow observer. Whilst we can normally reach agreement with a short discussion, it has always made me wonder about all those observations with just a single observer…
- The observation itself is not necessarily a valid tool for analysing a teacher’s pedagogical choices. This holds even assuming the best of conditions (a subject specialist with some knowledge of the students in the room). Whilst there are clear and helpful principles behind good teaching, we all know that choices about delivery of a particular unit of learning to a particular cohort of students can be personal and highly nuanced. Whether observing or being observed, I rarely felt that the comprehensive understanding of these things existed between both parties that was required to ensure feedback was relevant and useful. Various efforts to mitigate for this (extended lesson planning sheets, detailed “context” documents) have tended to add to workload rather than solving the core problems.
- The observation is unlikely to give a valid picture of learning or progress. You can’t observe learning, only performance which is a poor proxy for learning under the best conditions. This results in most teachers, however resistant to putting on a “show” having to offer some adaptations in an effort to “demonstrate progress”. When both the teachers and the class are “performing” it is at best questionable whether the observation represents normal practice, rendering the feedback of very limited use.
As a result, it is unsurprising that there is little evidence to show that the 3 lesson observations a year most teacher get have a positive impact on teaching and learning. Attempts to change this have generally fallen flat. For example, the University of Bristol’s large scale Teacher Observation study trialled in 82 schools showed the model to be very expensive but with no impact on (English or maths) results.
However, this year, our new Director of Teaching and Learning, Lucy Dasgupta, introduced a new model of developmental lesson observations to John Mason and it has been something of an eye opener. Her ideas have radically changed how we conduct lesson observations at John Mason and not before time.
Key Components of the Developmental Lesson Observation Model
1: An agreed and precise focus – The teacher brings an idea for the focus of the observation to the planning meeting and this is agreed with the observer by the end of the meeting. The aim is that it should be something that is a new strategy or a pedagogical development for the teacher. In my first observation I sought feedback on my implementation of retention and recall strategies, particularly with regards to the appropriate pacing for different groups of students in the lesson. In another I asked the observer to focus on my modelling of my metacognitive processes as I modelled an extended analytical thinking task for the students. In both cases, I selected something I am developing in my teaching this year and sought feedback on this agreed aspect of the lesson.
2: Joint Planning – before the lesson observation the teacher meets with the observer to discuss their plan for the lesson, their objectives and relevant contextual factors. This does not require mountains of paperwork (if a teacher is there to explain their planning, why would it?) but it does involve both finding some time together to invest in a discussion about the objectives for the lesson. During the planning session the strategies the teacher plans to use in relation to the observation focus are reviewed particularly carefully. The observer’s role is as an active participant in planning, sharing experience and suggestions. This increases the likelihood that the observation itself will be useful as both parties clearly understand the objective and the choices behind strategy selection. There is not a sense of “I wouldn’t have done it like that…” as ideas are shared at the planning stage. I have found both as an observee and an observer that what comes out of this meeting is a shared understanding of the context of the class and a sense of shared ownership for the lesson.
- The Observation – During the observation the observer focuses on the agreed development in a manner discussed in the planning meeting. At the planning stage both parties discuss what the observer might focus on, with the classroom teacher taking an active role in defining what data would be useful to help them evaluate their own strategy. When being observed the whole process is more comfortable; I know what the observer is looking at and why, and what sort of feedback they are gathering. It is what I have asked for!
- Feedback – This is short and focused, as both parties review the evidence gathered. The observer’s main role is to provide data to help the teacher (the expert on that class in that subject, let us remember) to reach a judgement about how well the lesson strategy met their goals for the class and how they might develop it further in the future. Other discussion is off the table; this is not a general, sweeping review of someone’s teaching, with the observer feeling pressured to provide “development points”, however trivial or tangential to the focus.
- Considerations for future practice – the final steps of reflection are considerations for future practice in taking the strategy forward. This can be led by the observer or the teacher depending upon the nature of the feedback discussion, and may involve identification of next steps, or further support.
This model of lesson observation seems empowering both as a teacher and an observer. In both roles I feel more comfortable and the process feels far more natural and productive than using the traditional model. Obviously there is no way to measure the impact of this specific innovation amongst everything else. However my experience has been that the feedback I have received has been much more focused and useful to my development than previously – it is something that fits with my own development goals and helps me effectively reflect on my practice. Our staff feedback after the first cycle of observations suggest this to be widely the case. Even if this is not 100% achieved, if lesson observations can be conducted in a way that empowers teachers, respects their professionalism and leaves them in control of the learning in their own classroom then I’m all for them!
Questions that help me to get the most out of a developmental observation:
What am I currently developing in my own teaching? What new strategies am I trying to deploy with my classes?
Where am I least confident in my delivery or outcomes e.g. in what area of my teaching could I most benefit from support and guidance? Which aspect of content, lesson planning, or which sub-group of students might make a useful focus?
What would I like to better understand about my own teaching at the end of the observation? What data could an observer gather that would help me better reflect on my own teaching than just being alone with my class?
Information on the Teacher Observation project can be found here: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/projects-and-evaluation/projects/teacher-observation/