Lesson observation – Strategies for growth and reflection

Two teachers delve into where we’re going wrong with lesson observations and offer practical strategies for improvement…

by Teachwire
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Despite the best intentions, many educators find themselves stumbling through a lesson observation. Here, two teachers delve into where we’re going wrong and offer practical strategies for improvement, including how recording your practice can transform you into a more effective teacher.

Where we’re going wrong and how to fix it

Matt Tiplin unpacks why the traditional lesson observation model has serious issues, and why a new approach is urgently needed…

As a former MAT senior leader and geography teacher, I’ve carried out dozens of lesson observations and been the subject of dozens more. I know what a stressful experience it can be, whichever side of the clipboard you’re on.

Over time, I’ve learnt that it isn’t possible to assess teaching quality within an isolated period of 10, 20 or 40 minutes. Nor is it possible to reduce the magical mysteries of teaching to a series of ticks on a checklist.

“It isn’t possible to assess teaching quality within an isolated period of 10, 20 or 40 minutes”

I’ve further learnt that the most effective lesson observations are those that recognise how complex and nuanced teaching can be. They place more value on the experiences of our teachers. That said, there is still some road left to travel if we want lesson observations to become genuine training opportunities. This is rather than simply something to be ticked off a list.

One-offs don’t work

The cartoonist George Evans once observed that, “Every student can learn – just not on the same day, or in the same way.” He was right. Children can and do learn in different ways and at different rates. This ensures that their learning won’t always follow a predictable path, but will rather fluctuate.

They might advance through periods of rapid understanding, or experience a series of setbacks that affect their behaviour and confidence. But if pupil progress isn’t linear, how can it be right to then assess the impact a teacher is having on their learning in only one day or period?

In my experience, traditional lesson observations don’t accurately capture what happens in classrooms daily. And yet, they will typically be founded on the assumption that just because one lesson has gone well – or not gone well – the outcome for all the other lessons and other sets of pupils will be the same.

“Traditional lesson observations don’t accurately capture what happens in classrooms daily”

Out of control

How pupils respond to a lesson can also be influenced by a range of factors that aren’t always in the gift of the teacher to control. What if, for instance, several pupils don’t have enough money for lunch, before attending an observed PE lesson in the afternoon?

The pupils may well exhibit drops in concentration and energy. This is beyond the teacher’s control, however engaging the lesson might otherwise be. Observe the same lesson on a Monday morning first period, and it will likely be a different story.

In my experience, judgements of teaching practice based on a specific moment in time, without any deeper knowledge of the class, can release the hounds in the wrong direction. A more effective approach is to instead encourage self-reflection, where teachers can decide on areas for development themselves.

These areas could be identified by, for example, videoing and reviewing their own lessons using camera technology. This is something I’ve advocated for some time among the schools I work with.

A shared focus

What’s the point of a lesson observation? I ask that not to be facetious, but because as a busy senior leader juggling multiple tasks, there were times when I genuinely lost sight of the reason.

Having to multitask when time was short sometimes meant that lesson observations could inadvertently morph into opportunities to work through my own endless to-do list.

As a result, there would be occasions when my goals and motivations for the lesson observation didn’t directly align with the teacher’s. This made it difficult to provide meaningful feedback, thus unintentionally leaving valued colleagues feeling short-changed in terms of their CPD.

That’s why it’s essential to have a conversation before the observation. Agree on what it is you’re coming to observe. One or two objectives is the perfect balance – any more, and confusion will quickly set in. Once the objectives have been agreed on, focus only on them and nothing else.

This can be tricky if, for example, you witness poor pupil behaviour. But if you’ve already agreed that you’ll only be observing how, say, the lesson is constructed, that’s what you must stick to. Failing to do so risks an erosion of trust.

Reduced autonomy

Adopting a top-down approach to lesson observations reduces teachers’ autonomy in deciding which areas to focus on for their professional development, based on their prior experience and knowledge of both their subject and the class in question.

I’ve found that time is better spent enabling colleagues to focus on the areas they know from experience will deliver better pupil outcomes. This is rather than forcing changes in their focus to better reflect what SLT has decided should be the priority.

Take whole school literacy, for example. Does it make sense to apply that focus in PE, art or music observations, when said subjects involve markedly less writing and reading?

Let’s take PE. In the best-case scenario, the teacher will interpret the objective as ‘developing students’ knowledge of subject-specific terminology’. This could be evidenced in a game of football, as students call to one another to support positioning and understand strategic play.

The observer will then ‘hook’ onto this ‘evidence’ of school-wide literacy throughout their subject-specific observation. This shows how pupils can articulate what they have learnt in the subject.

The problem is that in this scenario no one benefits. It only reinforces the view that lesson observations are a fruitless exercise in time-wasting.

Opinion and perspective

It’s admittedly hard to not observe lessons through the lens of your own experience. As a geography teacher, I decided to teach my students using a video-based lesson during an Ofsted inspection. This prompted some consternation from my headteacher at the time.

However, to ensure I achieved the desired outcome I created a set of worksheets for the students to work from. There were low, medium, and high-order questions, so that they could think through and use these to interrogate the video, rather than passively watch it. I subsequently received some great feedback from the inspector.

Henceforth, this approach informed my opinion of what an effective, enquiry-based lesson should look like. It continued to influence my judgements when I later observed lessons myself as a senior leader.

Now apply this thinking to a non-humanities subject like maths, where outcomes are typically more black and white. If the maths teacher’s approach didn’t reflect what I thought constituted a good Q&A style, did that mean they were wrong and needed further development?

It took me a while to unpack this question as a member of SLT. I was approaching it from the perspective of having previously taught geography, where there’s always something new to uncover.

This experience taught me that how we observe is informed by our own experiences and opinions. This is in ways that can generate well-meaning, but fundamentally inaccurate lesson observation narratives.

Press reset

Despite lesson observations often forming part of the fabric of school life, they don’t always achieve their intended purpose. This is to support teachers’ professional development and ensure that pupils receive the best possible learning experience.

From my own experience I’ve found that removing the barrier of hierarchy and fostering a culture of self-reflection, where teachers can take ownership over their own development, is a much more effective way of supporting staff and maximising outcomes for students.

How to improve your observations
  • Shorter, more frequent observations will provide better insights into your school’s teaching and learning than one-off termly events
  • Beware of hooking onto false proxies for progress. A student may read a passage fluently, but is this a true indicator of their understanding of key concepts?
  • Easily identified criteria, such as group work or teacher-led questions, might tick a few boxes. However, they rarely provide much insight into pupils’ learning or the quality of teaching
  • Don’t try to shoehorn in evidence of school-wide priorities into your lesson observations. This risks making teachers jump through hoops to meet said priorities, rather than focusing on what works best for their pupils

Matt Tiplin is a former senior school leader and Ofsted inspector. He is currently chair of governors at a community primary school and the vice president of ONVU Learning.

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…

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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