Lesson Observations

June 8, 2008

The activities of OFSTED and the rise of “performance management” has led to an obsession with lesson observations to judge the quality of teaching. There is a big problem with this. The quality of teaching is impossible to judge objectively. That’s not to say there aren’t good lessons or bad lessons. It’s not to say that it is impossible to judge which is which. However, such judgements are incredibly subjective and are based on numerous implicitly held values and prejudices.

Sometimes observers do try to get round this. Often they look to see how well the teacher fulfilled a list of criteria. These criteria tends to be things that are easily looked for but don’t actually tell us much about learning. Did the teacher state the lesson objective? Did the teacher set homework? Did the teacher describe what level the work is at? Was there some group work in there? Did the teacher produce a suitably comprehensive lesson plan? None of these are actually related to the quality of teaching. What is more, the school can become more and more demanding in the list of things it wishes to see. One school I worked in decided lesson objectives simply weren’t enough. There should be a “WALT” (We Are Looking To) -a short description of what the students were hoping to have schieved by the end of the lesson – and a “WILF”. WILF turned out to be a description of three different levels of achievement and the academic grades they corresponded to, all of which were to be explained to the entire class. This was promoted as something that would help the school pass OFSTED. When OFSTED did arrive they ended up complaining that the teachers spent too much time talking to the class. Nobody in management seemed to realise that this might not be unconnected to requiring all teachers to describe the WALT and WILF every lesson.

Of course, more considered observers realise that such a checklist of rituals is meaningless and serves no purpose other than to create stress for teachers. The alternative way to objectively measure the quality of the lesson is to monitor the students. Ask them what they have learnt. Ask them whether they are enjoying the lesson. Nine times out of ten this is a more effective judge of teaching quality than ticking boxes on the checklist, although personally I can’t see what enjoyment has to do with it. However, there is one little difficulty: Students choose what they want to learn and what they want to enjoy. The same lesson can have a completely different result due to student attitude. If you’ve ever had to teach the same lesson to two different (but equal ability) classes then you will know that a lesson that’s like a scene from “Dead Poets’ Society” with one class can be like a scene from “Apocalypse Now” with the next. There is no rhyme or reason to what students say they learnt and enjoyed. The same student who demanded computer work on Monday can be complaining “why do we always do work on the computer?” on Wednesday. The same student who told you “I get it now, you’re a lot better than our old teacher” last week will be telling you “you don’t teach properly” this week. An experienced member of staff might know which students are worth asking. (At this point I smile at the thought of the year 8 girl who, on my last job interview, loudly and somewhat implausibly told the headteacher of the interviewing school how she’d learnt lots and really enjoyed my lesson). Often the observers aren’t a good judge. I bet I’m not the first teacher to have a run of “good”, or better, observations broken by an observer who only bothered to ask Jordan, sat at the back colouring in the front of his exercise book after his last teacher refused to have him, how the lesson was going.

Now when we are honest and admit we can only make subjective judgements of teaching then we often get far more out of observations. Observing lessons is an art, not a science, and a skilled practitioner of that art can be a great help. Unfortunately, even the best of us have their prejudices. A teacher will respond well to activities they would enjoy teaching themselves and badly to ones that they wouldn’t. You will get a lot more positive feedback from a teacher if you have learnt what they like and endeavour to provide it. Relationships also cloud judgement, with teachers being more positive about teachers they know well. I have always found my lessons rated far more highly in my second year at a school than in the first. Mertha, my Head of Department at Stafford Grove School even watched the same lesson twice, criticising it heavily when she saw it the first time, and praising it highly the second time.

Of course, the key problem here is that something that should be informal – the monitoring and support of teachers – has become formal. As ever the education bureaucracy has decreed that good practice only counts if it generates a paper trail. I welcome any teacher coming into my classroom, but the moment they are bringing forms to fill in, they have ceased to be anything but a nuisance.



  1. I managed to spend 33 years as a teacher without a single formal observation of my lessons. There is nothing unusual in this. Victorian teachers got rid of inspectors more than 25 years ago: if one walked in, the teachers in the school walked out. Given that Australia outperforms the UK in international PISA tests, being in the top 10 countries in the world, our system does not seem to have suffered from the non-existence of a body such as OFSTED. Education is suffering from false analogies with the world of business, which is where all the performance management claptrap comes from. While we don’t have OFSTED, we do have annual reviews, annual reports, performance appraisal, etc. It achieves nothing, but in recent years it has insinuated its way into our schools. Basically, the development of computers has seen the triumph of the numerical: if you can’t turn something into a number, it doesn’t exist.

