3 Reasons Why Schools Are Abandoning Lesson Gradings

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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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Could lesson observations in your school be more effective?

Research among 200 schools suggests the traditional lesson observation is changing, and this post examines the three main reasons for this shift…

While many school leaders believe lesson observations are a valuable professional development tool, others in the teaching profession feel they are just an additional source of stress that do little to improve learning. Whatever your view, the findings from a recent survey of more than 200 schools reveals that change is certainly happening. The research, conducted by CPD tracking specialists BlueSky Education, shows that in the last two years, more than two-thirds of schools have changed how they observe lessons.

Evolution, not revolution…

Throughout my entire career, with little formal training, I conducted thousands of lesson observations. Very few made a difference to the teacher, with the majority being conducted for evaluative purposes until my experiences got the better of me. In 2014, myself, alongside David Didau and others, championing the work of Robert Coe, were regularly reflecting online, sharing research and thoughts about the notion that graded lessons were a) unreliable and b) not valid sources of teaching quality. In essence, we were invited to Ofsted to help abolish the view that schools ‘grading lessons/teachers’ had any substance. An unintended consequence of the inspection framework…

Six years on, now taking an academic view on teacher quality, regularly researching this topic and meeting thousands of teachers across England, I now understand the error of my ways through no fault of my own. Teachers are time-poor and default to quantitative judgement, rather than qualitative assessment. The Quiet Uprising, published by BlueSky, is news that finally, the majority of schools are now starting to catch up. BlueSky Education commissioned a survey of 204 schools in the state and independent sectors during the summer of 2019.

For more insight into how lesson observations are changing and examples of good practice, download the BlueSky Education ‘Quiet Uprising’ report.

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So, what are the reasons for this shift?

 1. There are better ways of evaluating quality

Nearly three-quarters of schools stated that changes to lesson observation were the result of a wider review of their overall quality assurance or self-evaluation processes – and that in the course of this change, the grading of lessons is certainly losing favour. Whether this is down to Ofsted’s decision to move away from grading lessons during inspections (2014) or because it was simply less stressful for teachers, three in every five schools surveyed have left grading behind or use it rarely. Ben Hill, deputy head of Parrs Wood High School, believes there are alternatives which are more effective. “We haven’t graded lessons for a number of years. [Lesson observations] are still ‘formal’ in that they are not optional, but the teacher rather than the observer often comes up with the development points, which we feel is a more useful way of working.”

2. It’s questionable whether they measure teacher effectiveness

Ever since the academic Professor Robert Coe first challenged the reliability of lesson observations, teachers have been questioning the process.  It appears that many leadership teams are now acting on this and changing practices as a result. “A lot of the anxiety around lesson observations is about not knowing what the observer is focusing on to make their judgement,” says Adam Brown of Culcheth High School. “We have changed our approach and teachers now decide what they want the observer to focus on. This way, everyone is clear on the purpose of the observation from the outset. It is less stressful and more collaborative as a result.”

3. The need to reduce workload

To make sure lesson observations are useful and don’t place an unnecessary burden on teacher workload, schools are refining the feedback process. More schools are focusing on peer-to-peer observations where teachers coach each other. As one respondent pointed out: “If the teacher being observed is positive about being observed and committed to improving then I think [lesson observations] are very useful as long as the feedback is relevant and skilfully delivered.” When the experience is driven by the teacher and provides a positive and constructive outcome, lesson observations are not seen as a drain on teachers’ and school leaders’ time. Lesson observations are in a period of transition, and many schools are taking the opportunity to try innovative approaches to replace the traditional ones.

Let’s use this time to embrace the best aspects from the lesson observation, abandon the worst and focus on supporting teachers in their professional journey.

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