It’s good to talk: improving teaching through dialogue


This week our senior leaders and heads of faculty met to thrash out a new Protocol for hosting a Development Dialogue. This follows work we have done recently to achieve a common understanding of great teaching at Chace, described here. Since being badged RI by Ofsted last summer, we have endeavoured to both improve and prove our practice.We are determined to be both research-informed and grounded in the current needs of our school.

Underlying principles

The business of the school is to improve the outcomes for students. We know that high quality teaching is the best way to improve these outcomes. And we know that investment in teacher development is the surest way to improve the quality of teaching. It follows therefore that the underlying purpose of lesson observation and work scrutiny must be to support teachers to become even better teachers.

“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.” Dylan Wiliam.


What we mean by Dialogue and Development

At Chace, we no longer grade or judge individual lessons. That is because research tells us that about 70 % of the time, two different observers would give two different ratings. More importantly, grading lessons does not improve the quality of teaching. But, when two or more colleagues watch a lesson, discuss what happened in it and commit to implementing some small change: that can seriously improve the long-term performance of all involved. Our ChacePD website has advice on what to do during an observation, and what to say afterwards: slide2

The same applies to work scrutiny. We can all look in a colleague’s books and count the number of times they have given written feedback: it is easy to judge. But our purpose should be greater than that: when two or more teachers meet to discuss work in students’ books, all can learn and develop from the process. ChacePD has prompts for work scrutiny feedback:



What to do


  • Hold the discussion, if possible, within 48 hours of the observation/scrutiny.
  • Allow enough time for meaningful dialogue.
  • When booking the lesson observation, also book the time for the dialogue.
  • Encourage the teacher to write their evaluation of the lesson before the dialogue takes place.


  • Scrutiny and observation is stressful and tends to add to the burden of already overloaded staff. Be mindful of this. Try not to add to the burden.
  • Thank the teacher (and the students) when you have observed them: even if you are their manager, it is still a privilege to see inside someone else’s classroom.
  • Conduct the dialogue in a private space.
  • Share the gems. When you have witnessed something wonderful, get the teacher’s permission to spread the word.
  • Be clear about who else will see the paperwork. The headteacher, the Head of Faculty, the assistant headteacher for staff development: they all need to have an informed view of the overall quality of teaching.
  • If there are serious concerns, make this clear to the teacher and tell them that further action will be taken.


  • The observer will write a narrative and questions as they watch a lesson; and they will comment in the boxes as they scrutinise the books.
  • However, the spaces for recording dialogue should be completed with the teacher, and should properly reflect what was discussed and agreed.
  • Never just fill in the form and put it in their pigeon hole.
  • Plain English is best. The other people who view the paperwork need to understand clearly what it says.
  • The teacher involved should keep a copy of their feedback in their CPDP.


  • Remember that – even with a book scrutiny – you have only seen a snapshot of their practice. Do not judge or generalise. Avoid Ofsted numbers and adjectives.
  • Ask coaching questions first, to see if the teacher can identify their own needs: this will often reveal more than you thought you saw.
  • Sometimes a more direct mentoring approach is required, where a teacher is unable to see their own need. But avoid focussing only on the weaknesses.
  • Link the discussion to their personal professional development. What have they been working on?
  • Two areas of development are plenty: no teacher can work on more than that at one time.
  • These must be within the teacher’s capacity to develop. Think ‘next steps’ they can take, not ‘giant leaps’.
  • Guide them to further support.
    • Encourage them to peer observe another colleague and use one of the planning and observation templates.
    • Urge them to speak to a member of the Chace Lead Teacher team, or other colleague in the school with recognised expertise. This colleague might be teaching in the next room.
    • Perhaps they should sign up for one of the Twilight PD courses?
    • Be observed again, by you or by a peer. Develop an ‘open door’ policy for their classroom.
  • Great teachers also have the right (and responsibility) to get even better. Discuss with them how they can support others by:
    • Planning collaboratively.
    • Modelling a part of their practice at a Faculty Development Time meeting.
    • Inviting a colleague to peer observe.
    • Observing a colleague and hosting a Development Dialogue with them.
    • Referring to the Portrait of Great Teaching portrait-of-great-teaching-and-learning-at-chace





RI means ‘Improving’, not just proving


We are now a year on from our full-throated retreat from graded lesson observations, described in this blog Better than Outstanding. If the title of that post was meant to presage the outcome of last year’s Ofsted inspection, I’m afraid I mistyped. We are now RI. We also have a new headteacher (although this is unconnected to our inspection result.) So we are now in the tricky position of having to improve the quality of teaching, while at the same time proving it.

