The research that shaped me: the limitations of observations

Six years ago, Niki Kaiser was focused on creating lessons that would look great in observations – but then she came across the research of Professor Robert Coe and started to see things in a whole new light
16th August 2019, 12:04am
The Research That Shaped My Teaching

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The research that shaped me: the limitations of observations

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/research-shaped-me-limitations-observations

One of the reasons I enjoy being a teacher is that I get to witness students’ light-bulb moments. And I had my own pedagogical light-bulb moment in 2013, when I first encountered the work of Professor Robert Coe, then director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM).

It’s difficult to describe to people who weren’t teaching at that time just how revolutionary his ideas felt. Back then, lesson observations were routinely graded, and to be judged outstanding they had to demonstrate to the observer that progress had been made. Learning had to be visible, assessment needed to be explicit, and students were supposed to be engaged and industrious.

Coe described “poor proxies for learning” (as outlined on the CEM blog and in the 2014 Sutton Trust report he co-authored called What Makes Great Teaching?). This list came as a shock, because it included the very principles I was building my lessons around:

  • Students are busy: lots of work is done (especially written work).
  • Students are engaged, interested and motivated.
  • Students are getting attention: feedback, explanations.
  • Classroom is ordered, calm and under control.
  • Curriculum has been “covered”.
  • (At least some) students have supplied correct answers.

Coe doesn’t mean any of these things are inherently bad, just that they don’t necessarily indicate learning is taking place. The point is they are easy to measure, and so were characteristics many observers were looking for in an outstanding lesson.

Coe goes even further, arguing that classroom observations themselves are unreliable. “If we were to use the best classroom observation ratings … to identify teachers as ‘above’ or ‘below’ average and compare this to their impact on student learning, we would get it right about 60 per cent of the time, compared with the 50 per cent we would get by just tossing a coin,” he says. “Therefore, these judgements need to be used with considerable caution.”

Eye-opening evidence

The Sutton Trust report profoundly changed my approach to learning, teaching and assessment. It started me thinking about the liminal nature of learning (it seldom happens linearly, and involves steps backwards as well as forwards); it pointed me towards “desirable difficulties” (making learning harder, but in a way that promotes learning); and, perhaps most importantly, it showed me that some indicators of student learning are unreliable.

It’s important to realise the things that look good at the time a lesson is being observed are not only unreliable but could actually reduce learning in the long term.

The report also summarises the characteristics of “great teaching”, backed by the strongest evidence, which include pedagogical content knowledge, classroom management, quality of instruction and high expectations combined with a recognition of students’ self-worth.

But the most important part of the report for me was the suggestion that we plan by thinking “Where in this lesson will students have to think hard?”

This was my light-bulb moment. I’d been thinking about what my students would be doing rather than what they would be thinking. I had moved past the classic trap of planning lessons around activities I wanted to do, but I’m not sure how often I left time and space for students to get stuck, think hard and find solutions.

Coe’s report gave me the confidence to leave silences in my lessons, which I might previously have viewed as unproductive and which felt at odds with the prevailing culture of observations and lesson judgements.

Another think coming

I now understand that classrooms with time and space for thinking hard don’t have to be silent and devoid of life and talk. Silence doesn’t necessarily signify that learning is happening, just as students talking doesn’t always reflect a lack of learning. A silent student might look like they’re concentrating but actually be thinking about what they had for dinner last night, while two students debating whether we should ban single-use plastics might be thinking really hard about the science behind their arguments.

There’s a balance to be struck between allowing students to get stuck, while encouraging them to think hard, and letting them feel disheartened because they find the work too difficult. Coaxing students out of their comfort zones by asking them to think, when they’d rather be spoon-fed, can be challenging for the most confident teacher.

I’ve learned that culture change is a slow process, and it’s much easier to ask students to think hard if they are used to doing so in the majority of their lessons. And I’ve found they are more likely to get on board if you explain why you have the expectations you do. But it’s also important to make sure that you have a few quick wins in every lesson, and that you don’t suck out all the humour, joy and life from the classroom.

The report is pretty certain about what makes great teaching but less clear on how to measure it. Classroom observation is hard, and although there are recommendations about how you might do this, they’re tentative.

What is clear, however, is that if you base your teaching around what is most easily observed, rather than what will encourage students to think, this could reduce the effectiveness of the carefully crafted lessons you’ve spent so long preparing.

Dr Niki Kaiser is network research lead in the Norwich Research School at Notre Dame High School

This is the second in a four-part series on the research that has influenced teachers’ careers. Next week: cognitive load theory

This article originally appeared in the 16 August 2019 issue under the headline “Going beyond appearances”

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