A Culture of Lesson Observations

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Lesson Observation


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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Almost three months have now passed since Ofsted announced the ground-breaking news, that inspectors would no longer be grading individual lessons.

Except that it wasn’t that ground-breaking. Apparently, this had been their instructions since 2009. Who knew?

Yet despite this, it is “still possible for inspectors to record a graded evaluation, where sufficient evidence has been gathered based upon a number of criteria. One which of course is teaching.” Hold on. Doesn’t that sound a little like giving a grading to an individual lesson?

Still, inspectors can grade teachers in exceptional circumstances. According to Ofsted, this is “categorically not the same as judging a teacher”. As a caveat, they say that “this may sound like splitting hairs but…” It sounds a little like splitting the atom actually, but delve deeper and maybe, just maybe, it all makes sense.

Essentially, there is a lot of clarity and sense in what Ofsted are saying. It can’t be effective to observe a teacher for twenty minutes and then pass judgement on their teaching, or more importantly the typicality of their students’ progress. There is no value in seeing a teacher produce a twenty-five-minute oasis of brilliance, when more normally their teaching is a sea of confusion awash with misconceptions and disengagement, only to then bestow them with a badge of ‘Outstanding’. However, if the observation is about considering a range of evidence, such as embedded routines, exercise books, quality of marking, the robustness of assessment and student feedback, alongside what was observed in the lesson, then surely it becomes a far more meaningful and representative process.

An educational Narnia?

So I’m on board. Except, I really want to know how the lesson was graded. In fact, I want to know everything about what was witnessed and I really value the feedback in order to improve. As a Lead Practitioner, I am fortunate enough to be regularly observed, be it formally or informally. There is no substitute for being in the classroom, with all five senses alive and tingling, while the observer consumes as much as possible from the complex classroom recipe and then offers feedback. It is invaluable.  I also frequently carry out observations. It is highly invigorating stepping off the corridor and through the wardrobe into an educational Narnia where students and teacher together produce wonderment and awe. The combination of these two things has the most significant impact on the improvement of my practice.

A suggestion:

So is there a balance to be found?

A place where the students’ voyage over time can be recognised, but where the immediacy of what was witnessed in the lesson, can also be formatively discussed to help improve teaching.

I believe our school may have an answer.

It starts with a culture: the culture of the individual teacher and the culture of the school. Firstly, as a teacher one needs to recognise that observations, whether graded or not, represent one of the best opportunities to improve practice. I don’t know of any teachers who do not want to get better and who don’t want their students to progress. That would be counter-intuitive. Secondly, the school, through transparency and clarity, needs to convey that observations are not a way of passing judgements on a teacher, but a way of judging learning.

Perhaps avoiding splitting that atom is harder than it sounds, but there is a slight nuance.

With the hard part established, the next is having a rigorous cycle. Early in the term, every teacher is observed, followed by a subsequent observation later in the term.

During the first observation, no grading is discussed. No grading is recorded. Indeed no grading is considered. It is entirely formative. In advance of the observation, the teacher and observer discuss two personalised targets based around the school’s ten principles of learning and teaching. The lesson is observed and in the follow-up discussion, which is organised in advance, the conversation centres completely on these targets. Teachers may choose to discuss other aspects of the lesson if they wish and indeed the observer might raise any points of interest. Primarily though, it is a time for reflection and for an honest and open conversation without the apprehension of waiting for that ever-looming judgement.

In between observations, there is a vast amount of support available. There are weekly learning walks and at least two weekly CPD sessions, one focused in departments (around marking and assessment that makes up part of the directed time), and one voluntary pedagogical session devised and led by staff. Directed time is also set aside to allow for further discussions and reflection on the outcomes of the initial formative observation. Recording of lessons, joint learning walks, team-teaching, joint planning, peer observations – anything that might be requested by the observed teacher can be utilised for development. Conversely, the follow-up may only come in the form of one further conversation. By the time of the second observation, all staff have had an opportunity to genuinely reflect and evaluate the outcomes of their previous observation.

The second time around this cycle, there is a grade. Yes. But it is the culmination of a considered process, strategically designed, and targeted to help improve teaching, and therefore, learning.

Empower teachers!

It is a highly empowering process. Teachers choose which class they are observed. It can be their best class or their most challenging class; an exam group or KS3; first thing on Monday or last thing on Friday. But teachers get better and the data supports this. The observation is no longer an annual mystery, where the classroom is descended upon, judgement cast, and then the results filed in a black box secured in a hold somewhere.

Does the recent Ofsted announcement mean the end of graded observations? Perhaps, but maybe it shouldn’t. Perhaps, we shouldn’t want it to be?

It should be incontrovertible to say, that at the centre of every classroom and at the forefront of every teacher’s thinking, is the learning and progress of the students. It should also be accurate to say that no teacher does not want to get better. With that established, observations are a highly valuable tool for development. They shouldn’t be seen as a cynical process where an outcome is a number. Given an appropriate context supported by a considered school culture and a receptive staff, there is still room for observations: some will produce a judgement and some will not, but both should be designed and centred on improving teaching.


Related Posts:

See @TeacherToolkit‘s blog here on ‘Getting it right: The importance of observations’ (Part 1/2) with part 2 due very soon.

How can @OfstedNews win over teachers?

8 thoughts on “A Culture of Lesson Observations

  1. There are some interesting thoughts here. Although even if these ideas were to be implemented, the emphasis is still on performance rather than results. I received a satisfactory for my observation last year, whilst a colleague received outstanding. At the end of the year 100% of my class had progressed by at least two sub-levels, whilst only 85% of my colleagues class had done the same. Obviously there were other mitigating factors but which of us is ultimately the ‘better’ teacher? I’m not trying to blow my own trumpet here. I will always accept criticism and try to improve my teaching any way I can but surely common sense has to fit into the system somerhwere!

    1. Fair points. There should be a focus on progress over time and learning, and this should be recognised. This is exactly why one off graded observations aren’t helpful. There’s less value for the teacher, and more importantly, it is less conducive to assessing the typicality of progress by the students. Ofsted have actually moved away from giving individual lesson gratings. Ross has written a lot about this recently if you haven’t seen it.

  2. “still possible for inspectors to record a graded evaluation, where sufficient evidence has been gathered based upon a number of criteria. One which of course is teaching.” That is a very interesting quote from Ofsted. What is the source?

  3. This has special potency if your SLT plans to link lesson observations grades from appraisal policy to pay increments.Are the teachers right to oppose this; when we are more than uncertain that performative measures actually help teaching and learning to improve?
    I would love your views.

    To me SLT needs to look at the research. Too much of the culture of schools is summative assessment whilst lip service is paid to formative models- and this equally includes staff as well as students. (see MiKe Hughes work)

    I tend to support a “driving test approach”: pass or fail with formative feedback. If the observer said what they saw was “outstanding” buy a badge and parade it around the school, but avoid being the “fixed mindset” teacher that Dweck so often refers to her research of students’ learning.

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