In April 2014 we stopped grading lesson observations. This post looks at why we did it (and why every school should) and what we’ve noticed since.
Why we stopped grading lesson observations
- Judging a teacher on a 30 minute snapshot of their work is ridiculous. It ignores the other hundreds of hours they spend in the classroom (and out of it) that makes a huge contribution to the outcomes that their students achieve. Would you call Pele a poor footballer because of this miss, or acknowledge his greatness based on the 1281 goals he scored in 1363 games?
- If we are serious about being a ‘growth mindset’ school, how can it be right to label our teachers in this way? Instead, why don’t we focus on useful, formative feedback? By grading teachers, we are suggesting that only ‘requires improvement’ or inadequate’ teachers need to get better, which again is not helpful. All of us can and should be looking to get that little bit better all of the time. In fact, we all require improvement!
- It makes teachers teach in an unnatural manner. I was talking to a legendary teacher from DHS called John last week. John has now retired, but always achieved fantastic outcomes from his students. He was recollecting how he hated observations – because he felt that he had to change what he normally did, in order to fit the criteria. What a dreadful thing to do to teachers – what he did worked, so what a shame that he felt that he had to change what he did?
- It makes teachers teach safe lessons – in order to reach the criteria. This is not what we want. We want our teachers to try things and take risks in their classrooms.
- What does outstanding mean anyway? A good teacher teaches well and gets great outcomes for their students. How is this really different to outstanding? Outstanding became a bit of a strange cult, that didn’t really mean anything – other than somebody saying that you were in the club!
The next four slides are from David Didau – who has done great work in terms of campaigning for the removal of lesson observation grades.
- We’ve confused performance with learning and as a result have become convinced that we can observe learning in a lesson. We can’t – learning happens over a long period of time. So, we’ve become used to make bizarre comments about lessons e.g. “all students were learning well.” You would have to come back a few months later to really validate that statement.
- When observing, we have often been focused on the wrong things. A colleague from another school told me that he was told by a member of SLT – ‘A lesson can only be good if you use the interactive whiteboard’ How many great teachers have been made to change their great practice, because of advice like this? The things on the following list are not necessarily bad, but they don’t necessarily result in great learning.
- The (often incorrect) interpretation of the ‘Quality of Teaching framework’ by SLTs up and down the country has resulted in all sorts of myths about great teaching being perpetuated e.g. group work, independent learning, differentiated learning objectives etc. See an earlier post on mythbusting. This overly prescriptive approach to teaching has stifled teacher individuality and ignored most of what the research says about great teaching, which is unfortunate. If it works and the students are achieving well, then who cares how you’re doing it! Just do more of it.
- Lesson observation judgements are highly unreliable – we’re not very good at being consistent!
What have we noticed since removing lesson observation grades?
- As an observer you focus entirely on what is happening during the lesson. You spot all of the good things that the teacher/ students are doing, as they happen. You’re not just looking for things that match the criteria and so become blind to many of the small details, that make such a big difference.
- You focus on the lesson for the entirety of the lesson – you don’t stop noticing things for the last 5 minutes, because your attention turns to what grade you are going to give.
- It frees you up to observe what the students are saying/ doing. Because you are not shackled to a ‘what the teacher is doing ticklist’ you can really spend time watching and listening to the students.
- The feedback sessions are now far more of a developmental professional dialogue. There is a good discussion about what seemed to be working, what the teacher was trying to achieve and how the students were responding. Then, rather than simply pointing out what was missing from the ticklist, some reflective questions are discussed that might help to develop the teaching even more. Andy Tharby talks about his experience of non-graded lesson observations here. This is much better than the teacher just getting a grade, focusing too much on this and then not really paying too much attention to the feedback because either they are just relieved at being told they are good/outstanding or they are feeling completely flat, having been told they are requires improvement/inadequate.
- During our last EduBook session, Andy Tharby and I noticed that the language of OFSTED i.e. outstanding, good, requires improvement etc has completely disappeared from the school. Our teachers no longer talk about ‘what they need to do to be outstanding’, but instead they are talking about how students learn and how their teaching can support this. This has been a very significant and welcome shift in the culture of the school.
- One criticism that has been levelled on schools who have stopped grading lessons, is how can you judge the quality of teaching in your school? This is ridiculous. If we really need to assign numbers to teachers, based on a 30 minute observation, to know about the quality of their teaching, then we are doing something really wrong. We still know our teachers inside out – we know who the really great ones are, and who are the ones who need that extra support with a particular aspect of their work. Without the need for numbers. We know this by looking at their student outcomes, as well as by looking at and discussing their lessons, the feedback that they give to students and the work that their students produce during lessons and at home. We know our staff.
- It makes you thinks about a whole host of other things that you do. So, like many schools, we used to do marking walks. Leaders would sample student books from each teacher and then make a 1-4 judgement about the teacher on a range of criteria e.g. books marked regularly; feedback is formative; students respond to feedback etc. We have changed this now. Teachers in each department now bring along their books, the whole department has a look at them and then the team identifies strengths and areas for development – with no grading. It’s now far more of a developmental and collaborative process.
- It allows us to focus on what we think contributes to great teaching – in a tight but loose way i.e. these are the principles that we think make great teaching, but implement them in your own way.