Stepping Away From Observational Judgements

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Dice Chance


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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Conundrum: If we are to truly move away from (one-off) lesson observation judgements – particularly, on teachers of individual lessons – then we must make a start and stop making judgements on teachers in those lessons; and also when providing verbal feedback.

In the article I pose two questions:

  1. Is the removal of judgements (or a framework) helpful?
  2. As a profession, can we do it?


The background to this article can be found most recently in ‘There is no such thing as an Outstanding (one-off) lesson!‘; using the latest guidance published by Ofsted, which has quashed all the typical stereotypes and myths that we have become so accustomed to. Plus, this discussion is further supported in ‘the role of lesson observations’, where I discuss academic research and thought, from a variety of practitioners; bloggers and consultants.

With Ofsted clearly stipulating, that they no longer want a preferred method of teaching, it is therefore even more crucial than ever, for observers to impart less of their own preferred preferences on other teachers and thus, support colleagues with more pinpointed (unbiased) feedback on student progress. This is not an easy challenge.


There are two sides (possibly three) to this proposal. Those on the receiving end of lesson-observational feedback and specifically, judgements; and those who are responsible for raising standards of teaching and learning. For example, heads of faculty; senior teachers; those with whole-school responsibility for teaching and learning; and finally, Ofsted and The Department for Education.

In short, accountability and/or the nature of the individual’s personal motivation for self-development.

Allow me to remind you of who and what determines our fate. The School Inspection Handbook. I have copied this statement three times, just in case you have not read the information correctly; or do not quite understand the implications.

“The grade descriptors refer to the quality of teaching overall, and need not be applied in their entirety to a single lesson.“

And just in case you misread any of that information, here it is again:

“The grade descriptors refer to the quality of teaching overall, and need not be applied in their entirety to a single lesson.“

And finally, to make sure it sinks into your subconsciousness, or just in case you are an observer who is still intent on proceeding in the wrong fashion …

“The grade descriptors refer to the quality of teaching overall, and need not be applied in their entirety to a single lesson.“ Taken from paragraph 118 onwards, in the Ofsted: School Inspection Handbook.


Previously, I posed this question in ‘the role of observations’; how can one observational-framework be suitable for 4 to 18-year olds?

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

  • Context of the students.
  • A framework for good teaching.
  • Student conversations.
  • Information in students’ books.
  • Routines.
  • Data – progress over time/key-stage.

I have also said, that 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. The subconscious mind. An opinion of sorts.

I know this because whether or not it is right or wrong, I do it myself. This [the subconscious] will not disappear – even if formal judgements do.


Are you and your school, brave enough to step away from observational judgements?

I believe it will take a generation of teachers before the formal framework of judging each other, and judging of individual lessons is banished from our discussions! Therefore, if we are to truly move each other on, without a framework – or without a wrongly interpreted framework – we need to start sooner rather than later.

Formal judgements and their validity and reliability are being called into question. There are far too many variables and this is, unfortunately, the nature of the beast we have misinterpreted. I am at least pleased, that Ofsted continues to clarify this myth.


It is time to question our own practice.

  • Should we be judged, and if yes/no? What would this look like?
  • Do we need a change of vocabulary?
  • An alternative (watchdog) framework?
  • A CPD developmental framework, focused on specific feedback?
  • Will removing judgements improve the teacher?
  • Will this, then eliminate poor teaching?
  • As an appraiser, if I do not observe you, who will?
  • How will you know ‘how well you are doing’?

I will reiterate. I do believe observers can spot good teaching! We all can. But, this develops and is refined with experience. This however, can be tarnished with a framework or a particular school-fad (priority). A particular set of beliefs and certainly, subject-specialisms expertise and approaches can also influence judgements. This can also be further developed with experience and in essence, can be deemed experimental. But is this wrong? The very nature of our profession is to support students and try to do better.

Nothing will ever be perfect.

A solution?

I have not yet read a solution to the current debate. If you have one, please send it my way. So, here I am offering a suggestion for the reader, to disfigure and blemish if you feel that it is unworthy …


Under the framework of ‘progress over time’, a reliable source of information comes from (at least) three sources during any observation. I argue, that these sources can be ‘observed’ outside of a formal observational setting; thus leaving the teacher to teach; and to engage with observations for developmental purposes alone. No judgement.

