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

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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.

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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.

Language Across the Curriculum part II: what are the priorities?

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In my last blog I tried to flesh out some of the reasons for many teachers’ lack of confidence with all things language – the ‘elephant in the room’ identified by @englishlulu here: http://wp.me/p2BKE4-3Q. I then tried to suggest how a persuasive argument could be constructed that encourages teachers and support staff to make a meaningful and sustained contribution to developing pupils’ language skills. Winning this argument is surely the first step in establishing a coherent, long-lasting approach to the teaching of language across the curriculum.

This post offers some further thoughts on how to train teachers once they are willing, and set up the culture and interactions necessary to realise a coherent longer term vision. I will briefly explain some of the things that I have tried to implement (in this regard) in my previous role as Head of English, and explore some of the ideas and approaches that I intend to implement this coming year. This blog is essentially the sum of my present thinking, and as much as my writing is really about helping me to better marshal my thoughts, I hope it also offers you a useful articulation of what a successful language across the curriculum policy might look like.

What is abundantly clear is the sheer scale of the task of getting all classroom teachers and supporting adults to take responsibility for developing pupils’ language, which is perhaps why so many schools have tried and failed with such initiatives in the past. It can become a running joke how every 2-3 years a school introduces a new cross curricula language development, usually on the back of an Ofsted inspection and usually to great fanfare to all staff. In 2009 Geoff Barton’s Re-Booting English – a Leading Edge National Programme review document for English teachers and senior teams – offered some sound advice to schools looking to implement a more coherent literacy programme. The advice was to adopt a ‘less is more approach’ and ‘focus relentlessly on the two of three key areas which will make an impact on students’ learning.’ See here: tinyurl.com/k3xx22d

These words seem as true today as they did then: to do a few things really well now, and then build later on. But developing a school culture where every adult takes responsibility for developing pupils’ reading, writing and oracy – willingly and with zeal, not coercion – takes time. Such a vision can be planned for, but any attempt to realise its entirety too soon is overwhelming and probably the reason why so many fall by the wayside, leading to wry smiles and the continuation of the long-running joke. It’s therefore sensible to focus resources and effort on one or two main priorities, depending on the context of the school.

This is certainly not to suggest that plans for language across the curriculum should not be bold and ambitious: they should.  We should aim for a situation where talking about language and its usage is so part of the fabric of pupils’ learning they consider it normal and expect it in their lessons. Pupils should be getting better at their reading in geography, improving their writing in Food Technology and developing their oral skills in Design Technology.

These improvements must be more than just tokenistic language references, one-off lessons or questionable bolted on tasks. This is why I don’t think many of the resources that we as teachers like to generate, such as literacy place mats, colourful classroom writing prompts or lists of key words, are not really the answer. Don’t get me wrong, these resources have their uses – I’ve certainly designed and used many of my own (see below) – but they are ultimately just tools and through their reductive nature can sometimes do more harm than good, particularly in the hands of someone who does not know how to use them properly. The greatest resource is always the teacher.

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Depending on the context of the school, then, the best place to start is probably with developing levels of professional expertise. In the past I’ve tried to make sure my department has the strongest possible subject knowledge and that my English teachers have a shared understanding of how language works and how we will talk about it with our pupils, including the terminology we intend to use in our lessons. Whilst I think it is a mistake to place the responsibility for developing language across the curriculum solely on shoulders of the English department – the idea is really that everyone is a language teacher – it would be misguided not to make some use of those with the greater expertise and experience, at least in the short term.

This experience can be harnessed in a variety of different ways. In her blogpost @englishlulu mentioned how she intends to offer ‘fun, practical and edible’ cake and grammar sessions for teachers. This type of non-threatening training opportunity is great, particularly in conjunction with her other ideas, such as the language for learning tips in the school newsletter. It is important to stress, though, that any approach which places the responsibility for whole school language development on the English department, or still in some schools on the relatively inexperienced KS3 co-coordinator, should only be a short term measure. As long as the English department are seen driving whole school literacy, the more unlikely it will be that every teacher sees language development as being their responsibility. And this is why training sessions for teachers might be best served targeting those teachers in other subjects who have the greatest enthusiasm, willingness and/or expertise, which can then be develop in these sessions and applied in their own departments.

