Thursday, 19 May 2016

Open up your classrooms: we need a new approach to lesson observations

Photograph: Alamy
Open up your classrooms: we need a new approach to lesson observations
If I can achieve an outstanding after five hours of prep,
but usually I plan lessons in 20 minutes, am I outstanding?

Observations would be worthwhile when the observer appeared, unannounced
and watched the lesson, says assistant headteacher Pete Smith.

There's a story going around that the Queen thinks hospitals smell of fresh paint because
every time she visits one all the corridors are touched up before she arrives. 
There's an obvious flaw in this anecdote; namely, I'm not sure in 62 years her Majesty has ever expressed an opinion about anything, so how anyone knows what she thinks is beyond me.

But there is also something there about false impressions.
Lesson observations in schools are creating a new-paint kind of smell. I listened a couple of weeks ago to a former colleague who told me they'd spend hours planning a lesson for an observation
by their boss. Resources had been perfected, an incredibly detailed lesson plan written
and an overly-complicated PowerPoint produced. Why? The opinion of their boss matters,
as it should, and they were aiming for an outstanding judgement.
There's nothing wrong with this, it's highly commendable. I want all our teachers to aspire
to delivering outstanding lessons. I'd certainly like to think that if we get the dreaded call that
our staff would show the same dedication as this excellent teacher. But isn't this twisted logic?
The teacher here is using up the one resource we don't have a lot of as teachers – time. Not all lessons can be planned and prepped to this level of detail, so the question that needs to be asked is: is the system of judgment on teachers counter productive? If you know with a week's notice
that you're going to be observed teaching year 8, then most people are going to make sure that lesson is as stellar as possible. But what about the other lessons that week?
If I can achieve an outstanding after five hours of prep, but usually I plan lessons in 20 minutes,
is it fair to class me as an outstanding teacher?
We judge like this in schools because this is how schools are judged. Or it's how we think
they're judged. Ofsted gives (an increasingly short amount of) notice, teachers cram in hours
of planning and produce lessons that in all likelihood don't resemble their normal teaching style.
The inspectors are hopefully impressed. It used to work. But as judgements are increasingly
based on outcomes and inspectors are becoming more savvy at asking kids whether
this is the normal way of learning, actually these hours are somewhat wasted. They're not falling
for the new paint smell, and nor should they. So we need to move away from this.

The wise heads reading this will be tutting at my naivety and saying "we know, but that's not how we form opinions of teachers". Those people will argue that good school leaders base their decisions and opinions on dropping into lessons, picking up books to see if they're marked and talking with students. And they're quite right. So why do we continue with this outdated system of pre-planned lesson observations? Arguably the only way to make them worthwhile would be if the observer appeared, unannounced and watched the lesson.
That would give a fair view of teaching standards and for effective judgements to be made.
Culturally, though, schools aren't there yet. There is a distrust of the observer, and a closed mindset among teachers. We're all guilty of it. If we're going to get better at what we do,
constructive feedback and an open mindset is needed. Easy words to write, but the easiest starting point is watching others and allowing others to watch you in a real, non-staged environment.
Now ask yourself whether you'd be up for that. I'll be leaving my door open.

Pete Smith is assistant headteacher at East Bergholt High School.

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