Getting it right: The importance of observations (Part 1/2)

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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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The role of observations over the last few weeks, if not months, has debated the purpose of observations; the place – if any – for 20 minute observations; progress over time; one-off, snapshot judgements; the purpose of OFSTED and so forth and so forth.

Photo Credit: Valerie Everett via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Valerie Everett via Compfight cc


What we have been trying to do within our school, is begin the dialogue with our own leadership team about the latest Ofsted headlines published 6 week ago in February 2014. This was one of the outcomes that stemmed from an edu-bloggers mandate after a meeting with Mike Cladingbowl. Since this landmark tête-à-tête, there have been many publications from Ofsted; editorials; bloggers; including (Think Tank) Policy Exchange: Watching the watchmen.

Now, I do not intend to summarise what research says, or is currently saying; or what Ofsted and think-tanks have been suggesting any further than what has already been published. Why? Because good teaching will always be good teaching! If you and I do NOT know what that is, then we both have a serious problem. There is no need for over-cooking a dilemma that has placed other schools into a fit-of-freedom; questioning for themselves what to do and where to go. I am proposing and simply sharing the first stage, of a two-part blogpost, with the intentions of publishing our own plans for you to read.

Our focus is this: Good teaching fair and square.

By no means will this be the perfect model for you. This is for our school; our teachers; our students.

Week 1:

So, with the above in mind; at our senior leadership team meeting one month ago, we set ourselves three very simple questions to answer:

  1. What is progress over time?
  2. Why is it important?
  3. How do you evidence it?

The full details of this discussion are at the foot of this blog but is summarised in this one image:

Judgements over time...
Judgements over time…

After a good old-fashioned row between 8 senior colleagues, we decided to go away and revisit the whole debate. What you’ll read below, is the second version of my ‘progress over time’ document that I presented at the meeting.

Week 2:

One week later, we then asked ourselves; albeit easier on appearance, more pertinent questions:

  1. What is a good teacher?
  2. How do you know?
  3. How do you evidence this?
  4. Do you want to be a better teacher?

We even took these questions further in stage 3, refining our discussions; documents and answers onto a 3rd further week to discuss at senior leadership. You will notice, that we are in NO rush to make a knee-jerk reaction. In part-two of this blog, I will share our plans to meet with all our teaching staff, to discuss the above questions and publish our proposals.

Photo Credit: Tony Dowler via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Tony Dowler via Compfight cc

Week 3 discussions:

What is progress over time? At our leadership team meeting, we revisited this discussion yet again. On this occasion, I presented no documents and my headteacher presented the following diagram. What any good headteacher can do, is to strip back all the fluff; puff and sparkle in all heated conversations and reduce them down to the barebones. This is essentially what you will see below.

Good teaching vs. Appraisal
Good teaching vs. Appraisal

Open vs. Closed:

On one side, you will see (open) abstract questions that we would all want to ask ourselves at some point in our career. What is a good teacher? How do we know? Do you want to be a better teacher? It is these questions that we should all be asking ourselves. On the other side of the diagram, you will see the ‘closed’ process; this information and detail will never, ever go away. And we must not forget this. I have blogged about this before in “Stepping away from observational judgements” and have outlined my thoughts in much more detail; I discuss how we will always need a framework.

Whether or not we want to keep judgements is another issue. If you decide to remove judgements, I argue that all schools will still need a common-framework. If not, then your school will need its own framework and run the risk of being isolated. This may exist in your heads; across the whole school; whether you be an observer; a coach; or the observed; we will need to have a criteria in order to be able to understand what “is” a good teacher? This is not a discussion about whether or not the observer is equipped to be able to do this. This is a different debate. So to be clear, to understand ‘what is a good teacher?’, we need a framework.

I am clear about what this is in my mind. If we take this blog discussion aside for one moment and consider the following:

All teachers will need to be appraised. It is statutory. We cannot hide away from this, no matter how much we dislike it. It is our entitlement (don’t laugh); we may or may not want to know “how we are doing”, but when it is going well; we all like to hear it. When it is not going well, the best of us will act on this feedback if the appraisal process appears to be fair and logical … There will always be a discussion needed about teaching-quality. And remember, one issue that will always linger, is that all headteachers and schools will need to assess and judge the quality of teachers. Crucially, headteachers manage school budgets and do have to make salary decisions.

Photo Credit: nist6dh via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: nist6dh via Compfight cc

Now, I am not advocating Performance Related Pay here. I am merely discussing something simple as moving from school-to-school; (former) threshold applications, or what we all have become accustomed to love, automatic pay increments. These critical decisions cannot be made foolishly. Where these decisions are made, demonstrable evidence will be needed. In some cases I know, this has just been the ‘nod of a head!’ At our school we use (not to its full potential) Blue Sky Education, which is a useful piece of software for evidencing observations; staff development and staff appraisal. Now, again, forget what information is held on this software; but consider how the information is gathered and the validity of the information gathered. This can be summarised into consistency and validity; staff training and the quality of information evidenced.
Once a year, I look at all this confidential information with my headteacher. We use the system to triangulate evidence in order to make rational decisions. These decisions and discussions often hinge on references for job applications; threshold payments; qualified teacher status; and support staff; teaching and leadership increments. This information is a key part of the process but is not all the information that we use. As you’ll see in the diagrams provided at the top of the screen, evidencing ‘progress over time’ will take into account, typicality and support; student conversations; evidence gathered in student books; observations – whether they are one-off, routine, or learning walks for CPD or appraisal – whatever you want to call it. That information will need to be gathered and this information will range in quality when gathered across departments.

