Tonight Ofsted hosted #sltchat on Twitter. This was a pretty huge thing in my view and I really hope it marks the beginning of a more human Ofsted. Time will tell I guess. A great deal of the conversation though tonight was on the subject of lesson observations and that officially Ofsted do not grade the individual lessons that they observe. Clearly this is not applied universally if you read many of the responses. I came across an interesting blog post but it made me wonder if there are circumstances where observing a lesson is not entirely bad. After getting into a bit of a debate with Ric (@Teachric) and David Didot (@LearningSpy) I realised that I was coming across as a bit of a teacher observation Nazi so I thought I would try to explain what I was blathering on about in slightly more than 140 characters.

The first thing to say is that I wholeheartedly agree that a one-off observation-as-assessment in a pressured environment is never going to be representative or positive. It is the same with interviews which are just a totally false situation. For any teacher good or bad an Ofsted inspector, or head teacher for that matter, suddenly looming over a lesson is guaranteed to distract, fluster and generally interfere with the normal run of things. Even worse, if an amount of time has been allowed to prepare, a singular amazing wonder-lesson is even less like the real thing. As the story goes, it is ultimately the progress of pupils that matters and from Ofsted and the outside world in general this is rightly what they should rely upon.

However… Where I disagree with the idea that all lesson observation ever are a bad thing is when they are part of internal teacher development process. I can see the argument against grading lessons purely for the false environment the pressure creates but equally I can understand head teachers wanting to be rigorous in recording what they have seen. Perhaps actual grades is a step too far. But, and I think this is a big but (there’s a song there :)), I think lesson observation is crucial as part of ongoing skill development. There, I said it *braces for impact* but I have a good, and hopefully positive reason or two.

I mentioned “bad teachers” in my Twitterings and  what I certainly don’t mean is that these “bad teachers” should be measured, trapped and executed. What I mean is that no teacher wants to be anything other than the best they can be at their craft to make the most impact on their pupils possible. Now, I have to admit that I have the experience of having been one of these “bad teachers” once upon a time. I did a secondary science PGSE pretty much straight out of university and despite being academically solid, focussed and otherwise I think I was just too young and massively underestimated the demands of the profession (teachers are heros btw). I did some ok lessons but in the end it got on top of me *sobs*. To be fair, it really sucked to be helpless in doing something bad that I really wanted to do brilliantly. I bailed out at the 11th hour and that was entirely the right decision for me at that time. However, before jumping I worked and worked and worked and all I had was the yard-stick that my mentors gave me to figure out how I was doing and how I could improve. That was really valuable and even if I had been downright amazing, nobody knows everything. Is there such a thing as a perfect teacher? I don’t think there’s a perfect anything – you can always learn more. That is part of why I think lesson observations have a place – context, feedback and an independent “critical friend”.

As a foot-note at this point: I am a fairly involved primary school governor and have stayed involved with education in a variety of guises. I even teach a few computing workshops here and there, mostly at a primary level, and I like to think kids learn stuff which is what matters right?

The second reason I would defend lesson observations are that at my school – Bewdley Primary School – I think we have a really great way of running them internally. The way we (in a royal sense – I just write the report) do things is that all three teachers in a key stage plan a series of lessons together and share their expertise to work out the best way that we as a school can teach a certain thing. If a teacher finds an issue in their class they may deviate as necessary but broadly all pupils get roughly the same lesson. Each teacher will of course put their own spin on things and they are free to do so. Where observations come in is that each teacher is observed by the other two teachers of their key stage in a round-robin fashion. The head will observe one at random additionally but only to moderate the views of the key stage. Then, as an open discussion, feedback is given on the individual teacher’s lesson but very much as constructive feedback to help people achieve their best. If a teacher is struggling this is identified and support is given.

I have spoken at length to the teachers about this process and the feedback is overwhelmingly positive. The key I think is the sensitive way in which the observations are run. The point is to help not to measure and in doing this lesson observations become a very valuable tool for the observed teacher in developing themselves.

TLDR; “Teacher Crufts” bad, critical feedback in a non-critical environment good.

Let the vegetable throwing begin 🙂