How can school leaders make lesson observations more effective using actionable teacher feedback?
What are lesson observations for?
A key monitoring activity of leaders in Primary Schools has long been termly lesson observations of teachers operating in classrooms and then providing feedback that is intended to improve practice and the quality of teaching. Peer observations and giving effective feedback are highly sophisticated skills of effective teaching, and many leaders, not just those newly appointed to the role, or aspiring to take on the role, require coaching in the art if their time is to be used as effectively as it might be, i.e. for the specific purpose of improving teaching practice and through it the quality of provision for all pupils.
For too long, lesson observation policy has been plagued by the need to make and communicate judgements in the name of accountability. In my experience, those who feel they are being judged during peer observations, criticised and subjected to the opinions held by others are naturally resistant and defensive, and it becomes very difficult to open up and explore with them what, in their observed practice, worked well or otherwise in an open, non-threatening manner.
However, conversely, when professionals feel supported and trusted during structured teacher observations and can engage in low-stakes exploration of their real-life classroom challenges, they are more open to new possibilities and the idea that they can change for the better. They are much less likely to feel the need to mask their difficulties or deny the need for change in their approaches.
It is with this firmly in mind, that I strongly advocate, a coaching model that adopts a problem-solving paradigm, and seeks to develop the mindset required to ditch judgemental thinking and language once and for all. It is a model based upon professional dialogue that essentially recognises that what is going well, and probes those less-effective aspects, perceiving them to be problems that can be resolved by solutions arrived at collaboratively.
The obsession with observation grades
Observers cannot reliably “know” what learning is or is not taking place in a lesson. They can only hypothesise. I unashamedly quote a recent article by Tom Sherrington here (author of The Learning Rainforest and the Walk Thru Guides):
He talks about using “a scale of deep delusion” that might look a little like this :
He notes “Our system has been infused with the delusional and toxic idea that teaching standards can be evaluated on a scale – not just overall, but during individual lessons. I’ve met inspectors and leaders who, even when challenged and presented with research to the contrary – will assert that they personally can ‘just tell’ how good a lesson is. It’s tragic.”
We can delude ourselves, as experienced observers giving feedback, that the teachers will be motivated by what we say, and seek to improve their practice as a result. Sadly, this is often not the case with the traditional model. It can feel a bit like “chucking peas at an advancing tank, trying to get the driver to change direction”! The drivers themselves need to be involved. The reality is that any observed lesson is just a snapshot of a larger picture, and all an observer should do is focus on what they see, ask questions of the teacher subsequently, and above all, avoid making assumptions. The feedback that is given MUST move the teacher forward in their understanding of any problems that occurred and how it might be possible to address them.
Essentially, there are no good, bad, weak or strong lessons, and no observed teacher should be judged to be better or worse than any other in the classroom. There are simple problems with learning that occur in the changing contexts within which each teacher works on a daily basis; problems that need to be solved. The role of leaders in English state schools is to support their teachers, to offer insights into what they themselves observe, and then to help the individuals to problem solve.
When I work in English state schools as a coach to develop effective practice, it is either to coach the teacher being observed or to coach a leader to improve their formal lesson observation and feedback skills in their monitoring role. Teachers whose classrooms are the focus of the classroom observation should be very clear about which of these two purposes is the focus.
Tips for developing a lesson observation policy
- Make sure that the teacher being observed during observation protocols is aware of your intention not to be judgemental and as far as is possible shares the understanding that the purpose is to support and encourage them to find ways to improve the learning they plan and implement.
- Enter the classroom during peer observations inconspicuously and acknowledge the teacher as you do so
- Take up a position at the back of the room or next to a pupil. Your intent is to experience the lesson from the learner’s point of view.
- Try not to move around the room excessively, or to do anything to interrupt the flow of the teaching. If others are observing with you do not chat with them.
- Quickly sampling a range of books in the classroom does not help you in your prime purpose, which is to observe what is happening in the classroom.
- If appropriate, a brief conversation with a learner and a flick through their book to see what has led up to the lesson being observed can be helpful, but no more than that.
- Keep notes in ways that are helpful to YOU when preparing feedback. Your notes are confidential and should not be shared with anyone in the format you take them.
- Try NOT to use a clipboard - it is a bit intimidating, and I make it a general rule not to record anything for at least the first three or four minutes I am in the room-it simply distracts the teacher when they are feeling most exposed!
What are you most likely to see during a class observation?
Typically in any lesson one of three things is going on:
- The teacher may well be explaining or modelling something to the pupils.
- The teacher might be working the room with questioning techniques
- The pupils might be engaged in a practice task that the teacher is either monitoring or supporting
Key points to note in the context of:
- Does the task or the explanation make sense to the pupils?
- Can the pupils actually do the task as set?
- Do the pupils understand the concept?
Point two: Is the teacher:
- Trying to involve all pupils?
- Checking for understanding effectively?
- Responding appropriately?
- Are there opportunities for practice or consolidation with scaffolding provided for those who are less confident?
Focus on these!
Recording your observation of teachers
How you keep your notes is entirely up to you. Over the years I have used many methods, the most effective of which has been to simply divide an A4 sheet in half vertically and to record sequentially, often annotated by a time, what I see the pupils doing and saying, and looking to write down under why I think it might be a direct result of the teaching strategy being used. It usefully assumes that the learners’ responses are a direct result of something either + or – that the teacher is doing/has done. I use + and – and ? symbols all over the place as well as arrows and asterisks that only make sense to me but the eg below is a very simple idea you might like to try.
