Teaching is tough, whether you’re Foundation Stage, GCSE, A Level, Independent, State – all sectors of education come with their own pressures and challenges. One of the most difficult parts of being a teacher can be the questions around quality assurance. It is important to quality assure the work that teachers do, to leave teaching and learning to chance is the talk of foolish but even now despite the huge debate and debunking of graded lesson observations, they do still go on.
As such, the dreaded lesson observation can be feared by many teachers, especially in the early years of their careers. A lesson observation can, however, be a wonderful opportunity to receive feedback, praise and to hear carefully crafted suggestions on how to further improve and develop your teaching practice. With roles being reversed it is also a fantastic opportunity to be able to observe other colleagues – to watch an experienced teacher or a newly qualified teacher, gain inspiration, observe relationships, behaviour management, dialogue, questioning and much more.
Lesson observations are often carried out by subject-specific line managers and members of SLT. One area that can sometimes cause concern for teachers is when questions arise when considering, evaluating and discussing a teacher’s subject knowledge especially when the observer is a teacher of a different subject.
There are many benefits to observing teachers that teach different subjects to your own. An example of this would be when I saw a PE colleague teach. Their behaviour management strategies were very different given the outdoor arena in which they often work. I learned lots and improved my classroom management as a result. A teacher can observe the pupils they teach but in a different setting and context and take away a great deal from that experience. The style of the teacher and other elements of teaching and learning can also be a focus, regardless of the subject. Teachers and leaders evaluating others subject knowledge when they are not an expert in that field is a concern.
In my previous school in the UK, I was regularly observed by my line manager, Head Humanities and teacher of History, and also by members of SLT. I found all lesson observations to be very helpful but the experiences would vary. This seems obvious when you look at the research data behind the efficacy of lesson observations (I have included links to further reading below).
During my NQT year I made a factual mistake in a lesson observation as I stated that William Duke of Normandy invaded England by way of the Isle of Man when in fact it was the Isle of Wight! Would a non-history specialist know I made this error? Perhaps but perhaps not. My observer ( line manager/Head of Humanities) did discreetly inform me in the lesson and I was able to correct this. When my line manager observed my lessons there would tend to be more dialogue focusing on the subject knowledge and content than when a non-subject specialist observed me.
However, with a subject as broad as history, a fellow history teacher in my department could observe a lesson and not be familiar with the subject content; especially if they have never studied or taught that specific period in history. I have no doubt that their feedback would still be valuable but that lack of knowledge wouldn’t make it as valuable. If I was being observed teaching my A Level class focusing on the success of the Five Year Plans under Stalin then two of my colleagues (who also teach this unit) could confidently observe my lesson and comment on depth of subject knowledge in regards to resources, questions, discussions, task or any other element to a depth that a non-subject specialist would be unable to.
I was once asked by a pupil what day of the week a key historical event happened in 1917. I could have very easily responded – Tuesday (as a guess) and done so with confidence and authority. The truth is though, that I had no idea at all, as it was a such an obscure question and my integrity stopped me from lying to make myself look better. I don’t claim to have answers to questions that I do not know. Sometimes difficult questions can be useful in exploring deeper into history and can serve as a means to teach other skills of a historian such as research. I am very confident with my subject knowledge but it is ok and normal to not know it all.
Focusing on lesson observations with subject specialist observers is not intended to undermine members of SLT as clearly the Senior Leadership Team cannot represent every subject and department, yet their feedback from attending a lesson can still be relevant, useful and important. An observer can have a general idea about the depth of teacher subject knowledge demonstrated through their explanations, answers to questions and so on. A teacher can appear confident in their subject knowledge through their delivery and body language too. The key point here though is about quality assurance and if you really do want the quality to be assured you need to have experts in the room too.
When you observe a class as part of a developmental but also quality assurance cycle it is imperative to focus on a number of key areas:
- Teacher efficacy
- Teacher pedagogy
- Attitudes to learning (although this can be outside of a teachers control)
- Teacher subject knowledge
- The learning process – which takes time and cannot be measured by one single lesson.
- Is the lesson planning/delivery research informed?
I am aware of lesson observations where feedback has focused on the learning environments (quality of classroom displays), critical of too much or not enough teacher talk or simply giving some form of target to tick a box. We need to think about the feedback we are providing, as Ron Berger would advocate is it kind, specific and helpful? Also, what can you as an observer learn from the experience?
Ultimately a non-subject specialist will be limited in their feedback and discussion regarding the subject knowledge. School leaders often have a wealth of experience and useful advice they can offer to teachers, so let’s make that a key aspect of any kind of supportive feedback, but let’s not kid ourselves – you need to have someone in the room who is a subject expert. Otherwise, we are doing a disservice to not only the teacher in the room but the students too. Two members of staff observing may initially seem even more daunting but it can result in a higher quality dialogue and feedback session. This is where Heads of Departments and SLT should be working together with classroom teachers in this process.
