Watch And Learn

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Are teachers reclaiming lesson observations?

Debates rage all around us and the flames of fear lick at our feet and threaten our wellbeing but during the fights and battles we are expected to teach, make waves, make a difference and be inspirational.

Teachers occupy the interface between policy and practice and its not a very nice place to be sometimes.

For decades now lesson observations have dominated educational debate especially in relation to high-stakes summative assessment and reductionist and punitive practices like graded observations to rate teachers’ classroom performance.

When Ofsted decided to shelve graded lesson observations from inspections there was a palpable collective sigh of relief from the teaching profession. This was a welcome policy shift although senior leaders in some schools have ignored this and continue to apply performance models of observation on their staff. They won’t be on anyone’s Christmas card list.

Teachers have a voice

Despite the clipboard rogues with a fixed mindset that are still out there still grading teachers and making them sweat, teacher voices are being heard far more than they have ever been. You might not think it but our knowledge, experience and expertise is not being ignored and teachers are starting to shape education policy. Take to social media and see how many of us are critically reflective and politically aware.

Teachers are taking back possession of lesson observations for themselves and putting the intelligence back in.

They know that teaching and learning is a complex, non-linear system that is subtle and nuanced.

They know it is not an exact science that can be reduced to a superficial set of skills and behaviours.

They see lesson observations are a powerful tool for learning when used for professional growth not professional destruction and bruising confrontations. Japanese knotweed is starting to retreat but only because we are fighting our corners.

What the research says

One of the first educational researchers in the UK to investigate and critique the practice of graded lesson observations is Matt O’Leary and in the book edited by him, Reclaiming Lesson Observation: Supporting excellence in teacher learning, he says,

“If as educators we want to make a real, sustainable difference to improving the quality of teaching through the lens of observation, then supporting rather than sorting teachers is where our energies need to be focused. It is time therefore to reclaim observation as a medium on which to build sustainable, collaborative communities of teacher learning, united by a collective pursuit to further our understanding of the complexities of teaching and learning and with it a renewed sense of professionalism.”

If you haven’t already, I urge you to read this book. If you have, then read it again and share it widely.

The future of lesson observations is about professional development and supporting each other to be better pedagogues.

It’s about peer observation as a springboard for teacher learning and using lesson observations to promote self-efficacy. It’s about adopting non-graded models and embedding coaching and mentoring. It’s also about the intelligent use of video as a flexible tool for observing what matters.

The narrative is changing from observation as a monitoring and surveillance performative tool to observation for development, teacher growth and teacher agency.

Development all the way

Lesson observations are opportunities to create meaningful dialogue between supportive colleagues as part of a collegial culture of improvement. But does it have any impact on student and teacher performance?

One US study found that it did so the EEF funded an evaluation to explore the impact of structured teacher observation in the English context. It ‘found no evidence that Teacher Observation improves combined GCSE English and maths scores.’

This makes for depressing reading but this used software for teachers to ‘rate’ their colleagues across a range of pre-specified components, such as managing student behaviour and communicating with students. The researchers also reported that many teachers had problems accommodating the required number of observations because of timetabling and arranging cover, and some experienced difficulties using the software.

The study might make us think that peer observation has no place and is a waste of time. But this study focuses on busy teachers making judgments and rating each other and that isn’t what intelligent peer observation looks like at all.

Significantly, the English trial didn’t include or consider three critical components used in the US:

(1) lesson observation was linked with professional development

(2) outside observers

(3) annual performance bonuses

This is one evaluation and not a like for like comparison by any stretch of the imagination.

Peer observation has many benefits and does give colleagues a number of opportunities to enhance the quality of their teaching, learning and assessment practice.

The design of the support structure for peer review and support has to be well designed and teachers can put their best foot forward by leveraging video for evaluation and development as recommended by the Centre for Education Policy Research at Harvard University.

Video observations, especially as part of a video learning team, can be used for far more effective professional development because they are intelligent, focused and responsible.

Lesson observations MUST evolve to support teaching practice and video teams might just be the way we can wipe out the judgemental, punitive, superficial and stressful old-style ways of doing things.

Perhaps we can hope that classroom teachers are beginning to forge their own authority, wiggle free of the assessment straitjacket and wave good riddance to the ‘necessarian logic’ and ‘slouching beast of neoliberal education’ (Ball, 2016) that has terrorised and wrecked education for years.


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