How can you conduct a lesson observation so that it actually improves teaching?
Observing other teachers is one of the privileges of being a middle leader, writes Zoe Paramour, teacher and author of How To Be An Outstanding Primary Middle Leader and writes: What should you look at in a lesson observation? And how often should you be observing teaching?
How often should you observe teachers?
It’s widely accepted that low stakes drop-ins are more useful for everyone than one high-stake observation a term. Drop-ins should not be used to catch members of staff out. Make them positive experiences by being openly enthusiastic about the lesson you are observing. Ensure that you and the class teacher have an agreed focus prior to the lesson and that the feedback window has been arranged before the lesson takes place: “It was great to observe X happening in your classroom. Can you elaborate on why XYZ happened?”
What should you look at in an observation?
It’s very simple: are the children learning? Does the teacher have the subject knowledge and the skills needed to help children make progress? (It’s important to have the subject knowledge here to be able to make a reliable assessment). Are the relationships between pupils and staff in the classroom respectful, positive and conducive to learning? It is important that you do not bring your own biases about teaching into observations. You may have a preferred teaching style or method but, as long as the children are learning – and that the impact is clear – then keep an open mind.
Are pupils learning?
In the first few years of my career, I used to have a checklist in my head. It was based on advice I’d been given and criteria I’d been judged on in the past and included items like ‘displays are relevant, eye-catching and interactive; pupils encouraged to work with a talk partner; the lesson ends with a plenary’.
Whilst some of these things are worth bearing in mind, I would suggest avoiding a checklist approach as an observation of a Year 6 history lesson once taught me. It was a lesson about the causes of World War II. Although the objective and success criteria were not explicitly referred to or written down at any point in the lesson, what the pupils were learning was very clear. There was plenty of teacher talk, no guided group work (which is something I would have baulked at back in the day), the classroom was cluttered, the displays were slightly shabby and clearly hadn’t been updated for a while.
Despite this, the pupils listened in near silence while the teacher spoke, they hung on his every word, asked interesting questions and discussed ideas with their partner. The atmosphere was quiet and purposeful and by the end of the lesson, the whole class could explain the causes of World War II. I graded it the lesson ‘Outstanding’. (This was back in the days when we still graded lessons.)
When observing, it is vital to specify the focus on teaching. Teaching what? Learning what? Make it explicit to help narrow the focus – this is more likely to lead to long-term improvement rather than a carte-blanch approach which sets the teacher up to fail. Abandon the checklist and assess the explicit learning being made – and remember a one-off observation is merely a snapshot. Unless the observation is a regular occurrence, nothing meaningful can be determined. The research is very clear on this.
Don’t just stand there – get involved
There is nothing more off-putting than a po-faced member of staff sat at the back of the room, scribbling away on a clipboard for an hour with no conversation, eye contact or agreed foci in advance. It’s the worst type of professional support you can give a colleague.
Talk to the children. “What are you learning about?” is a good starting point. Take time to listen to the children’s conversations – this will give you an insight into their understanding. Look at their exercise books – is this lesson building on previous learning or consolidating? We’ve become obsessed in recent years with ‘new learning’, but lessons that consolidate learning are vital for building in-depth understanding and mastery.
Before, during and after …
- Before the lesson, agree on a focus.
- During the lesson, talk to the children, move around the tables and interact with the class teacher when possible and without interrupting the lesson. Learn to start and stop too in sequence with the lesson flow.
- After the lesson, create a meaningful dialogue without judgement. Agree a time to conduct feedback and ensure the teacher does more talking than the observer.
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