The Beaufort Wind Scale 2: What makes a good observation, and why it isn't a grade
Last week I wrote about some of the reasons why lesson observations can lack utility. In this piece, I want to do two things: define the two contradictory aims of lesson observations, and ways in which these aims can be teased apart in order to focus on observations that catalyse professional development.
Here’s the main obstacle: most observations aren’t really about improving the practice of the teacher; most observations are collating data about the quality of teaching. Those are separate enterprises. Schools are required to evidence the quality of their teaching to external agencies; for most institutions, this means observations, graded against criteria. Whose criteria? Obviously, prudent schools will match their criteria as closely to Ofsted’s as possible. No school gives everyone Outstanding because ‘they’re lovely’.
The aim of a supportive observation – I call it the intrinsic aim – is to help teachers teach better. Then there's the external aim. This is when observations are carried out in order to evidence the observation process; when teachers are graded, evaluated, and served notice to improve as a result. The observation is a blood sample, taken to satisfy a quantitative appetite. And this is the reason for most observations in schools. The upsurge in this kind of observation is driven by a high-stakes accountability model.
When we conflate these two aims, neither is achieved. If you want teachers to see observations as a welcome part of their career, inspiring genuine improvement and introspection, innovation and consolidation, then here’s what we do:
1. Take out the damn numbers. This isn’t an exam, so don’t make it feel like one. You know all that research behind AfL which suggests that children, given a grade, forget the advice and dive brain-first into the number? Yes, that. You tell an adult professional that their lesson was unsatisfactory, or worse, satisfactory, and watch them barrel off the edge of Niagara.
2. Forget Ofsted. I know that this is unlikely. Many senior staff view appeasing the dark whims of our comfortably-dressed inquisitors as axiomatic as inhaling. But if we can stop blood-sacrificing NQTs for five minutes, then we can remember that Ofsted do not define good teaching- they exist to discover it. Why should an observation be designed around their expectations? When did we all give in to that piece of unspoken dogma? You know who knows what good teaching is? Good teachers.
3. Design your own observation criteria. What do you want to investigate? Who will be paired with whom? If the observation is designed to assist the teacher being observed, then you better be clear that the observer is at least as competent as the observed in the area of development. But observing also can be used as development. Watching a professional in action can be a liberating education itself.
4. Have a conversation afterwards. If your idea of advice is an email three weeks later, forget it. Make the time to make it happen. Observing someone without a face-to-face afterwards is like going on a date but forgetting to take anyone.
5. Decide to use the fruit of the conversation. This could mean a follow up observation a few weeks later, once techniques have been discerned and assimilated. It could mean observing someone else. It could even mean an escalation: when I observe teachers, the next phase involves me filming them in a lesson, then showing them what I saw, at the same time as them explaining what they meant by doing it. It’s a powerful voodoo, and takes courage. After that, the next step is for me to take their class for a lesson and put my money where my mouth is. After all, what’s advice without a demonstration, and even a little proof? Terrifying, I assure you.
This is the context. This is what separates a training observation from an administrative one. You cannot evaluate how a teacher is doing unless you know the context. Who are the children? How long has the teacher been at the school? What lesson is it? Who's just returned from the LSU? What are they trying achieve in the current arc of lessons?
And most importantly, what effect have you had on the children? Last week I likened a good lesson observation to The Beaufort Wind Force Scale, relying on the effects of the wind rather than trying to record the speed. That's what we should do in observations: measure the effect of the teaching, not the teaching itself. Are the children working hard? Harder than in other lessons? Are they trying? How many are taking part? And most importantly, what have they learned? Note that this last question often gets reduced to moronic levels of simplicity by weak inspectors. It shouldn't mean simply some easily defined packet of data- although it can, it can. But good teachers know that good lessons often involve work where progress isn’t easily shown. They may be practising, for example.
That's the final difference between a supportive observation and the dipstick variant. In the former, the teacher is skilled enough to understand when the lesson is good even if progress isn’t clearly evidenced. A revision lesson for example. That's when the skill of the observer needs to be high; because it is a skill. It isn't just something you can farm out to a bureaucrat. This is an art and a craft. The observer must be in a position of superior capacity to the one being observed.
My advice to teachers is always this: don't wait for the wheels of the school system to demand your observation. Drive your own progress. Watch someone you want to see. Ask someone to observe you whom you respect and admire. Paperwork need barely change hands. Your salary won't be affected. You won't garner kudos or lose face by doing so.
But you just might become a better teacher. Isn’t that what we're supposed to be doing? If Ofsted are worth their salt, they’ll see it. Let them earn their money.