Lesson Observation: “Not terrible though?”

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How can we improve our lesson observations?

I have found ‘School’ on BBC2 a compelling and difficult series to watch. Of particular interest to me as an experienced professional mentor was the section on lesson observation featuring an experienced teacher being observed by a senior leader.

The senior leader’s immediate reflection at what seemed to be the end of the lesson was the title of this blog. I have no wish to pass comment on or judge either the teacher or the senior member of staff. However, it did prompt me to consider my approach to my termly (NQT) Newly Qualified Teacher observations.

I genuinely enjoy observing the new entrants to our profession. Their enthusiasm, innovation and relentless optimism rub off on their pupils and me as the observer. I did, however, modify my approach in light of my role as Assistant Director of the Research School and expert advisor for the Teacher Development Trust.

Following the BBC documentary which crystallised my thinking, here are my personal thoughts on how to approach observations.

No Grades Or Judgments

Surprisingly, it seems that new entrants are used to receiving graded lesson observations. This is a legacy of ITT programmes developed a number of years ago that is not kept pace with even recent Ofsted guidance.

As we know from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation paper, if a lesson is given a top grade by one observer there’s a 78% chance that the second observer will give a different grade.  If a lesson is given a bottom grade, there’s a 90% chance that a second observer will provide a different grade. The research suggested that fewer than 1% of lessons judged inadequate and only 4% of lessons judged outstanding actually produce outstanding learning gains.

Consequently, observations are not graded and any feedback requested does not feature my opinions. I am acutely aware that my opinion is only one version of reality. I am prone to cognitive bias as is any other observer.

Focus On The Positives

Throughout observations, I refer to a copy of Teachers’ Standards and during an hour of a lesson observation, I am able to evidence some, not all of the Teachers’ Standards. This is not designed to be a check-list on how to evidence teacher standards, but this demonstrates the positive mindset for observation rather than the default of potentially finding fault.

This is of course not to say that any issues or areas for improvements are ignored. There are of course clear standards expected and checks will be made of the quality of people’s work. This will include some evidence of marking or feedback and of course professional behaviours. As we know from the classic Dylan William quote: “All teachers should want to improve not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.”


So, how do we build on these positives and focus NQTs improving?

Due to the editing process of the ‘School’ programme we have no idea when the feedback conversation actually took place. Taking it on face value it appeared to be immediately after the lesson. I would favour scheduled feedback and discussion meeting to take place at a mutually convenient time. During this meeting, I would try to avoid offering my opinions. I would adopt a coaching style asking questions of the NQT. I would ask them to explain certain strategies and decisions.

For example, one NQT engaging in low stakes quizzing employed peer marking. I immediately sought to question this. I felt it may endanger the nature of the formative nature of the quiz. The NQT was able to explain that this peer assessment ensured completion of the quiz improving motivation of the class. Where parts of the lesson were maybe less successful I could ask how could that be approached differently and we may employ some instructional coaching.

Instructional Coaching

Instructional coaching involves a trained expert working with teachers individually to help them learn and adopt new teaching practices and to provide feedback on performance. This is done with the intent to both support accurate and continued implementation of new teaching approaches and reduce the sense of isolation teachers can feel when implementing new ideas and practices.

If a particular area (which interestingly could be of strength or perceived weakness) is to be developed by the teacher we could look at isolating a particular area highlighted in a coaching conversation. Find good examples of techniques that are proven to work. Isolate them and practice them. Use video technology to self-assess their effectiveness, embed them in practice and receive regular feedback.

And finally…

We employ a model of 20 minutes drop-ins from subject mentors focusing on identified areas. This supports NQTs to embed these practices and receive regular coaching and feedback on their effectiveness is key.

Classroom observations can be used to focus on guided practice of these instructional techniques that are likely to have the most impact. Not terrible though?

Phil Naylor

Phil is in his second Assistant Headship in Blackpool. He has taught Science for 17 years, is a Science SLE, an ITT and NQT professional mentor, as well as a Primary School Governor. Phil is also Assistant Director of the Blackpool Research School, heads up the TDT CPD Excellence hub and is currently studying for an MSc Science.

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