I remember very clearly some advice I received early in my career from my Deputy Headteacher; my lesson was all singing and dancing with a whole range of exciting activities. In the feedback session, he commented positively on the lesson but he told me that that level of preparation was not sustainable or realistic for every lesson and advised against it. He was absolutely right.
Feedback from lesson observations can focus on a range of factors to help and support teachers and ultimately lead to progress and development. However, teachers subject knowledge and depth of their subject often goes to the core of why they are teachers and how they can help inspire future mathematicians, historians or whichever discipline. Deep subject knowledge can enhance the learning of the pupils in their classroom, can support and challenge pupils. I have previously taught other subjects and I was not as confident as a non-specialist teacher, but that encouraged me to further develop my knowledge in those subjects.
There are different views about non-subject specialists observing lessons and different strategies used to address this. Suggestions include having two observers, one with strong subject knowledge of that subject content and/or that non-subject specialist observers focus on other areas of the lesson rather than the content. It can also be argued that subject knowledge can also be illustrated through other methods rather than just based on one individual lesson observation.
Whichever way you look at it, the idea of quality assurance means that in order for that to be done well and properly, the person making the comments needs to be able to do the job at hand. After all, even if your school is forward-thinking enough to not have graded lesson observations, poor feedback, or that lacking in quality commentary serves no help other than to frustrate and often hinder someone’s professional development. More importantly, it can hold up learning in the classroom and impact on the efficacy of the subject specialist in the room – the teacher themselves.
In recent years I have found the work of Professor Robert Coe very influential and insightful. Here is a blog by Coe where he articulates ‘classroom observation: it’s harder than you think‘. Coe explores the research about the effectiveness of lesson observations and he is an advocate for not grading lessons. “The evidence shows that when untrained observers are asked to judge the quality of a lesson, there is likely to be only modest agreement among them. Worse still, even if they do agree that what they see is good practice, it often actually isn’t. I will briefly outline some of this evidence, and then try to explain how something that feels so right can actually be so wrong“.
Coe has also discussed poor proxies for learning for example if students are busy, the classroom is calm and learners are engaged then often this is assumed to be an “Outstanding” lesson but are the children actually learning anything? In his blog, Coe isn’t suggesting abolishing lesson observations but instead has a number of suggestions as to how as a profession we could do this differently and better.
David Didau former teacher turned trainer and consultant has written several blog posts about lesson observations. In one of his posts, Didau stated “I feel I need to start by saying that I am not questioning the need for lesson observations. They’re a crucial part of developing our professional practice and ensure T&L is quality assured. No, what this post is really concerned with is asking what we hope to achieve by observing teachers.”
Another interesting post I would recommend by Didau is Why can’t we tell a good teacher through lesson observations?
Primary Headteacher and writer Clare Sealey has written a very good article reflecting on how her school ditched formal lesson observations and turned to alternative models including drop-ins, looking at books and conversations with children. You can read the article here.
Here is another article that I don’t fully agree with as context is key with everything. This TES article argues that ‘Headteachers don’t always have the expertise and knowledge to judge whether a lesson is a success’. The anonymous author has an issue with the volume of lesson observations and the stress they can bring which again varies from school to school.
Another article I enjoyed reading focuses on effective lesson observations by Adam Riches. He states, “observing a lesson is an art. As I have progressed through my career, I have taken on more and more responsibility for improving other people’s teaching and one thing I have realised is that without an open approach to lesson observation, helping teachers to progress is very difficult.
A pitfall many observers fall into is looking for a very specific list of “features” in an individual’s teaching, potentially from the legacy of Ofsted inspections gone by. This archaic, linear fashion of observing is outdated and not hugely productive for observer or observee.
In reality, we all know that good teaching isn’t about ticking boxes. Instead, it is about children learning. Observing successful teaching may not always be as clear cut and explicit as this, however, so how can we go about observing in a way that truly benefits teachers and pupils?’
You can read the rest of the article here.
I am a regular reader of the blog by chemistry teacher Adam Boxer. In his recent post Observing expert teaching I really enjoyed reading about how he is developing an observation form based on Rosenshine’s principles of instruction. Boxer has reflected on this process and sought advice from experts within the educational field. I like the ideas he is suggesting and I think this could work well as a model for ongoing observations and professional development. Boxer stresses it is not another performance management or accountability tick box, with every aspect expected to be covered and scrutinised in a single lesson. Instead, he states it is a “prompt for thinking” focusing on “retrieval, explanation, practice, review and culture”.
There are clearly very mixed views about the value, impact and effectiveness of lesson observations but one thing is clear – it is an important conversation that we should be having about how to improve and support teachers with lesson observations being developmental, not judgmental.