Why lesson observations need to be challenged

Written by: Denise Inwood | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A growing body of evidence is throwing into doubt some of the long-established principles of lesson observations. Denise Inwood explains

Research into the effectiveness of lesson observations shows that the time is ripe for change. In recent decades, pupil assessment has been the subject of countless reforms, debates and protests. Meanwhile the lesson observation, one of the core tenets of assessing teachers, has gone relatively unchallenged.

But why is this the case? Perhaps one reason that lesson observations are a fixed entity in the changing world of education is that they are a window on the most important activity that takes place in a school – teaching.

Certainly, lesson observations have long been a key part of any school leadership team’s toolkit, and they are widely used to make pivotal decisions in a school involving teacher performance and succession planning.

However, there is mounting research-based evidence that lesson observations, in their current format, are flawed. The evidence raises some interesting questions...

Can observers judge teaching quality?

When an experienced observer sits in a lesson, we assume that they can spot good quality teaching in the blink of an eye. But it can be all too easy to underestimate the effect of our own subjectivity on a lesson observation.
Even with observers who are following explicit criteria, there can be enormous variations in their judgement of a lesson, as work by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation suggests.

The Foundation’s Measures of effective teaching (MET) research showed that if a lesson is given a top grade – or “outstanding” in Ofsted terms – by one observer, the probability that a second observer would give an entirely different judgement is between 51 and 78 per cent.

Training is no guarantee against subjectivity either. The same research showed that trained observers such as principals and assistant principals were more likely to give varying results than teachers with less observation experience. Yet these are the observations that carry most weight. Clearly establishing consistency of practice is no easy task.

Do lesson observations improve pupil outcomes?

Lesson observations are considered by many to be an essential ingredient in improving pupil outcomes, but perhaps their role is being overplayed.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) looked at the correlation between increased lesson observations and improved exam results, and published the findings in a report that examines the impact of structured teacher observations (2017).

Interestingly, the EEF research shows that when 82 schools introduced more frequent and structured lesson observations, where teachers observe and feedback to colleagues, it made no difference at all to pupils’ GCSE maths and English results.

Rather than increasing the number of observed lessons, researchers suggest that observing lessons in conjunction with other ways of improving teaching, such as CPD courses or peer feedback, would be more effective.

Observing more lessons without changing the way we observe is at best ineffective and at worst damaging to teacher workload and morale.

Can we actually observe pupils’ learning?

The traditional lesson observation only tells a small part of the overall story, and the missing chapter is the fact that when we observe a lesson we are unable to see or measure pupils’ learning.

In his work on learning and memory, Robert Bjork, the distinguished cognitive psychology research professor at UCLA, emphasises the need to make a distinction between learning and performance (2012).

He argues that while performance can be measured, for example, by seeing pupils answering a teacher’s question correctly, the learning may not necessarily be happening.

For example, did the child already know the answer before the lesson? Will the child remember the answer after the bell rings for break?

We can only truly know if a student is learning by being continually aware of our impact on that student. This is a key argument in Professor John Hattie’s book, Visible Learning (2009). As Prof Hattie explains, teachers need to understand where a student is in their thinking, then challenge them to go beyond that level. But the challenge of actually observing this happening in a lesson remains.

What do lesson observations tell us about a teacher?

Lesson observations allow teaching to be observed, but measuring pupils’ engagement is another challenge altogether. We can observe a teacher delivering a lesson, and witness pupils responding to that lesson, but is that enough to make a judgement on a teacher’s professional practice?

David Didau, the educational author and consultant, likens the lesson observation to the tip of the iceberg. What the observer sees is how the teacher has planned the lesson, the interactions with their students and the work in their students’ books.

However, the observer has no concrete way of evaluating the long-term positive relationships the teacher has built up with their students, the effective routines that make the classroom run smoothly, and the culture of high expectations they have created.

As David Didau says in his 2013 blog, Icebergs, taking risks and being outstanding: “Most of what goes into making your lessons finely crafted things of beauty are invisible. Observers only ever get to see the tip of the iceberg.”

To go beyond the tip of the iceberg, schools may need to shift away from passive observation and give teachers a more active role in judging their performance.

Do lesson observations change the way teachers teach?

Schools often encourage peer observations as they allow one teacher to learn from the practice of another, possibly more experienced colleague. But simply recognising good practice in another or spotting where any gaps in learning are is not always enough to enable a teacher to change their own ways of teaching.

Dylan Wiliam, professor of educational assessment at the UCL Institute of Education, explains that changing teacher practice is difficult, because it involves long established habits. For example, the way a teacher asks questions in their classrooms may not be working. But a teacher of 20 years may have asked more than a million questions in their classroom in that particular way. It is hard to do it a different way and the process of simply identifying an issue will not necessarily prompt the change.

Prof Wiliam said: “We have been focusing on getting teachers to think their way into a new way of acting, whereas it would be far more effective to get teachers to act their way into a new way of thinking.” (2010)

Current thinking points to the fact that lesson observations as we know them have their limitations, but abandoning them altogether and closing the window on the classroom is not an option either – school leaders do need to see for themselves what’s happening in the classroom.

What the research does show, however, is that the time has come for schools to recognise the pitfalls of the lesson observation and explore ways to make those observations more effective.

In my view, the solution might come in the form of a culture shift towards a more collaborative approach, where teachers and observers work together to share professional know-how and not the “watch and critique” style of old.

  • Denise Inwood, a former senior school leader, is managing director of BlueSky Education. Her summary of the latest research on lesson observations – entitled Challenging perceptions of the lesson observation – is available from http://bit.ly/2KHfDcZ

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