  2. Having read much of ‘Scenes From the Battleground’ you seem very quick to place the worst possible interpretation on the behaviour of others. For example, could it not be possible that your head of department responded more positively to your lesson the second time she saw it because she had realised that she might have been too negative the first time? Did you react badly to her previous negative feedback? If you did, perhaps she was just trying a different behaviour management strategy with you…..

  3. Even if that were the case that would still illustrate my point that the relationship between observer and observed was more important than lesson quality.

    As it happens it wasn’t like you suggest. She had a habit of playing favourites within the department and first time round I was out of favour, second time I wasn’t. As a result the second time she actually stayed in the room for the whole observation and paid attention to what was happening.

  4. Some excellent points.

    I started making some points, but you’ve covered them.

    Some extra ones

    WALT / WILF is a primary school thing. we’ve now been subjected to Learning intentions / success criteria / Mus, should, could / targets etc etc

    Gordon Zoffis has come up with some excellent ideas to inspire failing schools. read ’em here


    Children watching lessons … that will turn around the discipline problems.

  5. Funny, WILF would mean something entirely different here in the States (along the lines of MILF, DILF, etc)

  6. What does the W stand for?

    (I now feel sorry for anyone called Wilf, or has that name not crossed the Atlantic?)

  7. I think they’re all rude acronyms, (having just looked up MILF on Wikipedia)

  8. My current favourite acronym is “We All Now Know”……..

  9. Can anyone point me in tbe direction of dvd material to train people in the art of lesson observations, please?

  10. I thought I’d invented ‘We All Now Know’ on my PGCE last year, along with its sister ‘We All Now Know Everybody Remembers’. I guess there is nothing new under the sun.

    Excellent piece, as ever. Thank you.

  11. Here’s my pennorth for what it’s worth: you know when it works – the class enters the room properly to start with, listens/engages with the teaching/instructing bit of the lesson, collaborates with each other, or gets on with the task alone, depending on temperament, generates a working buzz, and doesn’t stampede out the door when the bell goes. And the clincher is when one or two hang around afterwards to continue working or discussing.
    It didn’t happen all the time for me, but often enough to make me think it’s the best job in the world.

  12. The trouble is that whether that happens or nor often depends on the kids, not the teaching.

  13. Andrew – yesbutnobut – of course it depends on the kids, but only up to a point. As any seasoned teacher knows, it also depends on a host of other things, not least of which is the lesson they’ve just come from. But as the adults in this bog standard situation – and that includes immature “teachers” not to mention 12 year old SMT members – I’m afraid the buck does stop at the class teacher’s door.

  14. I observed a number of lessons recently, and had to report back briefly ending with a “rank” out of 10. One of the lessons was Ofsted-perfect, with every possible box ticked. Another of them leaned towards a few of the inspection criteria but the lesson rambled off in unexpected directions. It was lively and engaging and memorable. Which lesson would have been Ofsted-worthy? The first. Which was the better lesson? Well how would you judge? I made my judgement because the second lesson was the one I really wish I’d thought of and one which I’m going to steal for future purposes…

  15. Of course, the key problem here is that something that should be informal – the monitoring and support of teachers – has become formal. As ever the education bureaucracy has decreed that good practice only counts if it generates a paper trail.
    You’ve nailed it.

  16. […] as an activity of choice’), Andrew Old (‘there is a big problem with this obsession: the quality of teaching is impossible to judge objectively’), David Didau (‘where lesson observations go wrong: why do we insist on grading lesson […]

  17. […] have written blogs recently about classroom observation, including @joe__kirby, @learningspy, @oldandrewuk, @headguruteacher, @tombennett71, @Cazzypot, @HeyMissSmith, @StuartLock, @Katiesarahlou, @samfr. […]

  18. […] debate here and anonymous teacher-blogger ‘Old Andrew’ has contributed his thoughts here. Tom Bennett, teacher and TES blogger, has written about it […]

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