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Why lesson observation should be aimed at learning and not teaching

Lesson observation takes place with varying degrees of regularity, robustness and clarity of process

The key question is: does it actually make any difference to the observed teacher’s practice and subsequent impact on learners’ progress?

Evidently, this will depend on the quality of the observer, the observation and the nature of the ‘feedback’ shared. Nevertheless, we can make some general observations.

The ups and downs to conventional lesson observation

Straightforward observation enables leaders to gather selected evidence quickly.

Observing parts of lessons can provide key evidence of students’ behaviour, attitude, understanding and application of the content being taught.

It enables leaders to contrast and compare learning in different lessons easily. Moving between lessons gives a good picture of contrast across teaching groups of different learners, especially in the same subject.

It can also highlight inconsistencies in students’ responses to teaching. Observing similar lessons across classes or over time gives a picture of the consistency of practice, methods, use of resources and learner response.

However, it’s major flaw lies in its inability to give a truly accurate picture of the quality of learning or teaching over time. It’s difficulty to make definitive judgements about consistency from a set of snapshots.

Thus, a judgement on the impact of teaching does not extend beyond the lesson being observed, which fails to credit the teacher who may deliver excellent lessons at other times.

Piling on the pressure

Giving notice of observations can unintentionally encourage unrepresentative, over-planned lessons. Teachers are often either overambitious as a result, or opt for ‘safe’ lessons that under represent their normal impact. ‘No notice’ observations are more representative, but they often create vulnerability amongst staff, particularly when its focus and purpose is often not made clear in advance.

Individual lessons which are part of a series of linked lessons may also be taken out of context; as a whole, they may produce a great impact on progress, but this will not be recognised if the observation happens to occur in a lesson which may be specific to building consolidation of a topic or where the primary focus of the lesson is to help students with learning difficulties, resulting in skewed data which may not meet the specified criteria.

So how can we maximise the opportunity of conventional observation?

  1. Specify the focus in advance.

  2. Scale the time in the lesson to match the focus of the learning observation – only stay in the lesson as long as necessary.
  3. Consider what other ways there might be to gather relevant evidence, or corroborate observation evidence, and use them.
  4. If you are giving feedback, comment on the effectiveness of the learning of the class, groups and individuals first.
  5. Areas for improvement should focus on the next steps for those learners. The teacher can only refine and adapt practice if the intended impact is clearly defined.
  6. Ensure any judgement is based explicitly on the effectiveness of the learning. Try to reach an agreed judgement about the learning on the evidence of the work / learner comments in the lesson, and take previous work in the sequence into account.

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