Tom Sherrington makes specific reference to the Bambrick-Santoyo Principles that enable him to feedback through “Precise Praise” (which notes specific examples of pupil response) and “Probing Questions” to record instances where there was a problem with the learning. You will find your own best way, but try a few ideas and see what works- keep it simple and focused on what you actually see happening. The precise examples are really important when giving feedback, a sheet I might use given these parameters, might be sectioned to look something like this:
Providing professional feedback after observation of teachers
1. CURRICULUM issues: These usually arise as a result of whole school policies that are part of wider planning than that of the specific teacher observed. The issue may well be when/how the teacher can make the time to explore the rationale for the materials they are expected to use or the particular concept they are supposed to be developing/linking with and are unfamiliar with or have not been part of the intent planning.
2. INDIVIDUAL issues: These are specific to the teacher themselves- how they run the room, use the resources, implement the routines etc. Possibly relating to their own subject knowledge or understanding of pedagogy . These are things that are within their control to change so are particularly important.
3. COLLECTIVE issues: These usually arise from a CPD initiative that all teachers are engaging with where consistency of approaches is important and these may well be more effectively addressed collectively with leaders and teachers together
These three focus areas are related to the three things you would be most likely to see in any lesson observed mentioned earlier and are referenced in the following chart:
Providing constructive feedback to teachers
Remember: “When professionals feel supported and trusted, and can engage in low stakes exploration of their real- life classroom challenges, they are more open to new possibilities, and the idea that they can change for the better. They are much less likely to feel the need to mask their difficulties, or deny the need for change in their approaches.” The purpose of the activity is for you as a coach to support, offer insights and help solve identified problems
- Create the climate:
- Make sure that there is sufficient time set aside to have a proper professional discussion
- When they enter the room you are waiting, in body language is really important. Meet and great pleasantly and ensure that the furniture arrangement does not suggest dominance or that a table does not set up a barrier between you- arrange chairs so that they are across the corner of a table, or at an angle to each other and the same height.
- Sit comfortably and assume an open manner- they will relax if you do! Often it takes them time to unfold arms or uncross legs, but these are barriers that need to come down, so adopt a pose you want them to mirror – they will eventually.
As a general rule, I don’t ask “How do you think that went?” It is in my experience a recipe for disaster, and encourages people to defensively give excuses for things that went wrong, or to mistakenly overstate the success of the lesson. Be honest; if it was a bit of a disaster or disappointing, say so up front, for example say, ”Well, we both know there were a few problems there, so let’s see what we can do about them.” Almost all lessons have something praiseworthy to note, so do that first; “Thank you for letting me observe - there was lots to be proud of there, I think you would agree?”
- Make sure you follow the suggested (Walk Thru) routine:
1.PRAISE 2 .PROBE 3.PROBLEM and ACTION 4.PRACTICE 5.PLAN
And my golden rule is ENSURE THAT THEY TALK AT LEAST AS MUCH AS YOU DO!
- Precise praise: Start with this and make sure the teacher knows you think these are things they need to do more of. Just like feedback that is given to pupils it needs to focus on the cognitive not the emotional so that “Hey , that was a great lesson” is less effective than “The way you engaged Michael seemed very effective; you got him to respond well to your modelling of the writing task.”. Precise praise keeps the focus on the action steps.
- Follow that with “O.K, so now let’s PROBE.”
Discuss the challenges that occurred within the lesson- theirs and those of the pupils. DON’T say things like “it would have been even better if….” This is a time for shared discussion of what did NOT go so well. e.g.“ Do you think that those two pupils working with the TA expected to have to answer your questions?” or “Where previously in the overall plan might pupils have come across invaders? Why do you think most of the pupils were able to remember the concept but those particular pupils did not? “
- Identify the specific problem related to the probing and discuss possible concrete action steps to take.
- Discuss how this might be PRACTISED by the teacher and what further help they might need to do so effectively. “Great teaching is not learned through discussion. It’s learned by doing……by practising doing things well. Supervised practice is the fastest way to make sure all teachers are doing the right things.” Bambrick -Santoyo
- Agree a plan and a timescale
Making improvements in teaching
When working with whole staff or groups of teachers on whole school CPD or curriculum approaches where consistency of approach is really important, it can be useful to lead a session in which teachers pair up for discussions, and that those coaching use paired talk and cold calling strategies to increase the extent to which individual views are heard and taken account of.
Useful sentence starters that are particularly useful when working in this way but that are also highly effective when giving any feedback that reinforces the support and problem solving approach, and improves the chance of the recipient moving forward include:
“Sometimes I noticed……….”
“Where it was less effective was where……”
“One of the challenges we all have is……”
“It can be really difficult to ….. I wonder why that is?”
Never forget, it is only the teachers themselves that can make the improvements, and that they will if leaders facilitate the process.
Developing your own approach to lesson observation
In the context of lesson observation models and providing feedback to teachers that is designed to improve their effectiveness, leaders in schools need to rethink their roles.
Instead of setting out to judge how good the lesson or the teaching is, and where on the scale it should be placed, they should think about and discuss openly how this could be made better, and create the conditions where no one judges, they are there to help. Only then will this important monitoring activity be regarded, as it should be, as a supportive, non-judgemental ingredient in a healthy diet of professional learning.
Jenny Short 2022