Lesson ObservationsJune 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.