The Observational Scalpel

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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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This is a blog about observations.

My thoughts on teaching and learning have shifted. It is common to read a book and have your thoughts struck by a bolt of lightning, but it’s even more rare to read a blog and have your pedagogy shifted. This short blog takes inspiration from Roy Blatchford and @ScrtInspector.

Would You Intervene?

Have you ever been the observer in a lesson observation and intervened with students (and not with the teacher)? Perhaps this is common. It is for me when I see particular students making teaching and learning difficult for the teacher being observed. But I wonder, how often has the reader intervened in an observation and spoken with the teacher? My thoughts are inclined to say this could be a rarer occurrence. Why? Well, a degree of professionalism and perhaps ‘losing face’ in front of students if the intervention is delivered poorly or mis-timed.

Of course, the purpose of the observation can also be significant, particularly because we have all been working within a one-off performance culture of observations over the past two decades. The high-stakes accountability model has shut many classroom doors and restricted observers to just 3 hours per academic year. Thankfully this is changing slowly towards a model of progress over time, rather than a one-off performance; this aside, many of us will find if incredibly strange to be observed, and have the observer intervene, perhaps even teach a part of the lesson themselves to help model a particular aspect of feedback.

But how often has this happened to you as a teacher? And/Or how often have you done this as an observer? And has this ever happened to you during an appraisal observation? I would imagine the answers are rare indeed …

The Surgeon and The Scalpel:

If you saw any lesson developing down a path you thought was not part of the plan, or that ‘learning’ appeared to be lost, would you intervene? And how and when would you do so? To be able to do this, and to do it well, is a fine skill requiring a wide range of knowledge and experiences.

Consider this.

Reading Thoughts on Lesson Observations #1 | The Surgeon and The Scalpel, former HMI Roy Blatchford writes;

“A few years ago I lay on a surgeon’s table, under local anaesthetic, to have a benign melanoma removed from my wrist. The lead surgeon began cutting precisely then passed over the scalpel to one of his juniors. Within thirty seconds he seized it back, clearly not content with the direction of the incision. He at once offered both the junior and me some reassuring words.

Surgeon Scalpel Theatre Doctor Operation

Image: CNN

It struck me then – it was in my early days of being an HMI – that my observing a lesson was of little use to the teacher if all I did was to offer some comments once the pupils had left the classroom. I would not have wanted the surgeon to let his junior go on cutting in the wrong direction, saving the feedback to later. My wrist is too precious to me for that.

Ever since that moment under the knife, formal inspection apart, I have rarely observed a lesson without interacting in some way …”

And secondly, consider Fusion Teaching, written by new blogger, @ScrtInspector who writes about teacher and observer working together;

 “The Agreement

  • At no time will any mistakes, risks or problems be taken into account for appraisal purposes – we want to take risks in our lessons, push ourselves, try something we haven’t tried before.
  • This is a two way process – although the teacher can at times be directed, the directing teacher must also reflect on their input and be open to ideas.
  • The input must be as unobtrusive as possible from the directing teacher – input provided when pupils are fully engaged in a task/collaborative session.

Typical ‘Fusion Teaching’ sessions involve:

  • The directing teacher is the extra pair of eyes on what is happening with the learning. It is their aim to pinpoint when the learning is: 1. less than desirable, 2. slowing down. They are to highlight these points to the teacher in order to secure a pathway of high quality learning.
  • Start in the normal ‘observation’ fashion. The directing teacher needs to be able to sign post, via a small whiteboard, any essential inputs e.g. talking partners, move on, model etc. from a place in which the teacher can see… and the pupils cannot.
  • If a lesson is going towards less than desirable – signal for the teacher to break using talking partners. This will allow approximately 90 seconds to provide quick reflection and input.
  • When pupils are on task, focus on groups’ learning pathways – Are there any misconceptions being missed? Are any groups in need of their task being reshaped? Does the challenge need to be altered? Is the more able being challenged? and so on…
  • A debrief afterwards is carried out discussing the journey of learning – nothing else. This is where you can pinpoint the areas in which learning was less than desirable or slowed down and therefore needing input. Reflect on the input and output of the lesson itself.”


Recently, I discovered the power on in-ear coaching thanks to @IRIS_Connect software. Observing a teacher from a distance, I was able to direct, probe and question throughout the observation, speaking to the teacher via a small/discrete headphone outside of the classroom. The purpose was to help the teacher clarify misconceptions and general snippets of behaviour/learning/movement they may have missed. For the first time, I realised I was able to help the teacher make the correct incision at the right time. It was a transformational moment for me after 20 years of observing other teachers in classrooms.

No sooner had we finished, we discussed the content and watched the footage of the lesson together. Watching the lesson unfold, knowing the points where I had intervened to support and challenge were incisive and obvious. Together, we discussed the lesson in detail and used the software to record questions, prompts and feedback. Sadly, the software was unable to record my own coaching and mentoring prompts, but it was then I suddenly realised that this was yet another missed opportunity; for potential (new) observers to watch the observer offer feedback in a coaching role.

How incredible, perhaps transformational in anyone’s professional development, would it be for anyone to observe the observer making an incision (jn the lesson)? Should we make this happen more often so that we are not working in silos? Should schools be working much harder to establish triad-observation groups so that staff are free to observe each other observing? I think we all should be aiming for this.

What do you think?


