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.

From Good to Outstanding (#aseconf 1/3)

I managed to make it to the 2012 ASE Conference for just one day, the Saturday. My plan is to blog it in three chunks for the sessions I attended, in order. We’ll see how it goes. These will be edited versions of my Evernote summaries of the sessions and my commentary (in italics), although I’ll link to other resources I’ve since found that I think are relevant. Apologies if I mix up any names or misquote any of the people involved. I really enjoyed the sessions and the social side, but will cover this in more detail in the third post.
From Good to Outstanding (T124)
In theory the slides for this are on the ASE website. I can’t find them so I can’t link, even if they are available to nonmembers. Grr.
What does ‘outstanding’ look like?

OfSted have a video explaining what they are looking for.

  • Over time, look for evidence of themes not just snapshot
  • Main focus will be on checking amount of progress by students, a way to measure impact of teachers.
  • Data also checked, record sharing and tracking, pupil and parent discusions.
  • Minimum aim is ‘good’, not ‘satisfactory‘.

It’s really interesting that we start with how we will be judged – cf Robin Millar’s ‘backward design’ concept.

Nick O’Brian

  • An outstanding teacher covers all areas, one bit at a time.
  • This is (or should be) a corporate, not just an individual aim.
  • Can be easy to focus on one area, often linked to School Improvement Plan.
  • Being more rounded means supporting each other.
Best way to improve is to share outstanding practice in a department, tap into ‘local’ skills.
I’m looking forward to restarting lunchtime ‘skills’ sessions in my workplace. These run informally at lucnhtime, where a few peers meet (discreetly) to swap ideas and suggestions. the aim is to bring to each session one difficulty and one resource or approach to ‘show off’. 

From HOD’s point of view, improving results may be focus. In most useful cases (ie not exam ‘strategy’) this will be via improved teaching. A good way to help with this is to cross reference performance management targets. This allows a department to set up mentors/mentees, so everyone makes the most of each other’s strengths. This could also work online.

He recommends Pimp Your Lesson and Ginnis’ Teachers’ Toolkit. In his setting this has led to a ‘focus of the week’.
Link this with lunch sessions? It sounds like the aim is to get preproom as supportive as twitter – imagine if you could share the same enthusiasm in there as we see on #asechat or at #SciTeachJC.
If department time is not focussed on teaching and learning, bin it. Requires brave approach and sadly works best coming from the top down. I would love to think that this could realistically include exams.
Refer back to test scores, using them as formative assessment for you as well as students. If kids underachieve, reflect on this and seek advice from collagues whose students have done particularly well. What have they done differently to you?

Identify and tackle groups that are not achieving:

  1. Classroom intervention (over time)
  2. Set or group (sessions, etc)
  3. Back to individuals, but led by department
Open doors, learning walks should have a specific focus. They are not just for SMT!
After reflection, I’m now going to give this a try in combination with the ‘focus of the week’ idea, perhaps modified to a different idea every fortnight. Each time I’ll choose an aspect I want to work on and see if I can observe colleagues for this. We don’t do enough peer observation in my workplace but things will only change if I try things out myself; we are fairly conservative. It might work best if I observe first, then try out myself.
He talked about cards providing quick checks for reflecting on oneaspect of a lesson (we have equivalents for the students, L2L cards which they use to prompt contributions to a split plenary). Use paired observations, self-moderating:

  • What went well?
  • Even better if?
I really like this language and will start to use it with the students.
Only do things in lessons that will allow/encourage kids to progress.
Always ask yourself: How will Monday be different?
Laura Monroe

Explained KS3/4 in Northern Ireland. Sounds much more open than in England, although a few ‘must cover’ areas, eg careers.

  • Do they know about careers in science?
  • What surprises them?
  • Links to syllabus
  • Minimum qualifications
Have kids research for marketplace, then give indirect questions. For some it will be obvious who to ask, some more tricky. Each group gets different questions to avoid collaboration.

Emphasis on women in biology, displays in corridor, people with Nobel prizes, local, inc current/recent. Use key words so kids can link to own learning. Include staff at school, hope to add ex-pupils in future. Steal this idea!

Have kids research then sum up an assigned scientist in a tweet. Have kids set success criteria before doing homework. Alternatively write obituary. Anything like this (careers, literacy, online skills) ticks a lot of outstanding boxes, esp if you start with a hook demonstrating local/contemporary relevance.

Write CVs for anything that shows adaptation – organisms, cells, organelles (eg red/white blood cells) – then kids compete. Judged by peers who therefore need to know both sides. e.g. 8 students, 4 present CVs for white blood cells while other 4 (red blood cells) mark their information, then swap. Worth stealing – pass on to Biology colleagues, add to KS3/4 SOWs.

Essays – write a paragraph, then spend lesson improving with markschemes, glossaries, peer checking, then redraft at end. Very good way to show AfL, and progress in lesson, would work well for split plenary. This isn’t too different from what I do now but would be a good way to practice use of checklists.

Friday afternoon [Subject] Resource pack, fun but relevant AS/A2 packages with markschemes. £90 makes this a department not a personal purchase. Learning without realising it, is best way. Q&A cards can be created and used in a similar way. An online version is ‘Ript’, free software. I’ve found several things that could be this, but there are loads of online flashcard systems available.

Complete Q loops by discussion and make an actual physical loop – much more interactive, especially for the first time. If you use a stopwatch, you can challenge students to beat their previous time. Because they get different cards each time, they gain familiarity quickly.

James O’Neill

Hates paper based activities, but can be useful to boost kids, if you can stop all the cards getting lost.

National Strategies still very useful, but you’ll have to look for them in archives. Especially worth checking out the Ped-Pack. Unfortunately the original resources were all really badly organised; teachfind or similar is a good ‘doorway’. I’m not so sure about this but it could be my misbehaving computer/internet connection.

Tea stained paper and magnets practical shows the field. Can’t find a link to this at the moment.

Emphasize to students that when filling in APP sheet it will be hit and miss, each activity will have a level and will not always meet target over 2/3 years. Conditional formatting in excel can automate feedback by pinpointing themes.

Use of red/orange/green cards for immediate feedback – can assign kids as troubleshooters, go over, stop lesson.

Taboo and wordslap activities are quick and easy to use. Put together powerpoint?

“Who doesn’t know?” – if they stay quiet, they are accepting that they should have an answer.

Use Blooms for objectives in lessons, check out digital version which includes podcasting/tweeting etc.

Ideas I want to try out in the next week/fortnight

  • Linking a ‘focus of the fortnight’ with my own observations of colleagues and trying out one new approach at a time.
  • Having students write CVs – I’m going to try it for power stations (year 10 revision for exam)
  • “Who doesn’t know?” as a way to involve quieter kids.