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 MoyesLiam 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:

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 10.26.51

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.

Related posts

What 3 things would you do to help a teacher improve?
Why we can’t tell a good teacher through lesson observations

34 Responses to How can we make classroom observation more effective?

  1. Doesn’t it seem a little strange to argue that observations can’t judge quality of teaching and then use a slide that makes judgements on the quality of lesson components to argue about how teachers develop their capabilities?

  2. Carmen Aguilar says:

    Why can we not look at both, what the teacher does and what effect this has on the students? I am going through my training at the moment and I am observed very, very often. In my lesson plan I have a section under the title ‘why?’. You could call it ‘reasoning behind the activity’, ‘aim’ or simply ‘what’s the point?’. This makes me think about the effectiveness of what I do, even about why I do it in a certain way. It also allows me to write whether the activity will have a short or long term impact; whether I am planting a seed for something that will developed on an on-going basis or something that will turn up later or wraping something up. At least the observer knows my reasons behind doing something and this is important.

    • David Didau says:

      it pointless to look at the effects on students because these effects do not correlate to learning. You can see, for instance whether children are well-behaved or engaged, but these tell you nothing about whether they’re learning. Common sense tells us that these ‘poor proxies’ must indicate learning, but common sense is wrong.

      • Carmen Aguilar says:

        I was not talking about behaviour, but about good questions from the students that show that they are thinking about what it is being done in class, or good answers to your questions, etc.

        • David Didau says:

          Well, there’s some good research that supports student evaluation of teacher effectiveness – especially older students, but we still come back to the problem that learning is invisible and what we often think demonstrates learning doesn’t. And, in some cases, apparent progress in the short term gets in the way of long term retention and transfer. So, it might look like students have given you a great answer to a question but this has little bearing on whether or not they will learn.

  3. […] 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? 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?  […]

  4. “it pointless to look at the effects on students because these effects do not correlate to learning. You can see, for instance whether children are well-behaved or engaged, but these tell you nothing about whether they’re learning. Common sense tells us that these ‘poor proxies’ must indicate learning, but common sense is wrong.”

    Interesting stuff – but looking at what a teacher does doesn’t correlate to learning either.
    Probably less so.

    There are outward signs of learning:

    1) Conceptual development where concepts are enunciated that are necessarily related to the session
    2) Richness and appropriateness of discourse (same as above)
    3) Awareness of previous learning
    4) Conceptual tools that have been developed and can be seen in action

    I suppose even so those would be difficult concepts to observe and frankly the profession is simply not at that stage yet. It would just turn into a pointless tick box exercise.

    I think the Lesson study model looks to be the most interesting model at the moment.

    • David Didau says:

      Of course looking at what a teacher does doesn’t correlate to learning – that isn’t the point. The point would be to do as Lemov and his team did and help teachers replicate techniques we deem effective.

      And I agree about Lesson Study – an enquiry based observation is more likely to result in improvements to T&L

  5. […] Once of "my favourite models for classroom observation is the one taken my Doug Lemov and theUncommon 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"  […]

  6. […] 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…  […]

  7. […] David Didau‏@LearningSpy23h NEW POST How can we make classroom observation more effective? http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/can-make-classroom-observation-effective/ … […]

  8. […] argument for learning over performance here and his practical post about how observations should be here. Joe Kirby presents an impassioned rallying call to be rid of lesson judgements here. Stephen […]

  9. […] Once of "my favourite models for classroom observation is the one taken my Doug Lemov and theUncommon 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"  […]

  10. […] observations go wrong Don’t trust your gut: a little bit more on the problem with grading lessons How can we make classroom observation more effective? The Cult of Outstanding™: the problem with ‘outstanding’ […]

  11. […] we any clearer? Ofsted explain what they do and don’t do How can we make classroom observation more effective? Still grading lessons? A triumph of experience over […]

  12. […] What 3 things would you do to help a teacher improve? Questions that matter: method vs practice How can we make classroom observation more effective? […]

  13. Hi
    A really interesting post with which I almost entirely agree. However I would take issue with you final couple of paragraphs.
    I would argue that although quality of learning can’t be judged purely by observation if you combine this with specific questions directed to the pupil after the session about their experiences and reflections of the session it is possible to gauge quality of learning.
    We are following the Lesson Study model of focusing on 3 pre-selected pupils with a pupil interview immediately after the lesson. Our youngest children (Primary) can articulate in what ways the teaching was effective and how much they had learnt using the structure of interview questions.

    • David Didau says:

      It really isn’t possible to gauge the quality of learning from an observation, no matter how it’s done. Learning is only learning if 1) students still know and can do what they did in a lesson next week, next month next year and 2) they still know or can do stuff somewhere else (ie. a different classroom, an exam hall or elsewhere in life.) How could you ever hope to know this from a lesson observation?

  14. Will says:

    Sorry but I am new to these ideas, can you explain some things? When you say learning is invisible I understand, but the outcome of learning is surely visible? If I give my students a challenging task which makes them think hard and they give me a detailed and well thought out answer then can I not assume that learning has taken place? Therefore an observation of that outcome would indicate that learning is happening? Am I oversimplifying or missing something?

    • David Didau says:

      You can assume it, but all you can ever see is performance. Some performances offer better evidence of learning than others. A performance next lesson is a bit better than a performance this lesson. An exam a year later is a much more reliable proxy of learning.

  15. Here’s one for you… A school leader that I have worked with has informed staff that if they were graded as ‘outstanding’ in their first two performance management observations then they do not need a third. Not exactly an approach to lesson observations that promotes teachers as learners. Pretty depressing really. I guess they have the positive figures for Ofsted and dare not risk them…

  16. […] – and quite aside from the evidence –  that grading lessons is arbitrary and non-rational (David Didau calls it “witchcraft”): […]

  17. […] David Didau, ‘How can we make classroom observation more effective?’ […]

  18. […] to show observers what marvellous learning is taking place,’ or even that the entire graded observation machine and the cult-of-outstanding are deeply […]

  19. […] How can we make classroom observations more effective? – David Didau […]

  20. […] David Didau, ‘How can we make classroom observation more effective?’ […]

  21. […] their accuracy or consistency (variation in assigning grades, bias of the observer etc – see this one from David Didau (LearningSpy) and this one from Professor Rob Coe). This is an important argument in scrapping the grading of […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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