So, what are the sources?

  1. Student conversations; routines and typicality – via questioning.
  2. Student books. (Progress over time; feedback; acting on feedback etc.)
  3. Data. (Progress over time.)

All of the above can be sourced outside of a classroom and formal setting. Therefore, I believe, that this is already a good starting point, without having to go into any classroom and into any one-off-judgemental setting.

I’m convinced many schools may already do this – but yet, they may still be offering one-off judgements based on the evidence/source.


In doing so, an observer would be able to gather information on ‘what is typical’ over time.


I believe a potential model for removal of one-off lesson judgements in observations can use student feedback used for teacher feedback. As a suggestion, using the sources listed above as a format, I would advocate using some of these questions in your conversations with students (out of the classroom):

During the lesson, the observer will ask a range of students the following questions;

This information can be used to provide the basis of feedback and is recommended as evidence.

It is recommended that these questions form part of teacher-planning, and for establishing evidence of routines in the classroom. These questions should be posed to an entire data-landscape. To include top, middle and bottom; gifted and talented; EAL (English Additional Needs); and SEN (Special Educational Needs). The following are suggestions

  • What are you doing in class today? What are your lesson objectives?
  • Why are you doing this?
  • What does success look like?
  • How do you know?
  • What is your teacher looking for?
  • Does your teacher set challenging work for you at a suitable level to learn?
  • What is your current level/grade?
  • How do you know? How are you told?
  • How do you progress onto the next level?
  • How often is your own book marked?
  • Do you receive feedback? Give me an example…
  • Are you allowed time to improve (re-draft) your work?
  • Do you enjoy the lesson? Why?
  • Describe a typical lesson to me…
  • Is your class, a respectful place where it is safe to learn?
  • Is it okay to make mistakes?
  • Does your teacher encourage you to understand the value (beyond exams) of what we are learning
  • Does your teacher links what you are learning in class, to what you have learned before?
  • Does your teacher give time to discuss my ideas (in pairs, group, whole class)? To  develop and practice skills?
  • Is your teacher well organised?
  • Is there anything this teacher does which really helps you learn, that you want to highlight here (think of feedback, style, activities, ways of motivating)
  • Is there anything you teacher could do, to help you overcome difficulties?

When looking in student books, consider the following as evidence:

  1. Are books marked within the last 2-4 weeks?
  2. Have books been marked from the start of the academic year?
  3. Are old/new books accessible to students?
  4. is classwork given a formative/summative grade? with comments on how to improve?
  5. Is there clear evidence of students responding to feedback (redrafting/ corrections etc.)?
  6. Do teachers pick up on literacy/numeracy errors? Poor presentation?
  7. Is there evidence of peer and self-assessment?
  8. If applicable to school/subject policy, is homework clearly identifiable and marked? Add value to progress?
  9. Is progress and development clear?
  10. Does the student take pride in their book?

Teacher feedback:

As a solution for providing feedback to the teacher, I really like the #PQS format.

  1. Praise!
  2. Question?
  3. Suggestion …
Click to download a template
Click to download a template

In this video, students are engaging in the praise, question, suggestion protocol. This protocol can be used to offer critique and feedback for revision of any kind of work during a redraft and feedback phase. This method can be used in the feedback process for teachers; as well as during the sourcing-evidence part of the observation.

The protocol helps students (and the teacher?) see the strengths of their work and consider questions and suggestions that will lead to revision and improvement.

Praise, Question, Suggestion
Praise, Question, Suggestion


At the start of this post, I posed two questions:

  1. Is the removal of judgements (or a standards framework) helpful?

Yes, but only if senior teachers use the modified framework “to develop the teacher”, or not use any framework incorrectly and interpret this in a way, that is detrimental. Tail wagging the dog, or dog wagging the tail? And that the readers of this blog, continue to spread the word far and wide, that observations are based on what is typical and not that of a one-off performance. Perhaps, that no judgements are offered – ever!

To do this, I have offered a suggestion to moving away from observational judgements and how best to do this in the post. In a nutshell; meeting with students outside of the class; gathering evidence on what is typical. And that teacher feedback is based on student conversations, and not of a framework designed to capture whole-school teaching.

