Recently clocking up 10,000 lesson observations in schools at home and abroad has made me think afresh about the so-called ’10,000 hour rule’, much championed by writers Daniel Levitin and Malcolm Gladwell: Ten thousand hours of practice are required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything. Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.
In schools we might conclude that those who do lots of purposeful lesson observations are getting better at it all the time. But what if they are doing it with the wrong intent?
Lesson observations are most commonly carried out for the purpose of performance management and inspection. Many teachers I meet say that lesson observations only occur in their school when they are linked to grading of some kind. That is changing slowly, but the teaching profession is haunted by such judgemental behaviour. Micro-managing what happens in the classroom too often dents confidence and narrows opportunities for imaginative teaching.
A few years ago I lay on a surgeon’s table, under local anaesthetic, to have a benign melanoma removed from my wrist. The lead surgeon began cutting precisely then passed over the scalpel to one of his juniors. Within thirty seconds he seized it back, clearly not content with the direction of the incision. He at once offered both the junior and me some reassuring words.
It struck me then – it was in my early days of being an HMI – that my observing a lesson was of little use to the teacher if all I did was to offer some comments once the pupils had left the classroom. I would not have wanted the surgeon to let his junior go on cutting in the wrong direction, saving the feedback to later. My wrist is too precious to me for that.
Ever since that moment under the knife, formal inspection apart, I have rarely observed a lesson without interacting in some way. In all the school reviews/Blinks I lead, I agree with teachers beforehand that I’ll come into their classrooms and be an active assistant. I am not there to make judgements – I am there to share my considerable experience of what works in primary and secondary classrooms across the globe. I indulge myself in what might be called some ‘spot coaching’. Selfishly, I’m there to enjoy myself and learn too.
Let me take a couple of examples.
- I enter a Year 5 class putting the adjectives compliant, significant, resilient into meaningful sentences. They are enjoying the task in talk partners, but I can see a good number have mastered this pretty quickly. I ask the teacher if I can take them in a slightly different direction, to make them wobble intellectually. I ask them to give me some sentences – projecting their voices and speaking to me with their eyes – where these adjectives are turned into nouns, and appropriate sentences created. The digression is quickly harnessed by the teacher and the lesson moves up a gear. I spend a little more time looking at their books, thank everyone, then move to Year 6.
- I enter a Year 12 History seminar where the teacher is drawing intriguing parallels between Mandela, Ghandi and Churchill, wrestling with how best to embed an understanding of contrasting leadership styles. I’m fascinated. The previous week I have been at the unveiling of Ghandi’s statue in London’s Parliament Square, and mention that the statues of all three leaders now stand in the Square. Students google, they call up photos of the statues and we find those outrageous lines of Churchill’s about Ghandi: ‘he ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi and then trampled on by an enormous elephant.’ I share my topical experience, the teacher and students are appreciative, and I settle back to listen to their discussions.
I am clear that a fundamental requirement of the self-improving school system demands a fresh approach to teachers being in one another’s classrooms. We must put behind us this preoccupation with judgement. Instead, seize-the-moment, mutual coaching should be what characterises our daily practice. Teaching with the door open – literally or metaphorically – can be our professional clarion call. Let’s show some trust.
There may still be a place for observations linked to performance management and, in common with the doctor or pilot, observations linked to ensuring teachers meet the requirements of their professional standards. But ‘observations’ as an everyday way of working together must be consigned to the educational dustbin. The surgeon and the scalpel should be a daily reminder.
Roy Blatchford is Director of the National Education Trust