It was always our mission to get better at what we do, and I always understood that – without grades – there was an increased onus upon us to benchmark what we meant by high quality teaching. To that end, and with the input from our middle leaders, we produced this: The Portrait of Great Teaching and Learning at Chace.


This was the invention of many mothers, an accumulation of the wisdom of ASTs and lead teachers and what we call ‘Development Coordinators’ over the past five years. It was designed not as a checklist, but as a prompt to ‘further greatness’: any teacher, however good, could be even better and this portrait might suggest ways they could get there.

However clever we were, Ofsted’s judgement suggested that not all areas of the school had absorbed our message. So this year, we have sought to underline some fundamentals. We have articulated our ‘Commitment to Great Teaching and Learning’, basing our September professional learning day on the non-negotiables displayed here.


These would not be the priorities of every school: they do respond to criticisms from our inspection team. But nor are they a departure from what we think we know about good teaching, and the leadership of good teaching. For note the and of this Commitment. Underscoring everything is ‘Knowing the Students’. This is how we offer differential challenge, pose questions, plan with high expectations. We assess so we can know so we can plan so we can teach.

Over-arching the fundamentals is our ‘Shared responsibility for high quality teaching’. Where a teacher is struggling, it is incumbent on us all to support. We can help through our rebooted peer observations. The head has asked for this to appear in every area’s improvement plans, and it will surely feature also in performance development (appraisal). Our development coordinators are this week engaged in a bit of ‘deliberate practice’, using our peer observation templates to plan, teach and peer observe on an aspect of differentiation. All of our middle leaders have been trained in developmental approaches to formal lesson observation.



They are to eschew all references to gradings (I would even ban adjectives if I could), and focus instead on key episodes or phases in the lesson. Crucially they must commit to next steps. When we surveyed colleagues last year, there was clearly a preference for this approach, what I called our ‘Soft Landing’.

We know we have to know our students; we are still learning how to know our teachers. Our portraits, our commitments, our shared responsibilities will take us a long way. But we know that, if we are to assist them to become better when they are not being watched, then we need a better understanding of the work their students are doing when the door is closed. That is not meant to sound sinister: we want our book checks to be a real insight into what students do. As one of those senior leaders who frequently peers over the shoulders of students into their books (or worse, flicks through an anonymous selection from a crate), I concede I often don’t really know what I am looking at. To a history teacher, what does ‘progress’ look like in a maths book? Are most of the questions answered correctly? If so, does that mean the teacher is fabulous, or that the work is not challenging enough? What do I think of the teacher who has splashed out in red, compared to the one whose students have located their green pens and aren’t afraid to use them? What does progress look like? Our lead teacher team sought last term to come up with some answers.


Taken singly, these might simply be indicators of a student’s performance: just because they done it, don’t mean that they got it. But we posit that, together, and over the space of pages, these might be useful proxies for progress. We arranged for each department to translate the above into indicators which made more sense in graphics, geography, etc. It remains to be seen how useful a document it will be.

Our new assessment and feedback policy has helped, but it is obvious to me as I walk past classrooms at 7.30am, spying teachers behind a tower of books, that we have more to do to make marking both effective and manageable. Inevitably, given our RI-ness (in an authority where nearly every other school ranks above us), our teaching and our books are under external scrutiny. But our headteacher recognises that, to make sense of this generous support from the outside, we first have to know what we stand for. Just as we have stated our ‘shared responsibility’ for high quality teaching, this extends too to how we support high quality assessment and feedback. Our developmental approach to lesson feedback must be matched by a similar approach to book checks – what I can’t avoid calling ‘feedback feedback’. Liberally stealing from questions I believe Graham Dring uses in coaching, I have designed this.


