'Lesson observations are barely more accurate than a lucky guess'

Lesson observations have been shown to be flawed when it comes to measuring teacher ability - so how do we improve them?

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2016 was the year we learned observation isn’t a very good way to measure teacher effectiveness.  The findings in the Sutton Trust’s What Makes Great Teaching report, although written in 2014, began to break through to schools.

“If we were to use the best classroom observation ratings, for example, 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,” explained the report. “Therefore, these judgements need to be used with considerable caution.” 

This cannot be overstated – mathematically, the best observations get it right slightly more than chance. And yet we presume ourselves to be astute at judging teaching and learning?

So how do we make observations better? 

1. Ensure observers are trained in both observation and feedback

“Teachers or head teachers must be trained as observers – otherwise well intentioned programmes can revert to the blind leading the blind,” says the above report.   

The Hawthorne effect is where the subject of a study tends to behave differently when being observed. School observations suffer from this. Also a problem is that observers are trying to both monitor and support classroom practice in one hit – which is almost impossible. 

It is clear that for most teachers the internal observation process in practice is a political and personal mechanism where trust must be present for it to be effective. Training staff on a specific observation protocol may help.

Training "could focus on how to deliver feedback in a supportive, participatory way as opposed to or in addition to other more traditional types of training" (Pichler, 2012) and must be standardised across staff for consistency.

Range, Young & Hvidston (2013) suggest a clinical model of observation with a pre- and post-conference, which also states that feedback should be factual, non-threatening, and provided no later than five days after the observation.  

Other possibilities include the "negotiated assessment" (Gosling, 2000), where both the observer and observed agree a contract of what is to happen beforehand.

2. Shift lesson observations from monitoring to developmental 

Although staff appraisal is unavoidable, observations should not be used solely for this purpose.  

Bernstein (2008) collated observation studies and concluded "class observations should yield formative review only, unless multiple observations by well-prepared observers using standardized protocols are undertaken".  Successful observations are those that are used formatively and thoughtfully, with enough time allocated to discuss findings and an eye for the long-term.  

A "trusting, collegial relationship" with the observer is one of the most important factors for impact (O’Pry and Shumacher, 2012).  Obviously, making sure grades are not given nor implied is crucial, as is a clear and visible dialogue with staff that observations are ‘done with’ and not ‘done to’. 

The key finding from research is that ownership of the process needs to lie with the teacher: ‘‘what really matters is whether or not the person being observed has full control over what happens to information about the observation’ (McMahon et al, 2007).

3. Triangulate lesson observations with other information 

The research suggests observations alone are not an effective way to measure learning.  If used, they must be triangulated with other sources of information such as student evaluations, which are cost-effective, reliable and valid (Burniske & Neibaum,2012), work scrutiny, and data measures.  

4.  Consider using subject-specific lesson observations forms

“The literature shows that content-specific practices tend to have more impact than generic practices on student learning” (Coe et al, 2014). Many subjects have well-researched, specific tools to help assess classroom practice which consider subject pedagogy as deeply as (or more so than) general pedagogy, such as the ACME/Nottingham University form (which can be found here).

Lucy Rycroft-Smith works in Communications and Research for Cambridge Mathematics (www.cambridgemaths.org), which has supported ACME in developing professional development advice for headteachers and senior leaders.

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