Can observers spot good teaching? by @TeacherToolkit for @GreatEdDebate

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How do we know what is good? Can we prove observations are valid and reliable?

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Education policy in the UK has been steadily evolving over the last 20 years, but the trickle of new initiatives and policy changes has turned into a torrent in recent times. The education landscape in 2013 looks much different than it did even in 2010.

Evidence from other countries suggests that this constant change is counter productive to creating the world class education system that we all want and need. Everyone who is serious about moving our education service is invited to join the Great Education Debate.

How do we know what is good?

These questions I ask, following the incumbent changes to the Ofsted framework and the current dialogue crying out for the disbandment of Ofsted and the removal of lesson judgements on teachers altogether. In the updated Ofsted Subsidiary Guidance of January 2014 it states; “Inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a teaching style.”

Hurrah! We [my school] are residing with the fact that we know; and have always known teachers better than anyone else!

I guess one would expect – or at least hope – that a school understands the quality of teaching and learning throughout their institution, regardless of teaching styles. But how do we do this accurately without offering any form of lesson-judgements? Can anyone spot a good teacher and can this perception (or judgement) be developed and refined with/without experience; and with no framework?

Whatever your belief, an Ofsted framework for teaching is tarnishing the profession. With £60Bn of public funding issued by HM Treasury in the Spending Round 2013 I cannot see school accountability, specifically quality of teaching, disappearing very quickly.

As Ofsted’s Mike Cladingbowl wrote in ‘The future of Ofsted’: “So, we have reduced the number of judgements, brought in … serving school leaders to work as inspectors”. Quite rightly and at long last, he advocates removal of a “one-size-fits-all’ inspection regime and school-driven mocksteds!

Can we prove observations are valid and reliable?

Is this the formative teaching model to which we aspire? Professor Rob Coe has recently presented two key issues for observers. The first concerns the reliability of judgements made by two observers who see the same lesson and “… the second key issue is validity: if you get a high rating, does it mean you are an effective teacher?”

I go on to ask the following questions:

  • Is a non-judgemental process the formative teaching model to which we aspire?
  • So, can good learning be measured instantaneously?
  • What if we removed judgements?
  • What would replace the system for accountability?
  • Would the removal of judgements help teachers to develop even better than they already are?
  • What else could we do that does not involve observing?
  • Should we move away from observing each other in classrooms and make more time for dialogue and feedback?
  • What would one suggest when observing a colleague?
  • How would one like to be observed and challenged to develop?
  • If you were a headteacher, what would you do in your school?
  • If you knew who was a good/bad teacher in your school, how can you prove it without a criterion-referenced judgement?

Coe presents information on (MET) Measures of Effective Teaching, a research partnership between 3,000 teacher volunteers, which regards methods for collecting data across five critical research areas (student achievement gains; classroom observations; teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge; student perceptions and the teachers’ perceptions) in order to train people to become qualified observers and make judgements!. There is a wealth of information and is 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.” Coe goes on to give reasoning as to why proxies for learning could be wrong. That observation produces a strong emotional response; that learning is invisible and accepted ‘good practice’ may be more fashionable than effective. (Coe 2013).

So, can good learning be measured instantaneously? I believe one can observe learning. It may be difficult to measure this visually, but I do not believe learning to be invisible, and I am happy to be proven wrong.

Over the past three years, we have worked with staff, improving the reliability and validity of one-off judgements, and this is clear that the current format for judging teaching and learning in many schools, continues this way and perhaps is wrong!

Many schools are not ready to remove lesson judgements; I think it will take a generation of teachers before the nature of judging disappears! However, we can start to promote research and best-practice and engage in conversations with colleagues.

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

The need to triangulate information from a range of sources; student conversations; routines found in books and behaviour; typicality and support and even self-reflection through video-analysis can validate good teaching. What else could we do that does not involve observing?

I would argue that to the untrained eye, a student, parent or member of support staff could – more often than not – pick out a good teacher/lesson.

To observe quality teaching, a teacher needs experience in the classroom. To be able to provide unbiased feedback for the teacher is a crucial component in teacher-improvement. Lack of sophisticated, observational feedback, is much worse than a working within a culture of judging teachers and teaching. Maybe it is time we move away from observing each other in classrooms and making more time for coaching dialogue and accurate feedback?

What would one suggest when observing a colleague? How would one like to be observed and challenged to develop? If you were a headteacher, what would you do in your school and if you knew who was a good/bad teacher in your school, how can you prove it without a criterion-referenced judgement?

More on GEDebate:

In 1976, Lord Callaghan’s famous Ruskin College speech initiated ‘the great debate’ about the future of our education service. ASCLs Great Education Debate started, earlier in 2014, and they conducted a short survey and asked:

‘What is the number one issue affecting education on which all political parties should agree a common way forward?’.

The issue highlighted as the number one current issue was the need for a strategic and evidence based approach to education with 32 per cent of respondents citing this as their primary concern. Read the results here.

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@TeacherToolkit

In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account through which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of being most influential in the field of education. He remains the only classroom teacher to feature to this day ... Sharing resources and ideas online as @TeacherToolkit, he has built this website (c2008) which has been described as one of the 'most influential blogs on education in the UK', winning the UK Blog Awards (2018). Read more...

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