It will take a while for our senior and middle leaders to make this their habit, and we may have to do some persuading of our local authority friends, but I am hopeful.


Soft landing for our leap in the dark

Last week, in Better than Outstanding, I reported on progress we had made in shifting our appraisal practices, and in particular our formal lesson observations. What I hoped for then, but didn’t know, was  that staff would have adjusted to grade-free observations, and that they would already be experiencing the joys of dialogue and development.

Rather nervously, my colleague @Bterziyski and I put together a questionnaire for middle leaders with three challenging questions:

  1. Are you appraising, and are you being appraised by, the right person?
  2. Do you see the new appraisal process as development or merely administrative?
  3. What is your view of the new no-grades lesson observation sheet?

The challenge for us in these questions was that they were somewhat ‘leading’, and the place they might lead to might not be a happy place. If our new approach was a leap in the dark, we might just have landed on the rocks.

Spurred on by @fratribus Dr Vincent Lien’s Dialogic Lesson Observation  we had assembled 28 of our middle leaders (effectively, all our post-holders) for some Advice on No grades Lesson Observation

  1. Twenty-three of the twenty-eight said they were appraising, and being appraised by the right people. They felt held to account by people who knew their work, usually the Head of Faculty. An oyster of an answer, perhaps, but one with at least two bits of grit. Without complaining, some – principally those right at the top of the middle leader pile – pointed out that they rarely if ever get formal observation feedback from a subject specialist. They might value the generic discussion which ensued, but at some level they felt they were missing out on the dialogue with a specialist in their subject’s pedagogy. Another interesting response was from a few who valued the opportunity to be observed by, or to observe in, a pair. When we review faculties, this is often how we do it, but for whole-staff appraisal the coordination of 1 teacher + 2 observers would be beyond my genius. What both of these sets of comments said to me, however, was that there is a continuing thirst for learning from peers.
  2. Nobody thought our appraisal procedures were ‘merely’ administrative. Some thought it was paper-heavy, a ‘faff’. A few more felt that their targets were predetermined by their role. However, twenty approved of our new format.

“It makes you pause and consider your development.”

“This year I believe I actually learned from it.”

“The process encouraged me to become more reflective as a reviewee. There was more open professional dialogue, with colleagues feeling that they could share their weaknesses and ask for support.”

More than one pointed out a consistency between our new approach to performance management and our other development priorities this year: life after levels at Ks3 and developing a Growth Mindset in the way we talk to and feed back to students.

3. One person felt that, as no-grades lesson observations put the onus on developing practice, the process was in danger of becoming too ‘personal’. Three people began their responses, ‘I like it but…’, ‘Good, but…’, ‘Of course I’m in favour, but I would still like to be told…’ I was astonished by the rest.

“I was able to reflect more on how to improve, rather than feeling relieved if it went OK or smug if it went well.”

“Not having the grade made our conversation focus much more on the learning and what to do next.”

“Several staff took risks and were more experimental. The ‘next steps’ box helped…encourage staff to share their best techniques with other staff.”

“It says what you really think about a lesson, rather than trying to shoe-horn your observation into pre-ordained criteria.”

“It removes some pressure from the observer and opens the dialogue.”

“It allows for a much more developmental conversation.”

Risk-taking, openness, dialogue about next steps: these are exactly what was missing when we graded lessons. We have landed in a much happier place.

Better than Outstanding

Last February, I posted this blog on Observing without Levels at my school. I suggested then that my ‘homework’ was done: having read the blogs and the research from The Sutton Trust I set about devising new lesson observation and appraisal paperwork, winning SLT support and convincing other colleagues. The case was set out here: A fresh way of looking at Lesson Observations, at a ‘Leadership Development Time’ session with all middle leaders in March, where I shared Chris Watkins’ insight that ‘high-stakes’, ‘one-off’ lesson grading systems lead to cultures which are about proving, rather than improving; they encourage performance, not learning.

