How to observe a lesson

Recently, I was asked by a school to give some feedback on their lesson observation pro forma. My advice was that they shouldn’t use it. They were a bit flummoxed (and probably a bit annoyed) as they’d spent quite a while trying to make sure it guided observers to look for the things they felt were especially important for teachers to include. This, I explained, was the problem.

If we tell teachers what good looks like we undermine their expertise. Rather than doing what they genuinely believe is in their students’ best interests, they’ll simply do what you tell them to do. Instead what we should aim for is intelligent accountability.

Hopefully pro forma like the one below are now a thing of the past in most schools.

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-15-27-20

 But even ones which have had fatuous gradings removed are still problematic.

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-15-33-29

If you use something like this to prompt observers to look for certain aspects or behaviours then what you’ll get is teachers trying to show you what you expect to see. It’s not so much that the criteria on the pro forma above are unhelpful (although some of them are) it’s that they narrow the focus of the observer to look for these things rather than widen the focus to look at what’s actually happening in the classroom.

The point of a lesson observation should not be to see whether a teacher is slavishly following a checklist, rather it should be to tease out how effectively they are teaching the students in front of them to master specific curriculum goals. Who cares if there’s ‘evidence of differentiation’ but the quality of students’ work is rubbish? Why would it matter if a ‘plenary takes place’ if students don’t remember the content next lesson?

Initially I suggested that observers might be best just to take in a blank piece of paper on which to record their thoughts and observations. As that was deemed unacceptable, what they eventually settled on was this:

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-15-44-47

I’m not claiming this is particularly good, or especially original, just that it’s designed to encourage observers to observe the reality unfolding in front of them rather than to force reality try to fit what’s on their checklist.

Please feel free to point out how it could be improved below.

56 Responses to How to observe a lesson

  1. John Webber says:

    I think this is a great improvement on the checklist approach to learning and in particular the list of suggested questions puts a valuable focus on stimulating reflection and discussion. One thing that I would add is some reference to students learning activities outside the class – whether that is prep, consolidation or extension work.

    • David Didau says:

      Why would you add that? Either the work students do in class is good enough or it isn’t. If it’s good enough then why does it matter what has happened outside class?

  2. I use formats in which the teacher decides what he wants the observer to observe, so that the teacher receives feedback on learning goelas, that he has set for himself.

  3. Mark Bennet says:

    The narrative around observations has always concerned me (I am a school governor, not a teacher). Here is an attempt to reframe in rather different language, which will be familiar, and may not be wholly accurate or appropriate. What is the objective of this process of observation? The link sometimes made to “performance management” suggests that it might be a component of a summative assessment. But on the whole it might be regarded as formative assessment for adult practitioners. Summative and formative assessments are done differently, aren’t they? I think you are right that explicit checklists drive particular behaviours – but perhaps that is sometimes a good thing, to help correct bad habits which have crept in or to introduce new features/aspects. I think the issue would be making sure that the proposed changes were compatible for the teacher’s practice, and that would mean a tailored approach, which is probably, in most really good schools, an implicit part of the professional conversation between the teacher and the observer. Too much focus on the form takes focus off the quality of the conversation it enables. If the approach to development were incremental, rather than trying to be comprehensive, you might avoid the “tail wags dog” situation where the focus on one aspect distorts the rest. As an example of a topical behaviour which might have pedagogical significance and which might be a whole school focus across a large part of the curriculum “Is there evidence of appropriate interleaved practice?” So having thought out loud, “does this observation form promote high quality professional dialogue which is likely to lead to (improvement towards) sustained high-quality practice?” There is possibly some research to be done around the role of the form, any objectives set, and the dialogue around form and objectives as to which is most significant. In a busy school with staff under pressure the conversation might get lost – and I am sure some of the best observers can pack real significance into a seemingly brief feedback session.

    • David Didau says:

      If performance management is judging teachers’ performance in the classroom then it is a nonsense. Who cares what you – or anyone – thinks of a particular teacher’s approach to teaching? If the students’ outcomes are good then the means by which they were achieved (as long as they didn’t involve cheating) are irrelevant.

