Lesson observations: problems, opportunities and the mysteries of good teaching

Article by Dr Nigel Newton 
Lecturer in Education, Innovator, Consultant & Writer 
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Criticisms have recently been made of Ofsted’s lesson observation approach. In comments reported by the TES, Dr Brian Apter, suggests that inspectors need to use a checklist to prevent bias and ensure fairness. Even if a tick box approach was used, we may still be left wondering whether lesson observation as part of a quality inspection process do much good. Furthermore, despite Ofsted’s efforts to clarify that they don’t expect schools to imitate their procedures and that they have stopped grading lessons, school headteachers and leadership teams continue to use lesson observations to evaluate teachers’ performance. Below I discuss 5 problems with lesson observations used to evaluate teaching performance and offer some thoughts on how they could be used to encourage improvement.

1) Using lesson observations to evaluate teaching quality shows an acute lack of appreciation of the nature of teaching and the qualities it requires. Learning takes place in students’ minds and there is no research to support the opinion that it can be evidenced occurring through a single random lesson observation. What theory of learning are they based on? Some of the most important skills and knowledge students are helped to acquire take weeks of activity and classroom interaction to realise. Yet most quality orientated observations are seeking to find evidence of ‘learning’ within the lesson. This leads to inherently subjective evaluations based on the observers evaluation of the ‘progress’ students might or might not have made. Lesson observations are open to bias.

2) The practice undermines teacher professionalism and can easily be used as a mechanism of intimidation. Openness and objectivity are difficult to achieve through this process. Teaching is fundamentally relational and the dynamics that individual teachers bring to their lesson practices are as complex as each of the students they are working with. It takes time for teachers to understand their students and for their students to know their teachers. Much of the effectiveness of a teacher depends on the ways learning relationships develop over time. However, many factors within the culture of a school can undermine the bonds of trust and mutual respect necessary for benign learning relationships to flourish. These are often outside of the control and responsibility of the teacher. The good judgement of the daily choices teachers make in how they address, manage, encourage, support, instruct, direct and motivate their students is impossible measure through one isolated lesson observation. Despite this, observers assess the quality of a lesson and thereby call into question the professional conduct of a teacher. This process does nothing to foster and stimulate the development of better pedagogical wisdom.

“If excellent teaching could be reduced to these techniques, robots could be trained to manage classes.”

3) Lesson observations add pressures on teachers which inhibit their intuitive decision-making in lessons. Not being able to read students’ minds, lesson observers are reduced to identifying whether teachers are using ‘good’ teaching techniques and methods. Although it may be appropriate and advantageous to use these at times, when there are lesson observations as part of inspection and quality assurance processes there is increased pressure to use them on occasions teachers would not normally consider them appropriate. In this way, teachers’ professional judgement is further undermined and a conformity to models of lesson delivery is imposed. Observation criteria, checklists, ‘indicators’ and evidence of ‘good practice’ may be worth discussing with a teacher but not it terms of “what you didn’t do”. If excellent teaching could be reduced to these techniques, robots could be trained to manage classes. Again, the interactive and relational aspects of learning are wholly ignored.
4) It is widely recognised that reflective practice leads to improved teaching quality and development. Many schools have policies stating things like this:

“Good teachers are by definition reflective practitioners – they are relentless about striving for improvement in their practice, they challenge and question themselves, they look for new and improved ways of working so that all of their learners are enabled to make the best possible progress.”

The document where this quote came from went on to state that, “Every teacher needs to be given both the time and tools to think about their own individual part in the educational enterprise.” However, rather than adopting the approach to professional development recognised and taught as the most effective means to enhance effective teaching, resources are spent in unhelpful lesson observation inspections. Many schools think they are imitating Ofsted and continue to evaluate teachers through ill-conceived policies of observation and measurements of students’ performance. Why cannot the money spent on this regime be invested in giving teachers time to do what educationalists and academics advocate for professional development? It is ineffective and inefficient, I have failed to find any academic studies to support the positive value of this approach in terms of raising the quality of teaching and learning outcomes.

