Take a close look at the tyranny of observation

This fallible system can damage careers and educations. It's time to try empowering teachers, rather than infantilising them
22nd May 2015, 1:00am


Take a close look at the tyranny of observation


Teaching is a complex professional practice, drawing upon layers of knowledge and skill deployed in the constantly changing context of the classroom. Teachers explain, direct, listen, assess, differentiate, empathise and energise the pupils in their classes. Much of what they do is instinctive: responding to signs of frustration in one pupil; asking a particular question to another to reinforce understanding; using a wrong answer to illustrate a common misunderstanding. Teachers' instincts are based upon their knowledge of their subjects and their experience of teaching and learning.

The Sutton Trust's 2014 report What Makes Great Teaching? (bit.lySuttonGreatTeaching) concludes that there is no framework for effective teaching that is not open to interpretation. Every recommended teaching and learning strategy could be executed well or badly and "none should be treated as a recipe or a formula".

This is very good advice. So why is it being ignored in so many schools, where teachers remain terrified of observations conducted by untrained observers who mask their ignorance by relying on rigid lesson frameworks? In these schools, no lesson receives a good grade unless it contains a starter activity, or evidence of active learning or assessment for learning, or a plenary (take your pick, depending on the school).

Why are so many teachers demotivated by the lack of professional respect they receive from more senior colleagues? Why are so many lesson observations conducted by middle leaders who have little or no knowledge of the subject area or age that they are observing? Why do the teaching practices that are promoted leave the experts (teachers) frustrated at having to accept advice which is at best a waste of time and at worst detrimental to pupils' learning and progression? Why are teachers being judged (and often denied pay progression) on the basis of "evidence" that is deeply dodgy?

The research is clear: when observations are used to identify "above average" and "below average" teachers (and their impact on student learning), the judgements are correct about 60 per cent of the time. This is the best-case scenario. When lesson observations are conducted by untrained teachers or leaders, using unvalidated observation protocols, with no moderation or quality assurance processes, the correlation between judgements and teacher quality is much lower.

These judgements can ruin teachers' careers, deny them pay progression and constrain their professional autonomy. Even more damaging is the effect on morale, on teachers' sense of professional pride and on their ability to make sensitive, appropriate decisions about their classroom practice.

Bagfuls of initiative

So it was fantastic when, as a member of the judging panel for the 2015 TES FE Awards, I read an application from Chichester College for the category of best teaching and learning initiative. In 2011, amid concerns about the consistency of observation grades, and wanting to refocus observation as a valuable developmental opportunity, the college launched a "licence to observe" qualification. The "licence" was made up of five one-hour sessions, which included collecting evidence and writing reports, making key judgements, setting targets and giving feedback using a coaching model.

As the college developed experience and expertise in lesson observation, it piloted something new: non-graded lesson observations. What happened as a result is remarkable. More and more lecturers started taking risks in their teaching and learning, with the support of experienced observers who focused on development. Lecturers began requesting observations, particularly in the lessons where they were struggling. An innovation group, which started with eight members and now has more than 100, meets regularly to share ideas and promote best practice. The group organised a "teaching and learning takeaway", attended by more than 500 teachers who took away innovative teaching and learning strategies in brown paper bags. All curriculum areas had regular teaching and learning road shows.

Lessons to take away

And the result of all this excellent professional development? In March last year, Chichester College was graded outstanding by Ofsted. The quality of teaching, learning and assessment was highly praised. The staff survey revealed that nearly 90 per cent of teachers felt they could take risks.

This is just one case study. But it is important. It shows what can be achieved when senior leaders demonstrate their commitment to professional development, acquiring the tools to assess teaching fairly, with professional respect and dialogue.

It shows the importance of treating professional colleagues with professional respect, and what can be achieved when deep and meaningful conversations take place about teaching and learning - conversations that are not cut short or rendered baseless with the assignment of unreliable observation grades.

Teachers and lecturers accept that they must be accountable for the quality of their teaching. What they do not accept is that they will be judged on "evidence" that is not worth the paper it is written on, destroying any sense of professionalism and failing to reflect the complexity of classroom practice.

So Chichester College is to be congratulated for its brave, innovative and successful approach to lesson observations. And the college received another accolade: it won the best teaching and learning initiative category in the TES FE Awards.

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers

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