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Lesson observation: who are you observing?

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The Key’s  recent conference on lesson observation was packed with big names and big ideas. Estelle Morris opened the conference, looking at the relationship between politics and education over the last 30 years. Two inspirational headteachers, Colin Hall, of Holland Park School, and Andrew Carter OBE, of South Farnham School, shared their views on outstanding teaching and charismatic leadership. And David Weston, chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust, wrapped up the day with thoughts on continuing professional development.

Each speaker took a different angle, but their talks had in common a focus on the importance of lesson observation. For me, the question of the day was one several speakers left the audience with. When you’re observing teaching, are you observing the right thing?

A shifting focus

For our speakers, a lesson observation is just that: about the lesson, rather than purely about the teacher delivering it. So why is it so often understood as more to do with performance management, a critical look at the teacher’s practice, or some kind of a test?

Maybe it's down to Ofsted. Or maybe there's a natural belief that observation is about testing the teacher’s competence, checking what they’re really up to in the classroom, and deciding whether or not they should progress up the pay scale.

Peter Slough, the headteacher of Small Heath School in Birmingham, was very clear when he said that lesson observation is done with people rather than to people.

David Driscoll, an education consultant and school inspector, agreed. He said “Go in to observe the pupils, not the teachers”.

Asking the right questions

In one of the afternoon workshops, David had us watch a video of a lesson that was meant to be terrible. He then asked us to grade it (Ofsted doesn’t, but we did!) and the audience pretty much agreed that the teacher did in fact require improvement.

I was taken by surprise when he asked us to watch the same video again and ignore the teacher. A completely different set of comments came from the floor. We then watched it a third time, focusing exclusively on the girls in the classroom, and the comments were different again.

David was encouraging school leaders to ask themselves some simple questions before going in to observe a lesson. What am I trying to find out? Who specifically am I going to observe? What does my data tell me about what I should be looking at? Most likely, this will not be the teacher. Or at least, not just the teacher.

Building the right culture

Focusing on a theme gives a clear message to the teacher: we’re working together to try and improve an aspect of practice across the school. Peter Slough emphasised the importance of the school's ethos and of strong relationships in encouraging a culture of positive and unthreatening lesson observation.

He compared his school to an extended family characterised by the support it offers to its members, consistency in addressing problems and a belief in sharing knowledge and working together to learn from each other.

Is Ofsted on the same page?

The presentations during the conference very much echoed Ofsted's recent thinking, shown in its recently announced pilot project.

Since last week, inspectors in the Midlands have not been grading teaching on their lesson observation forms. Instead, quality of teaching is being evaluated by triangulating evidence from pupils’ books, marking and school’s own evaluations. Members of our governor service can read an article with practical suggestions on this kind of approach.

So it seems that much of the education sector is on the same page on lesson observation. I'm looking forward to speaking to our members to learn more about how they're making the most of lesson observation, and what they're looking for when they head into the classroom.

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