If not now, when? Making the move from graded to ungraded developmental lesson observations in the FE sector

What an exciting, horizon-widening time it is in the FE sector, if we consider the debates around lesson observation models! There are plenty of principled, thoughtful and practical people thinking about what needs to change, to make our lesson observation models more engaging, respectful and truly developmental. On the research front, Matt O’Leary should be thanked for his enormous contribution to this debate, with his thorough, thought-provoking and stimulating book, entitled Classroom Observation. http://ipda.org.uk/test/matt-oleary-2014-classroom-observation-a-guide-to-effective-observation-of-teaching-and-learning-routledge-england/

There are also many research summaries and articles online by his hand plus a comprehensive UCU report.

In the world of blogging, I have found several bloggers well worth a read, raising as they do many practical points and making some helpful suggestions for moving this area forward:



So, it may be that your college is now considering the move from graded lesson observations to ungraded ones and in my opinion, all strength to your elbow, since there is much to be gained from this move. Recent Ofsted inspections have even praised colleges brave enough to make this move, when they can see the benefits for staff development and resulting performance improvement. I have been in several colleges this week, discussing this very topic and some interesting questions have emerged for me:

How far is it from ungraded to developmental?

Taking the grades away does not necessarily make the process more developmental. If the approach of the observer, the process steps of observation and feedback plus the resulting development work remain similar to how they were before, it is just ungraded, as opposed to developmental. For me, a developmental observation without grading has a very different ethos, purpose, style and feel. In one of these, if I am observing, my role is partly to act as a witness and extra pair of eyes to gather evidence FOR the teacher and not ON them. It may be that the teacher is interested in developing their own use of ILT in class, or in stretching a group of learners more effectively. We will discuss this before the lesson so I can watch the lesson in a wider context and engage with that teacher’s thinking on key areas within the subsequent professional dialogue. In that dialogue we discuss the areas of teacher interest and also other things I noticed; it can be a conversation involving challenging questions, professional debate about learning and coaching approaches on my part. It is not about me GIVING feedback; it is about us SHARING feedback with each other and REFLECTING on it deeply and broadly. To be clear- this is no soft option- in truly developmental feedback conversations you can and should challenge, raise questions and debate together. From my own experiences of these conversations, I have found them to be the most challenging, thought-provoking ones in my career, the sources of many significant learning moments and shifts in thinking and practice. They have also led to peer observation, joint planning, student interviews and resource swaps, all enriching my practice further and getting a broader look at learning in context. They have involved looking at lesson plans and schemes of learning, exploring resources and looking at students’ work. It is more than the cursory snap shot of most graded observations. It is therefore more time consuming and requires that organisational commitment and shift in ethos. Currently, many observation models in colleges operate quite differently from this and still place the observer in the position of assessor. There is some focus on areas for development in the feedback slot but fundamentally this process sits within the performance management framework of the college, where assessment and measuring are the key drivers. Consequently, many observed lessons (particularly “good or excellent” ones), do not receive the follow through and attention to action like those with a truly developmental ethos. So many observation models just don’t have the developmental impetus that they could have and now is a good time to really open that up and tackle it…..

Which skills are needed in a developmental observation process?

This is going to be a challenge in some settings and a joy to behold in others. Some colleges are already deeply engaged in an exploration of coaching approaches and developing reflective and innovative practitioners. They have staff with the special skills for engaging in developmental dialogue after an observation:

1. Coaching approaches which involve listening actively and asking questions that develop thinking and challenge it as appropriate

2. Solution focused thinking and action planning skills to help teachers realise a practical plan and follow it through

3. Persistence, patience and relationship building skills, to stay with that teacher during their next steps to explore, improve or develop their practice

4. An awareness of current pedagogy and a wide toolkit of classroom approaches, to be able to look at learning in context but also have something to bring to the action planning stage. Interesting to note some managers saying to me that they feel less than perfectly prepared for this role as they are not in the classroom so often and don’t often attend pedagogical training; their work is predominantly focused elsewhere

5. An ability to build trust, observe respectfully and work collaboratively with the teacher and not on them

One question for me going forward will be who is best placed to carry out observations? In many colleges it is assumed that curriculum managers should take that role. I feel a more thoughtful approach would be to say who is best equipped, who has the right skills and attitude to maximise teacher engagement and action? If we are aiming for a more developmental model, this will become a more important point for consideration than ever before. With this skill set and mindset, teachers can find the process engaging, motivating, stimulating and even transformative. Plenty has been written about the opposite effects arising from badly handled, judgemental observation practices. In my own experience in the sector for over 20 years, what mainly happens after a graded observation is very little or nothing at all. It is not often a catalyst for positive development, unless the teacher is particularly fortunate with the approach of their observer. So, if not now, when? It is the time to grab your observation model, aspire to something even better and really think about what a truly developmental process would involve and bring. If you feel you are already down the road with this work, I urge you to share experiences and findings as widely as possible so that others can benefit. Happy to help you with that process if you want to get in touch.


This entry was posted in Advanced Practitioners, Coaching, FE, Graded lesson observations, Lesson observations, Performance management, Solution Focused Approaches and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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