Can you feel it? The rumbling and grumbling; it’s getting louder and louder.
There’s now a real movement and shift away from traditional high-stakes ‘one-size fits all’ approach to lesson observations as fed-up teachers are claiming back their classrooms and professional status.
We are now witnessing, at least in forward-thinking schools, a culture that celebrates and nurtures success rather than a culture of fear that vomits toxic tuts and soul-destroying criticisms. We are moving away from what Lorna Page (2017) describes as
“a system of self-preservation to a system of self-actualisation underpinned by the realisation that teachers are trusted professionals.”
When lesson observation can be used as an instrument and platform for professional development, an opportunity to obtain feedback, to learn, to reflect and to grow as a professional then it suddenly becomes useful, productive and even welcome. Observations can add to our professional capital.
Classroom observations are shedding their skins as dens of fear and becoming arenas of growth for unlocking potential to help teachers maximise their own performance, increase their agency and responsibility for their own development. They are shifting from judgement to professional support, and are helping to reignite teacher inquisitiveness about their own practice.
Some see lesson observations as a glorious waste of time but you’d be fool-hardy to stop them because teachers need and want feedback. The best teachers crave feedback.
Yes, old-style lesson observations were artificial and stress-saturated but lesson observations that sit inside a positive and professional culture mean they are developmental, breed collaboration and encourage deeper joint practice.
Far from being an unnecessary part of school life, lesson observations are crucial to improving and contribute significantly to the intellectual work of teaching. When they are part of a trusting and collegial relationship and provide relevant, actionable feedback that improves practices and promotes growth, observations can have tremendous impact. As Matt O’Leary (2017) notes in ‘Reclaiming Lesson Observation’,
“The time has come for observation to no longer be seen as a predominately summative assessment tool or disciplinary mechanism, but instead as a method of systematic enquiry that has an important contribution to make to educators’ analysis, understanding and improvement of teacher thinking, learning and practice.”
Some schools and colleges have deliberately changed their terminology to move away from observation as a doing to exercise and so refer to ‘developmental practice’ to emphasise the upgrade to an approach that focuses on doing with.
Just a note of caution though. Asking the question “What kinds of frameworks or tools could help us to capture great teaching?” the Sutton Trust report ‘What makes great teaching?‘ says that,
“Successful teacher observations are primarily used as a formative process – framed as a development tool creating reflective and self-directed teacher learners as opposed to a high stakes evaluation or appraisal. However, while observation is effective when undertaken as a collaborative and collegial exercise among peers, the research also emphasises the need for challenge in the process which may involve principals or external experts.”
The recent news that a structured lesson observation programme aimed at helping teachers learn from each other, made no difference to pupils’ GCSE maths and English is being seized upon as evidence that peer observation doesn’t work. It does but it depends how it is done and what technology is or isn’t being used.
A US study had found that structured lesson observation did lead to gains in student and teacher performance but the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) funded an evaluation of the University of Bristol’s Teacher Observation intervention didn’t “show any overall improvement in combined maths and English GCSE scores for pupils of the teachers involved.”
But regard with caution: some teachers said that they had difficulty fitting the observations into their timetable and others said that they felt uncomfortable taking time out of teaching to complete observations. The evaluators found that on average the teachers in the “low dosage” schools completed three observations a year which was half of what was recommended. Importantly, the report states,
“The lack of impact seen in this study may be because the structured Teacher Observation intervention was no more effective than existing practice rather than because general peer observation has no impact.”
Also significant is the fact that in the US, where an impact had been seen, lesson observation was linked with professional development.
Video: a game-changer
Many schools have now made video observation their modus operandi as a way of embracing a developmental approach and use them as a means for self-reflection, peer collaboration, virtual coaching, evaluation, and building video libraries.
Teachers need and want more out of observations and evaluations. ‘Leveraging video for learning’ is something promoted notably by the Centre for Education Policy Research at Harvard University – see their toolkit here.
The SmartBrief Education White Paper (2015) ‘A game changer: Using video to achieve high performance in the classroom’, notes 5 benefits of video-observation as providing teachers and observers the opportunity to:
- Identify areas for improvement and communicate more effectively with each other about goals, best practices, etc.
- Give and receive personalised support specific to a teacher’s expertise and content area.
- Develop a shared understanding of high-quality instruction and create a common language between observers and teachers.
- Collaborate more effectively within professional learning communities (PLCs) by sharing effective techniques and receiving peer feedback and support.
- Reflect on classroom practices and allow teachers to take action before sharing video with observers or peers.
Even though video technology has not reached every school and classroom yet, support for it among teachers is quickly increasing. In a SmartBrief poll of teachers, 91% felt that simply filming their instruction would help them improve their practice. Report author Michael Moody says that video fuels great teaching and takes instruction to the next level,
“It is clear that, just like coaches and athletes, educators are excited about classroom video, seeing it as a tool with the unique ability to push practices to the next level and ultimately, make the difference for students.”
Video shifts ownership of change back to the teacher. It enhances our conversation about pedagogy, and is a powerful tool for professional growth.
Although the mere mention of the word ‘observation’ can make many a teacher flinch, conversations are changing and video observation has helped that move in a positive direction. Teachers are now far more open-minded about observations because they see that this isn’t about data, it’s about them and how they can get better.
Videos can help teachers share their practice in-house and beyond. In fact, sharing lessons with subject specialists is a golden opportunity for teachers to engage in open, productive dialogue and form authentic partnerships with others. Video is there not to be watched but for support to upgrade knowledge, understanding and skills.
Could inspection move in this direction and flirt with a different approach?
The Ofsted view
Ofsted visit schools to see them in action but that doesn’t mean visiting classrooms has to be there and then. An inspection team has limited time available so why not show them examples of classroom teaching, learning and assessment from your video library? A sample of videos could be selected and inspectors could dip into these lessons without having to cause someone huge stress and time off work.
Whilst it would be still important for inspectors to attend ‘live’ lessons, video recordings of a lesson could help the observed and the observers by removing the personal dynamics and make the inspection process less intimidating and actually more useful.
In its new corporate strategy for 2017-22, Ofsted note that it would be taking a look at the validity of its lesson observations. At the beginning of last month, an international seminar was held that brought together experts in lesson observation from around the world. We are now waiting for Ofsted to gather its thoughts and findings of the different systems being used and look forward to seeing what changes it makes based on what works effectively elsewhere.Will video lessons feature in this?
Video observations have already proven themselves to be intelligent, focused and responsible – the very three things that Ofsted quote as its guiding principles.
Coe, R. and Aloisi, C. and Higgins, S. and Major, L.E. (2014) ‘What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research.’, Project Report. Sutton Trust, London.
Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard. (2014). Can video technology improve teacher evaluation? Best Foot Forward Project. Retrieved from: http://cepr.harvard.edu/cepr-resources/files/newsevents/convening2014-breakout-fast-forwarding.pdf
Page, L. 2017. The impact of lesson observation on practice, professionalism and teacher identity. In: O’Leary, M. ed. Reclaiming Lesson Observation. Oxon: Routledge, pp 62-75
SmartBrief Education White Paper (2015) ‘A game changer: Using video to achieve high performance in the classroom’
TNTP. (2013). Perspectives of irreplaceable teachers: What America’s best teachers think about teaching. Retrieved from: http://tntp.org/publications/view/perspectives-of-irreplaceable-teachers-best-teachersthink-about-teaching