      I think observation is developmental, but the person who learns most from the experience is the observer. If we want teachers to develop it seems sensible to suggest that they should be observed less but observe more.

      • Chester Draws says:

        If we want teachers to develop it seems sensible to suggest that they should be observed less but observe more.

        I would like to see this developed more, because I believe it is important and overlooked.

        At our school we get to choose who we observe and who observes us. The easy route is to go with the same person every time, but I’ve decided to step up and change person every year. The benefit is to me, in seeing something new and then discussing that with the teacher.

        And I despise pro forma sheets. How I teach final year Calculus students, in a small class of motivated and clever kids, is not how I teach my low ability 13-year olds. How could it be? And that’s just inside Maths. The idea that a tick-box system is applicable to Maths and Music and Health is ludicrous.

  4. Liz says:

    I’ve used the Teacher/Student model in the past, with the headings in columns rather than rows, so the observer and later the observed can make connections between actions (or see patterns). I’ve found it mostly useful, if it is descriptive of behaviours. Sometimes, naturally, judgement slips in, rather than observation only. It is also useful when looking for patterns of behaviours or responses. I’ve found it useful to see how I distribute attention, feedback and questions. Definitely time consuming for the observer, and not perfect.

  5. Peter says:

    Hi David,
    Something I would add are a few questions that you could ask students (if it doesn’t interrupt things too much)…eg:
    Where is this learning taking you?
    Do you feel challenged?
    Are you feeling included?
    What’s easiest/difficult?
    What skills etc can you take elsewhere?
    What are you wondering about?
    Is this important? How is it important?
    What is the most difficult?
    What have you learned from each other?

    • David Didau says:

      I wouldn’t ask students those sorts of questions because they’d be unlikely to give a decent or meaningful answer.

      I’d rather ask questions like:

      – what do you know about x?
      – what can you remember from last lesson, last week, last term?
      – how will you remember this lesson?

      This are concrete and don’t rely of the vacuity of students’ feelings.

  6. In several books by Lyn Dawes there are transcripts of lessons and she analyses the different kinds of conversations going on.

  7. I am so glad that the wheel is beginning to turn. After 25 years of successful teaching I was made to feel that I was doing everything wrong because I was not following the prescription on the check list. The orthodoxy from outside school was so strong that no-one was able to challenge this. Everyone jumped to enforce the new truth about how to teach properly. I am sure this happened to many colleagues in most schools. The power of the orthodoxy was so strong that for the following few years, I as a senior leader had to enforce such prescriptive practice on colleagues. A teacher could get a good lesson report from the tick list for what was a mediocre lesson in my opinion.
    As a profession we have so little confidence in ourselves that we slavishly follow such directives which are in reality “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.
    A skilled teacher is like a craftsman fashioning a beautiful piece of furniture. It takes years to become an expert. We are trying to turn craftsmen into robots who will dance to the instructions of their programmers. Even the professional associations are guilty of this abandonment of a belief in the skilled teacher.
    How do we ensure that the next educational management fad does not become “something that OFSTED requires”? How do we avoid the tyranny of group think?

    • David Didau says:

      Although this was definitely not the case in the past, Ofsted are now part of the solution. They have stopped grading lessons and – in the next two years – they will get rid of the ‘teaching and leaning’ section of the inspection schedule. (Probably to be replaced with curriculum.) I also expect ‘outstanding’ to disappear within two years.

      Most silly, prescriptive decisions about teaching are taken by fearful SLT. These are unlikely to result in great teaching and will, ultimately, drive down results. Ofsted are becoming much better at recognising the effects of weak leadership.

  8. David Laurence says:

    I’ve found Matt O’Leary an ongoing source of useful research into the observation process e.g. ‘Measurement as an obstacle to improvement: moving beyond the limitations of graded lesson observations’ http://www.bcu.ac.uk/research/-centres-of-excellence/centre-for-research-in-education/people/matthew-oleary

  9. T'Mar says:

    In South Africa, in public (state) schools, teachers are told exactly how lessons must proceed, and if they don’t do that during observed lessons, they are given a low score. It does not matter how good the teacher actually is – what matters is their ability to ‘teach to the format’ for that single lesson.

