Lesson observations… we all know why we have them in schools, of course, but maybe it’s about time we considered what we actually get out of them – and how we could get more from the process.
Teachers are used to the notion of being observed, right from their early days of training. Observations are something that everyone in the profession has become familiar with, if not entirely comfortable with.
So, what are the problems that stop schools and individual teachers gaining the most from lesson observations?
The problem with judgemental observations
The main issue preventing schools from getting the most out of observations is actually, conversely, the very reason that most schools have an observation regime in the first place.
Most observations are judgemental. They are used to ascertain the quality of teaching in a school. It remains the main method for Ofsted inspectors to arrive at a judgement of the quality of teaching and learning. Because of this, formal observations have become the main way for school leaders to gain an understanding and clear picture of teaching in a school.
The question is just how clear that picture really is.
How reliable is the process?
Because of the nature of inspection, teachers obviously need to be used to being observed. They also need to be clear about the judgement criteria that their teaching will be assessed on.
However, whilst formal observations will often expose deficiencies in the quality of teaching, there is also an argument to question just how reliable the process actually is. Some teachers will produce ‘showcase’ lessons and raise their game to jump through the observation hoops that have been placed in front of them. This, sometimes, bears little resemblance to their day-to-day teaching.
Other teachers will always struggle to truly be themselves in a formal observation environment. Teaching can become forced, unnatural and stilted. The thought of the judgement that will be given and the implications of that become the overriding concern for the teacher.
Observations are more useful if they are developmental
Developmental observations are far more useful than formal, judgemental observations. Remove the thought of judgement and the focus can be on learning from other professionals, tweaking a certain aspect of delivery, or focusing on an individual or departmental development need.
If observations are developmental rather than judgemental, they can become an essential part of excellent continued professional development. Indeed, it would be hard to name a better and more effective type of training than peer observations in schools.
The focus can be aspects of pedagogy or broader issues such as classroom management or student progress. Inexperienced teachers don’t become better teachers just through their own lesson observations. However, they can learn a lot and develop far more by observing experienced colleagues in the classroom.
Realistically, there will be probably always be the need for some form of judgemental lesson observations in schools. Despite this, school leaders should carefully consider all the potential benefits of creating programmes of developmental observation too. Schools that encourage a more developmental approach will really get the most out of lesson observations.
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