Getting observations right

Written by: Archie McGlynn | Published:
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This is wonderful, practical advice. I was fortunate enough to become a Head Teacher in Scotland in ...

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In the first of two articles, Archie McGlynn offers us a practical guide to how schools and teachers can work together to improve the quality of learning through ‘better’ classroom observation and evaluation

It has been a privilege to observe lessons in different parts of the world, usually as an integral part of a school’s self-evaluation. The one consistent theme – from Bariloche to Thimphu – is that quality learning and teaching is the raison d’être, the most important reason, for a school’s existence.

All my professional life I have cajoled and persuaded schools to embrace development plans, quality indicators and more, but all are in a supportive role to the hallmark of a top performing school – the quality of learning and teaching.

Yet, often I have found that many school leaders seem almost reluctant to devote time to observing and evaluating learning at first hand, including post-observation follow up.

My experience drove me to put learning and teaching at the forefront of Scotland’s school self-evaluation initiative, which came together in 1994 in the seminal document, How Good is Our School?, now in its fourth edition (HMIE Education Scotland).

Later I was given the opportunity by the Education Bureau to adjust and adapt the initiative in Hong Kong, where the starting point was the launch of a modular programme for principals and senior teachers on improving classroom observation and evaluation.

From 2005 to 2010, some 2,000 plus school leaders passed through my city-wide programme, which was complemented by in-school workshops.

This practical guide is based on my experience of working directly with schools to train school leaders on how to get the most out of classroom observation. It is to provide reviewers/observers with opportunities to enhance their observation and evaluation skills.

I work closely with schools to emphasise the importance of coherence and consistency when carrying out, and reporting on, lesson evaluation. Consistency adds creditability, especially as teachers value greatly professionalism and objectivity when their lessons are observed. It is also important that there is a standard approach to evaluating lessons.

I am also an advocate of building training workshops on videos of learning in real classrooms. I tend to use a mix of in-school illustrations, which add authenticity and relevance, and videos drawn from the culture in which I am conducting the training.

My experience is that teachers are turned off by specially designed lessons which lack reality and a sense of what really goes on in classrooms. So videos must be as close as possible to the real thing – warts and all.

I work closely with teachers to gain their confidence and trust before we agree to make a video for training purposes. They are usually co-operative provided the video is for my sole use in the school workshops.

The starting point

Some people make a big fuss about self-evaluation but for me there is no mystique. It is a normal part of our everyday professional, personal and social interactions. We all do it – students, parents, athletes, preachers, politicians, teachers, school leaders and so on. I usually begin a workshop by asking teachers to share ideas on their understanding of a self-evaluating school. They tend to suggest that a self-evaluating school knows:

  • What it is aiming to do.
  • Whether it is meetings its aims successfully.
  • What needs to be changed and/or improved.
  • Whether changes are working for the benefit of students.

Above all, the desire to promote quality learning permeates the work and life of the self-evaluating school.

What do we mean by observation?

It is about observation leading to evaluation of learning – what did students learn and what did they take away from the lesson?

Classroom observation takes different forms that serve different purposes. I invite teachers to draw on their own experience to list some of the purposes which lead to different forms of observation, as well as the standard one of observing a lesson for a full period.

Examples might include a focus on specific aspects identified in school plans (e.g. use of IT, differentiated learning, classroom management, shadowing a class throughout a day or part of a day, and a walk-through a wide range of classes to get an overall feel for learning and ethos in and around classrooms). Provide a guide (in loose leaf form to be added to at each stage of the workshops) for participants to use as a notebook as well as a takeaway for reflection post-workshop

Practising observation and evaluation

I like to get going with a video to arouse participants’ interest and set the tone, and I make sure it is a short video of a real teacher in action in a real classroom, preferably in their own school.

I give each group one issue to focus on during the four to five minute video which I use to focus on observing the start of a lesson.
Issues usually include: the ethos in the classroom, are there opening routines?, what about the layout of desks and chairs?, are the objectives clear?, are pupils on task right away?

At this point, I remind the participants to recognise that many teachers will be quite nervous at the start of an observed lesson, so to make allowances (the empathy factor). I always provide a guide, a workbook which serves both for taking notes and making observations and taking away for reflection after the workshop. From this first video, I get the participants to begin making bullet points on big posters spread throughout the room.

I move on to a second video, inviting the groups to make their own observations, perhaps steering them towards the strengths and the aspects to be improved. Usually this will be an edited video (varies from around eight to 12 minutes) of a whole lesson, attempting to show the beginning, middle and summing up. Groups present their observations and evaluations to generate an informed debate, with the purpose always being how well are we observing and how well are we evaluating.

The videos are not about good and bad teaching – they are a means to an end, i.e. becoming better at observing lessons. During and following the videos I keep reminding teachers of the value of self-evaluation and asking them to reflect on the question: how do I compare in my classroom?

Tips for classroom observations

Participants now draw on the discussions complemented by their own experiences to come up with workshop tips to improve their observation skills. Once we have refined the workshop list, I remind them that observing learning is arguably one of their most important jobs and then introduce four vital principles:

  1. I share my view that observing a teacher and pupils is a privilege – be courteous and respectful at all times.
  2. Think “learning”, not teaching. The emphasis needs to be on learning; focus on learning to gather the evidence to evaluate what is taking place in the lesson
  3. I encourage participants to write-up observation notes as the lesson proceeds, otherwise they will be stressed out trying to catch-up after observing several lessons. Teachers are impressed with an observer who can talk confidently about the flow of the lesson, the different time periods and more.
  4. My advice is never interfere with, or take-over, a lesson unless there is an exceptional circumstance.