A further consideration when setting up any training is the need to establish a shared language for approaching literacy beforehand. I genuinely believe that one of the problems in schools – even within English departments – is the scattergun manner in which literacy is talked about with students. For example, from the students’ point of view, how helpful is it when one teacher tells them that adjectives are describing words (focusing on their definition) and the next teacher discusses them in terms of their formal properties and their role and function in sentences? It is confusing. Furthermore, the students in the class of the second teacher are getting a much better deal: they are learning about how language truly works in a given context – not some pre-defined definition of an adjective that is often not true in practice.

This goes back to my previous point about literacy place mats and writing tips: what does it really mean to have a laminated piece of card with an instruction to start a sentence with an ‘ed’ word if that student (or teacher) has no idea what type of clause this is referring to, or how it needs to be punctuated? Establishing a shared, common language in advance, which can then perhaps be prompted by these tools, is therefore paramount. In my experience, the tool too often comes first and it is assumed that the prompt will work and not create further issues as a result, such as technical inaccuracy. I have the same concern with the use of some literacy success criteria, such as that which states ‘use a variety of sentences’. Many students’ understanding of this target will be to use some sentences that are short, some that are longer and some that are somewhere in between. This is not genuine language development – unless this explicitly referring back to prior learning and terminology, it’s at best vague and tokenistic, at worse the cause of further problems.

In an ideal world any shared understanding of language would be communicated across the whole school community, so that all teachers, students and their parents understand how language is being talked about and taught in lessons. Obviously, this would means that parents would need to have access to the same grammar training and subsequent supportive resources as the teachers, but in this should not pose too much of a problem. The use of technology could clearly help in this regard, where training sessions could be recorded and made available as a bank of videos over the years.

For what it’s worth, my focus for whole school language development starting this September is pupils’ writing. I would love to take on oracy work and pupils’ reading too, but I recognise the benefits of the ‘less is more approach’ I advocated earlier. If you read my previous blog, you will remember that I extoled the virtues of the important work that Lee Donaghy was doing at his school on a genre-based pedagogy. See here: http://wp.me/p3hZYu-2. This is very much part of my long term thinking, but how I actually tackle the ideas and approaches he raises is probably the stuff of a post later on in the year when I’ve had the chance to properly get to grips with it.

Language Across The Curriculum – Part I: Building the Argument

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I’ve just read this very good blog wp.me/p3xVUK-f1 by @englishlulu. It highlights for me what is one of the biggest barriers to raising standards of literacy in our schools: teachers’ own lack of confidence with literacy, or rather ‘language’ as I think it can be more helpfully termed. By standards here I don’t mean better examination results, which though obviously desirable, are not always an adequate gauge of whether pupils’ can read with confidence, write with accuracy and flair and articulate themselves with authority – surely a goal for all of us who work with or who are responsible for children’s learning.

@englishlulu makes an observation that I have long been thinking about myself: ‘the elephant in the room when we talk about literacy in schools is that most teachers can’t match the levels currently expected of a year 6 student.’ Whilst the assertion maybe a tad strong, it nevertheless articulates a basic premise that I have seen time and time again in a lot of classrooms – that a significant of proportion of teachers really do not have the ability to support the language development of their learners effectively. This is not to deny that there are a lot of teachers in a range of subjects who regularly incorporate explicit language work in their lessons. There are, and I’ve seen them. But there are also a great many more who do not, or who do, but with questionable effectiveness.

