How can we make classroom observation more effective?
If the belief that it’s possible for untrained observers to pitch up in lessons and grade their effectiveness is comparable to a belief in witchcraft, (and Professor Robert Coe’s research confirms that this is the case) where does that leave us as a profession? Observing lessons is the fetish du jour of almost every single school and school leader and, even if we informed and honest enough to accept that learning is invisible and that it’s nigh impossible to get two observers to agree on the quality and effectiveness of a lesson, we’re probably unwilling to let completely let go the idea that there’s still some gold to be mined in the hills of lesson observation.
One of the many nuggets excavated from last night’s Lesson Observation debate (you can watch a recording here) was that grading lessons is a piece of lunacy so obviously open to misinterpretation, misunderstanding and abuse that it should be abandoned immediately. The only conceivable justification for continuing with such a practice so clearly unsupported by evidence is fear of Ofsted and as Chris Moyes, Liam Collins and others have shown, this too is an entirely unnecessary nonsense. So, if you do nothing else, stop grading lessons!
But does that mean that there is now no place for classroom observation? Should we abandon it altogether? Every instinct screams no, doesn’t it? Anecdotally. I learned an awful lot from observing teachers in action and I’m certain that I’m not alone. So how can we make lesson observations a little bit better?
Don’t make assumptions
If you’re in the privileged position of being able to watch a fellow professional do their thing, go in with the mindset that you are there to learn. Make a note of what you see and what questions you might ask. When you have the opportunity to discuss the lesson, discussion should be framed using questions like these:
- Were there any surprises?
- How might you have done that differently?
- Can you explain what was happening when..?
- Were you aware of..?
- What do you think the impact of x might be?
You are there to learn
Actually listen to the answers and try to learn from them. If the teacher asks for, or is interested in your opinions, wait for them to ask you. Otherwise, try to keep your gob shut. This is hard but if you accept the reality that you are not the expert you think you are and that the teacher you’ve observed will know their class and their subject better than you, all will be well. At some point you might be tempted to share what you would have done. Resist this temptation. It is a pointless piece of self-indulgence to try to down load your ‘expertise’ onto another teacher. They won’t thank you for it, it won’t change their practice, and it’s probably wrong.
Make it reciprocal
It’s my contention that we learn more from observing than we do from being observed. And it’s a truism that those who observe most teach least. Therefore, the most useful thing school leaders with lighter teaching loads can do is to use their time to cover colleagues so that they can observe each other. Why doesn’t this happen? Because we’re obsessed with the idea that ‘we know best’. But even if this is true and we do actually know best, what benefit is that to the teachers we lead? A much more useful approach is to lay the groundwork for an inquiry model of classroom observation which allows teachers to investigate and reflect on aspects of their own teaching. The Lesson Study model is gaining a lot of traction at the moment and if you’re interested in improving teaching and learning in your school, you could do a lot worse than join NTEN (the National Teacher Enquiry Network) to find out more and get practical support with this essential work.
Focus on instructional support
Once of my favourite models for classroom observation is the one taken my Doug Lemov and the Uncommon Schools network. The idea is ridiculously simple: we look at the data to find out which teachers have the best results and then you observe them to find out what they’re doing. Lemov’s wonderful Teach Like A Champion is a compendium of some of the strategies common to these über teachers which can be practised and replicated us mere mortals.
What makes this particularly interesting is captured by this slide used by Professor Coe is his presentation last night:
What this shows is that teachers only tend to improve at the ‘easy’ things. Providing effective emotional support (motivating & engaging students) and effective classroom organisation are essential and if we neglect them we have chaos. The frightening truth is that we can get away with low quality instructional support if we know how to engage kids and make them behave. One of the reasons that many teachers stop improving after a few years in the job is because we achieve a level of competence with which we are comfortable. As soon as students stop chucking chairs about and more or less do what we want, we’re content. It takes a rare individual to decided independently chose to leave this comfort zone. But we only improve through deliberate practice and that means doing things which we can’t currently do.
Telling teachers what to do to improve and then relying on them to make the unlikely decision to struggle is the CPD model espoused by most schools but, as you can see, it’s doomed to failure.
The training run by Uncommon is all about isolating the elements of great teacher and practising them over and over. The thinking is that what we practice we get good at. If we’ve practised an instructional technique we’re much more likely to use it. And here’s where classroom observation can be used to focus on guided practice of these instructional techniques that are likely to have the most impact.
Watch the teacher not kids
The current vogue in education is for observations to focus on students’ learning. In fact I wrote a post to this effect a few years ago. Well, the bad news is, this is a red herring. Doing this focuses us on performance rather than learning and encourages teachers to focus on short term approaches with result in ‘rapid’ progress often at the cost of sustained progress.
Maybe it might be more productive, especially if we want to focus on improving instructional support, to observe what the teacher is doing? This might lead to a more nuanced discussion post observation because a teacher is much better placed to discuss they’re actions rather than speculate on the unknowable nature of our students. And if our focus is guided practice then it becomes essential to watch what teachers are doing to be able to give the feedback and support to embed improvement.
So there you go: some suggestions for making classroom observations just that little bit better.