In Dr. Matt O’Leary’s first blog, he asked; “if teachers are so used to being observed, why should it be a big bone of contention?”
His previous blog post focused on some of the reasons why teachers feel so strongly about lesson observation. Though it’s all very well adopting a critical stance to education policy and practice, such a position is unlikely to sway policy makers by itself. Besides, a critique alone is of little use to the very people responsible for mediating and implementing policy, unless it is accompanied by credible alternatives.
Breaking free from the assessment straitjacket:
What I hope to share with you in this follow-up post is some practical ideas for alternative ways of using observation that I think are more likely to bring about a greater understanding of teaching and learning.
The assessment straitjacket:
One of the biggest obstacles preventing the English education system from making best use of observation as a method of enquiry is what I refer to as the ‘assessment straitjacket’. The ‘assessment straitjacket’ is a metaphor I use to refer to the conceptual constraints that shape and influence our perception and implementation of observation as a mechanism. Put simply, what this means is that many people find it very difficult to conceptualise observation outside of an assessment paradigm. When faced with observing a teacher in a classroom, for example, the gut instinct of many is to slip into evaluation mode and to make judgements about what they see, even if that is not the purpose of the observation. Why is this?
As educators, are we instinctively hardwired to see the world through an assessment lens when observing classroom practice, or is this something that we have become conditioned to do over the course of time? I have argued previously that the performative and summative use of observation is deeply engrained in the psyches of many of those involved in the English education system, to the extent that it has become the norm for people to associate observation purely with assessment. This is largely due to political, cultural and historical reasons, but it isn’t necessarily the case in other countries where educators’ engagement with observation and the cultures and contexts surrounding its use are very different.
The recent Japanese export ‘lesson study’, one of the most popular CPD interventions in English schools at present, is a perfect case in point. Thus, the key message to emphasise here, is that if we are to truly take advantage of what lesson observation has to offer as a tool for teacher learning then we need to start thinking outside of the assessment box. With this in mind, I want to spend the remainder of this blog discussing two specific examples of how we might do this in practice.
The ‘Catchphrase’ model of lesson observation:
The ‘Catchphrase’ model of lesson observation takes its name from the famous game show. Remember the show’s original host Roy Walker and the catchphrase that he coined himself? ‘Say what you see!’ This statement ‘Say what you see!’ underpins the modus operandi of the Catchphrase model. Instead of the observer projecting their own subjective interpretation of the events they witness in any given observation, they are required to record exactly what they see in a descriptive, factual sense. Thus, for example, as part of the Catchphrase model, an observer may record the following notes during an observation:
“During a whole class question and answer activity, all but 2 of the 14 students were asked questions.”
This comment is illustrative of a descriptive record of what the observer witnessed, minus the subjective evaluation and assumption, making that what is often associated with an evaluative record of a lesson. So, for example, in conventional evaluative records, we might expect to read the following:
“During the question and answer activity, 2 of the 14 students were excluded. The teacher needs to ensure that her future use of questioning includes ALL students.”
This example is taken verbatim from an actual observation report during an inspection. Despite the observed teacher having provided a rationale in her lesson plan before the observation took place for why these two particular students were not asked questions (linked to longstanding issues of self-esteem and personality), the observer failed to take this into account in their evaluation and the observed teacher was never given an opportunity to discuss this with the observer.
Another important feature of the Catchphrase model is how the observer’s descriptive record needs to be accompanied by a series of Socratic questions that seek to explore events/interactions in a more contextualised, complex way. The advantage of this approach is that instead of jumping to conclusions or uninformed assumptions, the observer is encouraged to record questions (in a separate column) that seek to explain the teacher’s thinking/rationale for their actions. Thus, in the case of the example cited above, such questions might include:
“Are you aware that not all students were included in the question and answer activity?”
“Why were two students excluded from the question and answer activity? Was there a specific reason for doing so? If so, what was it?”
In essence, what the Catchphrase model of observation seeks to do is to embrace a non-judgemental approach and in so doing use Socratic questioning as a key driver for meaningful professional dialogue.
A differentiated approach to observation goes against the grain of most conventional models as it is based on identifying a specific focus to the observation rather than carrying out a holistic judgement of the teacher’s competence and performance via the use of a standard assessment tool. Its purpose is formative with the observed teacher given the freedom to decide the focus. The rationale for this approach is to allow teachers to choose an aspect of practice that they are keen to explore in more depth with a view to deepening their understanding and improving their practice e.g. managing feedback or using a particular resource/form of technology.
The observed teacher is encouraged to decide the focus of the observation but it may also be negotiated and/or discussed with the observer, depending on the underlying purpose and context. The underlying purpose and context is likely to shape the way in which the focus is decided so in the case of the trainee teacher or NQT whose teaching is being assessed as part of an on-going programme, it may be appropriate for the observer to play a more substantive role in deciding the focus than they might do if they were observing experienced practitioners.
The rationale for a differentiated approach is multi-faceted. Firstly, a differentiated approach is built on the premise that each teacher is likely to have differing strengths and weaknesses in the same way that students are likely to differ. Just as the most effective teachers incorporate differentiation into their teaching, so too does it make sense to incorporate it into the way in which teachers’ practice is observed.
Secondly, maximising teacher ownership of the observation process is an important feature of facilitating sustainable teacher learning. All teachers have a responsibility for their CPD and they are likely to value this more highly if they feel they are given some ownership over the decision making process.
Thirdly, the collaborative nature of teacher learning means that it is not an individual act or the sole responsibility of the teacher but one that involves colleagues working together. Hence there may be times when the focus of differentiated observation is driven by wider objectives across a team/department. These objectives may stem from a range of sources e.g. self-assessment, inspection reports, appraisal meetings, student evaluations etc. and may be divided into separate strands or themes to address through observation. In this instance a team/department of teachers may choose particular themes to focus on.
For more information about how to use observation as a tool for enhancing teacher learning, click on the following link.