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
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!
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.
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 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.