Thursday, 2 January 2014

Love the ones you're with

Developing lesson observations that help, not hinder

I was lucky enough to attend a great session hosted by Dylan Wiliam last year. Much of what he had to say about improving teaching and learning in the UK resonated and I’ve seen it discussed a lot in my Twitter explorations. I don’t know if what I’ve read elsewhere is indicative generally, as I’m obviously selective to a certain point with my blog and research reading, but the consensus seems to have been positively in Wiliam’s favour on his keys points.

In summary – and prĂ©cising heavily - he had this to say about improving teaching and learning:

·           Improvement in student attainment requires improvement in teacher quality.
·           Improving the quality of entrants takes too long so we need to ‘Love the ones we’re with.’
·           The changes that will benefit students all involve changes in teacher practice.
·           In the UK, as long as you go to school, it doesn’t matter very much which school you go to, but it does matter which classrooms you are in.
·           Students taught by the most effective teacher of 50 teachers learn in 6 months what they will learn with the least effective teacher in 2 years.
·           In the classrooms of the most effective teachers students from disadvantaged backgrounds learn at the same rate as those from advantaged backgrounds.
·           Good teachers: know where students are; identify learning destinations; plan routes; regularly check progress & adjust the course as conditions dictate.
·           Students who have a role in the assessment of their work achieve more.
·           All ability students benefit from this approach but lower ability students benefit the most.
·           Teachers need to make ‘marginal gains’ through opportunities to explore and share effective strategies.

What we can take from all this:
·          “Teachers are at their best when they are their quirky, idiosyncratic selves”Some teachers’ weaknesses require immediate attention; most students however, benefit from the development of teachers’ strengths.
·           Telling teachers what to do doesn’t work.
·           Improving practice involves changing habits which is hard.
·           Hardest bit is not getting new ideas into teachers’ heads; it’s getting the old ones out, so it takes time – but it doesn’t happen ‘naturally’.
·           Raising achievement > improving teaching quality > improving CPD and basing it in the classroom > Teacher Learning Communities (model trialled in over 1000 schools)
·           Making a commitment
o        Teachers must commit to reflect and aim to continually improve; focus ONLY on what makes a difference to students
o        Leaders must commit to creation of expectations for improved practice; keeping focus on making a difference to students; provide time, space, dispensation for innovation and improvement

Much of this won’t be news to many teachers and leaders, especially those to regularly seek to reflect and improve on their practice or who seek to support others in doing so. But there are many teachers who can only look to Wiliam’s model and those of other commendable academics and leaders with a wistful longing. Perhaps their school’s T&L group is not run in the way Wiliam’s successful TLCs have done: maybe due to a lack of time? lack of solid commitment? a lack of understanding of how teaching and learning improves? Whatever the reason, for many teachers, their own school’s model of improvement is not working for them: they might feel under scrutiny to teach a certain way and the only way their teaching is measured is via the dreaded Ofsted-styley framework. 

      I’m guessing we could agree here that, in our experience, gradings and judgements about teaching Just Don’t Work if you’re looking to make improvements in the teachers you have and that you want to develop and encourage, long-term. And long-term is the key. Change takes time and investment. We can't just morph our current teachers into brand spanking new and outstanding clones. Who would even want that, really? I've seen schools that try to develop a House Style in their teaching and in some cases they achieve very impressive results, as far as Ofsted are concerned. But they can also result in teachers that physically shake when a member of SLT enters the room and who find themselves on competency after more than 2 grade 3 lessons. We don't need an army of brand new teachers: we need support and nurture and investment in the staff we already have.

      Wiliam is so right when he says 'teachers are at their best when they are their quirky idiosyncratic selves'. Why on earth can't teachers who get good results  be left to teach the way they do best - as share good practice with others? We should be giving our colleagues as many models of good practice as we possibly can when we seek to improve teaching.

Like Wiliam - and Stills - say, you need to love the ones you're with.

A small number of school leaders are taking the brave leap into non-graded lesson observations for their staff, in a drive to make them developmental. But we can also agree here that this is, sadly, not the norm, and too many school leaders still (rightly?) fear the spectre of Ofsted’s judgements on their staff, their leadership, their schools that may result in a disastrous report. Therefore, their observations of individual lessons are based on a framework designed to make whole-school judgements and the results are divisive, confusing and demoralising. It’s a circle more vicious than a sack of Siamese cats. So I’ve been thinking about how observations can escape from judgements and gradings but at the same time invite meaningful, ongoing and supportive improvement. No pressure then.

I would still maintain here that the Lesson Study model is a fabulous way to observe lessons and it certainly has a huge impact in studying how students learn and behave in lessons. But there are certain times when more focus is needed on the teacher and their practice.

