How teachers can show student progress during lesson observations


How can you demonstrate visible improvements when an observer or inspector comes into your classroom and asks the pupils what they are doing? Roy Blatchford, who has observed more than 8,000 lessons, offers some advice.

It is incredible to think of the number of lessons that I have observed in the past decade. I have entered classrooms as an inspector, a reviewer, a coach in primary, special and secondary schools from Mumbai to New York, Barcelona to Birmingham, Jeddah to Jarrow.

And the recurring question that UK teachers ask me is the one above – how can they show visible improvement during lesson observations?

The Ofsted inspection framework places a strong emphasis on key skills in schools. The definition of outstanding teaching makes explicit that the teaching of reading, writing, communication and mathematics must be highly effective and cohesively planned and implemented.

The same emphasis is found in the new Teachers’ Standards. All teachers must have a clear understanding of appropriate teaching strategies for early reading and mathematics. Equally, teachers of whatever age range or subject are expected to promote “high standards of literacy, articulacy and the correct use of standard English”. These are not easy demands for teachers.

TeachersMedia has just produced a short series of 20-minute programmes filmed in classrooms in a number of schools including Slough and Eton College in Berkshire. The Visible Improvement series, which I present, provides a range of practical tips for teachers who want to make sure they can evidence pupils’ progress, in the context of excellent everyday practice. So, what are the most important things to consider?

An exciting climate for learning

One key aspect which shines through in the films is that in exciting classrooms there is that judicious balance of the fun and fundamentals of learning. Fun, humour and warm relationships abound. So too does an unequivocal focus on practising basic and higher order skills. Excellent teachers accept no substitute.

The engaging classrooms we found when filming provide “climates” for learning which engender confidence and motivation among the learners. Critically, there is no fear of failure because the teachers and pupils alike support one another’s triumphs and disasters. Opportunities for risk-taking, exploration of new knowledge and concepts, and experimentation permeate. Learners’ potential is spotted and encouraged. In the true sense of the word, education – “to lead out” – underpins the learning environment.

Inspiring and vibrant teaching

At the heart of excellent progress by pupils is motivating and inspiring teaching. Ask any group of pupils what makes for effective classroom learning and they talk about the teacher who loves their subject and shares that passion with their students through rich tasks and activities. To use a word that has sadly gone out of fashion, it is the promotion of scholarship that matters.

Pupils in the films are infected by the enthusiasms of their teachers. In my experience, pupils deeply respect the teacher who has a breadth and depth of knowledge that they themselves can, at their age, only dream of and aspire to.

The vibrant classrooms we chose to feature in the series are places where what is on the walls, windows, floor and ceiling matters. The teachers have given thought to learning prompts, keywords, photos (taken by students) celebrating achievement, and displays of high quality pupil work to which their peers can aspire.

Furthermore, book and technological resources are accessible and fit-for-purpose. The held-held device is present, no more nor less important than a pair of scissors. It is a tool for learning which each generation of young people masters more skilfully than the majority of its teachers.

I once asked a group of talented 14-year-olds to draw images of what made for effective and less effective lessons. 

Intriguingly, they drew a series of expanding and contracting heads. The more effective a lesson became, they charted with their colour pens, the larger the students’ heads and the smaller the teacher’s. 

They were seeking to point out that the teacher begins the lines of enquiry, giving space for students to continue the journey. I can think of no better image to describe what I see in the best classrooms. And that journey offers to the observer clear evidence of pupils’ progress.

Skilful orchestration

A hallmark of our featured classrooms is that time within lessons is skilfully orchestrated, evident to the live observer but not always the easiest aspect of practice for a camera to capture. 

The teachers do not rattle on at pace, galloping through the scheme of work for fear of running out of time. Rather, they deliver narratives and explanations at a speed consistent with pupils’ understanding and internalising new concepts, knowledge and skills. It means that the films capture young minds reflecting, pondering and being challenged as they tackle a demanding activity – and that represents manifest good progress by pupils.

Teaching and learning are a great double act. One requires the other. The effective teacher helps pupils, through various techniques, to think about the progress they are making: daily, weekly, and over a term or a year. 

The teacher and pupil reflecting on progress together, through marking and dialogue, identify next steps in learning and what particular support or extension might be required to ensure the pupil’s individual needs are met. 

