Supporting Teachers: Reducing Observational Bias

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Observation Bias


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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Are learning walks a waste to time?

In a profession with seeks research-led methods, and in an industry which lacks sufficient time and money, it is critical that school leaders support teachers to the best of their ability when everyone’s time is precious…

Do observations have any impact?

Believe me, I’ve tried every possible version, I’ve conducted some horror-stories and I’ve also produced the best spreadsheets and lesson feedback conversations which would be worthy of an Oscar nomination. Yet, I really don’t know if any learning walk or one-to-one conversation has had any long-term impact on an individual teacher. Of course, I’ve tried to evaluate methods and processes to determine if they do have any impact or not, but I suspect each and every teacher will have their version of events!

If you want to tick-off checklists?

I do believe learning walks serve a purpose: Monitoring, checking in on habits or poor proxies, such as displays and keywords to develop a degree of consistency across the school, but surely the ultimate goal for everyone is improving teacher performance, not checking in on consistency? If we get this right, the impact on pupils should be two-fold…

Having taught approximately ~18,000 lessons in London state schools since 1993, I’ve received every possible form of lesson observation in and out of the classroom. Worryingly, less than a handful of occasions shaped me as a practitioner. I have also observed at least the same number, if not more having conducted observations (whether 5 or 60 minutes in length) as a middle and senior leader in 5 different secondary schools. I also suspect very few genuinely helped others. I’m probably being too harsh on myself… After all, we are time-poor professionals and have very little time to meet with each other on a regular basis, nor do we have time to deliberately practise being better at one thing.

Nonetheless, today it is my conclusion that learning walks in their current form are pointless and worse, dangerous.

Hands up?

When you asked a room full of teachers, “Hands up, who works in a position of leadership which gives you the permission to observe other teachers?” you will generally see a large number of hands raised. I then ask: “Keep your hands up if you have received any formal training?” The number of ‘hands up’ tends to drop dramatically. When you then ask if anyone left has a formal qualification in observational practice, all the hands in any room, disappear!

I want to change this.

So, this is a simple idea is to support school leaders and teachers. In mid-2019, during my doctoral course, I thought I knew everything there was about coaching, feedback and observations until I discovered an alternative methodology – observing as a researcher – which I’m now sharing on my teacher-training travels.

More specifically, I want to improve observation reliability and open-door culture which is seriously lacking across the teaching profession. I am currently pitching for funding with UCL to conduct some action research in schools from September 2020. I am keen to reform observational practice at a national level in schools, developing a bank of videos and resources which are freely available; equipping schools to support and challenge observers – including those who are visiting for inspection purposes.

Resource: Getting started

As a simple starting point, to help flip the default position in most state schools, this simple resource is a good starting point. I plan to share more details in an online webinar in the near future.

Observation Sign

How to use?

  1. Print on A6 card; laminate the postcard
  2. The teacher should write/print their own focus for the term ahead.
  3. Stick the sign the top-left of the door frame.
  4. Before anyone pops in, including inspectors, the focus is clear.
  5. The outcome? It won’t reduce every proxy for learning, but it will help improve observational assumptions.

If you are interested in finding out what my research-plans are to reform observational culture in schools, leave a comment, get in touch via the website or messaege using social media…

25 thoughts on “Supporting Teachers: Reducing Observational Bias

  1. The best observation I had (in 20 years) was one where my observer just made notes on what was taking place – where I asked questions, what the responses were like, etc. The conversation we had afterwards indicated that sometimes I accepted answers where a student repeatedly said ‘er’ during their answer and although the answer was mathematically correct, I had accepted some things that a non mathematician would have been unable to decipher. It has made me ‘listen’ much more closely to student responses – to think about the mathematical merit but also to consider ‘how’ students express themselves clearly without dithering and using appropriate language with finesse. Other than that, lesson observations have had little impact other than sleepless nights and anxiety before the event.

  2. I hope your application for research funding goes well- sounds a great and necessary project. If of interest, and you are looking for a secondary school to support, do let me know as we would be happy to work on this.

  3. Brilliant! I keep banging on about this.

    I have had training and the best bit I ever heard was it doesn’t matter how teachers do something, it’s not about whether YOU would do it like that, it’s about the impact on the pupils.

    Also, we talk about children having a growth mindset but we create exactly the opposite when observing. I’d love to create a climate where observations and feedback are about a conversation about teaching and learning and where teachers feel we are all on the journey together.

    I’d be really interested to hear more about what you are doing regarding this.

  4. Very thought-provoking. So relevant to ALL teachers!
    I am just starting my own Action Research project as part of my DET.
    Please keep me posted.

  5. I recommend reading Chris Browns books – he is now at Durham but has many useful (and quite short!) books that have many contributors around collaboration. This is the basis of my Ed Doc so looking forward to seeing more of yours 🙂

    1. Watched the video; like it – love the ‘one thing’ termninology. Would love to visit and swap notes – hope to get something shared next month before the pilot study is proposed…

  6. Hi Ross, we ditched observations (graded and non-graded) and are now in the 3rd cycle of Peer Triangles. It is changing our culture in a positive and supportive way, along with Thinking Environments, Thinking Councils and Learning Walks and CIA. Our focus has shifted from the sage on the stage -I year MOT effect, to collaborative TLA and worthwhile CPD where reaching every learner, everyday is at the heart of all we do. I am very interested in your research and would like to know more.

  7. Pitched the project today; optimisitic that it will be approved and we will start looking for participating schools in June/July 2020…. Will update here or in future blog posts using search terms:

    “Observational Bias”
    “Observation Reliability”

  8. This sounds very interesting, I would like to find out more a possibly get involved. We are about to start a new method of observation learning walks using teacher peer feedback where I teach. Top down and bottom up – 360 approach.

      1. We have a cross college multi academy trust CPD day on January 20th. Would you be able to take part in our event, possibly virtually if needed? It would be a fantastic opportunity to gain feedback from 3 different sixth form colleges, as well as for teaching staff to find out more about your work. Please let me know your thoughts. Thanks

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