How to make the most of observations.

In the countdown of 10 free things – number 9 – observations.

I hate them – and the reason? Because they don’t help me. And they’re inaccurate.

Many schools use observations as a way to ‘performance management’.

performance’. Except:

  1. An observation is generally trying to measure a performance, but not the performance.
  2. The observation is generally not used to manage performance, but to measure performance.

Let’s start with (2). Yesterday, I wrote about being the expert, but made the distinction between subject expert and teaching expert. Today, we are talking about teaching expertise.

How do we enable learning in teaching? Well, we would take the schema of an expert practitioner (in this case the observer) and allow them to explicitly develop these ideas in the learner (the observed).  Unfortunately, nobody knows what makes an expert teacher.

In subject areas, expertise can be measured, and the relative distinctions between levels of expertise are quickly understood: the complexity and fluidity of the schemas with which the expert works are brutally apparent to the less expert.

In teaching, the variables at the point of observation are so numerous, that there is no way of identifying whether a teacher is expert or just lucky. So? What do we do? Well, most schools utilise a metric to grade teachers by. There are a list of tick-boxes – ‘Pupils engaged?’ Tick; ‘Objectives shared?’ Tick. From here, the overall grade is assigned (or not).

Except, as we all know, there is no evidence on what actually makes the most effective teaching and learning. We know that testing is effective at embedding knowledge? We know that teacher talk is one of the quickest ways to share knowledge? We know that student struggle is vital to learning and passing through thresholds of understanding.

Would you prepare an observation lesson that starts with an assessment; has you talking for ten or fifteen minutes and then asks the class to complete a task with the high likelihood that they won’t be able to complete it? Go on, I dare you…

There is also the concern with subjective measures being so dramatically distinct – in Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman gives examples of the judgements of human experts varying considerably – not within days or weeks of a second identical assessment – but within hours or minutes. The truth is that a tick sheet is probably the best chance you have, but it won’t tell you anything qualitative. All of the evidence will be relative, at best.

The other problem with observations is that they aren’t even reflective of teacher performance. Take the example of a job interview – the employer is just guessing how you will perform over time. It’s the same – except a job interview often takes longer than twenty minutes.


So, in short, what do we do with observations?

If you are being observed:

  1. Find something you want to improve and want some feedback on. Be honest, be up front and explain that you weren’t sure so took a chance. This may help you develop, but may not!
  2. Discuss the outcome of your observation with the observer. Don’t let them sidle away with some guff about marking frequency or the colour pen you’re using – nag them until they discuss the cognitive rationale behind their comments.  Explain why you made the choices you did. Don’t let them say ‘I think that…’ or ‘I personally believe that…’. You want to improve, so need hard evidence that changing your approach will work.
  3. Observe your observer and discuss their teaching with them. Ask why they thought their lesson worked or didn’t (and don’t accept, ‘because I’ve seen them work before’ – proximity is no evidence for causality); quiz them about the learning that they believe took place. You could even be cheeky enough to ask them when they will assess that learning to check that it is embedded

If you are observing:

  1. Don’t ever grade teacher performance. If you can get the staff body to agree a set of metrics to measure performance against, then you may tentatively be able to rank your teachers in particular situations, but most likely not with any real certainty.
  2. Have evidence for your judgements. Don’t make the judgement without discussion – there’s a fair chance that the person you’ve just observed is more expert than you are!

Number 9 – How to make the most of observations.

Next up, 8: Assessment versus Feedback



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