Can Checklists Improve Teacher Development?

Screenshot 2016-01-31 13.31.04I am lucky enough to observe lessons. I get to see the full gamut of age and experience, from trainees and NQTs to more experienced and senior colleagues. I am under no illusions that observing others teach is both a great privilege and a great responsibility – deciding upon what and how to feedback is, I think, one of the most difficult and challenging aspects of my role in leading on teaching and learning and professional development. If I’m honest, in the past I perhaps haven’t always got this right!

Any feedback I now give when I observe, which I don’t always offer if I don’t think I have anything constructive to add, I try to make tentative and suggestive – you might like to consider X or try Y, which may lead to Z. And so on. I try to be aware of my own biases and so instead pose questions to encourage teachers to think about different possibilities, and where alternatives (that are not always necessarily any better) may lead.

The purpose of these observations is to gauge the quality of teaching across the school. It is never about the individual teacher or the individual lesson, but rather about reaching some kind of understanding of the typical learning experience for students. Obviously, this is part of an overall picture, which is largely driven by summative overviews by heads of departments, subject specialists who work with their colleagues every day. There’s also triangulation against department-led learning reviews, something I wrote about here, and a cross reference with student outcome data over time, which is in itself problematic.

This post is not about using lesson observation for evaluation. The flaws in appraising teacher quality this way are widely recognised, though perhaps not always universally applied. This post is more about thinking through how observation can be used as a tool for highly targeted professional development. Whilst our long-term goal for observation is along the lines of the Leverage Coaching model outlined here by Harry Fletcher Wood – a subject-based approach in which colleagues focus on micro improvements to their subject pedagogy – there will still be a need for tightly focused observation protocols to support specific aspects of pedagogy.

For quite some time I have been fascinated by the idea of checklists as articulated by Atul Gawande, particularly how they might work to help improve teacher performance in the form I described earlier. I am not referring to the arbitrary tick-box guff that characterised the worst excesses of the Ofsted era, where schools worked backwards from outstanding criteria. This was about accountability and fear. What I am interested in is how simple checklists, of the kind used in the aviation and, more recently, medical professions can support targeted forms of individual development: professional learning that is built upon trust and transparency rather than on throttling growth.

Now, I realise there is a great deal of difference between the worlds of aviation and medicine and the world of education. Unlike passengers on a plane or patients in a hospital, students are not going to die as a result of our errors and mistakes. They may not always make the right kind of ‘progress’ or even particularly like our lessons, but they will always go home at the end of the day, and almost always that bit wiser, that bit more knowledgeable. Boredom, or missing out on a grade by a few UMS marks, is just not the same as having the wrong limb operated on or crash landing into the sea! We can always do our jobs better, but we do a pretty good job nonetheless.

But if we put aside the obvious life and death difference, we start to see that there are some important similarities between these professions. I am guessing that Harry’s new book on the subject of the application of checklists in education will make a much more elegant and informative argument than I can here, so for now all I want to say is that what links the pilot to the surgeon to the teacher is the way in which each of these jobs involves dealing with extreme complexity and that each professional must make hundreds of decisions every day, many of which are responsive and in the moment.

In my observations I see the myriad of decisions that teachers make each and every lesson. Where to stand? What to say? Who to ask a question? When to collect in homework? How to deal with a tricky situation? These are the just some of the many instructional and behavioural choices that we make all the time. Given the sheer complexity of the classroom, we are likely to make mistakes along the way – forget what we wanted to say, miss out part an important part of an explanation or do that thing we know always makes a situation worse.

Here are just some of the things that I have seen teachers do, many of which I frequently do myself, even though I consciously aware of their potentially negative impact:

  • Not giving a student time to respond to a question
  • Letting a student opt out of answering a question
  • Repeating back to a student the very answer they have just given
  • Not making it clear to students what they are required to do
  • Talking over students as they are trying to write / make / think
  • Reading every word from a PowerPoint slide
  • Putting far too much on a PowerPoint slide
  • Using a PowerPoint slide when there really is no need
  • Using complex vocabulary that students don’t understand
  • Using simplistic vocabulary that is not helping students to understand
  • Going to help students immediately after setting up a task
  • Spending time on a task when students don’t have the requisite knowledge
  • Having a one to one conversation with a student in front of the class
  • Using a coloured board pen that the students cannot actually read
  • Going through every answer when only one or two questions caused a problem

Could a series of well put together checklists help to guard against some of these simple mistakes, whether acting as prompts at the planning stage or as useful aid memoirs during the lesson when the complexity of the classroom leads us to make silly mistakes? My contention is that they probably can, and furthermore that a focused set of checklists for different aspects of teaching and classroom practice could provide well focused observation prompts for targeted coaching. It seems to me eminently possible that a school can agree upon some essential components of certain facets of great teaching – explanation, modelling, etc. – and use these to help develop staff.

It is with this intention that I have recently started working with a group of second year teachers. The plan is to work with them over a number of weeks to design some prototype checklists for possible use later on across the school. We will undertake some reading around key areas, and then meet as a group to share our insights, such as what makes for a great explanation, or what do we know is likely to work when modelling work with our students. From these discussions we will design draft checklists that we will then test in the field and refine as a consequence of our experiences.

Once we have a few of these checklists and we get a sense of whether they actually work, we will then seek to share them more widely across the school. Over time I think that this approach could help to raise understanding of effective pedagogy, as well as provide a useful, largely objective tool to aid teacher development. An individual can identify an area they would like to improve upon, and then use the checklist to pinpoint specific areas of feedback they would like to receive from a second pair of eyes. By narrowing down the focus to these targeted areas, the observer can make notes on specific aspects of the teacher’s actions or the learners’ behaviours. The checklist provides the common ground between the two, which can then be the driver for other forms of CPD and resourcing.

Below is a draft of our first focused observation checklist, which relates to effective teacher explanations. It unashamedly borrows from the relevant chapter of Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby’s great book, Making Every Lesson Count, as well other resources that have helped shape our school’s understanding of the ingredients for good explanations. I stress: this is not intended as a set of prescriptions, but rather as a set of prompts for building up levels of expertise in a given area of pedagogy. Nick Rose has designed similar tools to support teacher development here, again looking at what kind of observation protocols can help improve teacher development and mitigate against some of the issues surrounding observer bias and potentially overwhelming classroom complexity.

Screenshot 2016-01-31 13.31.38

Anyway, as ever, I am interested in any thoughts or feedback that I can use to improve upon this idea further. It is not the endpoint, but rather the beginning of what I think could be something our teachers find extremely helpful. I had intended to wait for the publication of Harry’s book before I posted, as I suspect that he will offer a range of excellent ideas that will force me to go back to the drawing board. Oh, well!

Thanks for reading.