2. As a profession, can we do it?

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this post and if anyone is a) willing to give this a try across your school and/or b) is already doing this. It is certainly forming current conversations with my own colleagues and we are getting started…

Updated (August 2014): 5 sources to valid ‘progress over time.’

Progress Over Time Lesson Judgements Ofsted

Download here: Progress Over Time Lesson Observations

25 thoughts on “Stepping Away From Observational Judgements

  1. The suggestion you make, to step away from purely judgmental observations, is already being applied in some schools (thankfully). This CPD whitepaper includes comments from schools addressing some of the points you raise and how they are changing the culture around observations in their schools .

    Having said that, I would be surprised if a culture change within the school generates sufficient confidence within the team to overcome the fear of external influence i.e. Ofsted. Schools may well be able to use observations more positively and productively, especially where their vision is focused on pupil achievement, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that other external stakeholders will complement this approach.

    Perhaps when schools are more able to demonstrate the positive effect, others will follow.

    1. Hi Keith. Thank you for your comment. Very useful. have read article; but will re-visit and share. I guess, we all need to make a start and then share what we are doing. Will be blogging on this journey, next term.

  2. I agree with the idea of not having lesson judgements and the ‘Praise, Question, Suggestion’ idea is a great way forward and I believe that it links in with the peer observation triads I have used previously. Although there can be different formations of the triads; randomly selected staff groups, cross-department/ phase staff groups, targeted staff groups, I believe that triads are an ideal way to move secure rigorous observations without grades.

    Firstly, triads work on mutual trust and support and the process of discussing the lesson and (if appropriate) shared planning, then discussing the observation together allows for it to be professional and, vitally, developmental. In my experience this also negates both personal bias or expectation of lesson content, or ‘show lessons’ designed to please. This is even more so given that the triads work together across half termly rotations of observations and so the staff can be collegiate and develop an honest dialogue together over time, which one off observations cannot do.

    Secondly, by using ‘PQS’ within a triad, colleagues can follow up suggestions which have been made, through discussion and action – if appropriate. The triad formation also allows, where necessary and suitable, ideas and suggestions to be role modelled, often with the very children that are being referred to.

    Having previously worked in secondary schools, using this model extensively, last year, I learnt the most from a triad I had ever done in my current primary school. I was fortunate enough to be placed with an art teacher and a Year 1 teacher. We had decided our focus was to be engaging learners through using different stimuli at the start of the lesson (using the #5MinPlan) – mine was to use music effectively. We discussed what we wanted to get from the observations, as observer and the observed – it was two way CPD, especially as we wanted to try things out with the safety net of supportive observers knowing and understanding what we were aiming for. I won’t relive the entire process, but it was from this that I witnessed one of the best lessons I have ever observed. It didn’t need a grade attached, it was clearly outstanding/ excellent/ etc. In it, my Year 1 colleague developed writing with her class and successfully used SOLO with the children – where they all exceeded her challenging expectations.

    It is my belief that as a profession we can, and should, achieve grade free observations, but there still needs to be rigour, challenge and (often much excluded) support. I think that PQS is an excellent support for that and would propose peer triads – even across schools, are natural bedfellows. Fundamentally, isn’t this nature of collaboration and support for progress what we aim and expect to instil in the children?

  3. I am but a humble subject leader and fairly sure I don’t understand the full implications of outside pressures and having to report on whole school standards of teaching in this respect. However, the purpose of observation in my view should be about improving teaching and learning first and foremost. Your suggestions are challenging but seem to me to be a better measure of the true picture of activity and outcome. The triangulation is robust and over-time is satisfied. However, a peer observation approach is still needed to develop the teacher as there is always room for improvement even for the most successful outcomes over time. There is a danger that without part of the process excluding time in the class observing the learning that opportunities to challenge and support practice would be missed. This can be achieved without a judgement as the important issue is the feedback. I think you propose a very interesting solution and looking forward to seeing how this journey unfolds.

    1. Hi Barri. I agree with you entirely. I feel teachers will always want to be in and out of each others classrooms. Until we move away from a culture of formal judgements; evolved via Ofsted stipulation wrongly misinterpreted, we need something radical before we can trust appraisers back into our classrooms. The PQS outside the room format offers an alternative to move away from this.