Whatever the situation is in your school, assessing good teaching must be done and must have a common-framework. Fluff or no fluff; we have narrowed (non-)observational judgements down into one single question: What is a Good teacher?

Progress Over Time:

Intended outcome:
1. To clarify, how standards of teaching and learning will be gathered across the academy.
2. To state how all teachers will be observed across the academy.
3. To provide a solution for monitoring and evaluating the quality of teaching and learning.

Questions to consider:

  1. Should we continue to judge one-off lessons?
  2. Should we remove lesson judgements altogether?
  3. If judgements remain, should we judge lessons based on progress over time?
  4. Should we revise our formal observation proforma and the framework?
  5. How do we report observational judgements on Blue Sky?
  6. How do we ensure (appraiser) accuracy of judgements – based on a numerical value?
  7. How do we report to governors?
  8. What training opportunities are needed?

The details:

Definition of ‘progress over time’: Students making sustained progress throughout a topic / term / year / key-stage; with demonstrable evidence such as data; students’ books; routines and the quality of teaching (not the teacher).


Progress Over Time
Progress Over Time

What it is not?
• Expecting progress to be evident in 20 minute snapshots; one-off lessons judgements based on what you see in the classroom; forming an opinion, based solely on what you see in a lesson.

Why is it important?
• Appraisal decisions and overall quality of teaching and learning across the school; used to informing CPD.
• A fairer system for observing what is typical; makes observational feedback relevant to every lesson, rather than a particular activity ; more reflective of what students receive day to day = getting a good deal.
• A more rounded view of the teacher. Impressions (typicality and support) are not based on a one-off performance; but rather what is typical.

How do you observe (feedback on) Progress Over Time?
• Looking at data; evidence of progress; looking in students books that are marked; evidence of students responding to feedback – in books! Talking with students. What is typical? And observing the teaching.

What do we need to do with Progress Over Time?
• Regular formative feedback for teachers; once/twice a half-term; class data for every class – not just teacher residuals based on KS4/5; No judgements based on one-off observations; open classroom model

An HMI reminder:

There is so much more that could be said about teaching, without infringing the professional judgement of teachers, to decide the most appropriate style of teaching to get the best out of their students. For example:
• Do lessons start promptly?
• Are children focused and attentive because the teaching is stimulating?
• Is the pace of the lesson good because the teacher is proactive and dynamic in the classroom?
• Is homework regularly given?
• Is literacy a key component of lessons across the curriculum?
• Do teachers use display and technology to support teaching?
• Are low expectations resulting in worksheets being used rather than textbooks?
• Are the most able children provided with work which stretches them and allows them to fulfil their true potential?
• Are children expected to take books home to do their homework and return them the following day?
• Does marking give a clear indication of what the children have to do to improve and are clear targets being set?
• Is the structure of the lesson promoting good learning and are children given sufficient time to practise and reinforce what is being taught?
• Do teachers have sufficient expertise to be able to impart to students the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed?
• Does the school have a robust professional development programme which is improving the quality of teaching by disseminating good practice across the school or college?
• Are teaching assistants supporting teaching effectively or are they simply ‘floating about’?

I will report back in late May 2014 when we meet with our staff to discuss: What is good teaching? How do you know? How do you evidence this?

I am certain it will all hinge on ‘what is good?’ and that’s all. After that, not much else matters. Until then, let’s get it right.


Part 2 follow up is here.

13 thoughts on “Getting it right: The importance of observations (Part 1/2)

  1. Great post Ross. I’m looking forward to part 2 already. In the second part will there be clarification on what type of questions the learners will be asked about their teachers?
    This blog has certainly got me thinking.

    1. Hi Damian. Thanks. I have no idea at the moment, but we do have a set of questions we ask students in observations. It can be found here (page 4). I have another version 8 updated at work desk. I think this is version 2 or 3…

  2. Not convinced Ross. Its all becoming distressingly linear. In my experience great learning also includes a visceral component. Do teachers have the expertise.. do they have the experience? Are more able children leading learning?
    Whose involved…when’s it happening?
    Imagine a rule in education which said the best 3% only in that school could get to Oxbridge.
    Imagine a second rule that said 3% of the best get £0 tuition fee if they attended the bottom Uni of Course choice?
    Affirm the reality that schools are for everyone, not to build a divide and rule culture.
    All best

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