Has observation improved me as a teacher?

I was involved in a small debate on Twitter last week about the value/benefit of lesson observation. It’s a well worn topic for me, and I’ve spent plenty of time discussing the problems with lesson observation linked to performance management, the benefits of peer observation and so on.

But one thing came up and that was this statement which I made off the cuff, but realised was probably completely true.

I found myself wondering if this was just keyboard warrior braggadocio or whether it was true: is there anything in my practice that I can trace directly back to lesson observation feedback?

Luckily (or not) I have a bit of a data trail for this, and I have lesson observations from records going back quite a few years, so I went and had a look through them, focussing on the areas for improvement identified.

I don’t want to bore you with the details, but what I did find is that where my practice was confirmed as meeting the standards, that is, the stuff I was doing well, then those things stayed, even where (as in my most recent observation) those things were relatively new or experimental. That is to say, where the feedback confirmed something was effective, then these things have generally become (it remained) a part of my practice.

The areas for improvement, on the other hand, have been more challenging. Sometimes, I think, they’ve been too specific: something which occurred in that lesson and that lesson only but which, as a general rule, don’t seem to happen in most lessons (like an attendance issue in my last one, for example) or which are specific to a type of lesson and may or may not make their way into practice. A good example of this was demonstrating progress and feedback by using email exchanges in an ESOL and ICT class. I know the person who suggested this sometimes checks in on the blog, so just in case, I’m sorry, but I never really did get round to ever doing it, not properly. I gave it a go for a week or two, and it just never felt like it was doing much for me or the students, apart from generating a bit of a paper trail which nobody looked at or cared about.

There are a batch of “procedural” actions, around paperwork or admin, or tracking, or something, which, yeah, next year, I promise, but which are never going to be my strong suit. I’ve had stuff like that in every appraisal, never mind lesson observation, since time immemorial, and I’m still useless at it. Related to this are the comments relating to standardised practice – patronising comments about things which are so bland and meaningless (health and safety, learning objectives on display, that sort of thing), that you have to wonder whether or not the feedback was generated by some managerial predictive text, with the writer simply stabbing the middle button on an iPad app.

More often than not, however, the ideas are just, well, a bit meh. Fair enough in their way, nice ideas, but nothing that really excited me. There was nothing in the “rejected” pile of action plans from previous observations that made me go “fuck me, that’s the answer I’ve been looking for!”. I’m not sure if I feel comfortable with the word uninspiring, but it’s the closest I’ve got.

So, the answer to my question? Was I just showing off? Sadly, no. Sorry to all my observers who read this, but all that carefully crafted feedback and those individualised suggested actions have all come to a big fat bugger all. Partly it’s the reasons above, but also, I think, there’s the element of the observation being done to you. I didn’t get to choose the lesson, for example, be it a comfort zone lesson where I’m trying something a bit out there, and would like some help, or one with the bolshy teenagers where I struggle with what is probably some pretty basic behaviour management stuff, and again, would like some non-judgmental support where the feedback is entirely without consequence on a professional level, but which focusses has n something important. The word I’m looking for here I think is safe. Not safe from criticism, mind you, but rather that the observation and the feedback are safe from the demands of performance management. But what happens instead is that the lesson might have been a bit of a so-what lesson to start with, with me following a safe, predictable and reassuring procedure that I know works well, and ticks lots of boxes (in fact, the chances of that are pretty high, I can tell you now), and so the feedback tells me very little.

There have been some observations leading to change, but these are ones which go back over a decade or more, to when I was doing my DELTA, and thinking through the linguistic and theoretical frameworks behind the lesson. Even here, however, the observation was the culmination of several other factors. Yes, the observation was the agent for change, in the sense that had I not been observed for the course, I wouldn’t have made those changes, but it wasn’t the source of the change. The ideas did not grow from the act of being observed, but rather from other things.

