Talking about ‘Lesson Observation’

img_0117-3‘I’m coming to observe your lesson’ is a phrase that can trigger a range of emotional responses in a teacher depending on who it is, what this will be used for, which ‘lesson’ they are coming to see…the list goes on. ‘Lesson observation’ is a loaded term whether it be preceded by formal or informal or if it’s in perceived to be less threatening approach of a ‘learning walk’ (for the purpose of this post, ‘lesson observations’ are taken as an umbrella term for any time another adult visits a lesson, gives the teacher feedback and/or records this in writing).  Having another adult ‘watching’ your teaching and/or the students’ learning is impossible to separate from the idea they will be judging you – graded lesson observations for qualified teachers are, in the majority, now a thing of the past but just having someone comment on your teaching means they are voicing an opinion over what you do so an element of judgement will never go away.

We ‘do’ lesson observations for many different reasons. Observations for trainees and NQTs form part of their assessment for QTS and Induction.  Mentors observe trainees and NQTs to support them with their classroom practice.  Curriculum Leaders observe lessons as part of Quality Assurance of their department.  Year Leaders observe lessons to look at the progress and behaviour of their students.  SENDCOs observe lessons to look at how students can be effectively supported for their additional needs.  Senior Leaders observe lessons to monitor the effectiveness of teaching and learning across the school.  And teachers can be observed as part of their ongoing professional development – this is always the last reason on the list but, in my opinion, it should be the first and only!

The main prompt for my recent pondering about lesson observations was a comment by a teacher at a conference last half term along the lines of “I don’t see the point in having someone to come and see me teach, they just ask me what I thought and I’d rather be doing something more valuable with my time” and this made me both sad and angry.  For me observing someone teach, or being observed, is one of the best opportunities I’ve ever found to discuss professional practice and improve the quality of teaching and learning in a classroom (for both the observed and the observer). I know lesson observations can have negative connotations for many teachers (linking back to the intrinsic element of being judged – and for many teachers this judgement has led to anxiety, workload increase and, at its extreme, workplace bullying) but it doesn’t have to be like this.  So my ponderings have been about what we could do to ensure being observed is a meaningful professional development opportunity for both the observed and the observer.

I’m still a long way from having an answer to how we can really do this but I’ve come up with 3 aspects that I feel are not often discussed when we talk about lesson observations but have the potential to make a difference.  Comments/challenges/other ideas all more than welcome as I feel this will be something I’ll never finish working on…

Aspect 1: Start with the end in mind

Over the years I’ve worked with different schools’ versions of observation sheets (from a school listing 24 different aspects of the lesson you had to comment on to a school simply with a page divided into two columns titled ‘things I liked’ and ‘target areas’) and they all have their advantages and disadvantages. But they very rarely have any indication of what the purpose of the observation is or how the feedback will be given.

Knowing how you are going to feedback is important from the moment you walk into the classroom to observe.  We don’t start teaching until we know what we’re aiming for so why would we observe without knowing what the observed and the observer would like to get out of the activity?  This means it’s important to agree what the purpose of the observation is – is there are particular aspect they would like feedback on?  Is there a whole school/department focus that you are working on?  I’ve also found having specific areas to structure my observation notes and subsequent thinking about the lesson helpful – I can then use the headings as signposts in my feedback to make it more focused (as Peps Mccrea writes ‘The best feedback focuses on a few important things (three or less) – things that will lead to the greatest gains.’). It’s a continual work in progress but my 5 areas for the last couple of years have been: subject knowledge,clarity of teacher language,assessment,behaviour for learning and challenge.

Aspect 2: Focus on what will make the most difference to the person being observed

So many things happen in a classroom in any one minute and it is easy to feel that you have to write down everything but this can be overwhelming for both the observer who feels they have to keep up with everything and the observed who gets presented with too many things to think about.  This is where having the agreed focus or group of headings of key areas can help as it stops the observer getting carried away with trying to record everything.

The key is also to keeping in the front of your mind ‘what could be tweaked to make this better?’ rather than looking for big sweeping areas to be improved.  Small changes are much easier to implement and can have lasting ripple effects.  If behaviour is an issue saying ‘to consistently apply the behaviour policy’ is neither use nor ornament to a teacher struggling with behaviour management but picking up on one aspect such as tackling calling out by using a no hands up approach (a small tweak that has ripple effects into questioning and behaviour management by getting rid of this aspect of low level disruption) is a smaller tweak – a small tweak with ripple effects into use of questioning and level of challenge that can support positive behaviour for learning through lesson planning.  Similarly, something as small as where a teacher stands in the classroom or the size of writing on the board can have lasting ripple effects – don’t be afraid when observing to go small and (dare I say it?) obvious with little tweaks that will have a big impact.

Aspect 3: Make sure the feedback is quick and actionable

It goes without saying that feedback should be on the same day before everyone forgets what actually happened in the lesson and the memories become blurred with the next class you taught.  However, time is often the barrier to this as people believe that the feedback conversation is going to take a long time so they delay the feedback until both parties ‘have time’.

Yet I have been searching high and low for any evidence a short feedback conversation is less effective than a longer one and I can’t find any at all (if anyone knows of any research in this area then please do point me in its direction).  I’ve also been trying to look for evidence of the most effective format for feedback as my gut reaction says asking the observed person how they thought it went seems like a waste of time – they are involved in the process to get someone else’s view and advice otherwise what was the point of them being in the classroom?!

8 years ago I stopped asking “How do you think the lesson went?” as the opener to giving feedback on a lesson.  At the time I was mainly observing trainee teachers and I got bored with superficial responses like “they all did the work” and “I think they enjoyed it” – I had 10-15 minutes to discuss the lesson and this just took up unnecessary time!  So I switched to going straight into the strengths I’d seen and asking them to say how they could build on these in their next lesson.  With the targets for development I decided on 2 and accompanied the feedback with specific strategies they could use in their next lesson to address these. What I found by doing this was that the conversations were shorter and more focused. The observed teacher could still raise their own thoughts and question if they did not agree, however, they left much clearer about what I’d observed and that, after all, was the point of having me in their lesson – to get someone else’s view and advice.

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Since I started writing this blog, a copy of Reclaiming Lesson Observation edited by Matt O’Leary has landed on my doorstep. I’ll let you know how it shapes my future ponderings…

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