The One Eight-hundredth Question

I have been critical of the standard approach to monitoring teacher performance, that is, the graded observation of a single lesson over the course of a teacher’s year. It’s non-representative (one in eight hundred is far from a realistic measure of anything: such a representation is, in a stroke of quite delightful irony, incredibly lacking in rigour and robustness), and it could be argued that the attachment of grade plus punitive measures is only going to have a marginal effect on teacher development.

But it’s easy to throw brickbats at an unpopular system. It’s harder to come up with quality assurance measures which can be used for development without having a negative impact. Like any assessment, it is hard to make any evaluation without in some way having an impact on that which is being evaluated: the assessment’s backwash effect.

As far as I can tell there are two requirements of the current classroom observation system:
– a means of ensuring that learners are getting, as often as possible, a good learning experience (i.e. quality assurance)
– a support and development mechanism for teachers

As a starting point, let’s make developing teachers the primary consideration. Why? Because that is the more likely to lead to longer term improvement, and actually (to borrow a managerial phrase) drive quality up across the board. At the moment the primary purpose of a graded obs is quality control, with the added bonus of providing developmental feedback, which is part of the problem: it’s hard to develop or learn when you always have an eye on the grade, particularly when there are potential negative sanctions attached to that grade.

Let’s think about learning. Teachers can use strategies like comment-only marking (I tried this for a teacher training assignment and it was incredibly effective in raising awareness for those learners who needed to resubmit: note as well that in that situation, everybody was able to predict their own grade), peer assessment, self assessment and reflection as a means of getting learners to be more self aware and take control of their own learning. The merit/pass/fail distinction is played down, or only offered at the end of the process, with the learners knowing full well why they got the grade they did.

How can we apply this to classroom observation? We could simplify the grade system to two grades: meets the standard and doesn’t meet the standard. This way the focus of any discussion would move more onto specific classroom practices, both good and bad, which could be shared or developed accordingly without any sting of self-consciousness or negativity. Observations could focus on detailed points of good practice instead of on shaving distinctions between good and outstanding. The same would apply for whole institutions: prospective parents and learners, instead of looking at the grade, would be forced to read the whole summary and think about the details and think about what they expect.

It could be argued that this is not going to provide opportunities to celebrate and share good practice: “hooray, you got a 1,” runs the argument, “now go off and share that one-ness with your colleagues.” This is fine for some people, but there are two elements at play here: social issues, not unlike being the class swot, and general shyness and low self esteem. Whilst the first of these is a cultural issue, and one which I would hope is not the norm, both issues would be negated by removing the good/outstanding distinction. Teachers, the argument would run, you are all equal, you are all peers, and you all do great stuff, now get together and talk about it. The recognition for any individual that in their classroom there was some outstanding teaching and learning can still be present: it would come out very clearly in the feedback given, surely.

Alternatively, the observer could offer only feedback followed by a discussion which would lead to a mutually agreed grade. For this to be effective, the close ties lesson observations have with capability procedures would, perhaps, need to be loosened, but not necessarily broken, otherwise the discussion is not an even, positive discussion. Instead it would be dominated by any teacher who recognises they have a below standard lesson trying to talk the grade up. But this would encourage clearer reflection on the lesson, and this could only help develop that teacher across the wider scope of the year. This would take a lot of skill on the part of lesson observers, and a really rigorous standardisation system, where discussions are recorded, monitored and discussed. The observers would, in effect, be teachers, and the observees are the learners.

The last option would be to abandon the concept of being observed by a superior, and instead be observed by your peers. This is a model used across HE, for example, and would need to be supported by time and money (so that’s a no, then). You could keep the standards as they are, but peer observing like this has a double effect: the feedback to the observee, naturally, and the reflections of the observer. The observer may note something in the lesson which they can use in their own practice, or which they can change about their own practice. It would also heighten the peer observer’s awareness of the criteria being used and apply them more carefully to their own practice.

Peer observation, or peer assessment is even something you could apply to inter-college work: instead of spending millions on teams of inspectors, you simply reduce OFSTED to an advisory body and each year a team of individuals from across every department, nominated or selected from teachers (including hourly paid, casual staff), support services and management go off to another college for a week and engage in some sort of peer review. Thus the teachers talk to the teachers, the support staff to support staff, the managers to the managers, compare practices, look at what they are doing, talk about it, check against the standards (the setting of which could be a role for OFSTED), then head back. Good practice is then shared from college to college much more effectively than it is at present, greater reflection is encouraged across both participants, and again, the performance criteria are made more familiar to all involved. The reciprocal nature of this would mean that a much more balanced picture could develop. To facilitate this, you would need some sort of sabbatical system, perhaps, where participating teachers are given time to do it, and some sort of system would need to be developed to select who is going to take part, but the benefits would be enormous.

****

There’s nothing radical in many of these ideas, only the application of what we know about learning and learners to professional development. Indeed much of the first part of this post is already in practice for teacher training courses: the pass/fail grade (although this is changing, due to OFSTED pushing for bacterial self-replication across all spheres of teacher development), the focus on effective developmental feedback based on reflection, and a requirement for peer observation. Teacher development, indeed any professional development, needs to be seen as learning, with principles of effective learning practice applied. We advocate assessment for learning for our learners, but the current one hour, once a year model is basically the final exam model of assessment: you swot, you cram, you get the things in place for your class, and then for a few days you perform to the best of your abilities, rather than focussing on doing so for the other 799 hours.

I’m not anti-observation, and never have been: classroom visits and their subsequent discussions are a useful and constructive process. Regardless of any formal feedback, it’s almost always the first thing I do when I am mentoring teachers. Discussions following an observation of my own classroom practice has been some of the best discussions I have had about teaching and learning, and has led to me making useful, positive changes. But it concerns me when so much negativity is attached to what could be a beneficial and ultimately improving process, when teachers insist on closed doors.

In fact, you know what? come into my classroom whenever you like. And, I know, I could come into yours later. Then let’s talk about it. Why not? And if we could not talk about standards, about what OFSTED would say, or what the grade might have been, but about what you and I think make for a good lesson, then my door, genuinely, truly, is open. Do come in, you are most welcome.

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3 comments

  1. Many thanks, Sam.

    The PCE course on which I have worked for many years does not grade teaching observations, and happily OFSTED has no problem with that, although they appear to be arbitrary about whether they object or not.

    One of the reasons we do not grade is its inhibiting effect on students (and of course on qualified practitioners). We encourage students to invite us–or their mentors–to “risky” sessions, perhaps where they are having difficulty, or where they want to try something new and have an outsider’s perspective on it. They are much more likely to benefit from discussion and feedback if it is non-judgemental. Otherwise we are in danger of seeing a “party piece”, honed and polished just for our benefit (I have even discovered on occasion that the lesson had been rehearsed–with the students–in advance)

    Having said that, we assess them under a dozen or so headings, each of which has to be signed off–and all the headings have to be signed off a minimum number of times to pass the practice component of the course (except in some odd circumstances–I never managed to catch a tree surgeon using IT, for example). So although there is no “global” grade, we are clear about the level of competence we require.

    Yes, that kind of constructive observation and feedback is really useful–and a propos of your final paragraph, Sam, you may be interested in this recent lecture by Atul Gawande at Harvard: http://tinyurl.com/gawande-coaching. (It is 80 minutes in total, though.)

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