  10. Vicky Gunn says:

    Good to read this. We are working at creating a climate in which lesson observations are not for judgement, but to see interesting and effective things that colleagues do, to have a colleague in to give feed back on a particular area that we want to work on or when we are trying out something new, or simply to share ideas. For a while, we have been using a more open-ended form for this purpose and both observers and those observed have found it far more productive when it comes to discussion after the lesson. We have four main headings for comments viz
    Where the learning was effective, it was because:
    Where the learning was not so effective it was because:
    Where the teaching was effective, it was because:
    The teaching could be more effective if:
    The learning comes first – because this was devised as a learning observation form initially, but now because it just makes sense primarily to observe the students and what they are doing and how. The peer observation form in the Leahy and Wiliam Embedding Formative Assessment pack also works well for peer coaching and self-reflection.
    We do still have the evaluative form but this is used largely for interviews and reviews.

    • David Didau says:

      Hi Vicky, my criticism of this approach is based on the fact that it is impossible to see learning. Learning is ability to retain and transfer information to new areas. As such, you cannot see whether students will remember tomorrow, or be able to use elsewhere, what they do in a lesson. Any judgements on learning is guesswork based on inferences drawn from students’ performances. I’ve written before before about how improving students’ performance in the short term actually degrades learning: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/a-definition-of-learning/

      • vgunnrms says:

        Thanks for your reply, David, and for the link to your blog on a definition of learning. I totally agree with your point. Just to explain: when we refer to ‘learning’ in our own LOs, it’s really a short-hand for what the students (as opposed to the teachers) are actually doing in the lesson, what might be called ‘learning behaviour’ (not an ideal term and, no, I certainly don’t mean ‘poor proxies for learning’) ie working with others, using resources, responding to feedback, having strategies to deal with being stuck. I don’t know if this would come under your point that ‘All we can see is what a student is able to do at this moment in time’. This discussion has made me think that perhaps we need to rethink our vocabulary so that there is clarity about what we are observing.

  11. James says:

    Thanks for this. I agree, the ticklist ends up in teachers thinking about the list over the learning. My school has adopted a DRICE (deepening thinking, role modelling, impact on learning, challenge and engagement in learning) model for observation. I’ve been wondering what you think of that model in general?

  12. Nicky says:

    David, if there is going to be a focus, and there is in your form, it should be on the learning by the students and not what the teacher is doing.

    • David Didau says:

      How do the questions ‘What does the teacher do?’ and ‘What dot he students do?’ mean that the focus will be on the teacher?

      Focussing on the students and ignoring the teacher’s part in this seems bizarre.

  13. David in any discussion on lesson observation, I think we need to talk about the observer respecting the fact that nobody knows the kids in the class like the teacher does! A post of yours some time ago, for me had such important points. http://www.learningspy.co.uk/featured/where-lesson-observations-go-wrong/ a wonderful quote that all need to remember and respect: “no one knows my kids in my classroom like I do” and the fact that learning is definitely a ‘messy business’. Where all understand that I think we can have better conversations about lessons.

  14. […] Recently, I was asked by a school to give some feedback on their lesson observation pro forma. My advice was that they shouldn’t use it. They were a bit flummoxed (and probably a bit annoyed) as they’d spent quite a while trying to make sure it guided observers to look for the things they felt were  […]

  15. Nice to see this David. I simply put 3 words. Match – and look at how many children are working at or above national expectations. Pitch – is the activity pitched at the right level for the children? And finally learning behaviour – how are the children learning? Got that from a great course by Craig Voller.

    • David Didau says:

      Instinctively I’m not keen on this approach.

      Match: national expectations are a nonsense. In reality there is no such thing as an age related expectation there are just low expectations and high expectations. I’m more interested in whether children are working hard.

