Don’t waste time observing!

There were only about 8 in the class, including normally very rowdy boys and a couple of near-mute girls. Ruth, the Senco, was teaching them PSE, or something similar. I had been having problems controlling behaviour, and it had been gently suggested to me that I might observe Ruth. I was in my first year of teaching, but this was after the days of ‘probation’ and before the days of ‘NQT induction’, so whatever programme I had was ad hoc at best.

I sat at the back of Ruth’s classroom. A couple of the boys were insulting each other, and the girls shared a make-up mirror, but the atmosphere was relaxed and cooperative. Ruth introduced the topic and the kids were immediately engaged. I can’t remember the topic, and I couldn’t see what in particular she did to hook them. I knew enough already to realise that she was working hard and making it look easy: she made sure she addressed comments to each child, especially if she spotted them wavering. But I couldn’t locate whatever magic she had that I didn’t. I concluded that these kids were just ‘good for Ruth’, in a way they were not with me.

It really isn’t easy learning from watching someone else. It strikes me that there are essentially two types of observations going on in schools. The first is where the observer is assessing the teacher. I do a lot of this with PGCE students, NQTs, for appraisal. With younger teachers I won’t usually be putting a grade on the lesson, but they will still demand an evaluative adjective from me, and will still expect me to prescribe a dose of something to make them better. Where the lesson is graded, this can come down to, So how could I have made this outstanding?  The observer in these cases is not really trying to learn anything; they are simply looking for evidence to grade, and a form of words to let their colleague down gently. I exaggerate, but there is no escaping the simple truth: the observer is not the learner.

The second common type of observation is that undertaken by student teachers or NQTs as part of their development programme. There are PGCEs students in schools this week following a schedule of observations, perhaps doing very little else. There are NQTs, instructed by their mentors to use some of their 10% timetable reduction to ‘watch and learn.’ Sometimes they come and observe me. Oftentimes I direct them to someone on a ‘peer observation’ list I keep for the purpose. In they go; out they come. Somewhere a target will have been ‘met’ or a standard ‘addressed’. Everyone is happy, but what ‘learning’, if any, has occurred? I wonder: do we even ask?

Again, I exaggerate: the process is surely never as ho-hum as that. But I still think the question persists: What about the learning?

If we take a step back, and consider what we already know about learning, maybe we can make observation a little more productive. The learners we usually deal with – our students – would not take in very much if we merely expected them to observe us. Very little of our teaching is about being watched, instructing, performing in front of someone sitting anonymously at the back of the room. Rather, we expect learning to be active, and inter-active, with learners usually moving through a taxonomy of applying, analysing and creating in the space of one lesson. Learning also involves a degree of reiteration, practice and gradual perfection. Importantly, we presume learning is best when its objectives are clear and explicit. In sum, learning happens when it is purposeful and progressive.

Now ask: does this kind of learning have a chance of occurring when we put teachers in the back of rooms to watch other teachers? My guess is, not often.

But we do spend an awful lot of time doing it. Oh, the hours! I would be grateful for any replies to this from people who think they have secured good learning from teacher observation. But here I will record a few of the things we do some of the time, but should do more often than we do.

  • Our ‘peer observation’ card lists staff who are willing to be observed. Crucially, they are grouped by area of pedagogical expertise. So, some are happy to be seen doing groupwork, others are whizzes in behaviour management.
  • The same card also lists the staff who are willing to observe others. We realised a little while ago that many teachers stop observing others once they get past induction; likewise, outside of the pressures of appraisal and review, few staff get to try out a teaching strategy and get feedback on it from a sympathetic colleague.
  • Aside from the formal lesson observation forms we use for grading purposes, we have developed half a dozen others which each has a specific focus, e.g. independent learning, literacy, student engagement, behaviour management. Each is structured as a sort of checklist of features that might be seen in a lesson, with space for notes by the observer. The reverse asks the observer to compile 5 learning points; then recompile them after discussing them with a colleague.
  • An integral feature of induction at my school now is NQT Blogging. They have a session where they are introduced to some teaching strategies – two weeks ago our AST and others shared some AfL ideas with them. They then have two to three weeks to observe a colleague, focusing on those strategies, then apply some of this in their own lessons. The NQTs then reconvene as a group to blog their reflections, making sure they each follow each other and post constructive comments.

In these ways, I hope to ensure that observation has a ‘learning objective’ or focus. There is also the chance that it will take the observer-learner through the understanding-applying-analysing-creating phases that we know assist learning. None of this is yet embedded or widespread, and I’m still developing my thinking on it. But, with a little bit of this, I might have made a lot more of my time watching Ruth all those years ago, and those kids might have been ‘good for me’ too.

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