All of which takes to the question of where changes have come from. I’m not in some weird stasis, after all, and I’m not the teacher I was fifteen years ago. Some of it, no, an awful lot of it, has come from me thinking about things for myself, reflecting on things and adapting accordingly, either in the class or after. This isn’t big-headed (well, not much) it’s just that the only regular observer of my lessons aside from my students is me, and that’s what I do. I’ve changed lesson styles, teaching ideas, resources, all sorts, as a result of my own reflections. The other change “from within” is more about trying new things – sometimes I just have an idea I want to try, so I do. It either works, or it doesn’t, and so it goes. By the same token, feedback from students has also contributed to change: less dramatically, perhaps, but where they have made suggestions, I’ve listened and adapted through the lens of my own professional judgement.

Changes have also come from reading. Dogme/Teaching Unplugged has been a huge influence on me, and I’ll tell you now, nobody in mainstream FE teaching would dare suggest that you can learn without having everything painstakingly planned and dictated by the teacher, so that has definitely not come from lesson observation feedback. The main driver for that change has been through exposure to ideas through books, followed by practical experimentation.

The other big source for ideas has been through conversations with colleagues – talking to a peer and listening to their ideas before taking them on. In fact, I can identify several concrete teaching practices that have come from these conversations, or from virtual colleagues via Twitter, or indeed any other source but again rarely, if ever, where these conversations have followed a formal observation.

But perhaps we are being too hard on the lesson observation. Perhaps it’s really not meant to be that effective in promoting change, certainly not the standard once a year model, anyway: why would it be? In educational terms, an observation is an assessment and this model is more like a summative rather than a formative assessment. It’s something that happens once a year, and captures the development and changes that have occurred across that year. It presents an evaluation of the performance of that individual, measured against externally dictated criteria. Actions following feedback are too an afterthought, from both an individual and an institutional perspective; that is to say, development is not the principle driver behind the process. So yes, I am being too hard on lesson observation: perhaps I have raised my expectations too high, or have believed somewhat idealistically in the system as a force for development.

So in answer to my question, after quite a lot of thought, the answer remains no. All that effort around formal observations, mine and my observers, has had negligible impact on my professional practice. It’s quite a frightening reflection, really, given the status accorded to lesson observations, but also one which should be acknowledged by observers (I include myself in that group as well). Could we observers do better? Feedback is so often a recitation of judgements, rather than a discussion and a challenge, but again this is because judgements are demanded by the process: we can’t just debate the pros and cons like professional adults, but are forced into an unequal teacher-pupil type relationship by the observation system. And that, I guess, is why lesson observation has categorically, emphatically, not improved my teaching practice.

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2 comments

  1. ‘Sup, Sam
    An interestingly serendipitous screen of stuff there. I’ve just finished doing the observations in our place of work and, like the self-hating manager that I am, have been agonising over the point of it all. As I read your outpourings, I went through grief, anger, denial…you know the drill.

    So…the first thing…observations aren’t intended to change your teaching practice. YOU are expected to change your teaching practice. A glib point, but if we wipe away the glibness, I think there’s something shiny worth keeping. The power imbalance you refer to at the end is an obstacle, but if we assume that these managerial observations are all about quality assurance, they should be serving to highlight areas where you are falling short of the standard expected. Fri this perspective, the onus is on you to do what needs to be done to return to the standard (and thus be able to draw your paycheck with a clear conscience). Instead, what the world of (just English Language?) Teaching tends to do is to rail against the soulless clipboard wielders and to insist upon the artistic integrity of Doing It My Way (while at the same time avoiding the perils of having to test the demand for My Way in the marketplace as a sole trader).

    If you don’t agree with the changes that you are being asked to make, I think the illusion that we all contribute to (that teaching is a profession) entitles you to argue your point as an equal: “I RESENT YOU TELLING ME THAT I HAVE TO DISPLAY THE LEARNING OBJECTIVES IN EVERY CLASS!!!” Then it is on the manager’s head to either provide an indisputable rationale for this insistence or a direct order requiring your compliance. If you don’t like what passes for quality round these here parts, ask yourself whether it might not be better to move on (certainly it would be more ethical than taking the money but not doing the work).

