Classroom Observation Wisdom Makes You Teach Better!

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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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What improves teachers in the classroom better than any other intervention?

When schools leaders focus their time and efforts on ‘growing’ teachers rather than ‘measuring’, incredible things can happen in the classroom…

This new research is the first of its kind to isolate the impact on observees and observers; how evaluation affects teacher performance.

Observing others makes you wiser…

Teacher Peer Observation and Student Test Scores: Evidence from a Field Experiment in English Secondary Schools

When I reflect on my classroom experience over the course of 25 years, recognising that the number of hours I spent teaching decreased as my leadership responsibilities increased, I may have taught almost 20,000 lessons.

Thinking about when I have ‘popped in’ to say hello to another teacher to check if ‘Everything’s okay?’, including the classroom visits for informal learning walk or a formal appraisal, whether these episodes lasted for two, 20 or 60 minutes, over the course of my life observing other teachers, this number of observation experiences can easily increase into the tens of thousands…

As a general rule of thumb, we know that effective teachers go on to be promoted and are often given the responsibility of observing other teachers as part of their remit. When I first started to do this in the year 2000, I soon realised that I was in a privileged position. More importantly, the amount of information I was now observing, benefited my classroom.

The challenge for all school leaders is how can they share their ‘observed wisdom’ with other teachers?

Methodology and observation effectiveness

How reassuring is it to have all your education experiences validated by a new academic piece of research?

Published in August 2021, Teacher Peer Observation and Student Test Scores published by Burgess et al in the University of Chicago Press Journals, academics report that when teachers observe each others’ lessons, they become more effective – with a larger effect for observers than an observee!

In the paper, performance measurements, incentives and being measured are all discussed in a bid to improve teaching. The researchers write: “…the role of the observer is really considered, either taken as simply another task for management or outsourced to external experts.”

How often has a school improvement partner or an Ofsted inspector told you how you could teach better?

A direct quote from the research: “…Ofsted’s classroom observations are not salient to individual teachers.”

The research focuses on low-stakes peer evaluation among teachers. I’ve done similar work before with Dr Kenny Frederick, showing how powerful ‘teacher rounds‘ can be for those who participate. Particularly in this research, the academics separate the effects on teachers being observed (observers) and teachers serving as peer evaluators (observers); including the frequency.

For people reading this website based in the UK, this research was conducted in secondary schools across England, focusing on year 10 and 11 maths and English teachers over two school years (2014/16). The sample includes 28,000 students and 1,300 teachers with a focus on GCSE outcomes.

Eight-two schools were part of the trial, Half exposed to the treatment (which was the new peer observation programme) and the other half to a business-as-usual control condition. Exposure in maths and English lessons were also randomly assigned. (N.b. Business-as-usual is defined as somebody not observing in the role of a peer.)

The researchers also randomised teacher roles in observation relationships. For example, mentor-mentee and advisor-advisee, it’s the research particularly focusing in on the conventional wisdom that observers and mentors must be selected for a history of high performance to support weaker teachers.

Low-stakes peer evaluation improves teachers…

Effective teaching is also defined in the rubric standards:

  1. Creating a supportive environment
  2. Establishing a culture for learning
  3. Managing classroom procedures
  4. Managing student behaviour
  5. Organising physical space
  6. Communicating with students
  7. Using questioning techniques
  8. Engaging students and learning
  9. Use of assessment and,
  10. Demonstrating flexibility and responsiveness.

Conclusions and recommendations

The research found that “improvements in maths and English are educationally and economically significant… [particularly] teachers’ causal contributions to student test scores.” I often describe casual contributions in classrooms as decisions that cannot be observed or are not recorded on a management information system. For example, the number of ‘glowers‘ a teacher indicates to Ross makes him focus in class over time.

Note, differences across subject and year are not statistically significant.

The number of observations completed by the average treatment school was 2.27 per observe a teacher per year; lower than what teachers were initially asked to do. However, the “dosage random assignment was still nearly a doubling of observations… which did not increase the treatment effect.”

Teacher Peer Observation and Student Test Scores: Evidence from a Field Experiment in English Secondary Schools

There is an abundance of information in the 32-page paper and I certainly haven’t captured all the nuance here. The researchers conclude that they cannot draw strong conclusions about the observer-observee differences with costs are also factored into the research to determine if the approach is viable for schools.

However, this research highlights that low stakes peer evaluation can make a difference to student test scores.

In summary:

  1. Student schools will be higher
  2. Teacher-observers garner more information about performance
  3. How teachers are evaluated affects teacher performance
  4. There is no additional benefit from doubling the number of observations (per year)
  5. Observer teachers benefited just as much as the observed teacher – perhaps more!
  6. Mentors do not need to be selected from a history of high performance

With observers benefiting themselves, this “changes the cost-benefit for schools.”

You will find all across this website where I have experimented in my own classroom as well as in my life as an observer; working out how best to ‘reliably evaluate’ what is taking place in the classroom rather than filling in a form or cherry-picking classroom moments to suit an ideology.

Only three years ago I discovered a new methodology in my doctoral programme, observing lessons as a researcher, in a bid to grow teachers rather than measure them. It was transformational!

Politically, this research challenges (further) the notion of performance-related pay, appraisal and formal (graded) lesson observation are redundant. Amen to that!

Download the paper.

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