Effective lesson observations

Written by: Adam Riches | Published:
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Some very useful tips here, and you are right about the post-observation follow up interviews ...

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Observing a lesson is not as easy as one might think. Adam Riches draws on his experience to offer advice on how to approach lesson observations to ensure good outcomes

Observing a lesson is an art. As I have progressed through my career, I have taken on more and more responsibility for improving other people’s teaching and one thing I have realised is that without an open approach to lesson observation, helping teachers to progress is very difficult.

A pitfall many observers fall into is looking for a very specific list of “features” in an individual’s teaching, potentially from the legacy of Ofsted inspections gone by. This archaic, linear fashion of observing is outdated and not hugely productive for observer or observee.

In reality we all know that good teaching isn’t about ticking boxes. Instead, it is about children learning. Observing successful teaching may not always be as clear cut and explicit as this, however, so how can we go about observing in a way that truly benefits teachers and pupils?

Having a focus

Before you watch a lesson, it is always a good idea to have a focus for the observation. This can be formalised (linked to performance targets, for example) or simply an area of teaching that the person being observed would like feedback on.

By establishing a focus, you are able to really hone in on specifics. Without a focus, you may find yourself making generic comments and providing almost sporadic feedback.

In addition, having a focus for the observation means that (some of) the stress or perceived stigma of being watched is reduced. The observer’s paradox is something that needs to be negated as much as possible when observing colleagues in the classroom – it is so important to get the true measure of the teaching and not be hindered by nerves created by somebody watching.

As with any type of learning (think of your own lessons), having a focus means that there is a tangible outcome. A series of well-focused observations can help a struggling teacher systematically and sequentially improve their teaching in a sustainable manner.

Similarly, if the colleague observing is less experienced than the teacher being observed, good practice can be picked up logically and quickly.

Making notes

Reams and reams of notes aren’t as helpful as you may think. Detail has a place in lesson observation notes, but detail can be misconstrued as failure. Writing too much may also dilute the messages that you are trying to send to the teacher you are observing.

A chronological list of comments linked to the Teachers’ Standards is a good way to ensure that there is logic and detail to what you have written. The assumption is that you will be giving feedback following the observation, so a chronological sequence of events can be really helpful when unpicking the different parts of the lesson. Including a commentary of your own thoughts is also a nice personal touch that somewhat softens the formality of linking to the Teachers’ Standards.

One thing to keep in mind is that it is those personal comments that make the observation more human. In turn, I believe that actually, these comments become most important when it comes to suggestions for improvement. If you are too mechanic, the teacher being observed is likely to respond in a less positive way than if the comments are more reflective. When we observe lessons, we don’t have to lose our personalities.

The pro-forma you use to record observation will depend on your school’s systems. If you don’t have one in your school, a simple page stating the details of the lesson (teacher, class etc), a focus for the observation, some space for notes, strengths and targets will more than suffice.

Avoid making notes on a random piece of paper – let’s be honest, a teacher being observed isn’t going to feel valued and regardless of what is seen and discussed in the feedback, that piece of paper is probably going to end up in the bin.

Think outside the (comments) box

Learning takes place in so many ways that it can be impossible to record every instance in an observation. With that said, comments alone can sometimes only tell half the story. When observing, think about how you record the information that you wish to feedback.

For example, if a teacher is working on cold-call questioning distribution, how are you going to show them that they missed half of the class? Similarly, if the focus for the observation is engagement, how might you show successes and short-comings in practice?

Being visual and mapping out the lesson is one way of adding some visual stimulus to your observing repertoire. Question distribution diagrams, circulation paths and even word-for-word transcriptions are all ways in which you can add an extra element of transparency to your observation. Having concrete examples to help explain teaching concepts to others is one of the most effective ways of ensuring that your observation is of value to them.

Feeding back

Regardless of your approach to the observation of a lesson, I think it is universally accepted that the feedback is the most important factor in the whole process. Without that dedicated time to explain your observations, the whole process is pretty much useless for the teacher. In turn, without good, focused feedback the negative stigma of being observed creeps back in.

There is of course the debate between the coaching and the mentoring approach when it comes to feedback. I personally think that it depends very much on your own preferences, the needs of the person being observed and, most importantly, the stage at which that teacher is at in their career.

I always think that reflective individuals suit a coaching approach and colleagues that lean towards logic tend to respond better to a mentoring style.

Nine times out of 10, observers will simply sit down and talk through the lesson that has just been taught. These kind of sessions vary in quality depending on the way in which the discussion is directed, but it is the most effective way of helping teachers progress their teaching.

In the education sector, we are constrained by time; there’s never enough of it. Often, a debrief that ends on the targets from the observation is all that can be managed in the time allocated (if there is time allocated). For me though, this isn’t the last part of the process.

Achieving targets

The last part of an observation – the least done and in my mind, the most important – is helping a teacher on their way to achieving the targets set from the observation. I think that finishing an observation by simply stating targets is the same as the teacher who writes “more detail next time” in a student’s book.

Time needs to be spent explaining, showing and modelling how the observed teacher can achieve the targets before the process is complete. To make an observation worthwhile, the outcome must allow a teacher to change their practice for the better and as an observer it’s your job to be able to suggest how they can achieve the targets you have set.

It is such a morale booster for the teacher and it shows that you are worthy of being an observer – after all, you are the expert!

  • Adam Riches is a lead teacher in English, a Specialist Leader of Education and an ITT coordinator. Follow him on Twitter @TeachMrRiches. Read his previous articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/2DhTAJu

Further information

Teachers’ Standards, Department for Education, July 2011 (updated June 2013): http://bit.ly/1MAWT7n

Some very useful tips here, and you are right about the post-observation follow up interviews (most important part but often not well done) See my two part practical guide on Observing and Evaluating Learning and conducting follow up. In two recent editions of SecED
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