Evaluating and improving the quality of teaching and learning has always been a key focus of quality assurance in FE. Lesson observation has traditionally been the main method of doing this, but the performance management models of observation that have come to dominate the sector are long past their sell-by date and need to be consigned to the scrapheap.
Not only are current models of observation ineffective in assuring or improving quality, but they are also one of the most ineffective ways an organisation can invest in developing that quality. As the largest research study into observation in the FE sector revealed a decade ago, they are also often responsible for a range of counterproductive consequences that can impact negatively on staff morale, motivation and trust.
Besides, there are a range of research-informed alternatives that have been proven to be effective. Research on teachers’ professional learning has repeatedly reinforced how meaningful and sustainable improvements in teaching and learning are built on trust, honest introspection and personal responsibility. These key factors all underpin the ethos and practice of an alternative model of observation known as unseen observation.
The term ‘unseen observation’ might seem like a contradiction, given that it is a model of observation that does not actually involve the observation of a taught lesson by a third party. The removal of the physical or virtual presence of a third-party observer confronts the longstanding issue of the Hawthorne effect – the fact that subjects alter their behaviour when they know they are being observed.
As a result, unseen observation promises to allow teachers to behave more naturally and authentically. This is particularly pertinent when considering how performance management-driven models of observation can lead to increased levels of inauthenticity in teachers’ practice, especially when observation is used as a form of high-stakes assessment.
Unseen observation is a teacher-centred model of observation where the fundamental work takes place in the pre- and post-session conversations that form the foundation of the unseen observation cycle. The teacher’s recounting and reflection on the taught lesson is what provides the stimulus for the professional dialogue between them and their collaborator, as well as a pre-session meeting between the two in which the proposed session plan is discussed.
Originally designed for face-to-face interactions, one of the many advantages of unseen observation is its flexibility, which makes it perfect for adapting to virtual learning environments.
Unseen observation shifts the traditional emphasis of observation from a product-focused event to a process-driven practice that prioritises deep, meaningful thinking about teaching and learning through collegial conversations and collective reflection. This takes place through detailed conversations about the teacher’s planning, their delivery and analysis of its effectiveness.
By removing the ‘performance’ element traditionally associated with lesson observation, unseen observation allows us to reconceptualise how we think about observation as an educational tool to support teacher improvement. It also puts the control and accountability of the process back into the hands of practitioners, as it is built on the premise that they are the best people to decide their own professional needs and those of their students.
The process is a relatively simple one. The teacher identifies a session and particular area of practice they wish to focus on. They prepare their session plan and resources, sharing them with their collaborator before arranging a meeting.
In this meeting, the pair discuss the rationale for the selected teaching techniques and tasks, the anticipated impact on the students, and explore the teaching and learning philosophies underpinning the teacher’s reasoning before the teacher finalises their session plan. The teacher then delivers the unobserved session, including opportunities for student feedback (in person or online), which can inform subsequent reflections.
After the session, the teacher records a reflective account of the session. The teacher and collaborator meet for a second conversation to discuss its effectiveness in relation to anticipated outcomes. The teacher then writes records forward action points to work on.
Unseen observation provides a credible alternative for moving beyond the confines of the outdated performance-management model. Instead of top-down judgment, it centres on shared expertise, providing a genuine tool for supporting rather than sorting teachers.