Thoughts on lesson observations #3 – The clearing fog

The clouds that contour the Brecon Beacons whenever I walk along Offa’s Dyke provide a flip metaphor for the fog of the educational landscape. I spend many weekends walking these wet cold mountains: an escape from the electric hum of London. The high winds on the ridges are a natural antidote to the world of work: of Shadwell, Wapping and Aldgate. This recent Easter, the peaks have seemed more than 200 miles away from lesson observations, marking, and spreadsheets.

In school, we continue to talk post-Ofsted about how we “do” lesson observations and why. Increased team sharing of best practice seems instinctively the next move forward for us. We work with the principle that explaining how to improve delivery and provision within lessons is more important than defining it in a snapshot moment.

Databases of judgments and labels (which we have) perhaps do less to improve the quality of an individual’s teaching than collaborative and democratic planning and review. Our individualised Improving Learning Programme has strong impact in this way. Providing staff with a co-planner and reviewer of their choice and using IRIS Connect software, but giving also time and space to reflect is imperative.

It is also a complex conversation to un-teach judgement, to un-teach our comparative self which marks ourselves against each other. As recipients we want to know where we are and often where we are in relation to others. This impetus to judge and to define comes through fear of the hard hand of external judgement. Of course it is disingenuous to say we can throw away lesson judgements completely. However we do it, when we walk into a room we make a judgement unconsciously. Whether it is on a score of 1-4 or “promising” to “fine”, there is a decision made of the quality we see. From that comes reflection on what is needed for the whole team of staff and what steps to take next.

Mutual coaching and peer-review, allied to better research, form part of the maturing vision that all schools are developing. It mirrors, of course, wider thinking by researchers who have long argued that we should be less interested in ‘accountability’ and more in professional improvement.

We are all discovering that the scoring of teaching quality formerly used by Ofsted and aped by schools only measures what Robert Coe calls “poor proxies for learning”. There persists an unwillingness to accept that observations are limited in scope and worth. A culture of tyranny and rank ordering of teachers doesn’t allow you to go beyond being a satisfactory school. The problem is partly the two competing aims generated by lesson observation appraisal cultures: between what may actually be needed and what needs to be seen to be done. This clash is keenly felt by professionals. Despite a desire to focus on dialogue and mutual commentary, teachers and leaders still find it difficult to step outside the scaffold of judgment.

The long horizon afforded during my Brecon walks reminds me that judgments about lessons and staff are always decisions about people. Judgment labels people. It is unhelpful at best, and at worst can retard development and pupil progress. Observations of others’ performance and the systems we use to do this have to be considered, intelligently-informed and emotionally cogent. In almost all cases, improving teaching is a long-term goal, not a quick fix.

But what about accountability? Coe’s research highlights the inadequacy of lesson observation judgements in this regard. Both the reliability of judgements and the validity of observations are problematic. We have attempted at Bishop Challoner small steps to ameliorate these effects. Our regular cycle of observations is all now paired. We have done this for three years and the ethos should be of shared evaluations. Research by Kane (2013) seems “unambiguous in suggesting the importance of having more than one observer. The gain in reliability from adding another set of eyeballs is more than twice as large as that of adding another observation from the same observer.”

Observing to judge and observing to advise are subtle distinctions, challenging to implement, but we must grow a more sophisticated professional development world.

As the sun brightens during my walks over Brecon I notice again the shape of the valleys here, reminding me how things are rarely mono-causal. Lesson observations have to be done with an awareness of our flawed ability to make judgements. It is hard not to think that more research is needed in UK school contexts about the impact of punitive lesson observation regimes both on the core ethos of the school and on the standards agenda itself.

Nick Soar is Vice-Principal and Head of the Girls’ School
Bishop Challoner Catholic Federation of Schools

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on lesson observations #3 – The clearing fog

  1. Pingback: Collection of posts on lesson observations | NET BLOG

  2. Pingback: dynamic or static lesson observations | researchatwix

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