Reflective Observation

I’ve been pretty quiet recently – at least it feels like I’ve not been offering much to the conversation. There are several reasons, but a big part of it is that with paid freelance work I’ve really not been able to justify the time to do things for free. I’m not going to apologize for this because I’m sure you’ll all understand that without this work my family and I can’t go on holiday.
But I’ve missed you all, even if you’ve not been missing me.
This will be a quick post, hopefully to be followed up over the next week with another. I’ve been working in a school a couple of days a week, mixing teacher coaching with some intervention classes. It’s been interesting – and enjoyable, at least after the kids stopped swearing at me – so I thought it might be worth sharing a few things I’ve done.
I’m currently reading Mentoring Mathematics Teachers, effectively a collection of research papers published as a book. Now, I don’t teach maths – except in the process of getting the physics right – but I’ve found it really interesting. It’s mainly aimed at in-school mentors for pre-service teachers (PGCE, School Direct or similar) and NQTs. I’ve got a strong interest in how we can support teachers for a longer period than just a year, and in my day job we mentor ‘Early Career Teachers’ to the end of their second year post-qualification. I’m working through about a chapter a week, making notes in the margins, and really need to blog some of the ideas. So it was perfect timing to come to Chapter 9 by Lofthouse and Wright, about encouraging reflection by using a pro forma for observations. I’ve adapted it slightly with a fair bit of success and wish I’d been using it for longer.
As a physics teacher, I feel I should now make the point that teaching is a quantum process which is changed simply by the act of being observed. If you laughed at that, congratulations and please pick up your Physics Education Geek badge on the way out.
observation pro forma
Click for PDF version

There are four stages:

  1. The ‘observee’ defines one or two aspects they want to focus on, choosing a couple of questions for the observer to bear in mind.
  2. The observer makes notes of specific features in the lesson relating to these questions – no judgment, just facts.
  3. The observer poses questions based on these features to prompt reflection and discussion.
  4. Together, the colleagues plan future actions based on the outcome of these prompts, leading to questions for the next observed lesson.
The aim of this structure is to encourage reflective practice rather than “I saw X and you should try Y instead.” In this way both teachers gain from it as there isn’t necessarily a hierarchy in place. It would work just as well when an experienced teacher is observed by a novice, with the questions directing them towards interesting features of the lesson. I can also see it being useful for peer observation – and like all such activities, it would work best when well-separated from any kind of performance management process.
I should emphasize that this is my take on the process rather than a paraphrased version of the original. And, of course, I’m still tweaking it! Currently I’m following up soon after the lesson but wonder if leaving the sheet with the observed teacher so they can think about the prompts more deeply might be worthwhile. I’m numbering the evidence I see and then grouping them in the ‘Reflection Prompts’ section if appropriate – this helps me gather my thoughts and gives more than one relevant example.
EDIT: I recommend reading a great post by @bennewmark, Finding a Voice, for the issues that can arise when an observee tries to replan a lesson based on well-meaning comments from a colleague.
Please help yourself to the printable version, try it out and let me know what you think. Maybe everyone else has something better already – it’s two years since I had a lesson observed! But I’d appreciate, as ever, any feedback or suggestions.

3 thoughts on “Reflective Observation”

  1. Thanks for sharing this.
    As a fellow freelancer I understand the bit about holidays very much!

    I enjoyed this article and as a coach rather than a mentor I felt myself celebrating- yes at last someone else realises the benefit of being non judgemental, believing the teacher can move forward and the importance of having an action plan to work towards achieving the teachers goal.

    My understanding is that mentoring is hierarchical and there is usually a right way to do something.

    Coaching is non hierarchical and works really well with new teachers coaching more experienced teachers just as effectively when the right training is provided beforehand. Teachers find it very hard not to give advice as we spend our lives doing it. However we are all different and unique and what works for one teacher will not in most cases work for the next teacher.

    I love coaching teachers and the best bit is seeing them move towards their goal knowing they have done it themselves.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment – it’s appreciated!

      I suspect the ‘coach’ vs ‘mentor’ discussion is one that could run and run. In the book I’ve recommended the focus is on the mutual benefits to both mentor (a more experienced teacher) and ‘mentee’ (explicitly an early career or student teacher). Several of the authors – each chapter is written by a different pair of maths teachers – take great pains to emphasize that the process is about asking questions and prompting self-development, not necessarily trying to turn them into a clone of yourself. I suspect this is one of the bigger problems with coaching ‘in-house’, where the mentor will often be one of the SMT.

      As part of your role, would this pro forma be helpful during observations? I made a deliberate effort to eliminate any hint of judgment,, opportunity for overall ‘lesson grade’ and so on. Formative, not summative!

  2. Having worked with my colleague David Wright, our PGCE students and mentors to develop our original model some years ago it’s great to see these ideas in use.
    I think you’ve captured the essence well. We did want to create a different kind of discussion between mentors and their students. In particular we wanted to develop a questioning stance matched with a focus on relevant observational evidence. This was positioned within our practitioner enquiry based programme.
    One of my personal approaches to using this was to hand the observation sheet back to the student teacher following the lesson and prior to the debrief and ask them to review the recorded questions and notes before considering what question they wanted to kick the conversation off with. This puts the ball back in their court and breaks down some of the problematic power relations.

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