Four principles to ensure lesson observations make the grade

Observations have been an evolving part of education’s quality assurance for 25 years and must continue to evolve to deliver real value, writes Steven Tucker

Observations have been an evolving part of education’s quality assurance for 25 years and must continue to evolve to deliver real value, writes Steven Tucker

7 Feb 2023, 5:00

For 25 years we have allowed one-off, managerial observations to become ubiquitous, often ignoring the copious evidence that now exists about their unreliability and pernicious effect. Many providers have used this evidence to move on from one-off, graded observations. But not all. Many more still use observations, albeit ungraded, for which they are ill-suited.

To ensure observations make the grade, there are four key principles to consider.

Purpose and evidence

First, it is crucial to know why you observe a lesson and triangulate your hypotheses with a wide range of carefully chosen sources of evidence.

Observations mostly contribute to teacher development or quality assurance (QA). They can’t do both. Nor can an observer see or understand everything that happens in the room during an observation. So, if an observer is clear about why they are observing, they have a greater chance of focusing their attention and capturing valuable and relevant evidence.

The current spotlight on curriculum and cognition points observers to valuable sources of evidence: sources that go way beyond the proxies for quality that so many latch onto in one-off observations. These proxies include teachers’ differentiation of resources and learners’ participation in discussions or engagement with tasks. The skilled observer creatively chooses what evidence to consider, the questions to ask and how to interpret the answers given.

Avoid managerialism

Second, there is no place for managerialism in observations. An observation that aims to improve teaching needs to be low stakes and non-judgemental. The whole process must be carried out in a culture of mutual trust. This trust can be difficult in any superior/subordinate relationship since it requires the subordinate to expose weaknesses to someone with power over them. This is not something that sits comfortably with high-stakes, career-defining judgements.

But it’s not just developmental observations that are susceptible to managerialism. Teachers: don’t assume that becoming a manager bestows someone with some mystical power to draw conclusions about learners’ progress, curriculum and pedagogy after 30 minutes in a classroom.

And managers: remember that it is hard for many teachers to argue with a superior, even if they make an unsubstantiated judgement or one based on their personal preferences rather than valid evidence. So, if you make a judgement without sufficient triangulation, or hear yourself saying ‘I would like to have seen…’, just pause. Excellent qualities for any observer are humility and self-doubt.

New ways of observing

Growth in apprenticeships and online learning demand new ways of observing. Observation systems in apprenticeships sometimes evolve from an IQA model, a criteria-based approach that takes too little account of pedagogy and learners’ progress. Or they are adapted from a classroom-based model that doesn’t accommodate the unique characteristics of apprenticeships.

We see similar issues in evaluations of online learning. QA systems tend to be adapted from those applied to other types of courses. And yet there are many distinctive features of successful online courses (one-to-one interactions, learners’ critical thinking skills, teachers’ use of formative feedback through technology, etc.) that provide an observer with rich evidence.

If leaders have not considered how observations in a QA or improvement system capture the distinctive characteristics of apprenticeships and online learning, this may be one for the improvement plan.

Values and professionalism

The culture of an organisation is so often determined by the clarity of purpose that informs leaders’ decisions, and the extent to which teachers and stakeholders agree with these. Astute leaders know the value, but also the limitations of observations. In their organisations, observations lead to improvements or help maintain standards.

These leaders include teachers in decisions about how to raise standards and demonstrably value their professionalism. In these organisations, we wouldn’t hear leaders say that they use Ofsted criteria for observations (What criteria? They never existed!) or claim that a graph showing an annual rise in observation grades is evidence of improvement. Both were once common, neither were credible.

Observations can add value, but only when they are suited to their purpose and always alongside other evidence. With these principles in mind, we can continue to evolve them for the good of the profession.

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One comment

  1. Nigel Evans

    Great article Steve, very good analysis of why observations have never been the best way to evaluate the experience of learners. I hope the message is getting across to all providers that they are just one element in ‘getting it right’ for learners.