Getting Rid of the Elephant

I blogged before about how power distorts developmental discussions around observation, but didn’t really go into how you could get past that. Which is a bit unfair really – after all I do have to deal with it. So how best can we deal with it? We are pretty much stuck with the graded observation as the primary tool of performance management in teaching, at least for now.

The most realistic, given the current culture of inspection, is to offset it through a better sharing & negotiation of the feedback (which is my personal development area for this academic year’s set of feedback on my TT courses). Both parties analyse the lesson based on the course/inspection criteria: “Here are the criteria. Speaking honestly, which ones were met, which ones weren’t, and what could be done about it?” The responses then need to be principled: no hunches, no “I just know”, no shrugs. Words like oomph, pizzazz and especially the loathsome sparkle have no place in teacher development. Discussions and arguments need to be based on principles, and if they aren’t then they shouldn’t be aired. I want specific moments in the lesson, evidence, even references to research if need be.  “When I did that, x happened. It happened that way because Y. If I do that again, I could…”

Again, in case that’s not clear; unprincipled “feelings” are about as much use a chocolate teapot because you can’t use them as a springboard for development.

This goes both ways, although in fairness the inexperienced teacher will be more reliant on the experience of the classroom and the learners, while the trainer/manager should be drawing on a bigger bank of both practical experience and theoretical knowledge.

But this sort of thing hides the elephant, not gets rid of it. At the end the trainer has to say “pass” and the manager is required to give a grade.

So could you get rid of the elephant?

There is the possibility of only having walkthroughs. One of the most interesting things about my recent observation training was a lot of discussion around walkthrough observations (or “learning walks” – not sure which I dislike least) with a lot of colleges using only this to get an idea of the needs of each department.

I quite liked the idea of the walkthrough – there are no grades given, no one to one feedback, you just walk in, observe 20 minutes or so, walk out and that’s it. The idea here is to get an idea of the areas for development needed by a whole department, rather than snapshots of the teaching of a few individuals. It is perhaps less useful for the individual, who may be left wondering what the outcome of their lesson observation was, but then perhaps what we need there is a much bigger culture change where we don’t get graded at all for anything.

You could, as many universities do, rely on peer observation. One of the big benefits here is that the power relationship here is equal. No one is the “expert”, no one is the “novice”. There may be more experience, or different experiences, but this is only to the benefit of the individuals involved.

The same ethos underlies Teaching Squares. The practical impact of this kind of approach is that the classroom visit has to focus on what the visitor wants to gain from the process, and not on giving “feedback” on the lesson’s strengths & weaknesses. And this requires a major restructuring of the mind of the teacher, perhaps. For this process to be effective we need to put to one side the trappings of the college inspection and the teacher training course. Concepts such as “feedback” and “action points” need to be restructured, and if they can’t be restructured then they should be rejected. The observer evaluates their own classroom practice in light of what they observe, with definitions of “good” practice set by the participants, and based on the real classroom experiences of the teachers.

This isn’t, I should add, a chance for a love in. Yes, you are aiming to compliment and support your colleagues, but this does require a much better and more realistic self analysis. As teachers we need to be more critical of our own practice, we need to be more principled and know why we are doing the things we do. This means no more “It just works” reflections. This means understanding how learning happens, this means understanding how teaching leads to learning, this means understanding our learners. Our self-assessments need to be principled and rigorous, based on our own and a shared understanding of effective practice. We need to be researchers, readers, sharers, and not locked in our little boxes of personal practice. In my experience, the very best teachers are the ones who are realistically critical, identify why things work, and share everything with their peers. Not just worksheets, not just “here’s a good website” but people who discuss their lessons and what has happened and are honest. I don’t know if it’s hard or easy, but it seems to me a simple short step to move from “That was a shit lesson” to “That was a shit lesson because…”

This attitude could be prevalent. This should be the norm. But when you are being judged and measured, when there is a carrot and a stick, it’s too easy to switch into a defensive, protective mode, and it’s very hard to be honest with both yourself and the people around you.   You want the carrot, you don’t want the stick. And the elephant sits there glowering over you.


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