  4. Hi Ross,
    Where do you see the role of teacher standards? I find that a useful starting point. It’s our professional standards and provides a useful guide for specific improvement points. If these standards are not being met over time that’s a big problem.

    1. Hi Ben. Fundamental. Often most of my thoughts; writing and discussions form from the framework of the teacher standards. Much for debate, give the recent Govian interpretation though. Nonetheless, I’ve had discussions with a few members of staff, regarding simple professional standards and the basic expectations. So in short, a framework for all at all levels – over time, regardless of experience/role.

      1. Ross,
        Are you using the teacher standards now as a basis for your discussion and feedback?For me where teaching is effective these standards will be being met. Where teaching is poor they often won’t. Where there is coasting they probably won’t.
        My personal concern about feedback only without referring to these standards is well it’s ok as they are trying and improvement points can be very subjective. The standards have real implications if they are not being met.
        I’ve always found it galling as a young teacher that results were detached from the quality of teaching until recently. So this is good now.
        The standards provide the structure to allow anyone leading on T & L the freedom to try a grade free approach.

  5. Hi Ross,

    Barri makes an interesting point re-external pressures. The schools we worked with on our white paper all agreed that class teachers should be encouraged to focus only on teaching & learning and that dealing with those external pressures is the role of leadership. Essentially, they removed the burden, as much as they could, from front-line practitioners.

    Ben also raises a very important point given the current focus from on high – professional standards. I think it’s fair to say that by changing the teacher standards as they did in 2012, they threw the baby out with the bath water hence the need to create Career Stage Expectations i.e. role contextualised criteria/performance against the standards. The challenge therefore is how to meet PM objectives, address the standards and meet performance criteria in context with role whilst also planning, marking etc.; not easy. Add to that the problem for HT’s in that performance related pay must be evidence based utilising all of the above.

    Observations will clearly be an important element in all of these areas and it’s essential that teachers see those observations as opportunities to generate evidence which will help them, even where the observation identifies an area for development. This why there must be shift in trust and it must come first from leadership. They can start by demonstrating how the above can be more easily facilitated & managed and by demonstrating how it can be used to further the career of the teacher.

  6. Hi

    I found this article very interesting. So, I thought I would put it to the test by asking my students to complete a survey using the exact list of questions found above. I used 2 x yr7, 2 x yr8 and 1 x yr11

    I created a google form and had students answer the questions. I gave them no help other than to explain what the questions meant. The results were interesting to say the least.

    Take the question, what is your current grade? Despite having had a report to parents in the same week, a reporting sheet inside their folders and a current grade writen on every finished project booklet fewer than 20% of student knew their current grade.

    This trend repeated itself for many other questions and I find this very worrying because these are parts of my teaching that I thought I was quite good at. I clearly have a lot of work to do after half term.

    @ outwoodacklamdt

  7. Great post Ross, I wonder how many schools will be brave enough?? We are going to discuss this idea and I do hope we move towards this concept as I do think it will improve teaching and learning

    1. Would love to know how you get on. I proposed the idea to my governors….and althoguh they agreed, this was a challenge, they didn’t like the fact that I was prepared not to report back to them – without a % figure.

      1. We get a new head on Thursday never a better time to change, but it’s the tension between looking up (to Ofsted), looking out (to what’s best for staff and students) and looking down (to what we’ve always done as teachers!). I think once there are schools using this, others will follow

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  9. Really engaging article for a multitude of reasons. We are already employing an observation cycle of one formative observation focused around predefined and discussed targets which is ungraded and designed to fully evaluative and supportive, followed by a summative observation along the more well trodden path. It’s fully embedded and all staff seem to be on board. Happy to discuss further if interested.

  10. Hi Ross your article is very interesting and makes a lot of sense. I have always thought a one off lesson observation is a really unreliable Indicator of the quality of T and L. It is such a shame that we are in a culture driven by data and spreadsheets at the moment under the pretence of scientific measurable outcomes. I am convinced as you are that a more valid measure of great teaching is to triangulate and use quantifiable measures such as student interviews although we have to be wary even of this due to interviewer bias and social desirability. The problem to me, seems to be that too many people think schools are like a laboratory where we can measure things systematically and control all the variables. The reality is children and adults are human beings and therefore cannot always be measured easily! I am pleased I came across this site, I shall be following with interest!

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