How to take the teacher blame game out of lesson observations

Too often, lesson observations just focus on behaviour – we need to make them more productive, argues Emily Seeber

Observations

We’ve all been there. We have been observed, having spent precious time and energy on planning, drawing on our wider reading, making a new resource or adapting our plan from last year to counter a misconception that students picked up.

The observer sits down and begins: they focus exclusively on the amount of time Mabel spent looking out of the window.

All that teaching you wanted feedback on? Not a mention of it.


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The majority of feedback given to teachers on their teaching is about students’ behaviour. This is problematic.

Constantly discussing students’ behaviour perpetuates a toxic blame culture in teaching in both directions: “the lesson would have been great, but the students just wouldn’t behave”; or “it’s all my fault, I can’t control them so I can’t teach them”.

As far as I am concerned, blame has no place in observation: we observe, we discuss, and we should move forward as observer and observee.

So we need to refocus our lesson observations to make them more productive.

Lesson observations: a four-part process

This is where the knowledge quartet comes in (Rowlands, 2005). Although this started as a model for observing maths lessons, it is beginning to have an impact in a range of other subjects.

Essentially, it is a way of categorising what we observe in lessons into four basic groups: foundation, transformation, connection and contingency.

Foundation is the general pedagogy, knowledge of educational theory, subject knowledge and school procedures and processes. It’s where day-to-day behaviour management fits.

Transformation is about how the teacher makes their subject knowledge into something that the students can learn: how they break down concepts, ensure knowledge retention, build understanding, their knowledge of the scheme of work, resources and more. How do they curate powerful learning experiences for students in their subject? This is the bread-and-butter of what good teachers do every day.

Observations

Connection is about how the learning links. A learning sequence needs to be coherent and well-reasoned, and the teacher should be able to articulate that. How does the lesson sit between the previous lesson and the next one? But it’s also about how the elements of the lesson are connected to each other. How have they been ordered? How does this ensure that the lesson flows and students make good progress?

Finally, contingency is how the teacher deals with the unexpected: the left-field question from Barney or the demonstration not going to plan in physics. Did the teacher use this as an opportunity for learning or could they have done? Creating learning from the unexpected is the mark of an expert teacher.

Full feedback

A simple, but effective way to use this model when giving feedback to a teacher is to frame the discussion around one point from each group. Limit the discussion to four questions. As the observer, you have to reflect on the lesson, synthesising what you have observed from each category into one question to ask the teacher. This reflective process, followed by discussion, ensures that you are both learning from the observation.

When lesson observation feedback focuses exclusively on behaviour management, it excludes most of the discussion that actually develops teaching: the transformation and the connection. And it misses out on those magic unplanned moments of contingency.

Emily Seeber is head of science at Bedales School in Hampshire

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