As observers, are we interested in how teachers teach or how students learn? Are we interested in someone’s ability to teach well occasionally (a formal observation) or in his or her day-to-day level? Is it possible to recognize great learning and teaching just from looking? As observers and observees, do we have a shared understanding of what good teaching actually is?
As a school, we set out a couple of years ago to develop a different approach to classroom observation. To this end, I shared an idea for observing lessons which had at its core our school’s coaching ethos and which was both formative and non-graded. Our discussions had revolved around the questions above and our belief in well-being- that is minimizing the stress caused by and the negative perceptions of formal observation; professionalism- that colleagues (mostly) want to get better at what they do and are often well placed to support each other; and the development of a learning culture- that observation would be seen as an entitlement, wasn’t hierarchical and would actually lead to improved teaching and learning (in a way that grading lessons doesn’t seem to!)
The proposal I shared included a process and supporting document. The process was a pre-meeting, observation and feedback with goals. The document gave supporting questions and prompts and was framed around our shared understanding of good learning and teaching- not a checklist but features we thought were of value. The proposal also set out that observations should be done in departments in term 1 and across departments in term 3- in this way emphasizing/ de-emphasizing subject content. It also proposed that observations be done in 3-way groupings with observations happening in pairs (where possible). There was also some commitment to goals following the coached feedback discussion.
In launching our new process, I gathered all of the staff together, paired them up randomly and asked that they take turns at being coached for 15 minutes around a recent lesson that they’d taught. This ‘pure coaching’ model went some way towards removing observer bias and took the focus away from pupil performance ‘in the moment’. Instead, the prompts teased out possible misconceptions, what had to be learnt to get to this point and how this lesson would build or challenge what students already knew or thought. It also gave the teacher being observed the chance to articulate things that perhaps couldn’t be seen and otherwise would have either been missed or speculated upon.
The initial session went very well with a real engagement and buzz- I think that the coaching context provided a powerful protocol for reflection in terms of active listening, reflecting and clarifying by the coach. As the lesson hadn’t been seen, no judgement could be made so in this way it maybe felt ‘safe’ to reflect honestly about the lesson. Following this session, we made a few refinements to the prompts and protocols and launched the 3- way observations to take place in term three.
We’ve now completed two years of this process and what I can say is that there has been virtually no ‘kick-back’ from Staff around observations, that many staff have seen colleagues teach in different departments which they wouldn’t normally do- this has been great at showing and sharing the great practice that we have in our school. Including everyone (including the LT) in the process democratically has been perceived as very fair. We have also now linked our CPD into this process with time given for staff to form groups around areas of practice that they would like to either share or develop. I definitely think that this has moved us towards a ‘culture of learning’ with the observations and coaching being asked for to support ‘getting better’.