      Pitch: what is ‘right’? How do you know? If an observer thinks they have a better idea of this than the teacher who best knows these children then there’s a problem. Who cares if the ‘pitch’ in the lesson feels right if children produce poor quality work? And conversely, if there work is good, who are you to criticise pitch?

      Learning behaviour: this is by far my least favourite. What most people call learning behaviour I call poor proxies for learning. Here are my thoughts on what might make a good proxy: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/featured/what-might-be-a-good-proxy-for-learning/

  16. Rufus says:

    Hi David, I think there should be a dialogue between the observer and the observed starting before the lesson. This can be done quickly in this form:

    Before: What is the intention behind what you are going to do with this class?

    After: How well do you think what happened in the class met your intention? Would you like to discuss how this might be improved?

    • David Didau says:

      I don’t disagree. Does need to be written on a piece of paper? If so, does it need adding to a form?

      • Rufus says:

        I think so, just an email can suffice before the lesson, it ends up with 4 categories:

        1. Teacher’s rationale for the lesson

        2. What does the teacher do?

        3. What do the students do?

        4. Suggestions for questions to ask the teacher: How well do you think what happened in class met your intentions? Would you like to discuss how this might be improved? Would you like to discuss your intentions in the broader context of the sequence of learning?

  17. I am currently supporting an NQT in my school and have to observe him teaching. Before an observed lesson, he decides on the key focus. We meet in the week before the observation and together agree the success criteria.
    After observing we then discuss the strengths and weaknesses, the “what next ” and who to go to for support.
    It seems to be working as a method of working.

  18. julietgreen says:

    I would just change it so that the questions you ask the teacher come before the observation. I’d also be very wary about following the suggestions from Peter about asking the pupils those questions.

    • David Didau says:

      Why before? (And yes, see my reply to Peter.)

      • julietgreen says:

        Don’t you think it would be more useful to know the background and lesson rationale before the lesson? It would help to see why certain things were being done during the lesson. At any rate, as a teacher, I no longer tolerate anyone observing me ‘blind’ as it were, unless it’s just a drop-in. If it’s purposeful, I give the information I want the observer to know about why I’m doing what I’m doing, what to look out for and what I’d like feedback on.

        I see your reply to Peter and agree. It’s not helpful to ask pupils their opinions. My opinions on my primary lessons have changed with retrospect. I now know the best lessons, because I can still remember them. At the time, I might have gone for those that were the most ‘fun’.

        • David Didau says:

          I don’t know whether as an observer it’s necessary – or helpful – to know the lesson’s context before observing, although it certainly isn’t a unhelpful so I’ve no problem with it.

  19. Mara says:

    Thank you for these comments- I too am in agreement with open observations where one focused on the behaviors and actions of learners and teachers- afterward patterns can be identified to build from or breakdown.

  20. jenny stradling says:

    I have been put on a teacher support plan at the school I have been working at for a year and a term by the SLT observer who graded my lesson, and then the second-chance lesson observation a few weeks later, as ‘requires improvement’.

    The pro forma for observations uses headings such as AfL, behaviour, quality of teaching etc. but interpretation of how to grade each of these seems to be very much up to the middle and senior leader who is doing it. The school has a policy of 85%+ of lessons being at least good, so graded observations (upon which they base this statistic) are not going to go away any time soon. In fact, fine-graded observations are being introduced i.e. outstanding a/b/c, good a/b/c etc. and are going to be made policy soon. I find myself wanting very specific detail, of the checklist variety, on the pro forma about what observers are looking for so that I can feel secure in my job.

    In my last role, lessons were graded up to the last year I worked there (when policy was changed in line with Ofsted’s) but the discussion between observer/observed was usually constructive and led to a free exchange of ideas/strategies to develop good practice. The pro forma also included a response from the observed party. At my current school however, the feedback has been of the “what I would have done..” variety and, although I have made a strong case for the teaching decisions I made in observed lessons, there is no written record of these on the form. I do think pro forma need to give the observed teacher space to give feedback on the process as well. In a professional setting, there is often a lot to be learned from it on both sides.

