Six tips for effective lesson observations

Written by: Lucy Rycroft-Smith | Published:
Image: MA Education

To help reduce workload for both observer and observee during lesson observations in mathematics, Lucy Rycroft-Smith offers six evidence-informed best practice tips

Schools are going through a particularly tough time at the moment: if it's not funding issues, it's recruitment and retention problems – and of course these two issues compound each other. Good staff cost money, training costs money, advertising costs money.

Secondary mathematics teachers have been officially recognised as appearing on the Shortage Occupation List since 2013. Moreover, results of the recent Department for Education (DfE) Workload Challenge survey have been revealing: “The majority (93 per cent) of respondents stated that workload in their school was at least a fairly serious problem; just over half of those surveyed (52 per cent) cited workload as a very serious problem.”

Planning and preparation of lessons topped the table of weekly non-teaching activities, with averages around eight to nine hours per-week, per-teacher.

So, is there a win-win solution to the need to observe in order to monitor, evaluate and support secondary maths teachers that doesn’t add even more to teachers’ planning time or to the workload of the observer?

At Cambridge Mathematics we have synthesised the latest research on lesson observation and planning, and collated these into six best practice tips for secondary mathematics lesson observations.

Don’t make prescriptive planning documents a requirement

It has been shown that the degree of autonomy perceived by teachers is indicative of current job satisfaction; similarly, Ofsted clearly states in its Mythbusting document that: “Ofsted does not require schools to provide individual lesson plans to inspectors. Equally, Ofsted does not require schools to provide previous lesson plans. Ofsted does not specify how planning should be set out, the length of time it should take or the amount of detail it should contain. Inspectors are interested in the effectiveness of planning rather than the form it takes.”

This is not to say that planning should never be written down, but that teacher autonomy and effectiveness of the lesson itself is more important.

Equally, demands (sometimes conflicting) made by senior management teams, heads of department, and other agents can be a key factor in teacher stress and burn-out. Teachers commonly report school practices that internally inspect according to a perception of Ofsted requirements that is outdated or simply false.

A report by the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM) explains: “A simplistic interpretation of national strategies and the apparent inflexibility and mechanistic nature of inspection regimes (particularly internal ones), can lead to the production of externally acceptable forms of behaviour (e.g. three-part lessons, learning objectives written on the board before the lesson) and inhibit principled, imaginative teaching.

“Teachers report that inconsistencies often appear between the practices sought by inspections internal to their organisations (often by non-specialists) and those that are recommended by outside agencies.” (Swan et al, 2012)

Don’t forget that all teachers bring their own expertise, enthusiasms and ideas to the table, too – requiring them to plan in exactly the same way is counter-intuitive to this idea. Teachers at different stages in their career bring different strengths and emphases to classroom practice (e.g. Melnick & Meister, 2008).

One solution: invite mathematics teachers to take department time or dedicated CPD to consider the research around planning, and reconsider their planning methods in the light of a) research findings b) time constraints and c) issues of department consistency. It is a well-established result in psychology that allowing individuals to internalise responsibility for change makes the change more likely to be effective and the individuals more likely to be motivated to make it.

Use a subject-specific observation format and ensure the observer has the requisite mathematical subject knowledge

“The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning” (Coe et al, 2014), yet how much focus is given to subject knowledge in maths lesson observations at present?

One study suggested that only two per cent of oral lesson feedback related to subject-specific issues (Strong & Baron, 2004); other research suggests an extremely heavy emphasis on classroom management and generic pedagogies as opposed to mathematical issues in review meetings for training teachers (Brown, McNamara, Hanley & Jones, 1999).

Some issues seem specific to mathematics learning and are often ignored by those without particular mathematical expertise, such as taking advantage of “contingency” moments in mathematical understanding (Harris, 2006). Garet et al (2001) emphasise the importance of professional development that focuses on mathematical content in their review of CPD effectiveness.

Hiebert et al (1996) suggest teaching for understanding in mathematics requires both knowledge of the subject and knowledge of students’ thinking. The Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME) recommends a maths-specific lesson observation format developed at Nottingham University as a useful way to view a lesson observation through a specifically mathematical lens (see further information).
Furthermore: “The evidence to support the inclusion of content knowledge in a model of teaching effectiveness is strong, at least in curriculum areas such as maths.” (Coe et al, 2014)

Observers who do not have the requisite subject knowledge may not be credible or effective in providing useful feedback to teachers (Eraut, 1990 in Montgomery, 1999). Many teachers report frustration at being observed by a senior leader who is not able to comment on subject-specific issues because they lack the relevant knowledge of mathematics.

Don’t use summative judgement levels

From the Sutton Trust report Developing Teachers (2015): “If we were to use the best classroom observation ratings, for example, to identify teachers as ‘above’ or ‘below’ average and compare this to their impact on student learning we would get it right about 50 per cent of the time, compared with the 50 per cent we would get by just tossing a coin. Therefore, these judgements need to be used with considerable caution.”

The report suggests that if observation is used to evaluate teachers as well as support them it should be triangulated with evidence on student attainment and student evaluation for maximum accuracy.

Similarly, Ofsted neither practises nor encourages lesson grading: “Ofsted does not award a grade for the quality of teaching or outcomes in the individual lessons visited. It does not grade individual lessons. It does not expect schools to use the Ofsted evaluation schedule to grade teaching or individual lessons.” (Ofsted, 2015)

Agree goals for observation, perhaps using a clinical model

Observations should be looking for specific and carefully agreed criteria. One way to do this is using a clinical model. Range, Young & Hvidston (2013) suggest effective ways to do this include meeting to scope the observation beforehand and agree on criteria and giving factual and non-threatening feedback no less than five days after the observation.

Agreeing goals should be just that – a top-down, impositional model is not a true clinical one, but rather the underlying principle should be respectful professionals in dialogue.

Make use of peer review models; consider the Lesson Study model

Teachers often find peer review meaningful and useful, provided they have control over the processes and information involved; one of the most effective models is the PAR (Peer Assessment and Review) model (Coe et al, 2014).

Another possibility is the Lesson Study model. Originating in Japan, Lesson Study involves collaborative planning and evaluation and emphasises research-informed practice, concentrating on supporting teachers to design and evaluate mathematics learning processes together rather than evaluating them individually.

The CfBT report Lesson Study: Enhancing Mathematics Teaching and Learning states: “There is no doubt that lesson study has the potential to radically transform schools into learning environments in which teachers, working collaboratively, can investigate, share and verify what works well for their students.”(CfBT, 2010).

Lesson Study has been shown to have a positive impact on mathematics learning (e.g. Dudley, 2012). More information can be found via the NCETM.

Train observers to give effective feedback; acknowledge that there is no one single way to teach mathematics effectively

Giving feedback on lesson observations has great potency in improving effectiveness yet is often unsuccessful due to lack of training on the observer’s part (Brinko, 2016). Without proper training on observation, “well-intentioned programmes can become the blind leading the blind” (Coe et al, 2014).

Observers should similarly avoid being too prescriptive or glib in their comments. One DfE report explains it thus: “In other circumstances, with different pupils, in a different context, other approaches might have been more effective.” (Hay McBer Report, 2000). Most research into effective mathematics teaching acknowledges the complexity and proliferacy of the goals, methods and principles in maths education (e.g. Sullivan, 2011). Effective approaches emphasise the complexity of classroom practice while remaining evidence-informed and as factual as possible (Range, Young & Hvidston, 2013).

  • Lucy Rycroft-Smith is a research and communications officer at Cambridge Mathematics. She has worked in mathematics education for more than 10 years across primary, secondary and the further education sectors.

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