Lesson Observations and Exam Entries

Others have written about the difficulties of lesson observation as a way to gauge teacher competence, such as David Didau who provided CPD at my current setting in September. These are my own thoughts and will be nowhere near as well referenced, but they are heartfelt.

What’s the point?

Are lesson observations intended to provide a stepping stone to progress (formative) or are they giving a judgement (summative)? If the latter, is it an internal judgement on the individual teacher (for interview purposes, progression or capability) or is it part of the school assessing the level of the team as a whole, in the same way as Ofsted use?

And that’s without any hint of what are probably the most powerful observations – peers learning from each other, swapping ideas and explaining reasoning – without any concern about implications. These are understandably difficult to separate from the other purposes when the observer, as is often the case, is senior to the observee.

Observing for learning

I really like the idea of ‘live’ observations where the observer plays an active part in the lesson. Not quite team teaching, this allows discussion and would hopefully be followed up over a coffee with suggestions. Informal but effective.

I also think it would make lesson observations much better if the observer was expected to model their suggested improvements for the observee with their own class. No better way than to lead by example, surely. @LeeDonaghy alerted me to the practice of ‘instructional rounds‘, which is linked to this kind of model. That’s my weekend reading sorted.

Observing for teaching

If a judgement is involved, how important is that judgement to the teacher and to the school? Evidence shows that if stakes are high, then individuals and institutions are prepared to make compromises. This may be considered acceptable – see below – but it should always be a conscious choice.

Should a teacher have to change the way they teach because they are being observed? I would say the implications of this depend on what change they are making and why.

Is an incompetent teacher making themselves look better by doing the things they know they should be doing anyway? If so, these are changes that should soon also be present in normal practice, possibly with support. Hopefully this is rarely a deliberate attempt to avoid making these changes permanent.

Is a competent teacher pulling out all the stops to ensure a positive result, making this one of the percentage of excellent lessons they are already delivering? This is more about timing, as none of us can – or, I would argue, should be expected to – be excellent every single lesson.

Is this a competent teacher having to change their lesson so that they are observed doing things the observer wants to see? This assumes that we can second guess the observer. Andrew Old made a great point (verbally, so I can’t link) that when we expect to be observed, we have to assume the worst about the observer. It’s hard to feel secure about Ofsted ‘wants’ when the political involvement in the process is so transparent, and SLT often interpret guidance in different ways. Mary Myatt blogs about what she, as an inspector, really thinks about lesson observations. Go and read.

Arguably the worst case scenario would be a teacher acting in a way that offers short term evidence of skills at the cost of long term learning by students. Are we justified doing something which is negative for kids if it gives us a positive result? This is particularly true when we consider the disruptive effect of trying to force pupils to show progress every 20 minutes, without fail, every lesson.

Of course I’m playing devil’s advocate here, perhaps being overly dramatic. There aren’t many things we could do in a short observation, as part of a showpiece lesson, that would truly have a long-term negative effect on our pupils. But it’s the same ethical dilemma that we face on a school level, isn’t it?


When do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few – or the one?

 The exam or course that is in the best interests of the student may not be the one that is best for the school. Was it better to have a double BTec in science – effectively guaranteeing the equivalent of two GCSE C grades – or experience of GCSE science, and perhaps achieving grade D? What about getting a careers qualification in a week that claims to be equivalent to a GCSE? Should we ‘encourage’ kids towards History or Geography – EBacc subjects – because it matters for the school, even if they’d rather do RE? You need only look at situations where suggests were achieving 12 or 13 GCSE equivalents, until you found they did only 6 actual GCSEs. Fine if they were doing vocational courses for their benefit – but whole school year groups?
Recently, of course, this choice was made explicit by changes, then more changes, to how school league tables would be compiled. Students were entered for their English exam early, while speaking and listening could still be counted, and then in some cases withdrawn when it was found that only their first attempt would go towards official figures. Those who had claimed the early exam was for the kids, then changed their mind, revealed how difficult this choice was; these exams are high stakes for schools as well as pupils. We suffer if our students do badly. Our management teams are very aware that not just their reputations, but in some cases their pay and their jobs are on the line.

One of my many issues with performance related pay is that it makes us all subject to the same pressure. Many of us show, when we sacrifice other classes, marking or planning because of a coming observation that will affect our performance management, that we are prepared to put ourselves above our students. Would we do the same for exam results?

Will I play the game when it comes to lesson observations – and should I have done so already? Yes, probably. Would I do it if I believed it would really hurt my students’ learning? I hope not. Will I keep questioning why I make the choices I do?

Hell yes.

2 thoughts on “Lesson Observations and Exam Entries”

  1. Thanks for this, Ian.

    I’ve observed a fair few lessons in my time, and been observed a number of times too. But I started teaching before Ofsted existed, and I was a deputy and then a head in independent schools that weren’t subject to Ofsted, so my experiences of lesson observation are different in some ways from the experiences of many who are currently commenting on lesson observation in blogs/on Twitter.

    When I observed lessons as a head, my focus was always on helping teachers learn, rather than judging. I usually tucked myself away at the back of the room and didn’t tend to interact with the pupils/the lesson because I wanted the pupils, as far as possible, to forget I was there and not to be distracted by my presence. I appreciate that having the head at the back of the room can make teachers nervous/defensive and can make the lesson artificial/uncharacteristic as a result. But I worked hard to make my observations/subsequent discussion with teachers supportive and constructive. I saw myself as a ‘fly on the wall’ who could, ideally, help the teacher to ‘see’ even more clearly what had happened in the lesson by providing a different perspective.

    One quick example – I remember we had a girl who I was concerned was struggling to cope academically. She was in Year 8 and I sat in a German lesson of which she was a member. I watched her closely to see how she was managing. I noticed that she put her hand up a lot, but always JUST as the teacher started to say the name of the pupil she had chosen to answer. So the girl’s response was never selected, but the teacher had the impression that she was keen/confident/involved because her memory of this girl’s contribution was that she volunteered answers frequently.

    Discussing this with the teacher afterwards meant we could consider strategies for ensuring that this particular learner was both monitored and supported, and this also led to a debate on the advantages of not always using a ‘hands up’ approach to Q and A.

    Any thoughts?

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