At a conservative estimate, we were spending over 530 hours per year on appraisal lesson observations. Yet we had no evidence that any of it improved teacher quality or students’ learning. Nor could we be confident that the grades we awarded were right. (Strong et al., 2011, found that 63% of all observation grades were wrong.) As the AHT for staff development, the process did nothing for me either: never did it throw up a professional development need, other than for those who were deemed ‘inadequate’.


Next week we are surveying staff for their views: what do they think of the show so far? Anecdotally, the signs are promising. Colleagues are reporting that they are taking more risks with their appraisal lessons. One colleague – returning to the Maths classroom after 10 years – experimented with group work in a new layout, because he valued the feedback he hoped to get. Another invited me into her lethargic year 11 class, because she wanted to talk to me about how she might give them a boost. Neither colleague – both proud professionals – was concerned about the grade they would get… because  they knew they would not get one.

But some zombie phrases have crept into a few feedback forms. One head of department (clearly hoping for approval from me by copying me in) had added to the bottom of his form, ‘In old money, this would have been an Outstanding.‘ Ah well. So, this week, middle leaders are getting their Development Time from me. They will be getting the benefit of my Advice on No grades Lesson Observation and we might even conduct a ‘live’ lesson feedback.

The job is not yet done. Inspired by this, from John Tomsett, we have already agreed that ‘Performance Development’ is a better term for what we are doing. It places the emphasis where it should be. We are also determined to press ahead with the less formal peer observations that have become a welcome feature of our teacher development culture. I am ambitious too to see objectives routinely phrased in terms of their impact on students, rather than simply the practice of the teachers. And I am convinced that Action Research remains a valid and powerful way of driving improvement. We are not settling for ‘outstanding’.

Observing without grades: homework done

For good or for ill, my school has still been grading lessons when carrying out formal observations. Of course, we have been aware of what Ofsted have been saying on the matter, and also of what a number of campaign-bloggers have been arguing. Through much of the past 12 months, I and like-minded colleagues such as @Bterziyski have been conducting a quiet insurgency, devising toolkits to peer-observe without grades, messing with the minds of some of our teachers as we blankly refuse to use numbers or Ofsted dog-whistle words.

But so far we have failed to turn the whole ship around. My headteacher – for very sound reasons – wants to be able to point to a list and say, Here are my best teachers, or Here are the ones we need to work on. She absolutely understands that observation can and should be a development activity, but she needs it also be a tracking device. Before half-term I made my latest bid to SLT to consider the merits of LONG (Lesson Observation – Non Graded). After an amiable chat, I was set a homework. Below is my progress so far.

Appraisal at Our School

Appraisal must meet the needs of our school. It should also respect the reasonable expectations of teachers (as represented by their unions), whilst at the same time being mindful of government policy on Teaching Standards and Performance Related Pay.

Consequently, the Appraisal system at our school attempts to:

  • Develop the quality of teaching
  • Through this, improve the outcomes of students
  • Inform the PD plan
  • Provide evidence for the Headteacher to make decisions on staffing and PRP.

How we do this currently

Each teacher is assigned an appraiser. In many cases this is their HoF, or other immediate line manager; in all cases it is a colleague who works closely with them. At the beginning of the Autumn term, the teacher and appraiser together review the objectives set the previous year, using evidence from the teacher’s portfolio (CCPDP) – exam review, formal lesson observations and other evidence the teacher has chosen to present. The appraiser declares that the teacher has met the Teachers’ Standards (or not). The Head decides on PRP. Together the teacher and appraiser set 3 further objectives for the coming year, reviewing them on an interim basis in the Spring. They agree on the date and focus of an ‘appraisal lesson’, which is graded according to the school’s summative criteria. In the course of other internal reviews across the year, the teacher may be formally observed (and graded) a further two times. The Head maintains a spreadsheet on everyone’s graded lessons. The AHT (staff development) reviews all objectives, to discern common themes that can be addressed in the school PD plan.

