Are observations out of date?



The one thing you can always be sure of in teaching is change.  The utterance, ‘but that’s the way we’ve always done it,’ seems futile at the best of times. Certainly, such a viewpoint has often held back authentic impact on our children’s learning; teachers who hold on to their ‘ways’ without checking up on the effect are usually on a hiding to nothing. So, it is in this vein that I want to suggest that there could be great benefit from schools abandoning formally observing teachers in the way that many have done for so long.  I’ve no doubt this might cause a sharp intake of breath for some leaders, and I’m sure an excited squeal from teachers far and wide, but there is growing evidence to support change in observing teachers at work.

Having just been through an Ofsted inspection, and  being able to compare this with two other previous inspections, the emphasis on formally observing teachers has clearly changed and there is good reason for this, both in theoretical and practical terms. Education is emerging from being suffocated by a performance driven culture that squeezed the breath out of authentic pedagogy for learning. Great emphasis was put on data and teaching to evidence school improvement, while learning itself was assumed rather than confirmed. At last educators are beginning to put learning first and understand that when schools do this, everything else falls into place. This is why understanding the difference between learning  and performance culture is so important and often rarely discussed in schools.  I’ve written about performance in education before and one of my heroes, Chris Watkins spent many years unpicking this phenomenon in detail.

One might say that the culture of measuring performance has always been present through the system of summative testing; however, the obsession with judging schools and teachers through narrow performance measures grew sharply with the introduction of the national curriculum in 1988. This was fuelled by Thatcher’s dislike of teachers, her love of market forces, plus Kenneth Baker’s obsession with measuring and ordering anything that moved. I’ve no doubt education needed a kick; however, the publishing of league tables resulting from high stakes testing, and let’s not forget those terrible timed three part lessons, created a culture change that was more corporate and ‘sales driven’ than ever in the history of English education. Tony Blair of course came along and rather liked it all; ‘accountability’ was indeed  New Labour’s watch word, but accountability and learning often aren’t very good for each other at all. As Dylan Wiliam (2016) remarks, ‘it is highly unwise to use a teacher evaluation framework as a teacher improvement framework,’ and will most likely have the result that ‘we improve teachers in ways that do not benefit their students’.  Certainly, chasing teachers for levels as a way to ‘raise standards’ did just this. However, are we also doing something similar with formal observations of teachers?

If I look back at my career as a teacher and think carefully about how and why I improved from a bumbling, inexperienced NQT to where I am now, none of it was ever born out of the highly pressured observations that were tied to performance management or school evaluation. These were something just to get through and hope you were able to pull off on the day.  Yet where the real improvement and confidence came from was from my sincere wish to improve all the time, studying and understanding what really helped children learn well and watching and learning from other practising teachers. To my mind, this is the most effective ‘improvement framework’ that will lead to more effective teaching and better outcomes for pupils. It’s true that not all teachers are that reflective about their practice (although I haven’t met that many who aren’t) and not all teachers are interested in learning about pedagogy as such, but there are ways to encourage change here.

In the same way that children learn little when they feel under the microscope, teachers are the same. Teachers also usually learn more from each other rather than they do their leaders, some of whom may have been out of the classroom for a long while. Teaching certainly requires its knowledge base, the longevity of experience matters, but it is essentially a practical skill which requires practical transfer in the same way that learning to drive requires driving around with a driver, swapping and taking the wheel of course, but essentially learning alongside a practitioner. Who would ever feel confident learning to drive with an instructor who no longer drives?

However, school leaders certainly do need to see what’s going on in classrooms and understand the quality of teaching and learning in their schools – this is central to their role, but this is not the same as supporting teachers to improve (problems result from evaluation frameworks and improvement frameworks being transposed remember.)  So the question is: can leaders evaluate teaching effectively without formalised performance driven observations? The trouble is that a formal observation doesn’t always tell you that much about a teacher’s actual daily practice because the event is, by its nature, a performance, a presentation, a show and not an observation of ‘practice,’ otherwise defined in a dictionary as ‘the customary, habitual, or expected procedure or way of doing of something’. In fact, often teachers drop parts of their customary, day to day practice in observations because it may not be on what they perceive as the desired tick list for a lesson; however, the idiosyncratic way that a teacher works might be very effective indeed for their pupils’ learning because of the distinctive relationship they have with them. In other words, it’s unlikely that a school leader will really get what’s going on by sitting with a clip board and watching a single lesson. They will only really find out what the teacher did or did not do well that day; leaders might believe they can infer the daily practices of a teacher in that slot, but they just can’t.

