What are lesson observations for, and who benefits?
Researching teaching and learning in education, I was curious to learn who truly benefits from classroom observations: the observer or the teacher.
Digging deeper into academic study and research methods, part of my own doctoral studies involves navigating between my actual research questions about teachers’ use of social media and its influence on education policy and ‘teaching and learning’, which will always remain a key topic for me.
Searching various research databases, my key question was: ‘Who benefits from lesson observations?‘ and to be honest, I really struggled to find any academic evidence.
This is, for teachers, concerning.
I should also emphasise the importance of keywords and research methods used to be able to locate and filter relevant papers. For example, ‘Who‘ needs to be defined as well as the noun, ‘benefits‘. We would also do well by narrowing the research enquiry to specific jurisdictions. So, for the purposes of this blog post, I’m focusing purely on ‘England‘.
Following on from this, we should explore the various types of ‘lesson observations‘ available in mainstream teaching:
- Learning walks or ‘drop-ins’
- Book reviews, or work sampling and scrutiny
- Formal lesson observations (including graded/ungraded)
- One-off lesson observations E.g. interviews, inspections, cover lessons
I’m sure there are many more, but those listed are the distinctions which involve another adult is in a teacher’s classroom in some shape or form.
Narrowing your lines of enquiry
For the purposes of this blog, I will demonstrate how I have used freely available research methods that all teachers can use, rather than accessing academic portals (for now).
Starting off with a simple search, Google Scholar revealed no (zero) results. I, therefore, removed both quotation marks to make the search enquiry a little broader. This research entry produced ~610,00 results.
Starting off from this ‘search result’, I then considered the following variations:
- I added the word “England” to the initial question = 313,000 results
- “Benefits” in quotations = 273,000 results
- “Lesson observations” in quotations produced a significant result = 2,940 results
- Replace “Who” with “Teacher” = 2,910 results
- Finally, I narrowed the research dates from “Any time” to “2019” onwards = 347 results.
You can start to learn how I have narrowed down the research fields to elicit accurate items. Using quotations means that these words must be found in the search results.
One paper I discovered was written by headteacher Dan Roberts, a good friend of mine, who is currently studying for his doctorate at the University of Plymouth: Lesson observation: what is the problem it is solving?
I’ve critiqued, summarised and added my opinions to Roberts’ paper.
Lesson observation: what is the problem it is solving?
Roberts considers problems of neoliberal and marketisation of English state schools; how a national framework is used to measure teachers against; how lesson observations are implemented to make judgements on the quality of teaching and improve the academic outcomes of young people. More importantly, Roberts highlights how observation is not effective in its purpose.
The paper references OECD: the “most common method for evaluating the effectiveness of the performance of a teacher and to improve teacher performance, thus leading to increased student outcomes, is to use lesson observations” (OECD, 2009).
Given that the majority of schools still use some of the observation approaches I’ve listed above, what are the problems and benefits of using this approach for teachers?
Roberts provides a succinct and accurate overview of neoliberal reforms since 1988, explaining how English state schools are now in direct competition with one another: “If the school is to achieve higher standards then they must improve the quality of teaching and learning within the school.”
To date, there is no evidence to suggest that ‘to measure a teacher’s performance (often within a single lesson against the Teacher Standards) to perform alongside the set criteria’ is working, or addresses the problem, and raises overall educational standards (EEF, 2017a)
Headteachers are also expected to review a teacher’s performance through a performance management cycle; a contractual exchange from the government, passing to the leaders in a school and then on to the individual teacher (Foucault, 1980).
Performance-related pay, despite no academic evidence that it improves teaching standards, was made compulsory in England ~2013. Headteachers are also obliged to report to governors and make salary decisions. One can start to see how teacher-performativity in the classroom has emerged…
I’m pleased to report there is another way emerging which is research-based with some schools are already using.
Roberts explains that removing judgements isn’t a simple solution – the relationship (power) between the observer and the observed is crucial, with time remaining a significant barrier to unlocking peer-to-peer learning.
The problem of attempting to improve overall standards in education by reprofessionalising teachers in England has led to school leaders and external agencies such as Ofsted imposing lesson observations as a method of improving teacher efficacy.