Lesson Observation

“Ofsted does not award a grade for the quality of teaching for any individual lessons visited and it does not grade individual lessons. It does not expect schools to use the Ofsted evaluation schedule to grade teaching or individual lessons.” ( Ofsted clarification for schools, October 2014)

At our school, we have continued to grade individual lessons, using a template we devised in November 2011 to match the Ofsted inspection criteria.

Some numbers:

At our school, a mainscale teacher, teaching 25 lessons a week, will teach nearly 1000 lessons across the year; put another way, they will teach lessons lasting 50,000 minutes. Agreed with unions, we grade 1 appraisal lesson of 50 minutes, plus up to 2 more lasting 20-50 minutes. We say, on the evidence of this amount of observed time, we can grade the quality of individual teachers. Why might we be wrong?

  • Aside from teaching the classes, teachers spend an uncounted amount of time planning and marking, running after-school revision, intervention and other clubs. None of that is observed, and arguably none of it contributes to the teacher’s grade.
  • We know that ‘high-stakes’, ‘one-off’ lesson grading systems lead to cultures which are about proving, rather than improving; they encourage performance, not learning (Chris Watkins, IOE).
  • Teachers play it safe, covering ground they know their students are comfortable with.
  • Grading is unreliable. It is notoriously difficult to train observers so that they will agree on a grade.
  • Because graded lessons are poor predictors of student outcomes.
  • Because 63% of all lesson judgements are wrong (Strong et al, Journal of Teacher Education, 2011.)
  • If a lesson is graded ‘inadequate’ there is a 90% chance a second observer will grade it differently (Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,

Thanks here to @shaun_allison and others at the wonderful Class Teaching


“Ofsted will usually expect to see evidence of the monitoring of teaching and learning and its link to teachers’ performance management and the Teachers’ Standards, but this should be the information that the school uses routinely and not additional evidence generated for inspection.” (Ofsted inspections – clarification for schools)

So we do need to have robust means of capturing the quality of teaching at our school.

More numbers:

Assume each teacher is formally observed for a total of 100 minutes, and receives feedback lasting the same amount. As this involves 2 (in fact sometimes 3) people, we can say that this consumes 400 minutes. If we say this happens to 80 members of staff each year, this amounts to a total of 533.3 hours per year. We could do a lot with that time. We might say that this was time well spent if:

  • It improved outcomes for students
  • It improved the practice of the observed teacher
  • It improved the practice of the observing teacher
  • It provided reliable evidence of the quality of teaching and learning across the school
  • It identified common development needs that could then be addressed by the in-house PD programme
  • It reliably identified weak teachers and strong ones, so we could perhaps know what we needed to do next and how
  • It contributed to staff wellbeing, because it was an element of staff development rather than merely appraisal
  • It was about Quality Improvement, not just Quality Assurance (Joanne Miles) The role of mindset in the move from graded to ungraded lesson observation cycles



How might we capture great teaching that leads to great learning?

“A formative teacher evaluation system – based on a continuous assessment and feedback rather than a high-stakes test – must incorporate a range of measures from different sources, using a variety of methods.” (Developing Teachers: Improving professional development for teachers, January 2015. The Sutton Trust.) Link here. It is crucial to avoid over-reliance on a single source of evidence (such as a graded lesson), as there can be “a lot of noise around a weak signal.”

The Sutton Trust report (compiled with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation from 80 leading teachers from across 6 Anglophone countries) identifies 6 approaches to teacher assessment. None of these should be relied upon in isolation; validity arises from their triangulation.

Moderate validity:

  • classroom observations by peers, principals or external evaluators
  • ‘value-added’ models (assessing gains in student achievement)
  • student ratings

More limited evidence:

  • principal (or headteacher) judgement
  • teacher self-reports
  • analysis of classroom artefacts and teacher portfolios

Our appraisal procedures may already bear elements of these approaches. We have:

  • Observations (graded for appraisal and internal review; peer observation for development purposes.)
  • Exam review (for individual teachers, using residuals.)
  • Headteacher judgement (based on provided evidence, for PRP)
  • Teacher self-reports and portfolios (in the appraisal booklet and CCPDP.)

I propose two changes.