5) Lesson observations tend to ignore or frown upon many teaching practices that in the hands of a good teacher are key to effective pedagogy. Prof. John Hattie’s well publicised Table of Effect Sizes places “Direct Instruction” 4th in terms of having a positive influence on student attainment, under “Feedback” and “Students Prior Cognitive Ability”. “Direct Instruction” is frowned upon by Ofsted as being teacher-led. Yet Hattie’s meta-analysis of hundreds of research studies indicates it has a considerable effect on outcomes. Teachers instinctively know this, yet have to curtail this form of delivery in order to achieve a positive grade in a formal lesson observation. Third in Hattie’s list is “Instructional Quality” which includes:

·        can identify essential representations of their subject,

·        can guide learning through classroom interactions,

·        can monitor learning and provide feedback,

·        can attend to affective attributes.

We note that the first relates to subject knowledge, something that can be measured much more objectively, yet difficult for non-specialist observers to evaluate in individual lessons. Learning interactions includes all the verbal and non-verbal communications between ‘tuned in’ teachers with their class: eye contact, jokes, digressions, anecdotes, argument and responding to students questions. It is well observed these things decrease during observation due to the stress of the ‘outsiders’ in the relational space of a classroom. “Affective attributes” includes teachers’ sensitivity to the emotional needs of their students. Another reason for opposing inspection lesson observations is exactly because we know how it can affect students who feel nervous or suffer anxiety.

There are many sound pedagogical reasons for rejecting the value of inspection lesson observations. I have yet to hear any serious, well grounded, reasoning for how these observations can adequately measure the quality of teaching in a school or college or how they contribute to improving teaching. However, several studies have shown there are many unhelpful side-effects.

Observing for improvement

Creating a culture of supportive peer observations within a school, a climate of trust and openness, and fostering a sense of mutual respect and equality are more productive ways to improve teaching and allow for effective monitoring of quality. Teachers should be provided time to observe peers from across the school. Notes and feedback can recorded, contributing to a culture of helpful, non-judgemental improvement. Training teachers to be good observes also fosters better self-reflective skills, essential for professional development. Research points to the ways lesson observations can be effective when conducted in a climate of trusting relationships between the observer and teacher, evident in quality feedback and discussion.

Linked to this, teachers need to feel they can talk to senior colleagues within judgement about the challenges and difficulties they are facing. They should also be encouraged to talk openly with their students about their own learning, how the students are finding the lessons and activities. What matters most is that teachers want to continue to grow and develop, they listen to others and reflect on their work. Processes can be put in place to record this self-directed activity. In the right environment, what becomes worrying is silence and inactivity. This is easier to evaluate than trying to make subjective lesson observation judgments appear objective.

Finally, lesson inspection regimes are simply bad business. Recent management analysis, popularised by Daniel Pink’s book Drive, also support the view that carrot and stick methods are detrimental to performance in contexts such as schools. His writing summarises research on the importance of intrinsic motivation, the unfavourable effects of mechanistic performance management systems and the positive results of encouraging a culture where professionals are given autonomy, encouraged to have social purpose and enabled in their professional development. My own work in schools using the Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory (ELLI), originating from pioneering research at the University of Bristol, confirms Pink’s argument. Often teachers find their own lesson planning and practices take a step up when they have used ELLI to help them understand and engage their own learning power more authentically.

Linked to this, the work of Anthony Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, is worth considering. His major work, with colleagues, explored the factors determining improvement in schools in Chicago. This research led to further confirmatory studies, which are discussed in Organising Schools for Improvement and Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for School Reform. The empirical evidence, through meta-analysis of hundreds of school improvement strategies and results, is compelling. Relational trust, based on professional respect, openness and honesty emerges as one of the most important factors for school improvement.

The model of school inspection and internal quality improvement policies we need is one that recognises and values professional trust. In a learning school culture, teachers can grow and develop in understanding, their pedagogical craft can improve and the quality of teacher-student relationships can strengthen. But evaluation of individual lessons is no way to encourage these things and no way to show recognition for the complex and difficult job of teaching.