    And what of the question about the role of observers in all of this? In my view, observers hamstring themselves by feeling that these exercises are also about professional development. Bollocks to that. If you are sat in a room, observing a teacher because you have been told to and you are completing paperwork that will sit somewhere within the machine’s entrails, forget it being about professional development. You are a square-headed, Next-suit wearing, pencil-wielding middle manager who is tasked with the policing of standards of which you probably had no say in the design. Soulless? Maybe. But you took the job and you take the cash.

    If observers were clear about their role, perhaps they’d feel less uncomfortable with making suggestions, and more comfortable with giving directives. If the teacher isn’t doing the paperwork, either direct that the paperwork is no longer necessary or direct that the teacher does the fucking paperwork. If the teacher isn’t writing the objectives up on the whiteboard at the start of class, either drop that requirement or demand that the teacher writes the bloody things up there at the start of every class.

    A large part of the problem is that some of the behavioral stuff is bollocks and based on pseudoscience. Who gives a damn about whether the objectives are touted around at the start of the class? Isn’t the point that the learners understand the rationale for their study that day so that they can extrapolate and take their newfound skills out of the sterile learning environment into the grubby world. There are many roads to Rome and the sides of all of them are lined with cat-skinners who work individually and with their own trademark style.

    It turns out that the shiny stuff underneath all of that initial glibness was my tuppenceworth. Tuppence, as we all know, is the colour of dung. But dung makes the flowers grow and bloom. I hope that there is both yin AND yang in what I have typed out here.

    1. I don’t disagree with anything you said Sam, or the previous poster, but I am worried we have overtangled the discussion.

      The main question is what do we use observations for and are they effective.

      If they are quality assurance then their validity and reliability are important. These are testable and the results are poor. The MET project showed that even under rigorous conditions (which are not representative) they were highly unreliable performing at the same level as value added scores (which aren’t great).

      If they are about developing teachers then we need to show a positive impact. Short of blatent qualitive cherry picking this doesn’t seem to be possible. Observations embed bad practice as well as good for example by encouraging cargo cult teaching, surface analysis and plain psudeoscience (learning styles). This has a massive opportunity cost.

      On the other hand people expect accountability and the other options (data, test results) have their own issues.

      Past that I have my own ideas but they quickly get entangled themselves.

      I know our college is considering other options Sam (I suspect you are one of the drivers behind that) such as a menu of activities for tutors to select for their development. But this will force us to accept that accurately evaluating teaching and learning is essentialy
      impossible. I also think it has zero chance of working (even though I would be eager to try it).

      My personal preference would be more academic. Write a proposal before September on what I want to try. Agree with a colleague of my choosing what I want to improve.
      Have peer observations/scheme/rescource feedback. Demonstrate reflection then rinse and repeat. Essentially a continuation of our PGCE.

      However, while appealling, my colleagues would not be impressed and it assumes that my more analytical and academic approach is more valid (and obviously I think it is).

      The normal reaction would then be let people choose a different method but that will deny us a shared goal and philosophy. We need enough standardisation to allow us to communicate and improve. We also need to define a high standard. If you can’t write and reason about your ideas have you really considered them. This would also offer an opportunity to mentor staff in improving their literacy (which is how you improve students literacy in the long term, you can only teach what you know).

      Like you said long term improvements take time. Learn new ideas, wrestle with them, dismiss most (that’s a key one), practice, reflect, repractice, rinse and repeat. It is quite possible that many people are neither prepared (in a training sense) or willing to do this and would prefer one week of hell a year. (Even if that week is wasted work in terms of personal development).

      I also suspect deep down observations are symptomatic of education’s reactive and cargo cultish culture. A reflective, long term, slowly iterative approach is lacking at all levels from management down to teaching. This is not indicative of a lack of individual talent but rather pluralistic ignorance and a King Cunate effect (the original version where he is demonstrating the impotence of a king before God/nature not the later version). Essentially strong leadership may not help change culture as it needs to evolve from the ground up and that needs a very subtle, well informed and relatively hands off approach were leadership is about defining end goals, core principles, encouraging experimentation, and most importantly managing workload (by cutting wasteful activities aggressively).

      On a minor point you are not bad at admin Sam you just think it is wasteful and pointless and minimise it so you can develop something else. You simply disagree with that feedback. (Sorry if I got this wrong but I think it is a safe bet).

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