It is in this way that wiser folk have turned to look at the progress in pupils’ learning over time using a ‘range of evidence of learning’ and this is a key phrase that is so important in any evaluation framework. If we know that watching a teacher perform doesn’t tell us that much, but a range of evidence of learning does, then we need to be clear about what evidence of learning really is. This is why formal observations may not be that helpful as part of an evaluation framework, but instead should morph into developmental peer observations and be shifted  into a school’s improvement framework.

In returning to the evidence of learning, this is still a kettle of fish, but things are looking up. Inspectors and leaders went through a very strange phase of looking for ‘rapid progress’ in a single lesson, so much so that children all over the country were rushed through content so quickly that it’s a wonder they learnt anything at all. Classrooms suddenly became quite unsettling places to be in. It surprised me that even some really experienced school leaders could not tell the difference  between teaching pace and pupils’ cognitive pace, which are quite different, not seeing that all that matters is that they are aligned, not that they are of any particular speed. Put bluntly, it really doesn’t matter if pupils are on the carpet for 20 minutes, what matters is whether they are engaged in the learning journey. Ofsted got this in the end and ensured inspectors stopped nit picking on style and timing, but instead looked at what they should always look out for: learning.

This brings me back to the utility of formalised observations to evaluate teaching and learning. It’s questionable if they really give leaders a true understanding of the quality of teaching and learning in a classroom; they can also skew teachers’ practice as they spend hours stressing over observations, and also the outcomes of observations, rather than aiming for consistent good practice over time. It seems a far better idea to have a situation where leaders are simply a common presence in classrooms through learning walks and by  being on the floor as often as they can, then their presence becomes normalised and teachers move away from inauthentic performances. By doing this, leaders also get a much more realistic idea of the day to day habitual practice of teachers and whether this is driving learning forward.

If the purpose of observations is to improve teaching and learning rather than evaluate it, then they shouldn’t be that formal and certainly shouldn’t be connected to performance management or pay increases. This avoids skewing teachers’ motivation because the nature of learning and performance is such that if you feel that you’re being judged on a performance you will behave differently than if you feel you are involved in learning and developing. The thing about performing is that improvement is not the motive whereas with learning it is!

Observations under an improvement framework should be driven by the teachers themselves, through reflective practice and professional dialogue. We have heard time and time again that teachers improve when they focus on their strengths, share this with other teachers and build their own practice. Of course a shared understanding of how children learn well and what a good lesson might look like should be constant features of discussions outside the classroom so that there is in effect an evolving school ‘success criteria’ by which teachers can assess themselves, but teachers will improve far quicker if they are encouraged to improve through peer and self assessment; the same is true with pupils.

In this way, leaders need to decide whether they are observing a teacher to help them improve, in which case they need to spend time with that teacher as a peer before and after the lesson discussing their practice and how they might improve. Alternatively, if leaders want to use observations as an evaluative tool, to assess teaching and learning, then they should not rely on these one off appearances in classrooms three times a year or so, but rather they should make themselves a common presence in classrooms and also rely on triangulating their assessment with the other forms of evidence of learning,such as pupils’ learning in books, conversations with pupils and of course data (that is quality assured through moderation and intimately connected to real learning).

At my school, I think we’ve done a really good job in separating our evaluation and improvement frameworks so that (as Dylan Wiliam suggests) we improve teachers in ways that do benefit their students rather than simply satisfying administrative or evaluative structures in school, but I’m not sure this is the case in that many schools. A clear distinction needs to made between appraisal and improvement when it comes to sitting down with that clip board. Sensible people stopped grading lessons last year, perhaps this year we should go a step further?

Ref. Wiliam, D. (2016) Leadership for Teacher Learning. Learning Sciences International.

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