“Just do what you normally do”

This post started in November, based on a conversation we were having in the staff room. We were talking about graded observation, and the idea that the lesson you are observed teaching should be a “normal” lesson, with, perhaps, a bit of extra paperwork to evidence your thinking (essentially, the same as showing your workings out in Maths at school), and not a special “observation” lesson. I’m being very specific, and perhaps I should clarify: we’re not talking purely developmental obs, but a graded observation for quality assurance purposes. 


So, given the context, is it good advice? Honestly? Yes and no. 

Yes? 

Yes, because you would be quite stupid to try anything brand new in an graded observation lesson. If you aren’t really using a particular strategy or technique but believe, for whatever reason, that the observer “expects” to see certain practices, then rolling it out for that lesson alone runs a very high chance of failing. I don’t think it necessarily WILL fail, of course: it depends on the nature of the strategy you are trying, if you have faith in that strategy, faith in the learners to roll with it, and faith in your ability to pull it off. Sadly, a graded observation is high stakes, and the impact of getting less than a two for the lesson is profound in terms of the impact on your career. This makes it dangerous to risk doing something which may not work during an observation, and so any kind of untried innovation in this context is a danger. This is a shame, of course, because an observation of you trying something new by an experienced colleague or manager has the potential to be incredibly helpful, developmental and all round beneficial, and would lead to an improvement in quality. Of course, decent colleges will support and promote peer observation for teacher learning, but this is most often as an aside to the main graded observation. 

Then again, no. 

No, because in fact you do do things special in an observation. You might be a little brisker with timings, more explicitly careful with differentiation, particularly in planning. You might plan a whole lot more tightly and carefully. I don’t see any problem with this either: it’s good from time to time, to be more disciplined and controlled. One of the benefits of this kind of observation is that it’s a good way of making you pull your metaphorical socks up, in terms of both doing a bit of proper focussed lesson planning, and also making sure you haven’t slacked off on your long term planning and paperwork. 

No, because if the observation window hadn’t been there, you might have chosen to do something a bit different. You might have had, in that particular observation window, an opportunity to try something completely different, to innovate and explore, and your “normal” practice would have been to experiment. However, it makes sense to plan activities and resources which you are confident will work with you, with your learners and within the theme of the lesson, and not those things which might work, but which you are still developing. 

You might have a behaviourally challenging class of learners and choose an individualised workshoppy method with lots of individual and small group work over whole class teaching, because you know they are easier to manage and respond better to that, and because although you have been developing ways of managing whole class teaching with them, you don’t really feel that confident doing it just yet. You cover the same thing as you planned to cover, but you play to your strengths and the strengths of your learners and you avoid risk. This is the major challenge with graded observations: the link to capability doesn’t necessarily promote innovation but runs the significant risk of stifling it. 

Grading a lesson is a summative process, after all, not a formative one, with clear consequences to that process. In many respects, gaming this system is inevitable, and thinking that teachers won’t and don’t game it suggests a naive faith in a flawed system. It’s like not expecting someone to prepare for an exam. 

Even the best (legitimate) exam prep depends on your ability on the day. Similarly, success or failure in any observation, graded or not, it essentially boils down to what happens on the day. You can have the best lesson plan in the world, a marvellous set of trackers and schemes, ILPs that the students are waving around under your nose and asking questions about their targets. You can have checked the observer’s teaching timetable, found out about their personal foibles and fancies, spent time making sure that you do all the “right” things and making sure that students are all doing the “right” things. (Whatever you happen to think the “right” things are.)

And it could still bomb. A couple of misjudged outcomes, a smattering of mistimed activities, a stage you’ve forgotten, or a piece of differentiated activity that you forgot to put into play, a bus breakdown making half your students late, all those things could still happen. Or you realise as the lesson begins that you misjudged how the tasks were going to run, but for one reason or another it’s too late to rethink things. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. 

But you still try and game it, and while there is a grade with consequences attached, who wouldn’t? There are rules to the game, and ways to play it. Graded observation becomes not about doing what you normally do, but doing what you need to do to play the game, if not to win, then at least to not lose. 


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