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Lesson observation – How recording your practice can make you a better teacher

Photo showing exterior shot of Aston University Engineering Academy, representing a lesson observation

Recording lessons for CPD purposes isn’t new – but as David Chapman explains, it’s possible to approach the practice more supportively and creatively…

David Chapman
by David Chapman
FREE, BITE-SIZED CPD Speedy Assessment CPD for secondary teachers

Isn’t it time to reassess the traditional lesson observation and ask ourselves if they are actually improving learning for pupils and teachers?

A quick search on any social platform will reveal how plenty of things can go wrong with them. This is everything from banal accidents, like coffee spills and malfunctioning IT, to unpredictable student behaviour and teachers forgetting everyone’s name (and sometimes even their own).

All frivolity aside, a lesson observation can sometimes make even the most experienced teachers break into a sweat upon hearing the words, ‘Please ignore me, I’m not here. I’m just observing.

And that’s wrong, isn’t it? At a time when teacher retention and recruitment stories are hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons, stressed, unhappy teachers are the last thing that any school will want for their pupils. The time has come to inject some fresh thinking into how we approach a lesson observation.

Support, not scrutiny

Understanding what works well and what doesn’t in lessons, and the impact of this on pupils’ learning, is pivotal to school improvement. And yet, an isolated lesson observation can only ever provide a snapshot of what’s happening on a certain day at a certain time.

As such, they can’t really reflect the reality of the teacher or pupils’ day to day experiences and interactions in the classroom.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, is it fair to carry out infrequent assessments of our teachers, as if they do the same thing, in the same way every lesson? No, because they don’t, and neither do their pupils.

Classrooms are highly dynamic environments. No two days or lessons will ever be the same, since there are simply too many variables at play. At the same time, we all know that teaching is already a challenging profession. A lesson observation can up the ante even further, leaving teachers feeling simultaneously unsupported, over-scrutinised and undervalued.

All that said, however, a lesson observations remains an important tool within the larger teacher CPD toolkit. That’s why we wanted to find out if they could be carried out more frequently, less formally and less intrusively.

Giving teachers agency

Here at Aston University Engineering Academy, we wanted to give our teachers more independence to reflect on how their lessons went, and greater agency over the areas they wanted to work on. It may be, for instance, that one colleague wanted to understand why one of their lessons was working well for one set of pupils, but not for a different class.

In practical terms, of course, setting aside the time and space to do this can be quite the ask for teachers already grappling with heavy workloads.

We therefore opted to explore whether giving teachers a 360° view of the classroom could help them spot things they might have otherwise missed.

In consultation with staff, we took the decision to implement classroom camera technology from ONVU Learning. Importantly, however, we put teachers in control of the recording facilities. This means they get to decide when to press record. They then decide whether they wish to review the resulting footage by themselves, or in the presence of a colleague who can offer further advice.

Easily missed

This new ability to pause and rewind events from within a lesson has allowed our teachers to identify things otherwise easily missed in the moment.

For example, we had one teacher spot a pupil sitting at the back of the class not engaging in the lesson after reviewing the footage. Because the pupil hadn’t been disruptive this would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

As it was, the teacher was able to check with the boy. She discovered that he had previously covered the same topic at a different school. She was then able to adapt the lesson to involve him more and keep him engaged.

In another case, we had a teacher who had been struggling to manage a particular group of Y10 boys. After watching a playback of the classroom footage alongside a colleague, the teacher was able to take on board some of the colleague’s suggestions for tweaks to the lesson’s order of play. Things improved thereafter.

Teachers learn best from other teachers. This is especially true when they have experienced the same issues, with the same cohort of pupils in the same school. It can feel far less isolating once someone can see what’s actually happening and then talk through the issues raised.

A change of perspective

Hands up anyone whose classes are populated with several members of the ‘hands up faithful’…? Hands up anyone teaching pupils who are clever, yet always silent…? Do we have any classes with their fair share of ‘star turns?’

As we know, a willingness to raise one’s hand isn’t necessarily the best indicator of engagement and understanding. Some children may well know the answers, but be reluctant to come forward for fear of being seen as ‘too smart.’ More confident pupils who are happy being the centre of attention might jump in without thinking through the answer properly.

The educationalist John Dewey once emphasised the importance of seeing education as a single process involving teaching and learning, with no separation between the two.

It’s a theory arguably since proven. However, if teaching is only part of learning process, does it not make sense for observations to focus more on what impact the lesson is having on pupils?

A more positive approach to your lesson observation

That’s why we’ve encouraged our teachers to assess how well pupils are engaging during lessons by identifying ‘small giveaways’. These are assorted little tells, such as a student’s body language, or where their eyes happen to be tracking.

Small outward signs like these can reflect how invested students are in the lesson. Or they can help identify what effects those pupils taking longer to settle are having on their peers.

By observing what impact a lesson is having on pupils, rather than the impact we assume it’s having, teachers can make small, yet critical improvements to their practice.

For instance, one of our maths teachers was disappointed to see that some pupils hadn’t grasped a complex maths problem after they handed in their homework. She’d thought everyone had understood how she explained it. But after reviewing the lesson footage could see for herself where she’d lost some pupils along the way. She was able to then fine-tune her lesson so that no pupil was left behind.

With teachers now having more ownership over the decisions they take in the classroom, they can feel more valued, more respected and more willing to share not just their strengths, but also details of what they could have done differently to improve the lesson. This has helped develop the knowledge and learning of their colleagues, as well as themselves.

David Chapman is head of school at Aston University Engineering Academy

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