Tips for ‘better’ observations

I now ask the participants to assess their refined list of advice and compare this with my own list below:

  • Be there to see the students arriving and witness the teacher routines (or lack of them). Stay to the end of the period unless agreed otherwise, e.g. walk-through style of observation.
  • Sit in an area that offers good view of the classroom and try to be invisible. You can move around discreetly once the lesson gets under way. Note number of students, gender/ethnic mix, space, resources, eye the walls – are there displays of student work, are the displays up-to-date (I often find Christmas and Chinese New Year decorations still featuring months later).
  • Ask yourself: would you like to be a student in this room for a day/part of day? A big indicator.
  • Pay attention to classroom layout – is it conducive to the learning plan/objectives, does it support interaction and discussion? Does the teacher rearrange the layout to meet particular aspects of the lesson plan?
  • If the lesson and layout permits, walk around the classroom to observe students’ work (and faces) and where appropriate share a moment with students.
  • Keep reflecting on three key questions (the “think learning”) – what are the students doing, what are they learning, and what is the teacher doing?
  • Note who gets attention and who doesn’t. For example, do the same pupils answer most of the time and dominate discussion? Does the teacher give time for other pupils to participate? Are the questions varied to include higher-order thinking, factual and challenging? Does the teacher focus on one side of the classroom? Are there gender and/or ethnic bias in allocating tasks?
  • As the lesson proceeds keep thinking: are the objectives understood by the pupils; are the learning outcomes being achieved; and, how good is the quality of teacher judgements in the course of the lesson?
  • Is the time-managed well? Are the lesson objectives being achieved? Is the time managed in line with the plan?
  • Is classroom management conducive to quality learning? Is the teacher’s management a lubricant or an irritant?
  • Note how the lesson is brought to a close. Is there a summing up and by whom (teacher or pupils or both)? Is there a “what did we learn today?” summary?

With experience, the tips will become part and parcel of your observations, just like taking notes. I ask participants to reflect on my guidance with a view to improving it using workshop deliberations.

Next step as we move towards the end of the first of two workshops is to invite the members to watch another video (different subject and different level) featuring the first 12 to 15 minutes of a lesson and to evaluate taking account of our guidance and tips. Teachers are invited to discuss and compare notes within their groups on this occasion.

Some reflection

Elliot Eisner, quoted in Self-Evaluation: What’s in it for schools? (MacBeath & McGlynn, 2002), says that the astute observer brings an enlightened eye to the process. He goes on to say that the ability to see what counts is one of the features that differentiate novices from skilled, experience observers. Novices (without training) tend to get lost in minutiae. The experienced observer knows what is important, what really matters – knowing what to leave aside means having a sense for the significant.
Michael Fielding on evaluating the sub-text of classroom interaction poses questions when it comes to speaking in a lesson:

  • Who is allowed to speak?
  • Who are they allowed to speak to?
  • What are they allowed to speak about?
  • What language is encouraged or allowed?
  • Who decides the answers to the questions?
  • How are these decisions made?

Workshop two

This begins with another real teacher in the classroom, and the video aims to capture the overall spirit of the lesson in around 12 to 15 minutes. Teachers form new groups with some groups given the job of presenting what the teacher did well in the lesson, and others asked to consider some issues and concerns. I usually give out the aide memoire below, which can form the basis for groups’ evaluations.

Aide memoire

What did the teacher do well?

  • Greeted students, started the lesson on time and with confidence?
  • Set out the learning objectives clearly at the start?
  • Varied learning methods?
  • Involved students as soon as possible and encouraged discussion by posing questions like: How do you think this happened? How would you go about calculating this?

Can you think of a better way of handling the issue?

  • Good to very good classroom management – were students on task, not distracted, aware of what is going on around the room/laboratory?
  • Good to very good time management – allocated time as planned, priorities recognised, reflection time?
  • Excellent use of audio visual aids to support learning and motivate students, used coloured pens in group work to prepare presentations, mind-maps?
  • Good integration of coursework and textbook while encouraging creativity?
  • Ethos positive with high expectations, supportive, encouraging, enjoyment?

What are some issues and concerns?

  • Lack of confidence, not getting across to the back of room, too easily distracted?
  • Pace of delivery too fast not suited to students working in second or foreign language?
  • Too many PowerPoint slides, sometimes not clear?
  • Over dependence of whole class Q&A? Little variation in learning methods?
  • Not enough students involved in the lesson. Interaction seemed to be teacher to student to teacher rather than spread around the room?
  • Answering her/his questions, hurrying along without recapping?
  • Time management a problem but could be overcome with basic coaching?
  • Classroom management and behaviour problems – a challenge for the follow-up?
  • Archie McGlynn is an education consultant. He was formerly HM chief inspector of schools (Scotland) where he put in place How Good is Our School?, self-evaluation guidelines. Email The second part of this article, focusing on post-observation interviews and follow-up, will publish on Thursday, October 18.

This is wonderful, practical advice. I was fortunate enough to become a Head Teacher in Scotland in 1994, the year of Archie's publication of 'How Good is our School'; its collaborative, inspiring approach engaged the whole school community. I have experienced Archie's work in Hong Kong too: his workshops really do produce the respectful but hard-hitting results which have real impact in schools. Archie's advice brings together members of the great teaching profession, the best people to observe and develop teaching and learning for all our young people.
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