Lesson observations take place every day in independent schools up and down the country and in international schools around the world, but how do they differ from one school to another in terms of format and purpose? Denise Inwood, Managing Director of BlueSky Education, examines…
We commissioned a survey to discover what state and independent schools in the UK and abroad think about lesson observations and what new practices are evolving.
The research revealed that two thirds of schools (68 percent) have changed their lesson observation practice in the last two years and more than half of schools (59 percent) no longer grade observations or use grades rarely.
It appears from the survey that the high-stakes, graded lesson observation of the past is being assigned to the history books. Instead, schools are finding more supportive and varied ways of developing their teaching staff.
Lesson observations are just part of the picture
Many schools are now viewing lesson observations as just one piece of the jigsaw when it comes to measuring the quality of education.
Whether inspired by the lead taken in state schools and Ofsted’s decision to no longer grade lessons or simply driven by a desire to move away from the high-pressure, make or break nature of observations, 44 percent of schools surveyed also reported doing fewer formal lesson observations than they did before. Instead they are replacing them with learning walks, work scrutinies and informal drop ins.
Stephen Rollett, Curriculum and Inspection Specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, has seen these changes happening in schools. “We are entering a new phase with many schools changing the way they look at standards, monitor what is happening in the classroom and support their teachers’ continuing professional development.”
Andrew Williams, Head of High School at Emirates International School, is in agreement. “We have to be conscious of the fact we need to look at the whole picture and remember that lesson observations are only one aspect of this.
“Some teachers can deliver an incredible lesson, but it is about the whole story, quality of feedback in books, classroom environments and student voice. Other teachers get nervous in observations and things can go wrong, but when we see the full picture we can assess colleagues accordingly.”
Starting the process right with new teachers
This is especially the case for new teachers in the early years of their career.
According to Williams, good training is particularly important for new teachers joining the school. “We are based in Dubai, and a lot of the teachers who come here to work are new to leadership and need to develop their leadership skills and one of these which is a key focus is lesson observations.”
The Emirates school has also put a greater focus on more collaborative approaches to ease the pressure on staff and increase the learning opportunities. “We set up groups of three teachers to work together, called triads,” explains Williams. “These triads focus on a particular action research project each term. They look at an aspect of teaching that will improve the quality of learning, and they observe each other informally throughout the term.
“Twice a year, we hold an exhibition in our arena where each triad has their own area to demonstrate their action research, rather like a marketplace. Teachers speak to colleagues in each triad about the particular element or elements of teaching that they were focusing on. They present examples of the good practice they have observed and show them in action.
“It could be EAL teaching in the classroom, perhaps, or higher order thinking. Some people get very creative. One teacher was dressed as a tree and he had questions and ideas hanging off, like apples for people to pick and take away to implement in their own lessons.
“It’s one thing hearing someone talk about good quality teaching, but actually seeing it being presented is extremely powerful. It helps teachers to know what to look for in the classroom when they are observing, and it gives them the confidence to try new ideas themselves.”
The school is not alone in adopting these collaborative approaches and many of the schools we surveyed are trialling and implementing new observation and evaluation methods. There is evidence of positive outcomes, both for schools looking to assess quality of education, and teachers who are getting much more from the process.
Denise Inwood is a former senior school leader and managing director of BlueSky Education. BlueSky’s latest research on lesson observations ‘The Quiet Uprising’ is available from www.blueskyeducation.co.uk/quiet-uprising-report