Live lesson-coaching tech: helping hand or Big Brother?

4th March 2016 at 00:00
Remote coaching, criticised by some for turning staff into ‘robots’, is being adopted by more UK schools

UK secondary schools are starting to adopt new technology that provides teachers with a live commentary on their classroom practice using an earpiece and a video link, TESS has learned.

Teachers are connected to a remote “coach” who provides instant feedback on their classroom performance. Such approaches are well established in sports, particularly in the US, where American football players are continually given orders and tips by their head coach using headsets. But there was a backlash when similar technology using earpieces and walkie-talkies was first introduced to school classrooms in the States. One approach, called “No-Nonsense Nurturing”, used by many US schools – including the prominent American charter chain KIPP – was heavily criticised by teachers who claimed that it was turning them into “robots” (see box, below).

But the technology has proved more popular among teaching staff in England and Wales, where around 100 schools now use it. This comes despite initial concerns from classroom unions that it could be used as a “surveillance system” or for performance management. It is expected that the technology will be used in Scottish schools in the near future.

The NASUWT teaching union said that lesson observations and the use of cameras in schools were both “sensitive issues”, but that it had worked with suppliers of the technology and other unions to develop a code of practice. Graham Newell, the education director of one supplier, Iris Connect, said that his company’s approach was different to the situations in the US where technology had been used to “instruct teachers on how to behave in the classroom”. “Our technology isn’t used like that – it is totally controlled by the teacher, as a professional development tool,” he said.

“Teachers have complete control over who sees the videos. No one can view the video of their lessons without their express permission. Similarly, the video cannot be copied, so it can’t be passed on to anyone without the teacher knowing and giving consent.” As part of the protocol agreed with unions in the UK, schools must agree the equipment “will not be used for surveillance” and “no pressure, implicit or explicit, will be placed on teachers …to use the technology”.

Watching every step

Under the system, a camera provides the remote “coach” with a 360-degree view of the classroom, and they offer the teacher, who is wearing an earpiece, tips and advice on how they could improve their lessons.

The teacher’s earpiece and microphone contain a chip that communicates with the camera, so it can track the movements of the teacher throughout their lesson.

Matthew McDonald, director of teaching and learning at the Wakefield City Academies Trust – a chain of 22 academies – has used the technology to allow its teachers in Doncaster or Sheffield to link up with expert behaviour-management coaches, based in London. He said that it had proved popular.

“We use it mainly for NQTs and staff that are in need of support, but we also have national leaders in education using it,” Mr McDonald said. “It removes any issues that you may have with a senior member of staff standing at the back of the room observing your lessons.

“Instead, you may talk through what areas you want to improve or are finding difficult beforehand and you can watch it back or have your coach tell you when you are doing something that you need to work on.”

Chris Keates, general secretary of NASUWT, said that while such technology can be of benefit to schools, “unfortunately they can also be open to misuse and abuse”. “Every school should be required to have a protocol agreed with staff for the use of such systems, which includes teachers having to give their permission to be filmed, having ownership of the footage and being able to turn the camera off when they wish to do so,” she said.


How the live link-up works

Teachers will agree with the remote coach what area of their practice that they want to work on in any particular lesson.

An NQT who wants to improve their behaviour management might ask the coach to watch how they react to behaviour issues.

They will agree a series of trigger words, such as “stop” or “listen”, and the appropriate action to be taken in response. When the teacher hears those words, they know that they will have to carry out a specific action.

Matthew McDonald, director of teaching and learning at Wakefield City Academies Trust, says: “It can be a little off-putting at first, having someone talk to you while you’re teaching. But you do get used to it.”

But the No-Nonsense Nurture programme used by some of the US’ biggest charter school chains came in for stinging criticism in a blog by teacher Amy Berard ( She used the technology in a school in Massachusetts, and branded it “C-3PO training” after the robot in Star Wars. Her coaches told her to “stand in a mountain pose” and “not to cross her legs”. Ms Berard was also told to give out instructions in an “emotionless, monotone voice”, and was advised against using full sentences in favour of communicating through “precise directions”.

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