Many lecturers seem to find lesson observation threatening. Yet if colleges and providers changed their approach, it could be seen as an opportunity. Take the following basic steps to maximise the benefits of the experience for all involved.
1 Separate development from appraisal
Depending on where you are within the education system, lesson observation may be linked to appraisal. There are reasons why this is so. For many, teaching or lecturing is the main part of their job, so it makes sense to ensure that these activities are progressing well.
Linking lesson observation to appraisal also makes logistical sense for management. However, it reduces the potential for the process to aid development. Rather than seeing observation as an end-of-year summative assessment, we should choose to regard it as formative. In this way, reviewing teaching can become the basis for future success.
2 Let the observed choose the observer
There are times when a reviewer and a lecturer simply do not get on well. This is something that management may choose to ignore or claim to be irrelevant. It might be convenient for the head of a subject to observe all lecturers within that subject. But this approach does not protect against the potential for prejudicial judgement.
The person being reviewed should have some say in who will observe them, and there should be no consequences resulting from any objection to a particular observer. Union representatives could play a part in ensuring that treatment continued to be fair after an objection was made.
Having a degree of influence over who observes your lesson is important. After all, sometimes managers may not be especially skilled as teachers, knowledgeable of education as a whole or knowledgeable in terms of the subject being taught.
It may aid the teaching process if two colleagues who work in a small lecturing group observe each other – although not always, as it could become too cosy.
3 Review the preparation
Those undertaking observation should not just come into the classroom cold, without prior discussion, or demand a lesson plan five minutes in advance of the session. We need to recognise that while lecturing normally takes place in the classroom, the teaching process begins much earlier.
So look at preparation. See how learning activities are planned. Maybe even question why a particular approach is being taken. Don’t try to change it in advance of the session, but be aware of how the lesson is envisaged, so that any recommendations have a firmer basis.
4 Focus on a specific problem
Taking this broader view of teaching allows us to think about how the observer and the observed can work together. This is not just about giving feedback – this is only a small part of the process, and one that reinforces the status of the observer.
Let’s take it further. Prior to the lesson, the lecturer should be able to raise a particular issue – for example, they might say that learners are not as engaged as they would like to be, comment that student responses are often brief, or question whether their own questioning is effective.
These concerns can then form a main part of the observation process. In this way, instead of the lecturer being judged from on high, there is a mutual engagement in the task of improving learning in the classroom.
Many people do not see observation as threatening, but there is little doubt that others do – even some experienced teachers. The nature of the observation is one reason for this anxiety. But we can ameliorate some of lecturers’ worries about the process and, at the same time, enhance the possibilities of working together to develop a sound learning environment.
Ofsted on observation
An Ofsted official has warned that performance management systems in FE should not focus too narrowly on lesson observations.
Paul Joyce, deputy director for FE and skills, told the UKFEchat national conference in London last October that a “20-minute snapshot” of a lesson should not be used in isolation to evaluate a teacher’s performance.
But Mr Joyce stopped short of saying that providers should stop grading observations. “It’s not our role to recommend,” he said. “We don’t insist that providers do anything in a certain way; that is up to these individual, autonomous FE institutions to decide.
“Some institutions may well, for their own reasons, find it beneficial to grade, and I wouldn’t like to suggest why that may be. That is for that individual management team to decide, not for us to dictate or impose.”
Graham Fowler is an education consultant, researcher and writer