Lesson observations: what can you really do in 20 minutes?

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There seems to common agreement amongst teachers – at least the ones on Twitter I follow and whose blogs I read – that 20 minute lesson observations are not really long enough to properly evaluate teachers’ performance, and that performance rather than progress is all that can be measured of pupils in such a short time. I certainly think this is true, and that Ofsted make some pretty big (often inaccurate) calls about the quality of teaching and learning they see in these short bursts.

There was a time when hordes of inspectors would descend on schools and observe hundreds of whole lessons. Then came the era of ‘light touch’ inspections, which appeared to make judgments before arrival, much to the benefit of the kind of schools in leafy suburbs that Ofsted now has in its sights. Perhaps the rationale for the current 20 minute time frame was born out of a desire to forge a practical bridge between too much and too little attention to what’s going on in classrooms.

So whilst many of us agree that 20 minutes is not enough time to properly evaluate teachers’ effectiveness or to properly measure students’ learning, is it sufficient time to do anything else?

The answer depends on what you want to gain from an observation programme, whether you are more interested in knowing where your teachers currently are, or helping them get to where you want them to be. Sadly, as Joe Kirby’s recent blog suggests (http://wp.me/p31zUY-au), the focus in many schools is still on the former, on evaluation and monitoring rather than on development. As an end rather than a means. Whilst I’m sure most senior teams have the desire to develop their staff, because of the Ofsted model they try to emulate with its language of criteria and gradings, these intentions are often lost. The emphasis can feel more geared to what the observer gains from the experience than the observed – what summative information is gleaned on behalf of the institution, as opposed to what formative field notes are gathered for the benefit of the individual. Observations become performances with all the attendant nausea and deflation which that brings before and after each act.

All teachers can and should benefit from being observed, as well as observing others. There are an integral part of our professionalism and a key aspect of how we continue to develop both individually and collectively. Observations should form the core of a school CPD programme, working in step with coaching initiatives and INSET to support staff improvement, whatever the rank, experience and level of proficiency. Many schools have already moved, or are in the process of moving towards, a developmental model of observation, doing away with planned observations in favour of more informal visits and abandoning gradings in order to focus on working with individuals on specific areas for their improvement. These schools recognise how grades and generic targets muddy the water of the feedback process and get in the way of talking about specific teaching techniques and processes that teachers can and should begin working on immediately.

And this is where I think those 20 minutes can really come into play. Short, highly focused observation slots, used frequently, can provide an ideal amount of time to enable teachers to work together on specific areas of their development, and to facilitate the kind of deliberate practice strategies that Doug Lemov promotes in Practice Perfect. Time is very much at a premium in schools, but surely there is enough of it available to create a culture where teachers are happy to drop into each other’s lessons with the aim of working on their strengths and addressing their weakness, where they are safe in the knowledge they are not being judged on their performance on any given day, but on being properly supported in their continual professional development over time. Models of observation – regardless of their length – which set big, sweeping targets for improvement (or group teachers together based upon perceptions of shared need) do not really work. They ignore the individual and the targets they set are as redundant as the feedback given to students in books that is not read, acted upon or followed up. As much as we acknowledge how important it is for students to act immediately on feedback, the same principle also applies to teachers. Shorter, more frequent observations might enable specific techniques to be isolated and practised. These are not so much observations as coaching opportunities.

Next year, I intend to experiment with an observation model that draws upon these principles, at first within the English department and then, if successful, across the wider school. The first part of the plan involves using a series of learning walks each term, spread over a range of days, times and classes to get as accurate and fair an overview of the department as possible. These will be undertaken by post-holders and fed back through a short anonymous report, which may sound like the model of evaluation I’m arguing against, but when I tried it last year (see below) it worked really well. Teachers liked getting an informative, balanced summary of their department and the narrative approach meant that areas for improvement could be properly explained and understood. The other, more important, purpose of these learning walks is to identify individual training needs and work out who is most suited to provide the necessary support.

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The second part of plan is to give each teacher a series of dedicated development days across the year – ideally in blocks of one or two weeks per teacher per term. During these periods the intention is for each teacher to be given the sustained support required to properly work on the areas of development identified in the learning walks. A series of 20 minute observation slots over the course of a week or two will hopefully enable teachers to hone specific skills and techniques through repeated practice and immediate feedback. I hope these development windows will also provide the chance for teachers to observe each other, to discuss meaningful class progress with postholders, to go on learning walks themselves and receive additional coaching if appropriate. All these training opportunities will dovetail and mostly take place in 20 or so minute segments. Well, that’s the idea.

For observations to be of any lasting value they need to focus on development, rather than evaluation. They need to stop trying to replicate or second-guess the way that Ofsted do things. The changes that Ofsted make to their own practice should warn against the folly of this strategy. For while the warm glow of ‘outstanding’ can feel nice for the few, it’s as ultimately destructive to individuals and the profession as a whole as receiving ‘satisfactory’ or ‘requires improvement’. Applying labels to teachers from within creates divisions and is a diversion from the business of development. 20 minutes can be time better spent creating a new paradigm that builds professional capital, rather than perpetuating one that stifles it.