The role of lesson observations by @TeacherToolkit

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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If you have been hiding under a rock, you may be unaware, that there is currently a wealth of discussion regarding the validity and future role of lesson observations in England.

A rock and a hard place?  Photo Credit: Pandiyan via Compfight cc
Between a rock and a hard place?
Photo Credit: Pandiyan via Compfight cc

The Teacher Development Trust and Teach First, hosted a session at TF headquarters on Monday 13th January on this very topic. I was (oddly) excited to tune in to watch the livestream from my office at school; kindly filmed and shared by @EyeBeams of Learn 4 Life.

Before I go into what was discussed during the event, I recommend you sit down and get comfortable. This is a long write-up and I have to present my pitch on the following items before sharing the content.

  1. Lesson observations
  2. Judgements
  3. Feedback

1. Lesson observations:

Lesson observations are here to stay; regardless of whatever form they remain or evolve; whether they be judged or not. We – as teachers – will always want to do the following:

  • Share good practice
  • Observe good practice.
  • Shy away from being observed.
  • Shy away from observing others.

I know this, because I work with teachers who embrace being observed – myself included – and embrace observing colleagues; and then there are those that also shy away from either and have done neither for years and years! The latter could be pigeon-holed as stuck-in-the-muds; mavericks; teachers failed by the system; or those whom we may define as having a ‘fixed mindset’ at either end of the observational-spectrum.

As you will watch in the following videos; observations MUST evolve to support teaching practice and each of the presenters state this in each of their own individual pitches. What we must do, is find a way to work together, to push watchdogs and schools into creating a modern-framework for lesson observations that is reliable; effective and bullet-proof!

Observations currently (should) take the following into account: (regardless of who is observing)

  • No formal (one-off) judgements.
  • Student conversations.
  • Information in students’ books.
  • Routines.
  • Data – progress over time/key-stage.

Classroom teaching (and all the tricks) does not appear on the list above!

2. Judgements:

As I write this; this very day, a group of ten, year 11 students gathered in my office to discuss their academic and pastoral progress with their mentor. As each student discussed their needs and raised subject and pastoral concerns; what stuck with me, was that they could identify a teacher who was under-performing and affecting their very own performances; categorically!

If students know – then surely the school does to; and yes, they were correct in their assessments.

Classrooms and students are a complicated state, and there are gazillions of possible scenarios to impact on outstanding student outcomes as a direct result of good teaching. No school is an island; yet no two schools are the same.

How can one observational-framework be suitable for 4 years olds and 18 year olds?

Observational test:

“It is easy to miss something you are not looking for.”

The above video is discussed in the footage shared below. We cannot shy away from being judgemental; yet, we may even miss something that we are not looking for! Even if judgements – regardless of validity – are removed; we will always be forming ‘a judgement of sorts’, on other teachers.

I know this because: support staff; colleagues; parents; sixth form students; trainee-teachers, all of whom walk into my classroom at some time or another … even if they do not have the awareness, are making some type of judgements on my classroom environment and my teaching ability. This will not disappear – even if formal judgements do.

This informal-method, or assumption may not be formalised as we know it; but we must recognise that it will be happening within our psyche. And many of these types of judgements cannot be trusted. They may (or will) always be wrong, but they also exist alongside formal judgements in the classroom.

After-all, popping into visit a lesson; or observe one lesson for 20 minutes or for an hour, is a snapshot and not what would typically happen day-to-day.

David Didau talks about this in his latest blog: Don’t trust your gut.

Formal judgements and their validity and reliability can be questioned. There are far too many variables and this is unfortunately, the nature of the beast. I am not saying it cannot be achieved; far from it. But, it’s a worry that we are still questioning the reliability and validity of the observer. Fact.

If we are to keep observation judgements, then an ideal situation (judgement) would contain more than what we have currently inherited = that is; one-off judgements; appraisal observations over a calendared year; progress over 20 minutes; and now, what we are currently discussing and defining as: ‘progress over time‘ must evolve to ensure teachers in England can embrace (formative) lesson observations – whether judgemental or not.