    I have read the posts here and elsewhere about the limitations of graded lessons and the myth of the outstanding lesson; and there is a lot that I agree with. Yet the reality is that in schools like the one where I teach now (which has enjoyed unprecedented exam success in the past few years) grading is such a part of the culture that SLT will not see past it, so teachers just have to play the game. SLT are very sure about what makes outstanding, good etc. lessons and colleagues who have been working at the place for a while have lessons that they put on which they know will fit these criteria. I am hoping to learn these on my support plan so that I can save my career. It seems idiotic but I have teenagers and a mortgage to support.

    I am going to take on board the advice here and in links to have pre-observation discussion about what I am planning and what the observer is expecting to see. I want to do well by my students and give them the best possible learning experience.

    • David Didau says:

      Hi Jenny – it sounds like you work in a poorly led school. Obviously I’m not aware of the context, and if you’re students have performed poorly in exams for the last three years you probably won’t have a leg to stand on. If this isn’t the case and your classes do as well as any one else’s then I’d consider taking legal action.

      If you’d like to discuss this further email me on ddidau@gmail.com

  21. […] How to observe a lesson | David Didau: The Learning Spy […]

  22. MelTeaches says:

    I’ve mentored student teachers and NQTs before and I’ve found it useful to have a sheet with four columns: time, teacher activity, pupil activity, and thoughts/ideas/challenges.

    So, you wind up with something that might look like this (apologies if formatting looks weird):
    Time Teacher Pupil Thoughts ideas challenges

    10:02 Greets pupils at door Enter, write homework Good to do homework early so
    in planners from board. pupils don’t get confused –
    is there a more engaging way
    to start the lesson to avoid off-
    task chat?

    Having the timings helps because teachers can see patterns, like “All my 5 minute activities ran over into 8-10 minutes! No wonder they were getting restless!” or “I spent five minutes questioning just one pupil?”

    From the narrative (I hide the final column from them and just use it to prompt my conversations in discussion at the end) they then set their own strengths and targets. It matches what I had in my head 99% of the time.

    I am so with you. If we use checklists like these, our lessons will be paint-by-numbers and our teachers will feel overwhelmed. Who can hit all those criteria for outstanding in a single lesson?

    • MelTeaches says:

      Sorry, that formatting became nightmarish!

      Vertical instead of horizontal:

      Time: 10:02
      Teacher: Greets pupils at the door.
      Pupils: Enter, write homework
      Thoughts, ideas, challenges: Good to do homework early so in planners from board. pupils don’t get confused – is there a more engaging way to start the lesson to avoid off-task chat?

  23. Mistercorzi says:

    What about the ‘flipped observation’ where the focus is on the observer of the lesson to extract useful pedagogy from the lesson they are observing. So the above form becomes: What did I observe that would usefully enhance my own teaching? Essential to this approach would be regular (and fairly frequent) departmental meetings for sharing the useful pedagogy that has been observed. In this way focus is on positive aspects of lessons to the benefit of the whole teaching team. Positive discussion on effective classroom teaching techniques is hopefully then encouraged as the norm. Individual teachers will be encouraged when they realise that others are benefitting from observations of their own lessons.
    Observation should always be for support and improvement never for criticism. Check boxes on observation forms are potentially undermining and essentially critical by their very nature!

  24. […] checklists that attempt to give a criteria for lessons against a mythical OFSTED standard – you can read his post here. I was proudly making the point that our school had done just that. We simply note down comments on […]

  25. […] We were considering whether the best strategy would be to ask the question again, what we at TPF call, ‘anchoring’ (‘So, is the mind the same as the brain?’) How to observe a lesson. […]

  26. David littlemore says:

    I just have a blank piece of paper. Much better and allows freedom of thought.

  27. […] It would be hard to argue for no observations at all, but David Didau argues for a better way here.  Can the process be more about development than […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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