One of the things I think that Ofsted does do well is to recognise the place that language learning should have in every classroom. Moving English Forward (2012) stresses the need for schools to ‘strengthen their whole-school literacy work across all departments to ensure that students extend and consolidate their literacy skills in all appropriate contexts.’  It also recognises that ‘previous efforts to raise literacy as a whole-school initiative have tended to have a short-term impact.’ In the earlier Barriers to Literacy report (2011) there is a quiet acknowledgement that part of the problem lies in teachers’ own lack of confidence in dealing with language, suggesting that in ‘schools where teachers in all subject departments had received training in teaching literacy and where staff had included an objective for literacy in all the lessons, senior managers noted an improvement in outcomes across all subjects.’

From my experience it is this lack of appropriate training that is the underlying problem, one that undermines any genuine drive to improve language development across the curriculum. A lot of teachers simply do not have a sufficient level of understanding on how to support pupils’ punctuation, word choice or sentence construction effectively or consistently enough. I include some English teachers within this assertion, since many are not language specialists and, as I’ve written about in a previous blog (http://wp.me/p3po46-T), did not themselves receive a decent grounding in language in their own education. In too many cases this lack of understanding gives way to low levels of confidence, which in turn means explicit language teaching is avoided. Ofsted recognise the size of the challenge ahead, pointing out that ‘across secondary schools, only 6% of teachers indicated that there should be a change in the extent to which [language] is incorporated into lessons.’

If this is the extent of the problem, what is the solution? Clearly, whatever is done must first do something about improving the confidence of teachers so that they are better able to address issues of language in their lessons and help pupils to become competent readers, writers and speakers in a range of authentic contexts. That confidence can only really come from tackling ‘the elephant in the room’: teachers’ own knowledge about language, which is no easy task, that’s for sure. Part of the answer also has to address the reluctance (or more likely fear) amongst some teachers who see the teaching of language as not having anything to do with them. This can be done – and probably often has been – via a top-down approach, particularly in the lead up to an inspection. But this rarely works. At best, a must-do mentality has (as Ofsted imply) a short-term impact; at worse, it can be superficial, breed further resentment and thus not really help the pupils in the long term in any meaningful way.

Much better, then, for those in the position to do something across the school to construct a robust argument that shows exactly why language development is so important, and then to provide a coherent strategy once that argument has been won. Language development is too important to keep ignoring or pay lip service to, and needs to be continually amongst the main priorities of every adult who works with pupils in the classroom. The argument that needs to be made is essentially that language is learning, and it is perfectly expressed by Lee Donaghy in his excellent blog on his use of a language-based pedagogy at his school in Birmingham – http://wp.me/p3hZYu-2

‘There is no such thing as ‘literacy’ as distinct from ‘subject knowledge’. The language of history (or science, geography, maths) is the knowledge and content of history, which in turn is the language, which in turn…you get the picture. Therefore it is unhelpful to think of ‘literacy’ as something additional to the effective teaching of any subject.’

I strongly urge you to read all of his blog. Based around the development of genre-based pedagogy by professor Jim Martin of the University of Sydney, it powerfully illustrates the way that language is intrinsically related to the acquisition of knowledge and understanding, and therefore of considerable interest to all educators. The final blog of the series is particularly pertinent to this discussion. It runs through a detailed worked example of the theoretical model that Lee uses in his history lessons. If every teacher did something similar, one can only wonder at the potential gains for pupils’ language development. Seriously, can you imagine?

But the problem, once again, is that not all teachers possess the necessary confidence with and passion for language to pull this off, and so hence will probably avoid it all together. So how, once we have made and won the argument for the centrality of language in the learning process, do we ensure that all teachers are themselves are able to least make a contribution to pupils’ language development? There is no easy answer: the way I see it the scale of the problem is pervasive with a great deal of deep-rooted anxiety and reluctance.

Nevertheless, in my next blog I will attempt to add my own thoughts on how we can start to do something about developing teachers’ lack of confidence and improving their understanding of language. I’m certainly not suggesting I have all the answers. I don’t. But after spending the past couple of years trying to come at this issue from a variety of different angles, I think I at least have a grasp of what language across the curriculum should look like.

I, of course, welcome the views of other people.