You, me; and many of your colleagues have all been on the receiving end of observational judgements. ‘Inadequate; Outstanding; Good; Satisfactory but; Unsatisfactory; Good with Outstanding features’ … the definitions and the alternative outcomes go on and on … and continue moreso, when the observer imposes their own particular way of achieving success in the classroom.

As David Didau – @LearningSpy – has blogged and says in the following video footage; that the idea of learning and performance is different. That an observation is a performance.

David speaks very well (in this video) and his thoughts make me tingle with excitement! He goes on to say, that for this ‘performance’, as any teacher will know, we have all knocked out a lesson with all the razzmatazz to showcase to the observer; we demonstrate all the teaching skills and strategies in our repertoire; yet students return to class having remembered nothing! And that also the opposite can happen.

(Read my post on #Stickability)

What if?

There is a dialogue to suggest that judgements are removed entirely; yet, I do not think many schools are currently ready to implement this. In fact, I think it will take a generation of teachers before the nature of judging is eradicated from the profession! But, what we can do, is continue to promote research and best-practice; engage in conversations with colleagues and other schools, to share this nuance widely so that we can move to a solution that supports:

  • Teachers
  • Students

and dare I say:

  • School leaders
  • A watchdog that helps school improvement and student outcomes.

On that note, I think there will always be a watchdog (Ofsted) of sorts. Whatever beast it becomes. As @MaryMyatt states in her presentation; ‘£88M of public funding into schools will always require some form of accountability’. And there you have it. Ofsted or other; it is here to stay. We can help shift dialogue.

Can observers spot good teaching?

I believe so. You can spot a good teacher. But, this develops and is refined with experience. This however, can be tarnished with a framework or a particular school-fad (priority). I also believe you can spot learning outcomes – maybe not in 20 minutes – but I would challenge you to go into any subject and be able to see learning taking place. This may not be able to be measured instantaneously, but I believe you can observe learning. I do not believe learning is invisible; and I am happy to be proven wrong. In fact, I’d love to be proven wrong!

For example; today, I have observed an NQT in Modern Foreign Languages. There was clear spoken-language and new vocabulary being taught. The students were learning. It was clear-cut.

The question remains; a) will I be back in the room to see if this knowledge has ‘stuck’? and b) will the students be able to recall this prior learning in order to progress with their vocabulary.

The answer to both questions is more likely to be ‘no’, more than a resounding yes! therefore, lies the issue with validity – yet, I know that student outcomes (data/books/routines) will tell me what is typically happening day-to-day, without me being in the room!

Is this the formative teaching model we are aspiring toward?

Professor Rob Coe in his presentation goes on to state in his blog and presentation two key issues:

“… The first concerns the extent to which the judgements made independently by two observers who see the same lesson would agree: in other words, reliability …”


“… The second key issue is validity: if you get a high rating, does it really mean you are an effective teacher? Unfortunately, the evidence is even more worrying …”

Professor Coe presents highlighted information on Measures of Effective Teaching which regards methods for collecting data across five critical research areas in order to train people to become qualified observers/to make judgements! These areas are:

  1. Student achievement gains on state standardised assessments and supplemental assessments designed to measure higher-order conceptual thinking.
  2. Classroom observations and teacher reflections.
  3. Teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge.
  4. Student perceptions of the classroom instructional environment.
  5. Teachers’ perceptions of working conditions and instructional support at their schools.

There is wealth of information – too much to blog here – and is well worth a further read. The most poignant part about his blog and presentation is this:

“How can the research evidence be so out of line with our intuition? The belief that we know good teaching when we see it is so strong, that it is a real challenge to be told that research does not support it.”

Professor Coe gives 5 reasons why our gut-instinct may be wrong!