  1. At what point do we continue to take risks versus the desire to cease experimentation?
  2. At what point should the scalpel (the observer) make that incision to stop the teacher going in the wrong direction?
  3. How often have you been the observer in a lesson observation and intervened with students/teacher?
  4. And if you have intervened, what was the impact/outcome? How was the intervention received?
  5. How can schools establish a model where teachers can watch the observer observing and providing incisive feedback before, during and after the lesson?

Wouldn’t this be a powerful step forward …

Surgeon Scalpel Theatre Doctor Operation

Image: FootageFramePool

10 thoughts on “The Observational Scalpel

  1. Hmmmmm. I have observed lessons and occasionally have entered into the flow of the learning with teacher and pupils, but with deference to the ownership of the teacher and always building on, rather than ‘cutting into’ what s/he and the pupils are doing. I have also invited the involvement of observers of my own teaching at times, to engage with the learning and the learners – and this has included an HMI observation. However, who am I, as an observer, to judge during the lesson how it should proceed, and when and how to intervene or ‘cut-in’? I may do it one way, but another teacher, who may be more of an expert in that discipline than I, may do it another way. That is a dialogue for after the lesson, not an incision or intervention during it. There is so much to consider, and a lot of it is so sensitive, that to intervene in this way could demolish both the intention of the lesson and the confidence of the teacher. It may be that a pre-arranged formal agreement may lay a good foundation for involvement; I am unconvinced, though, by drawing an analogy with the surgeons knife, or the notion of some kind of ‘director’s cut’ as though it were a news-room or live TV. That’s not to say that the temptation isn’t there, but the risk of making matters worse inclines me away from such intervention.

  2. Live coaching in order to remind and reinforce are an essential part of any good mentor or coach’s repetoire. Why wait until later? You wouldn’t look over a student’s shoulder and say or think ‘I can’t wait to mark this!’ – you would intervene. Remember though to coach not teach. If you teach new things during a lesson it just gets confusing for the teacher. Coach those things previously discussed and remind them to use what you’d practised and learnt together.
    Reinforce and remind with quick positive phrases. Use visual reminders around the room too in order to remind the teacher of the skills to be practised. Not sure you need too much tech here. Just get in the classroom but have plenty of time together in the lead up to establish trust and rapport.

    1. Thanks for commenting Chris. I agree. It will take many schools to move forward with this model. After all we are still battling 50% of schools still grading individual lessons!

  3. As a trainee teacher at the moment, I feel that if the relationship between class teacher and trainee teacher is good, then intervening in a lesson shouldn’t be a problem. At the end of the day it’s the kids who are missing out. Obviously there is a time and a place to intervene, as in not to stop the whole lesson! The main learning I do as a trainee teacher is when things go wrong, if nobody tells me what I’ve done wrong or how to improve it I will keep on making the same mistake!

  4. At what point do we continue to take risks versus the desire to cease experimentation?

    If someone was looking over my shoulder and taking the proverbial scalpel from me, I probably would not take any risks/try anything new. I’d just do whatever I thought was their idea of a good lesson.
    The whole point of experimenting is to get a feel for what happens if you try something new.

    Plastic surgery is rarely experimental in that way and students are not the ones allowed to take risks: there is a right way and a wrong way to make the incision.
    It would be more like if your art teacher grabbed the brush from you and said “no no, we’re doing IMPRESSIONISM, paint like THIS”, you’ll be a great painter-by-numbers but will you ever break out of your teacher’s mould?

    At what point should the scalpel (the observer) make that incision to stop the teacher going in the wrong direction?

    It would have to be a pre-agreed thing. For example, the teacher wants to try a new method of formative feedback and if the observer sees they have an opportunity to try that new method, they could either nudge the teacher or model it. (The modelling would only work if the ‘observer’ was introduced as a special guest teacher to the class. I don’t imagine Y11 would be impressed with the teacher if the deputy head took over control of the lesson to show the teacher how it’s done.)

    The difference between teaching and surgery is: if you make the wrong incision: that’s permanent.
    If you ask too many closed questions or don’t leave enough thinking time or only ask the same people: that’s something you can fix on an ongoing basis. There’s very little teachers can do (in good faith), that scars a class for life. Almost everything ‘works’, it’s just about what makes the greatest impact. A so-so lesson is not as high stakes as plastic surgery.

    How often have you been the observer in a lesson observation and intervened with students/teacher?

    I have never intervened with the students or the teacher. If I think I see something that could be improved on, the teacher needs to go through the process of discussing what they thought went well and what could have been tightened up and why.
    It’s like the classwork example from above in the comments: sometimes you need to get it wrong so that you can get it right the next time. If your teacher gives you formative feedback too early, you won’t remember how to do it for yourself.

    How can schools establish a model where teachers can watch the observer observing and providing incisive feedback before, during and after the lesson?

    Having team-teaching an integral part of everyone’s time table. Some of my best ever learning about teaching occurred when I shared a classroom with the deputy head. She’d sit at my desk doing her work most of the time but every so often, she would team teach with me. I could see certain behaviours modelled and try them out for myself, without it looking like management had no confidence in me, to my classes. We passed the baton to each other throughout the lesson, which helped keep the energy up for the students and we were able to share our attention on the class.
    She never gave feedback as such, she just modelled excellent teaching and gave me the space to try it out myself.

  5. How often do Police, GPs, Solicitors, Surgeons, Accountants etc get observed/graded/Action Planned etc etc after qualification?
    Yet a teacher will face years of scrutiny…..and observations.

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