  1. A new lesson observation protocol Great Teaching and Learning Toolkit
  2. Adapt our teacher portfolio, now to be the C…. Professional Development Portfolio (CPDP) CPDP Grid

Each change is designed so that we better identify the strengths and development needs of our teachers so that: they can benefit from a more strategic in-house PD plan; the Head can make staffing and PRP decisions based on more valid evidence; the overall quality of teaching improves and leads to better outcomes for students.

Lesson Observation Great Teaching and Learning Toolkit

“Successful teacher observations are primarily used as a formative process – framed as a development tool creating reflective and self-directed teacher learners as opposed to a high stakes evaluation or appraisal.” (Developing Teachers: Improving professional development for teachers, January 2015. The Sutton Trust. My italics.) The report claims that observation can be effective when it is collaborative and collegial; however, the research also concludes that challenge is needed in the process, so may involve school leaders or external experts. Overall, it emphasises the requirement to have strong observation protocols, including observers who are trained.

The new protocol has two parts. The first, Dialogue and Development, will be completed by the teacher and their observer. It records what happened, what went well and what could have been better. Crucially, it requires that next steps be identified, with some plan for their implementation. Therefore, this will not be a ‘cosy chat’; it is joint practice development (JPD): it will require two professional colleagues to think deeply about what took place in the lesson and how to develop their practice. They can be assisted in this by the second part of the protocol, the C…. Great Teaching and Learning Toolkit. When a colleague asks us what great teaching looks or feels like, it is fair that we should have some idea. Everything here has been derived from the advances in pedagogy we have made here in the last few years, from research conducted by colleagues and from the peer observation toolkits trialled by Development Coordinators. It absolutely is NOT a checklist against which to measure a single lesson, as it understands that much learning in not ‘visible’ and rather takes place over time.

This is a protocol which can be used formally (for appraisal and review purposes) and informally (peer observation between colleagues). There is no space for a grade; I believe that words such as ‘outstanding’ or ‘inadequate’ are also best avoided, as they tend to crowd out the more meaningful dialogue around development.

Teacher Portfolio CPDP Grid

We have a long tradition at our school of maintaining a portfolio and presenting it to the Head when making a threshold application. Though insufficiently robust as a single source, taken with lesson observations and exam review it may be a valid measure of the quality of teaching.

Why we should change the current portfolio

  • It is largely ignored by teachers not applying for UPR.
  • It inadequately reflects the degree to which a teacher is meeting the Standards at the level appropriate for that point in their career.
  • It is a compilation of achievements, or ‘jobs done’, but is not a reflection on future development needs;
  • It therefore fails to inform appraisal objectives for individual teachers; and
  • Taken together, they cannot be read for the purposes of PD planning for the school.

I therefore propose a C…. Professional Development Portfolio (CPDP), arranged around the 8 Teachers’ Standards, the wording of which is adapted to refer to the C…. Great Teaching and Learning Toolkit. Two further tabs have been added (on engagement in PD and on collaboration) in order to encourage JPD as a form of teacher development.

The CPDP Grid will act as the contents page of the portfolio. It will be completed as part of appraisal (in reality, mainly before the appraisal meeting) and provide the ‘baseline’ for the appraisal objectives to be set, and the ‘evidence of outcomes’ for the previous year’s objectives. [The Appraisal Booklet will be adapted to reflect this. Alternatively, the grid may simply appear as the first pages in the booklet.] In this way, the appraiser and teacher will have a clearer view of strengths and areas for development; the Head will be able to say, with more security, which teachers need more targeted support and which should gain PRP; and the AHT will be able to identify common themes and address these through the PD programme.

Next stages

Assuming there is agreement on the principles of this, we need to consult widely with students and staff to truly ascertain what we feel constitutes ‘great’ teaching and learning at our school. We also need to do serious work on observers and teachers, so that neither expects a grade (or codeword) to emerge from an observation. Then we need to take a deep breath, and watch as the whole thing unfolds.