  1. Observation produces a strong emotional response
  2. Learning is invisible
  3. Accepted ‘good practice’ may be more fashionable than effective
  4. We assume that if you can do it you can spot it
  5. We don’t believe observation can miss so much

Regarding ‘invisible learning’, Professor Coe goes onto to discuss “observable proxies for student learning.” In essence, our own preferences when observing a colleague:

Observable proxies for student learning by @ProfCoe
Observable proxies for student learning by @ProfCoe

What if judgements were removed?

What would replace the system for accountability? It is clear – despite no research – that removing judgements could help teachers to develop even better than they already are; perhaps have the freedom to become a great teacher? How do we know this would work? There are blogs from schools and headteachers stating that they are no longer judging teachers in lessons; and headteacher, Dame Allison Peacock also states this in her video-clip shown below.

What else could we do?

  • What would you suggest?
  • How would you observe a colleague?
  • How would you like to be observed and challenged to develop?
  • If you were a headteacher, what would you do in your school?
  • Do you know who a good/bad teacher is in your school? How? Prove it?
  • Can a stuck-in-the-mud teacher shun teacher-fads, yet achieve great residuals?

3. Feedback:

I would argue that to the untrained eye, a student, parent or member of support staff could – more than not – pick out a good teacher/lesson. But this is a dangerous accolade to make. To observe quality teaching, you need experience in the classroom yourself. To be able to provide unbiased and pinpoint feedback for the teacher to teach better is crucial is teacher-dialogue. Observation feedback, I would assume, is much worse than our culture of lesson observations. Why? Because, we hear the horror stories of judgements before dialogue; ‘flag for concern’; and over-anxious inaccuracy in order to keep the peace. We may have been on the receiving end of a lesson observation and without doubt, will have experience feedback in 5 minutes total – or even none!

What we need is formative feedback without inaccurate judgements. How we do this? You tell me!

Video content:

Filmed by @EyeBeams of Learn 4 Life.

Part 1 features presentations from the following:

  1. Introduction by host, Director of Teach First: Sam Freedman – @SamFr
  2. Professor Rob Coe of Durham University – @ProfCoe – His presentation is here: Lesson Observations and his blog is here.

Part 1: ‘What is the (future) role of lesson observations in schools and colleges in England?’


Part 2 features presentations from the following:

  1. David Weston – @InformedEdu – Director of Teacher Development Trust – @TeacherDevTrust
  2. David Didau – Teacher and author – @LearningSpy
  3. Mary Myatt – School Improvement Advisor – @MaryMyatt
  4. Dame Allison Peacock – Headteacher – @AlisonMPeacock

Part 2: ‘What is the (future) role of lesson observations in schools and colleges in England?’


You may be interested to know, that Education Endowment Foundation have funded £1,180,000 to test the impact of structured, peer-to-peer observation on teachers’ effectiveness. The research has started and will be published; but not until 2017!


I am happy to edit any content that is misinterpreted or misrepresented. I am also happy to have any of my beliefs challenged; questioned and shifted. After-all, I wasn”t in the room and have barely managed to plough through all the related blogs and video footage. Like most, I am a busy school teacher and do not have much time to read research. If I’ve missed anything, please let me know here.

13 thoughts on “The role of lesson observations by @TeacherToolkit

  1. Reblogged on The Determined Deputy.
    I couldn’t have said it better myself. When observing lessons and encouraging professional development, finding the line of balance between performance, stickability, engaged participation and outcomes broader than the National Curriculum’s benchmark of achievement is truly a challenge for the observer. All of these aspects should underpin CPD and PDR. However putting this into words on school documentation and having criteria to meet that make the process fair and useful across the board is very difficult – instinct versus evidence, experience versus criteria. If teaching could be described with 4 Ps: personality, planning, performance, perseverance and potential, as school leaders we need to ascertain how best to nurture each of these areas. If there was an easy answer, we would all be doing it but there isn’t, which is why I’m grateful for blogs like this that provoke thought and challenge current practice.

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