Teachers and Lesson Observations by @DrMattOLeary

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Why do teachers feel so strongly about lesson observation?


For most teachers, their first experience of lesson observation usually occurs on an Initial Teacher Training (ITT) course when they are observed on teaching placement, with feedback typically given on their ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’ and how to improve their practice in the future. From this point onwards, whether it is for appraisal, inspection, CPD or research purposes, observation becomes a constant in teachers’ professional lives.

Why then if teachers are so used to being observed, should it be a big bone of contention with so many of them? This short post focuses on answering this question.

Proving your ‘worth’ as a teacher scale
Photo Credit: winnifredxoxo via Compfight cc

Proving your ‘worth’ as a teacher

It’s difficult to think of another area of practice that has caused as much debate and unrest amongst teachers in recent years as that of lesson observation, particularly graded observations and the way in which they have been used as high-stakes summative assessments to rank teachers’ classroom performance against the Ofsted 4-point scale. One of the reasons why observations provoke such a groundswell of opinion and emotion amongst teachers is precisely because of this ‘performance’ element. Through the lens of observation, teachers are repeatedly asked to perform to show their ‘worth’ in the classroom, both internally for senior managers/leaders and externally for Ofsted inspectors. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest therefore when teachers complain about this, as I believe they have every right to do so. Research supports their complaints too! I’ve heard senior managers and educational consultants come out with statements such as the following on a regular basis:

‘If teachers can’t produce at least a grade 2 lesson just once a year when they know they’re going to be observed then you have to wonder if they’re up to the job!’

Such statements encapsulate everything that is wrong with the way in which observation has been predominantly used in the English education system over the last few decades. Statements like this are not only insulting in how they reduce the complexity of teachers’ work to the lowest common denominator, with teachers required to act like performing monkeys in order to satisfy the performance management needs of others, but they reveal a wider set of issues about how observation is used to exercise power and control over what teachers do and how their professional worth is evaluated and valued. Ironically, the very people exercising this control over teachers’ work are rarely required to subject their own work to such performative assessment!

How do you measure up?
How do your measure up? Photo Credit: Chandra Marsono via Compfight cc

I often wonder how senior managers/leaders would feel if their line management skills, ability to inspire others, performance in meetings etc were assessed against the Ofsted 4-point scale? Besides, recent research into the use and impact of lesson observation in the Further Education sector has identified a number of inconsistencies around the use of observation as a form of assessment that raises considerable doubts as to the validity and reliability of this practice; another big bugbear for teachers.

Validity and reliability in observations

Validity and reliability are fundamental issues in any discussion about the use of classroom observation as a method of assessment. Validity is generally concerned with the extent to which an assessment samples the skills, knowledge, attitudes and/or other qualities it claims to measure. Reliability is concerned with the consistency, accuracy and replicability of results, but, of course, the two are inextricably linked.

The performance element of high-stakes observations inevitably has an effect on the validity and reliability of the observed lesson. Obviously teachers want to perform to the best of their ability as there is often a lot riding on the outcome of these observations. But under such conditions, teachers and students often behave differently, making it difficult to capture an authentic and representative picture of their everyday practice or indeed their real potential. In psychology, this is what is known as the Hawthorne effect.

The Hawthorne effect observed-probability-belief

Observer subjectivity is arguably the biggest variable that impacts on the validity and reliability of assessed observations. Lots of research evidence highlights disagreement between observers as to what constitutes ‘effective teaching’. In short, no two observers see the same thing and unwittingly project their own subjective bias into their evaluation of an observed lesson, which in turn casts doubt on the reliability of judgements made as a whole. An extreme example of this is those cases where teachers have been observed teaching the same class, only to be judged as ‘outstanding’ by one observer and ‘inadequate’ by another! Such variation means that as a source of evidence, lesson observation is extremely unreliable on its own.

Most participants in the largest research study in lesson observation to date in the UK believed that any overall judgement about a teacher’s professional competence needed to be inclusive of other sources of evidence (e.g. student exam results, student evaluations of their teacher, teacher self-evaluations, peer reviews, external verification etc). The consensus was that observation alone was neither a valid nor reliable source of data on which to make a conclusive judgement. If we throw into the mix the use of a grading scale to score performance (e.g. Ofsted1-4), then it is not difficult to see why so many teachers feel aggrieved at having their teaching (and ultimately themselves!) labelled so imprecisely.

So, where does that leave us and how do we move forward? In my follow-up post to this, I will focus on suggesting some ways in which teachers might start to think about using observation to enhance their understanding of the complex processes of teaching and learning, and ultimately improve their classroom practice. Part 2 will concentrate on ways in which teachers might start to think about using observation to enhance their understanding of the complex processes of teaching and learning, and ultimately improve their classroom practice.

You will be able to read this here on @TeacherToolkit.


Dr Matt O Leary
Contact Matt

Dr Matt O’Leary is principal lecturer and research fellow in post-compulsory education in CRADLE (Centre for Research and Development in Lifelong Education) at the University of Wolverhampton. He is also the author of the highly acclaimed book Classroom Observation: A Guide to the Effective Observation of Teaching and Learning (Routledge 2014) available with a special 20% discount when you enter KRK57 at the checkout on the Routledge website.


10 thoughts on “Teachers and Lesson Observations by @DrMattOLeary

  1. Speaking as a teacher, Head of Department and now local authority adviser, the problem with “observation” is the often summative approach (or at least summative perception) employed in schools.

    Every lesson we teach, we are observed by 30 sets of eyes – teachers need to accept that.

    When observation becomes formative and forms part of the continual development of our skills, teachers increasingly buy into it. When observation is used sparingly to “judge” teachers – there lies fear and stress over the outcome.

    If we teach with doors open, encourage a culture of continual feedback (from all stakeholders, including the learners), allow staff time to observe other teachers, and stop focusing on “box ticking” then observation will just become part of the toolkit of running a good school.

    As an aside: Are other professions “watched” undertaking their role, or are they judged by outcome / feedback?


  2. Has anyone looked into using a series of short evidence gathering observations across the whole year by different observers which form a portfolio of evidence? This could highlight repeated good practise as well as repeated areas for improvement. It could be a good tool for self reflection and a wider evaluation of a colleagues teaching technique. However, would you want to feedback sooner in the case of bad practise to stop it continuing for a year? Just thinking aloud…

  3. Can we not let teachers get on with the job they do, rather than this watching observing and grading all the time. If a teacher gets success then they are doing a good job!

  4. Pingback: Education Panorama (October ’14) by @TeacherToolkit | @TeacherToolkit
  5. I get extremely frustrated when some teachers pull their once-a-year ‘Outstanding’ out of the bag having been at best mediocre the rest of the year to be lauded by SLT, while those of us who teach to a consistently high standard with excellent student progress are told we should be more like them!

    1. It has become a game. Do you blame Teachers who are often subject to bullying by the use of Lesson Observation. I have been observes at one school by SLT who really didn’t know when the were observing high quality learning

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