Early season drop-ins

Apologies for the sporting analogy in the title, but I always see the start of the autumn term a bit like the start of a season (rugby for me). You’ve done the pre-season preparation and now you’re into the real thing. The first half of the first game you can barely breathe, and then slowly you build up your match fitness. This at least is what I tend to trot out to colleagues when we are discussing feeling tired after the first week back.

One element of the return for those of us leading teams of teachers is spending time in lessons seeing how things are going. On the face of it, that may seem fairly straightforward, but lesson observation in general is a topic with its fair share of complexity and controversy. Therefore, as our systems are starting up I thought it might be worth sharing our approach to visiting lessons with a particular focus on the start of a new year.

The starting point is to be clear on the purpose of dropping into a lesson. There are a number of reasons why we might want to spend time in a lesson at Durrington, some would be:

  • To get a general feel for how the school is that day or week. This may be checking against particular priorities or may simply be a general check.
  • To look for evidence of how effectively a particular intervention is being implemented. These are referred to as trace observations and involve just focusing on one particular teacher or student behaviour while in the lesson.
  • To observe a particular cohort of students within the school across multiple lessons.
  • As a tool for teacher development as part of instructional coaching.

This is not exhaustive as a list, but is perhaps a different list than it might have been several years ago. What you might notice is that judging teacher effectiveness is not at the top of the list. Much work has been done to demonstrate why observation alone is a flawed measure for this. One chunk of this work was done by Professor Rob Coe regarding the existance of proxies for learning, which are behaviours often heralded as positive outcomes from an observation but are in fact unreliable indicators of learning taking place. Rob’s list of these proxies is shown below:

Now, the context here is that these are not of themselves undesirable behaviours. Many are the result of something going extremely well. However, they are not evidence of learning. Students may be quiet and occupied and writing huge amounts, but if this is the result of them copying from a text book and giving what they are writing no thought then it is unlikely they are learning much. A similar example could be given for each of these proxies. Add to the mix the amount of bias we all carry with us and take into the lessons we observe and you start to see when big set-piece observations to judge teacher effectiveness are fraught with problems.

Therefore, all our observations at Durrington for whatever purpose, be that for an ECT, or for an experienced member of staff accessing instructional coaching, come in the form of short drop-ins lasting around 15 minutes or less. These can be used to meet all the different purposes listed above and have over time replaced the longer observations, sometimes referred to as “formal” observations.

So to the drop-ins currently taking place. Teachers at Durrington will be seeing several different members of staff in their lessons at the moment. They could see any member of the SLT or their curriculum leader as well as pastoral or duty staff. Obviously different staff will be there for different reasons, but I’m just focusing on those visits connected to teacher development and monitoring teaching and learning priorities.

When myself and my colleagues from the teaching and learning team drop in we first have our teaching and learning priorities in mind. At present that is a back to basics approach to our six principles, as set out in last week’s blog. If we notice an aspect that is either demonstrating this really well or where it could be developed further we will catch up with that member of staff to discuss. In the case of noticing something that could be improved it is important that the feedback is at the granular level. So, not “think about your questioning”, but “try to increase that pause time to a couple of seconds when you are cold calling”.

What is also important in this process is the focus in not on general teacher effectiveness. The pitfalls with this are described above and certainly a short drop-in is not going to allow for that sort of judgement. Rather this is about honing and refining our shared priorities and starting conversations to begin that process. As time goes on we will continue widening our instructional coaching programme that will achieve that goal through a more formal and sustained approach.

Also, each of us in the teaching and learning team has our own specialism which we have particular responsibility for implementing, mine is metacognition. I’m particularly interested this year in the modelling of thinking during teacher modelling and the addition of metacognitive questions to a string of questioning. Therefore, for some of my drop-ins I will focus solely on looking for that. As well as speaking to staff individually, in whole staff briefing I will share some generic points from my lessons visits of where I have seen this going well and ideas staff can try to bring it further into their habitual practice.

Furthermore, when we meet as a teaching and learning team we can share what we have been seeing and evaluate which of our messages are leading to changes in practice and which have yet to come through in the classroom. This then allows us to tailor our work, in particular with our curriculum leaders who are our key leaders when it comes to developing teacher practice.

For me the key point here is that observations have, probably quite fairly, been tarnished by the manner in which they have previously been used. They have created unnecessary anxiety and been used to make the sort of hard and fast judgements that they don’t have the capacity to support. However, we should not ignore the usefulness of getting in to see teachers teach and children learn. By shifting the nature and emphasis of visiting lessons they can be a vital part of teacher development and successful implementation.

Chris Runeckles

Assistant Headteacher (DMAT)

Assistant Director of Durrington Research School

Details of our 2021-22 training programmes can be found here.

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