So I’ve had a go at a record sheet; a pro-forma; a progress starting point… I can’t quite come up with a name I’m happy with yet without it sounding like something out of a David Brent sales seminar. But I’m sure that will follow. For now, it’s called a Teaching Progress Observation form. Any alternative suggestions for names will be gratefully considered.

I’ve tried to work backwards, looking at what the key success indicators might be in any lesson and boil it down to its simplest form. I’ve also tried to consider how useful this form would be for trainee teachers and teachers that aren’t used to observing lessons. Many teachers and trainees feel very uncomfortable in judging other colleague’s lessons – and well they might, when we consider how much a judgement can affect a person’s self-esteem. 

The never-ending tick-boxes that go to make many observation pro-formas strike me as particularly unhelpful in supporting and developing practice: they are distracting in lessons and prevent the observer from seeing what really goes into the vast part of the lesson. An inexperienced observer can also find themselves getting a tad obsessed with making sure each box as been ticked and, indeed, what constitutes a tick for the boxes they are least sure about.

So I’ve tried to keep things simple too. My belief is that the evidence from a lesson observation should be a starting point for discussion between the teacher and observer and an opportunity for the teacher to begin to reflect on the lesson from another person’s viewpoint.

These are the key questions I think might help this process:

·   What was the learning aim of the lesson?
(Either taken from the teacher’s LO; from questioning students or from what you have gathered from observing.)

I don't think it necessarily matters if it's not displayed throughout the lesson, but it does need to be shared and explicit. Do students know what the point of what they're doing? If the observer isn't clear, the students probably aren't either. 

·   To what extent was the learning aim met?
o        How did you/the teacher know this?

This is probably your AfL: a measure of what has been learned up to that point and, importantly, to what extent. It will need to be revisited if it's to stick and accumulate. It doesn't have to be an overly-conscious and arbitrary display for the observer but it's very important to gauge this before learning can move on, either in this lesson or the next.

·   What behaviour management strategies did you seeing being utilised?
o        How successful were these from what you saw?

Very often it's easy to ignore this, especially if there are few behaviour issues. But if there are, that's because it's well-managed and good habits have been established. By consciously looking for these habits and for signs that measures are in place when someone raises their head, it's easier to pick apart successful behaviour management. 

·   Which students stood out today?
o        Why was this?

I like this one because the teacher may not always realise that one or two students either dominate or slip off the radar. Is any one student's name used more than others? Why is this? And in the discussion afterwards, look at the students who might have needed additional support. Were they supported sufficiently in the lesson? The observer doesn't need to pass judgement on this though; it's a starting point for discussion.

These last three are taken from the developmental Learning Walk process I learned about on SLE training, detailed here. They seem on first glance a bit wishy washy, but after using them a lot in the past 2 years, I’ve seen how effective they can be.

·   Favourite
(What did you like about the lesson?)

Who would't like being told their lesson contains something that's been favourited? Observers can include resources and displays here, as well as relationships, tasks or anything else they liked.

·   Feeling
(What feelings did you get about the lesson as whole?)

This is often the hardest to articulate. But how did the lesson feel? What was the atmosphere? Quiet and studious? Quiet and lethargic? Buzzy and exciting? Buzzy and out of control? Calm? Safe? Too safe? 

·   Question(s)
(What questions would you ask the teacher or any of the students about today’s lesson?)

This is maybe the area that would normally count as the target area, but because it relies on questions rather than judgements, it invites reflection. As I said in more detail in my Walk On Through post (linked above), this part offers the teacher the chance to justify their teaching choices. Sometimes there's an answer; it just wasn't made clearer in the lesson. And sometimes there's not, which can lead to a greater understanding of the process of teaching and learning. But it also allows explanations to be made that the observer just wouldn't have prior knowledge about, especially perhaps when thinking about differentiation (see also my post here). Much of the resentment that arises from classroom observations involves the teacher feeling they didn't have a voice or the chance to explain themselves. This process allows that opportunity.

I wouldn’t want this form to be any longer than a side of A4; it’s not the story of the lesson in several chapters, it’s a starting point for reflection.

As I’m sure many teachers now know, there are plenty of studies to support the use of diagnostic/formative feedback only for the most part when assessing students’ work. Why should this be any different for teachers? What are we if not grown-up kids? Wiliam cited one particular study that looked at the effect of 3 control groups of middle school children who each received a different type of feedback. The 1st group were given tests scores only; the 2nd received scores and comments; the 3rd received diagnostic comments only.

