Are your lesson observations a wasted opportunity?

If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!

William Strunk

Why compound ignorance with inaudibility?


Meet Hannah. She’s in her fourth year of teaching. Today she took part in her second formal lesson observation of the year, roughly her 30th observation since she began her PGCE. In preparation, she discussed her lesson plan with colleagues. She spent hours creating resources and differentiating for every possible outcome or detour in her lesson. (Away from the prying eyes of the SLT observers, a stack of unused ‘extension tasks’ went into the bin at the end of the lesson, unneeded as they turned out to be.) She stuck sheets into children’s books so that not a single second of the learning time would be wasted, though usually the kids would do this job themselves. She sharpened pencils, cleaned whiteboards and imagined each part of the lesson with the precise foresight of a military logistician. She told children about the upcoming observation and subtly ensured that children knew that the rewards and sanctions for their actions during this precious period of time would be greater than usual. Immediately after the lesson, she scoured the checklist – the one given to each teacher at the start of the year – to ensure that everything had been included during her 40 minute observation. Cooperative learning? Check. A mention of homework? Check. Mini-plenary? Check. Visible excitement for learning? Check. Thinking skills in one of the agreed school formats? Check. (The observers surely saw on her lesson plan that her plenary explicitly referenced de Bono’s red thinking hat.) In short, this was no ordinary lesson. Now, as she skips from the meeting room in which she received glowing feedback, she feels that her hard work has paid off.

Meet Sarah. She is in her third year of teaching, and for the past two years Edutwitter has become a slightly-too-prominent part of her daily routine. While she remembers little of the pedagogy that was discussed during her initial teacher training, since then she has read countless books, blogs and research papers (though often just the abstracts and conclusions of these).  Having initially tried to apply all at once everything she had learned – with chaotic results – she is now committed to changing her teaching one element at a time. Most recently, she has focused on improving her questioning. She finds that particular techniques (cold-calling, pose-pounce-bounce, etc) have begun to ensure that all children in the class are listening and that she understands the children’s misconceptions better than before. She has read Tom Sherrington’s blog-post on the subject at least five times.[i] She is never truly satisfied with her teaching in any given lesson, but she is confident that she is traveling in a positive direction. At this moment, she is sitting quietly in her classroom, having just received her feedback from today’s lesson observation. She is not visibly upset; that is just not her style. But she is demoralised. As much as possible, she tried to ensure that she taught the way she usually would. The observing members of SLT said some complimentary things about her lesson, but they were not happy about the desks that were in rows; they were not happy about the amount of time spent on consolidating learning from the previous lesson; they were not happy that the displays on the working wall did not have the date written on them, in line with school policy. (“Who knows how long they’ve been on the wall?”) These same observers will decide whether she moves up the pay scale at the end of the year and whether she is suitable for a position of responsibility. Sarah occasionally thinks about looking for another school, but she is told by colleagues that this is “just how it is everywhere now”. She has a 1st class degree in accountancy and is beginning to think that she isn’t a good fit for primary teaching.

Meet Joanne. She is the head teacher, and she dedicates her life to the school. It is 5:30 PM, and she has just realised that she hasn’t eaten since breakfast. She is mentally exhausted from a day of observing lessons and giving feedback. It has been worth it, mind. The school is a different place to the one she took over two years ago. Having seen the effects of disappointing Ofsted inspections first-hand as a deputy head in her previous school, she knows that what she is doing is for the best in the long run. This is her first headship, and she is desperate for the next Ofsted inspection to go well; she wants some breathing space so she can begin to create the school she’s always wanted to lead. Beyond that, she eventually wants to work in education on a level above any individual school, and developing an “outstanding” school seems like a necessary launchpad for such ambitions. Thus, every structure – from lesson observations to interventions to assessment – has been designed to provide straightforward, easily-argued answers to whichever inspector has to judge the entire workings of a school over the course of just a few hours. She suspects that assessment results will always be paramount, despite Ofsted’s claims to the contrary, so she has ensured that SATs booster clubs now start in year 5, though not with that name, of course. Today’s lesson observations were another tiny step towards her goal: apart from a few exceptions, the teaching across the school aligned very well with the checklist she created. (Three out of the four NQTs are struggling to meet the school’s expectations, but one seems to be doing fine, evidence that the other three just need to pull their socks up.)  Ofsted will doubtless want to know how well Joanne understands the teaching across the school, and if everyone sticks to the checklist, she can be confident in every answer she gives. As she so often says, consistency is key. Recently, she’s heard a lot about retrieval practice and is convinced of its efficacy. The only question is exactly how much of each lesson should she ask teachers to dedicate to it. Five minutes? Ten? There’s no need to decide that now. That one can be added to next year’s checklist.

The above cases are all fabrications, obviously. However, they are representative of most of the schools in which I have worked and reflect what I have been told by the majority of primary teachers that I have met. I was tempted to let the above vignettes speak for themselves, but against my better judgement, I’m not going to. Some thoughts:

  1. Any lesson observation where a teacher is hoping to impress and puts on a lesson ‘for show’ is a wasted opportunity to improve their day-to-day teaching. School leaders must ensure that their teachers know this.
  2. Before a lesson observation, school leaders should ask a teacher exactly what they are trying to improve in their teaching and why. The observation should then support the teacher in this area of improvement and then discuss future areas that the teacher could work on. (If a teacher is not focused on an area of improvement, then the aim of the lesson observation should be to find one.) Becoming a better teacher is a process of inculcating new habits. This takes weeks or even months and is inevitably achieved (or not) by the teacher when no one is watching. A lesson observation structure that does not recognise this fact and does not consequently work within its confines is a wasted opportunity.
  3. I suspect that on some intrinsic level, lesson observations will always mirror the power dynamic of Ofsted inspections. Ofsted inspections are perceived primarily as something ‘done to’ schools, who are thus more keen to impress than to improve. Due to this, many schools’ attitude to Ofsted is similar to Hannah’s attitude to lesson observations: Put on a show. Earn praise. Get back to business. It’s tempting to blame the individual teacher or school for adapting to their environment in whatever way maximises praise and minimises criticism from those in authority, especially when doing so is patently short-sighted; individual responsibility is important, after all. But at some point we must address the circumstances that incentivise such attitudes.[ii]


[ii] There are a lot of positive noises coming from Ofsted currently. However, I hope they do not lose sight of the fact that many of the changes that they are suggesting are part of an attempt to undo damage that has already been inflicted by Ofsted themselves. Accountability almost always seems to create perverse incentives; this should inspire caution and humility in those who seek it.

One thought on “Are your lesson observations a wasted opportunity?

  1. Many years ago as a Year Four teacher I had an observation by the Deputy Head where the only criticism was that some of my displays were awry. I was irked by that and afterwards went to check in my room what the matter was. The only work on the walls that wasn’t mounted, named, dated and lined up with military precision were pieces from my class’s History lessons which I didn’t teach. They were of course taught by the Deputy Head.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s