Where next for lesson observations: a tentative look to the future


I have wanted to blog on the topic of lesson observations for a while, but for a combination of reasons I have been a little reticent. Like others, I have undergone quite shift in my own attitude towards being observed. I am actually embarrassed to admit that about 18 months ago I even made a bit of a fuss when it was first mooted that we were no longer going to grade lessons. I was in part voicing the concerns of my department who – believe it or not – did not want to dispense with receiving grades. But I was also speaking on my own behalf: I liked the challenge of being observed and proving myself as a good, or hopefully ‘outstanding’ teacher. I wanted to be validated. It’s all rather ridiculous, I know, and shamefully selfish too. Where’s the students?

Looking back, I can see just how much I had been indoctrinated by a system of grading, one that made people like me care about the number they received, and worse defined themselves as a result of it. Utterly silly. In fairness – although I did not see this at the time – part of my frustration was that whilst we were ditching grades, we were still feeding back to colleagues using Ofsted criteria. I just could not see the logic in using the language of Ofsted, which I always thought was ridiculously onerous and dubious in nature, but not mentioning the grade. The grade would surely be obvious if phrases like ‘rapid and sustained’ or ‘insufficient’ were mentioned. It also seemed deceitful to record grades, but keep teachers in the dark about them.

We have moved on since then and no longer record grades for individual lessons, though I suspect that like many schools there is still a great deal more that we need to do to improve. The overwhelming evidence, particularly the research of Professor Coe, Robert Bjork and the late Graham Nuttell (championed tenaciously by the likes of David Didau and Joe Kirby), presents a compelling challenge to the very efficacy and validity of lesson observations. If learning cannot be directly observed and students don’t learn in the ways that we think they do, how can one teacher have any credibility in casting judgement over another? And even if they do have some ground beneath their feet from which to make a judgement, it seems that very ground keeps moving – according to Professor Coe if your lesson is judged outstanding there is between a 51% to 78% chance a second observer would downgrade it. In our heart of hearts I think we already knew this to be true; it’s worrying it took research like Professor Coe’s to help us to articulate our concerns.

The other main reason why I have been reluctant to post on lesson observations is because I am unsure of what, if anything, should replace them. As certain as I am that it does not make any sense to grade individual or ‘typical’ lessons, I am as uncertain about whether there is still benefit in teachers observing each other and, if there is, what form that should take. The changes to Performance Management complicate this matter further, posing some tough questions for the role and function of lesson observations within the wider system of professional accountability. I very much like the alternatives I have read elsewhere, which involve triangulating a range of factors like examination results, work scrutiny and professional reputation. However, even these can be considered problematic: who is responsible for a class with repeated changes of teacher or a legacy of underachievement? Are field notes about an individual teacher’s professional standing prone to abuse in the hands of the less benign?

For what it’s worth, I believe that there is value in continuing with observations. I recently attended the National Teacher Enquiry Network Conference on Lesson Observation and am convinced that Lesson Study has a considerable role in the future direction that observations take within our schools. The model of teachers planning lessons collaboratively and then observing and evaluating the outcomes in relation to a select group of students seems eminently sensible and in a way self-evident. With learning such a complex business, why would schools not encourage their teachers to work together to understand its complexity and work together to design ways to enhance their teaching in order to respond to the challenges provided by their students and their context? How daft to waste valuable school resources evaluating lessons after they have occurred, rather than front-loading what are ultimately finite resources to the planning stage, when something can actually be done to better understand the learning process through the eyes of the learners.

Yet as much as I admire Lesson Study, and despite all the overwhelming evidence challenging the efficacy of lesson observations, I still think there is a place for observations. It would need to be a greatly reduced role, one that looked and felt different, and had a different tone and structure of interaction between the observer and the observed. One such model is the one outlined in Paul Bambrook-Santoyo’s excellent Leverage Leadership. I have blogged before about how the English department are piloting this approach, but in short, this model sees one teacher observing a colleague for about 20mins each week with a subsequent debriefing. The observations are pencilled in for the same times each week to ensure they become routine. No criteria are used. The ‘more experienced’ colleague simply makes a couple of notes about the things they see and the two teachers discuss these observations later in the debrief. Between them, they agree an area to work on in the next lesson, which the observer helps them to plan for or talk through.

After some initial reluctance, the teachers are enjoying working with colleagues on specific development areas each week – they feel supported and observations no longer carry that element of fear. Teachers are openly identifying their own weaknesses and working with their observation partner to try and resolve them. There are similarities to Lesson Study in the nature of collaboration and the admittance of a degree of uncertainty. I can see a way that this model could be scaled up across a school, where (similar to the Uncommon Schools approach used in Teach Like a Champion) performance outliers can be identified and specific aspects of their practice analysed in order to draw up a catalogue of professional expertise. These lead learners could form the bedrock of a list of options that teachers could be linked with in order to develop their practice, perhaps as part of the appraisal process. I intend to blog more about what this framework might look like in the coming months when I have had chance to hone my thinking further.

Beyond this, I think lesson observations also have a place in relation to supporting colleagues with improving their behaviour management. Whilst the process of learning is undeniably complex, I think that there is much greater clarity (and dare I say consensus) around how best to make learning more likely to occur. I guess I am thinking here, though not exclusively, of inexperienced colleagues – those teachers who in the first year or two of teaching can find it hard to control classes and manage disruptive behaviour. It might be impossible to evaluate the extent of learning within a lesson, but I think it is possible to judge whether conditions for learning have been established. I also think it’s possible to know what those conditions look like and how best to help a teacher to create them within his or her own environment. In short, I am suggesting that lesson observations, following the regular, supportive approach described above, could still have a place in helping teachers master the art of classroom management. Where we need to be honest, though, is that beyond these ‘rules’ for establishing presence, there are only ideas, intuitions and probabilities.

The only certainty of learning, it seems to me, is that it is hard to be certain about it. Let’s stop pretending that this is otherwise and admit what we don’t know in order to help us to know more.