Leadership - Observing lessons? Be a reliable witness

9th May 2014 at 01:00
Before you judge a colleague's practice, check that you're aware of your own blind spots. They can be harder to see than you'd think

Witness statements are notoriously unreliable: through the fog of bias, perception, relationships and memory, the world is viewed in a highly subjective way.

And herein lies the problem with lesson observations. The heart of performance management in education is essentially a witness statement. Unsurprisingly, this cornerstone of possible pay progression is widely criticised as a result.

Last month in TES, observations were identified as having an "enormous and unjustifiable" negative impact on morale. Thinktank Policy Exchange has also waded in, commenting that lesson observations by Ofsted are no better than "flipping a coin".

The concern is not new, of course. Comments from worried professionals have been increasingly evident in recent years, with many highlighting the climate of fear and intimidation created by observations. "The more we were told we were useless, the harder it became," one teacher said.

These sentiments were echoed by an experienced and highly regarded professional who told me how welcome it would be during observation feedback to be told that they were doing "just something, anything, good".

Problems arise because lesson observations are not just witness statements but interpersonal assessments. It is no surprise, then, that they are fraught with subjectivity and vulnerable to bias.

Other performance indicators can be very precise and therefore easy to apply. One example might be the application of a new whole-school strategy: unless you adopt it, your wage will not increase. Meeting targets for student progress is another common determiner. Setting aside the philosophical and ideological debates around the issue as a whole, these examples are clear and easily administered. Lesson observations need to be equally straightforward if they are to be trusted.

So how can it be done? Psychologists Ian Rothman and Cary Cooper state in their book Organizational and Work Psychology that most individuals want to learn about themselves. The authors say that performance management can be highly motivational if used well, but harmful if not. It would be useful for us to follow their advice and have a lesson observation system that is:

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