On not being an expert A level teacher

“Apparently you are the expert at teaching A level,” said a colleague, by way of an Hello. “I’ve been told I’ve got to observe you.” As auspicious starts of the day go, I’ve had better. Even so, I am the assistant head for staff development, and I do teach a lot of A level at the moment, so I’m not in a position to say No. Quick as a flash, I get all developmental and say, “Sure, any time. What will your particular focus be?” Relieved as I am that she does not have one (I don’t fancy laying on a demonstration), the very fact is an indicator that this is a teacher who does not really know how to improve.

I am not the expert at teaching A level. My subject knowledge is often insecure (I teach History, where my grasp of late tsarism is tenuous; and Politics, where every year I have to remind myself of the functioning of the Single Transferable Vote.) I differentiate far too haphazardly. I do foolish things like demand essays from three groups all for the same week. I do do some things well. I can make the learning seem interesting, I can build students’ confidence so they work independently, and – somehow – my students often achieve good grades and go on to further study. If my colleague had picked up on my reputation, it will probably have been for those things.

But, latterly, I have actually been getting better. Two examples from the past week will serve here.

A2 Politics – Study on Global Politics. The textbook has some undergrad level material on the nature of power: hard, soft, relational, structural, smart. This is demanding at a conceptual level, and the students need also to refer to theoretical schools and draw in real-world examples. I set them some pre-reading tasks, which they are good at complying with. I felt I needed a memorable starter for their first lesson on the topic. Well, it was obvious: a wrestling competition. The 4 girls and 2 boys fought a knockout (my ‘risk assessment’ did not allow for the fact that two of them had broken their wrists in the previous year), leaving two finalists. At each round, I asked them to consider their relative power. The finalists decided they needn’t wrestle for a winner, as they were content to reside in a bi-polar world, where they were the hegemons. Clever!  Niall said, ‘I can’t believe we are doing this.’ But they did, and during the following lesson they demonstrated how well they had learned. I wanted them to co-create an essay on Has the US attained smart power? I created 24 cards with keywords, people and exemplar events on them, and reminders like ‘Using proper Topic Sentences’ and ‘Reaching a reasoned conclusion’; the students then negotiated a lay-out which would reflect their essay plan, mindful also of the need for clearly signposted paragraphing. The debated different classic approaches, such as the some arguments for / some arguments against balance, but settled on a more sophisticated division of the case. Without any prompting, they made sure each was happy with the decision and secure in their understanding of it. They proffered and sifted through events which could illustrate their points, and demanded extra blank cards from me so they could record these. As they are a small group, my preparation was just one set of cards; for all but 15 minutes of the lesson, they did all of the talking, all of the work. I just sat back and thought What an ‘expert’ A level teacher am I?

AS History – essay feedback. We had been studying Alexander III as a ‘repressive autocrat’, focusing on his use of the Okhrana, suppresion of political rivals and the role of his ministers. We had earlier been working on how to communicate in writing to maximum effect, and I had set this is a priority success criteria, deliberately limiting the number of separate points I wanted them to make. My theory is: if I want them to improve their literacy, it’s best to make the content easy. The results were disappointing, and I found myself taking hours over marking and setting targets. Whereas in the past (and, in teaching, I have a long past) I would have simply handed these back, barked a little, and hoped for better next time, now I realise there needs to be a closer correlation between the time taken to mark and the time given to students in class to actually act on feedback. To my shame, this practice is an innovation to me. The large majority of my comments featured introductions, conclusions, topic sentences and a highlighting technique we call foregrounding. So, for 5 minutes at the top of the next lesson I demonstrated how they could improve these features by sharing some success criteria for each. After that the lesson was largely taken up with them re-writing individual sentences, selecting more appropriate words and placing them to greater effect, and re-configuring their introductions. My role was limited to circulating to respond to their new efforts.

This was the lesson my colleague chose to watch. There was certainly nothing showy about it, but I have learned that students readily engage when given a chance to redraft, so long as they can see how and aren’t made to feel daft. My colleague doesn’t seem to have learned this yet, and she left soon after the students started on their reworking. She stayed for the wrong bit: she thought she was there to watch me, because I am ‘an expert’. She should have stayed to watch the students – the true experts.

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.