What’s the point of lesson observations?

I feel I need to start by saying that I am not questioning the need for lesson observations. They’re a crucial part of developing our professional practice and ensure T&L is quality assured. No, what this post is really concerned with is asking what we hope to achieve by observing teachers.

For some time now I have been musing on the purpose of lesson observations  as well as considering new ways to encourage staff to develop their teaching practice. This has been merrily percolating at the back of my brain for some time but has now, I hope, turned into something a bit more coherent.

Firstly, I had hesitantly and clumsily begun to connect the process of lesson observation with the thinking that underpins effective AfL. We all know that as soon as you grade a piece of work students only focus on whatever that level or grade is. A good grade makes them feel good, a bad grade makes them feel bad. (see ThoughtWeaver’s blog post What’s the point of SATS?) So, instead we focus on the successes in a piece of work and then suggest formative targets for improvement which are (hopefully) clearly linked to assessment criteria. I don’t think I have met anyone in education who would take issue with this. So why isn’t the same thinking applied to teachers’ professional development?

I understand that schools need know the strengths and weaknesses of their staff and that it is important to be able to tell Ofsted who is ‘outstanding’, ‘good’, ‘satisfactory’ and ‘inadequate’, but do teachers need to be told this? My own experience of observing and being observed strongly suggests that as soon as one of these key words is used, the person being observed switches off. Depending on which of the words was used they will experience an emotional response ranging from delighted to devastated. Any conversation about improvement is then rendered meaningless. Would it, I began wondering, be better to just focus on what was good and to suggest a few clear targets for improvement and avoid any mentions of grades? The answer to this depends on why the observation has taken place. Was it simply to grade the teacher? Or was it to help them develop as a professional?

A few months later I came across an article entitled “How we learned to stop worrying and love feedback”. The gist of it is that all too often observer and observee are both made anxious about the process of observation and that this can hardly be a useful starting point for change. I was really struck by the point that, “If lesson observation is to increase learning and the feedback process is to be productive, the changes need to be seen as necessary by the observed as well as the observer…” also, there needs to be “a compelling and internally recognised reason for the person observed to change their behaviour. If not, change may be cosmetic and temporary. So, it is evident that a one-way process where the desired change is prescriptive: ‘downloaded’ from the observer to the observed, is unlikely to work.” Obvious isn’t it?

I then had a conversation with the English AST at my school. She had recently had some training on coaching. Together we observed a colleague and used this coaching model to conduct the observation and to give feedback. The idea is to limit yourself as an observer to factual observations and to try and avoid making judgements. Sound familiar? See my blog post Letting Groups Work. Clearly this was thinking already close to my heart!

Then, this morning I read a great blog post at SMichael920’s blog about teachers observing themselves. What a great idea! Maybe this is a way forward? All I need to do now is to design a proforma and get the team on board. Hurrah for cross-fertilisation and creativity!

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13 thoughts on “What’s the point of lesson observations?

  1. What a very interesting post. Completely agree with the sentiments and points raised. As an AST myself, I have had a range of observation experiences, some good, some bad. In Japan teachers regularly observe each other, feedback and even re teach lessons to help the staff develop their practice.
    Having mentored NQTs and trainee teachers where this model is used effectively, can’t understand why the model doesn’t continue.
    I am certainly planning to relook at the way we carry out observations in school and focus on a way to make the whole process worthwhile and in recognition of our professionalism- not as a stick to beat us with!
    I would be very interested in the proforma you come up with and be more than happy to suggest it to my HT.

  2. Good idea. Trial term 1 next year with willing participants? Also, maybe talk to LF at school, she’s been using a similar method with ITT students for years. See you tomorrow for film day 😉

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  4. I 100% agree, lesson observations must be developmenatal – otherwise what is the point! Coaching, for me, is the best model as it allows the observee to deduce the strengths, areas for development and future actions/changes. Also feedback should not be written until a post lesson conversation has taken place, that way the observee has ownership of future targets.

  5. No arguments here. Coaching is definitely my preferred model. With one caveat: the person being coached must have volunteered. There’s no point trying to ‘coach’ someone who needs to make a lot of changes with no room for discussion. Thankfully, this is rare

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  7. David, at SFC we wr regularly videoed coaching – given the vid & KPIs (touches on ball, +ive / -ive fdbk, times we stopped the session. Little more peer comments. From the vid we had 2 make R own perf goals. Sessionwas videoed with 2 cameras & mic.

    Wonder if this is a real project to get stuck into?

  8. Another very good post, I’m glad I (re) discovered twitter as it has lead me here.

    I like the question in the title – what is the point of lesson observations. While I strongly believe they are in valuable not only in providing a judgement but also in identifying areas for development and as a tool to inform self review, all to often I wonder if lessons are observed to verify a perceived judgement rather than to seek to improve the quality of provision.

    With regard to coaching and video reviews of lessons, it’s invaluable. For a number of years I was leading our staff through a process of self review, analysis, observation and then “coaching”, though it wasn’t really – like you say in your post in order for it to really be coaching then the agenda needs to be set by the person being coached. If you haven’t come across it already I highly recommend Mike Hughes’ book: And the main thing is learning.

  9. Edit for the above comment:

    Sorry, I should have made clear – after reading Mike Hughes book I took a long hard look at how I could move the model of what we had called ‘coaching for improvement’ closer to the practices Hughes describes in his book. Video analysis of lessons, by the teacher and with the teacher was one of the most powerful tools in improving how teachers a tour school set their own targets and development points.

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