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Lesson Observations Should Be About the Teaching – Not Grades

October 14, 2018, 11:42 GMT+1
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  • Lesson observations needn’t be your teachers’ bête noire, says Simon Botten – at least not if done properly...
Lesson Observations Should Be About the Teaching – Not Grades

When colleagues asked me what I’d learnt from my Ofsted training, I told them I’d “Mastered the ability to write on a clipboard whilst simultaneously raising a single eyebrow, shaking my head and tutting.”

I was joking, of course. But ask any teacher to list what they dislike the most about the job, and many will put lesson observations – especially Ofsted ones – pretty near the top. Why is this? Surely being observed actually doing your job, live, with a class of children is the best barometer as to a member of staff’s performance? Well – partly.

There are many in the blogosphere who rail against all forms of lesson observation and disagree with them on principle. I’m not one of them. I believe lesson observations are needed, and if done properly, improve teaching. However, it is important to get them right.

1. Don’t measure ‘event’ lessons

In the bad old days, teacher appraisal was often based purely on two or three lesson observations (or even just one) which were then used to determine a teacher’s ability in the classroom and whether they’d passed their performance management targets. This led to teachers creating two or three highly polished lessons for the benefit of the observing SLT member, and sometimes dressing up as Henry VIII or using some other wacky hook, often having previously taught the children the lesson in advance so as to ensure that they knew the answers when being watched. This told us nothing about ‘typicality’ (to use an Ofsted phrase) and everything about which teachers could perform in front of an audience.

Thankfully nowadays it’s all about appraising ‘teaching over time’. Leaders want to know what typically happens in a classroom and how effective the teaching is. For this, you need to look at a range of sources – pupils’ books, planning, pupil outcomes and lessons via observations. Only then can you get a rounded view of what’s actually going on in a classroom.

No one source is more important than another, as a good leader of teaching and learning will be constantly trying to triangulate these sources to understand a member of staff’s strengths and weaknesses. Observe lessons by all means, but don’t make observations the only tool in your appraisal toolkit.

2. Know why you’re observing lessons

Before getting to ‘how’ you’ll observe lessons, you’ll need a clear and universally understood rationale for observing lessons. All staff have the right to know why you’re watching them teach and how any observations will be used. Fear of observations will often come about when an SLT member plonks themselves down in the corner of a classroom with little explanation as to why they’re there. This can easily be avoided by explaining where the observation cycle fits in with appraisal, and just as importantly, as a vehicle for professional development.

3. Don’t make the stakes high

One of the most unpopular features of lesson observations has historically been the high stakes ‘pass/fail’ nature of adding an Ofsted judgement to, at best, 60 minutes of observation. Ofsted itself has long since stopped grading lessons, since it’s very difficult to make such absolute judgements after such short observations. Too often, lesson observations were used as a stick to beat underperforming staff with, which in turn made them something feared by all.

Removing such judgements means that the conversations that follow are now purely about what happened during the lesson, not which grade was written in the box at the bottom. Now, having previously seen some worryingly poor teaching during a lesson, I’m not saying that I’d simply offer a few bits of stock advice and withdraw – quite the opposite. If I see poor practice, I have a duty to make sure that the teacher knows how to improve that practice and see that improvements are made, usually through more observations. But make lesson observations about discussing teaching, not giving grade.

4. Stay focused

The tighter the focus of the lesson observation, the more likely it is to provide useful information for you, the teacher and the school. Our data last year showed that we had a problem with the achievement of quiet Pupil Premium girls, so we added a box to the observation proforma for listing all the Pupil Premium children in the class. By disproportionately focusing in on these children during observations, we discovered some nuanced differences in how this group interacted with learning during the lesson and were able to tweak our teaching accordingly. Attainment in this group subsequently rose sharply.

Adopt a clear focus at your school, phase and/or class level, and your observations will be much more purposeful.

5. Make your observations developmental

On the face of it, suggesting to staff that a series of lesson observations is the way forward sounds like a difficult sell, but it’s what we’ve done and our staff prefer it. We stopped doing traditional hour-long lesson observations three times a year and instead started doing three 20-minute lesson observations three times a year. These 20-minute lesson observations take place over three consecutive weeks, are all very tightly focused and are immediately followed by a conversation between observer and teacher regarding what worked well and where tweaks could be made.

We know that excellent teachers don’t do things radically differently to everyone else – merely that they have a better ‘strike rate’. They’re teaching more children more effectively for more of the lesson than their colleagues. By holding a series of observations over several weeks, the ‘strike rate’ of all teachers will go up, as they’re making small, clearly defined improvements week on week. An added benefit is that teachers don’t find these observations as scary, since they’re only 20 minutes long with a clear focus and improvement outcome. Hour-long lesson observations held three to four months apart are unwieldy tools by comparison.

6. Allow time for proper feedback

There’s nothing worse than receiving rushed, ill-considered and one-sided feedback. If someone’s allowed you into their classroom, it’s essential to allow time for a proper post-observation discussion – not just to maximise improvements in practice, but also as a matter of professional courtesy.

Our lesson observation proformas include a box labelled ‘Questions about the lesson’, where any queries, good or bad, can be recorded. By phrasing these as questions rather than ‘areas for development’ you’re showing that this is a conversation about teaching, not just a judgement by a manager. We then record ‘next steps’ – manageable tweaks for the following week – and agree on what improvements could be made.

7. Share the learning across the school

Finally, after each observation round we distribute a memo to all staff that outlines good practice seen throughout the school. It aims to be as practical and straightforward as possible, listing all the successful tweaks and approaches we’ve observed. This allows the whole staff to learn from each other, further improving the ‘strike rate’ of the team as a whole. So, there it is. Lesson observations are, in my view, an essential tool for improving teaching, and if managed well, can be something staff see as a genuine learning experience. Clipboards may still be necessary – but raised eyebrows and tutting rarely are.

Simon Botten is a primary school headteacher; for more information, visit or follow @Southgloshead.