In the same way that a hand surgeon needs to have detailed knowledge of the nerves, tendons and arteries of that part of the body, so the professional teacher needs excellent technical background know-how. For instance, the A level teacher of economics brings to their seminar group a secure command of the impact of different study skills and analytics, so that students can approach a demanding concept from different directions in order to grasp its complexities.

Talk less, do less

Best practice for encouraging pupil progress in these filmed classrooms is certainly rooted in the teacher who expects, from time-to-time, to talk and do less than her students. A year 11 mathematics teacher explains how, in the course of the following week and sharing her lesson plans with students, one pair will lead the lesson starter, another will lead the mini-plenary, how yet another will conclude the lesson. 

To teach is to learn, and the best teachers enable their pupils to make visible improvements by doing just that on a regular, well-planned basis.

Consistent with the age and growing maturity of the pupil, creative teachers encourage independence. This independence is demonstrated by pupils taking a responsible and conscientious approach to their classwork and homework. 

It will not happen by magic. Effective teachers nudge, cajole and model independent learning habits. In common with good parents, they give “roots and wings” to children.

The best lessons

As the presenter of these programmes, and knowing from the inside each of the featured schools, I hope viewers may learn much more than the many specific tips about demonstrable pupil progress in literacy, mathematics and differentiation. Each school also shows what it means to create a “sparkling classroom” and this includes the following concepts.

  • Great lessons are all about richness of task, rooted in teachers’ excellent subject knowledge and passion.

  • Pupils’ prior knowledge of a subject is endlessly surprising.

  • Timely digression and intervention promote memorable learning moments.

  • High-quality marking from teachers fuels pupils’ rapid progress.

  • Doing more of the same does not transform standards of attainment – doing differently can.

  • The best teachers are children at heart.

  • Observing the best lessons, you just don’t want them to end.

Confident teachers in vibrant classrooms can invite, with confidence, any passing observer to see the cocktail of pupils’ progress right across their classrooms: from detailed record-keeping and regular, incisive marking to the quality of their wall displays, oral interventions and the passion they bring to a subject. 

Tips to achieve visible improvement in English/literacy:

  1. Pupils expected to answer questions in developed phrases rather than just monosyllables.

  2. Teachers giving more time for pupils to develop fuller oral responses to questions posed.

  3. Teachers enabling pupils to pose questions of one another, in order that pupils practise their sounds and speech patterns.

  4. Direct and regular intervention/correction from staff in how children speak.

  5. Volunteer staff/governors giving time to small groups of children in order to develop their conversation, vocabulary and basic social skills.

  6. The development of structured and regular drama/acting opportunities in which children are expected to project their voice and practise speaking at length, with good eye contact.

  7. The regular use of limericks/couplets/verses/short poems being set to be learned by heart and for recitation in class groups; parents can be involved creatively in this.

  8. The consistent use of established EAL techniques (pattern, repetition, consolidation, elaboration) with children, particularly boys, whose first language is English.

  9. The regular use of short dictations, across the curriculum, and with an emphasis on keen listening and high quality presentation of writing.

  10. A focus on how children are actually holding a pencil/crayon and how they are forming their letters on a consistent basis.

Tips for visible improvement in differentiation:

  1. Knowing pupils’ prior attainment and knowledge of a subject.

  2. Meticulous tracking of pupils’ progress in different skills.

  3. Thinking through which pupils work best with others and the best size for effective group work.

  4. Judging when independent learning will best deepen knowledge and understanding.

  5. Knowing when best to harness the library, film, internet to expand pupils’ thinking.

  6. Setting up one-to-one catch-up and intervention sessions, before, during and after school.

  7. Setting meaningful homework, well scaffolded for individual needs.

  8. Knowing what factors inhibit progress and seeking to remove those barriers promptly.

  9. Identifying special needs such as poor hand-eye co-ordination, delayed cognitive development, temporary medical problems.

  10. Practising “differentiation down” to ensure higher attainers are extended in their learning.


  • Roy Blatchford is director of the National Education Trust ( and a former inspector of schools. He was chair of the Drafting Group of the DfE Teachers’ Standards Review.

Further information
Roy Blatchford presents the Visible Improvement series for TeachersMedia, which can be watched at


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