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Watch and learn: the new way to observe lessons

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Two years ago, I submitted the final version of my research report “Developing a National Framework for the Effective Use of Lesson Observation in Further Education” to the University and College Union (UCU).

The UCU research captured the views of thousands of FE staff and to date it represents the largest and most extensive account of the topic of lesson observation, not just in FE but in the English education system as a whole. It therefore seems like a good time to reflect on the key messages from that report and what lessons have been learned since then.

The research raised serious questions about graded observation systems and the extent to which these systems were able to achieve their purported goals. The overriding message was that not only were they failing to assure and improve teaching quality, but also the reductive and punitive ways in which observations were often used was responsible for a catalogue of detrimental effects that were impeding improvements in teacher learning.

The report has subsequently triggered debates about the continued use of graded observations across education, and has led to a growing number of providers changing their practice. It has even resulted in a switch in Ofsted’s policy on lesson observations in inspections.

Despite all this, many practitioners contend that such developments have not changed how senior managers often view the use and purpose of observation.

How can we measure and improve quality if we’re not going to grade any more? Even though we’ve switched to ungraded observations, teachers still want to know what grade they would get, so what’s the point? These are just two comments repeatedly voiced by senior managers in recent years.

Such comments exemplify what I have referred to previously as “normalised behaviour”. In other words, staff have become institutionalised into associating observation with a performance-ranking exercise, regardless of the context or approach. They are unable or unwilling to conceptualise the use of observation outside a performative context and see an umbilical link between their classroom “performance” and attempts (because, let’s face it, that’s all they are) to measure it.

I can understand the “reward” incentive of this for some teachers, although I’m convinced that such a mentality does little to foster a collegial and collaborative culture in the workplace. I’m not opposed to the notion of competition per se, but I firmly believe that there is a time and a place for it, and observing practice in the classroom is not it.

Matt O'Leary is a reader in education at Birmingham City University

This is an edited version of an article in the 11 December edition of TESSubscribers can view the full version of this story here. Read the full coverage in this week’s TES magazine, available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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