We don’t need no observation

15th January 2016 at 00:00
Don’t sacrifice development at the altar of assessment

Looking back over my years as a headteacher, I realise that the forces of external accountability drove me, at times, to do some stupid things. One of the dumbest was to observe teachers and then assign an Ofsted grade to the lesson. The teacher put on a show-lesson, I ticked lots of boxes and we had some meaningless data that supposedly judged the quality of teaching.

I soon realised that I was judging individual lessons, not the quality of teaching. Everyone was happy, but no one was improving.

The Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University defines great teaching as that which leads to improved student progress, a startlingly obvious truth.

And yet my old-school lesson observation regime never determined the impact of the teaching upon the students’ learning.

I am now in charge of developing the performance of 30 teachers, and I have a system that I think works best for all. I ask colleagues one question: “How would you like to be observed to help you best develop your teaching?”

I give my teaching colleagues control over their observation process: its purpose has shifted from accountability to development. Here’s how it works.

I have a commitment to watch each one of those colleagues teach at least once a year. My senior leadership team each have their own set of teachers.

The approach requires planning time, observation time and debrief time. I calculate that I can spend up to 200 hours a year undertaking observation-related activities. When it comes to those seasoned teachers whose classroom management is a competent given, we co-plan small but very targeted modifications to their teaching and then focus on the impact of those modifications upon student outcomes.

As a result, I now spend significant amounts of time with teachers planning lessons. I ask lots of questions about intended changes to how they teach and the desired impact on their students’ learning.

Planning together

This process does not usually include a lesson observation. Although popular wisdom might have it otherwise, seeing teachers teach is not an essential part of the “observation” process. Often, with the securely good teachers, I don’t need to observe the lesson at all.

With the help of a video and self-assessment system, those colleagues will film their lesson and then choose whether we need to watch how they delivered the modification to their teaching. I trust their judgement.

With younger, more inexperienced teachers, it is the same process as above but I may watch a full lesson on video, or be in the lesson like some doddery old teaching assistant, flitting in and out of camera as I try to be as helpful as I can. But I do not make judgements or assign grades to teachers; my aim is to help them improve their classroom practice.

For all teachers, the most important part of our revised observation process can happen two or three weeks after the lesson when we look at the students’ work, or the outcomes of a test, to see if we can discern whether the pedagogic tweaks that we planned together have had an impact on students’ progress. If the students’ learning suggests that a teaching technique has worked, we replicate it; if not, we work out why it hasn’t worked and either modify it or stop doing it. Whenever possible, we try to trace the golden thread from teaching through to students’ outcomes.

A good example of the system in action is our subject leader for geography, Jane Elsworth, who was faced with yet another change to the GCSE specification. She talked me through the tweaks to how she taught the extreme weather unit and taped the lesson for herself. Two weeks later, we looked at her students’ responses to an eight-mark exam question on the topic. There was overwhelming evidence of an improvement in literacy levels, with one particular student, who had a C grade target, gaining the full eight marks.

More evidence in favour of the system can be found in my work with another Jane, this time in the maths department. When I met with several teachers this autumn to finish their professional development cycle, some had forensically analysed their students’ exam results. Jane Tee, one of our mathematicians, was able to point out that the metacognition lesson we had planned for her Year 11 class on histograms seemed to have done the trick.

She taught the lesson in the week between the final practice paper and the real exam. The class had gained 7 per cent of the possible marks on the histograms question on the practice paper; in the real exam, they gained 70 per cent of the possible marks. Go figure.

With both, there was no need to observe them teaching formally – I know that they can teach. Instead, we spent time planning the lessons together; they were then motivated to trace the impact of the tweaks to their teaching upon their students’ learning.

If you make a real effort to remove the element of fear from observations, you can make them developmental. Judging the quality of teaching in your school does not depend upon observations; rather, the quality of teaching can only be assessed over time, with wisdom, tracing the golden thread through to students’ outcomes. We have to stop doing the stupid things.

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