When measuring improvement in attainment, the 3 groups scored as follows:

1st group (score alone) – no improvement in achievement
2nd group (score & comment) – no gain. It was found that the score actually negated the effect of the comment.
3rd group (comment alone) – 30% gain in attainment.
Additionally, when trying to raise student self-esteem, even NO feedback was better than grades or praise without substance.

So for these lesson observation forms there are no grades. At all.

I’m going to give them a go with the new trainees when they arrive in January and go through their usual round of lesson observations across the school. And for those staff I’m currently coaching, I’ll suggest them too. If anyone else wants to have a go as well, tweet me and I'll email you a link to the first draft of the form. Do let me know how you get on, and I will too.

Quick extra thought:
What about if the observer didn't write anything in the lesson and just absorbed what they saw? Following the lesson, the observer and teacher could have a go at filling the progress form in themselves for 10 minutes, without consulting. Then compare and discuss. It would be very interesting to compare perceptions of the lesson from the observer's (and students' if they've been spoken to) with the teacher's. I'll definitely try this out in the next few weeks.


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  2. Hi Rachel
    Another really useful post. Thank you. Last year in our large primary school we took the decision to replace more formal lesson observations with learning exchanges. Each teacher is observed for 30 minutes by a senior member of SLT and a colleague. After 30 minutes they leave and have a discussion about the lesson strengths, development points for the observer and one ebi. There is then a feedback session between the three teachers which enables the feedback to be given, using www/ ebi. It has been a really positive move for us, breaking down barriers about being observed and moving the observation process from a hurdle to be overcome to a stepping stone on the path to development, very much in line with Dylan Wilingham's suggesting that every teacher needs to improve because they can. We should be the lead learners in our community. Good luck with your plans.

  3. Thought this was a really important post, Rachael - thank you.

    I was a deputy and later a head in (ISC) independent schools where the spectre of Ofsted isn't present. They are inspected, by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (I was an ISI inspector too - all the Team Inspectors are serving or recently serving heads and senior staff). So as an inspector and also in my schools I've done a fair amount of lesson observation over the years. There are many similarities between Ofsted and ISI (and ISI is monitored by Ofsted to ensure it's sufficiently rigorous) BUT the obsession with grading lessons just isn't there in the ISI system and it doesn't cast the same shadow over schools, in my experience.

    Whenever I observed a lesson, my intention was to use the observation to support and (positively) challenge the member of staff concerned, to instigate a discussion about teaching and learning, to learn myself from their good practice. I saw myself as a kind of fly on the wall who might be able to help them to see the lesson even more clearly and, through the subsequent discussion with me, to process what they learnt and to use this as a stepping stone to further improvement. I did have to grade lessons in inspections so that we could pull together our findings and make overall judgements on the quality of teaching (80% good or better, or whatever), but these individual grades weren't reported to the teacher or to the head. In my own schools I never graded the individual lessons I observed. There didn't seem to be anything to gain from that.

    I did take notes in the lessons, a narrative of what I'd seen, heard, thought (partly to help me remember the detail when we sat down to discuss it). There was an element of judgement in these - it wasn't just a pure narrative description, and I would write things like, 'Have you ever tried....?' 'Were you aware that....?' 'Might it be a good idea to...?' But these were prompts for discussion and not directives. Many of those I observed said how helpful they found it and I really don't think many were that nervous - they certainly weren't physically shaking when I walked in. I wasn't the kind of deputy or head who operated through fear.

    So, just in case it's in any way helpful to you or anyone else, this is my experience from observing and discussing lessons in schools outside Ofsted.

    I'm also doing some work with all the Middle Leaders in an independent school in Essex this year. I'd very much like to recommend this post and discuss with them your framework of prompt questions as a way of supporting and appropriately challenging their teams. Would you be happy for me to do that? Let me know! Thanks.

  4. How about "Shared Reflections form"? That's what we tend to call them when we talk about using video for developmental observations as it's an opportunity for the teacher and observer to reflect objectively on a lesson...a much more positive experience and really powerful for shifting the focus from judgement to development!

  5. This post really resonated with me. I'm currently discussing this very issue with SLT and how we move from judgement based lesson snapshots towards the more rounded approach, based on the whole view of a teacher's work over time. Your suggestions for observation forms sound really interesting and I would love to see a copy to help us with our own development. My other dilemma is around Ofsted. With a requires improvement judgement from our latest inspection, there is a degree of pressure to produce evidence of lesson observations and I can't work out how this works with the (much more useful on a professional development level) ideas discussed in your blog. This is one we need to give more thought to. Recent updates to Ofsted subsidiary guidance and the speech from HMCI may help with this.