Tipping point in the FE sector
It’s an exciting time in the FE sector, as many colleges start to re-evaluate their lesson observation processes and look at ways to improve them. We now have several sources of research to draw on in our thinking and it is encouraging to meet more and more people who have read the related UCU report and Dr Matt O’Leary’s important book entitled Classroom Observation: A guide to the effective observation of teaching and learning
Many people are thinking critically about observations and challenging processes that have been fixed for many years, with limited reflective evaluation or review. Momentum is really gathering for change and for ownership of this key college process.
I have worked in the FE sector for twenty-five years and been an observer in quality cycles, in teacher training programmes and in ungraded, purely developmental settings. I train observers and support colleges in reviewing their observation models and processes. It seems to me that we are now in the middle of a debate about what we want observation to do for us in the sector and how we can align that vision to operational processes. For many people I meet, this is about wanting observation to provide a space for reflective thinking about T&L and lead to experimentation, exploration and development for the teacher and their learners. It is about QI (quality improvement) and not just QA (quality assurance.) It is about expecting much more of your observation cycle than a sheet of questionable grades and a set of inactive action plans.
In this context, many colleges are embracing ungraded models for observation, with a strong focus on developmental feedback and follow up. Hooray! For me this is a welcome departure from the reductive and unsound practices around grading that I have seen dominate our sector for decades. However, as colleges move from graded to ungraded and developmental cycles, some new challenges emerge and I have seen these manifesting themselves as I deliver training/consultancy in different settings.
New challenges in an ungraded, developmental world of observation
- Mindset of the observation team
Graded models have dominated the sector for so long that in some settings, I hear people struggling to even think critically and reflectively about how observations could be different. This is entirely understandable as it can feel as if we have almost been brainwashed with the graded model… I meet observers who find it difficult to conceptualise observation without the numbers, who are worried that without the grade, the rigour has gone from the process. I hear some observers hanging onto the notion of their perceived right to judge and assess a colleague and struggling with the idea of a wider, more equal professional dialogue within observation feedback. In some quarters there is a slight anxiety when developmental observation is muted. I can see why – many graded models ask less of the observer, as the main role is to assess the lesson and form a judgment, with the challenges of fostering developmental growth being less prioritised. Some observation teams have told me they just don’t have the time to provide this kind of follow up. Some have also told me they feel they lack the coaching and developmental feedback skills needed to operate effectively within an ungraded model. In an ungraded, developmental model, the acid test is what happens after the observation and how the observer can help foster positive development. The rigour comes from close, insightful evidence-gathering during the lesson and clear, constructive written reports with thoughtful, well-pitched action planning and follow up. Rigour is much more than a simplistic number in this new world and a shift in mindset and behaviour is involved .
In a fruitful ungraded and developmental observation process, the mindset of the observer needs to align and I have seen this coming to life in some settings. The observer sees themselves as a witness to the lesson, an extra pair of eyes to gather evidence and contribute this to the reflective discussion of what occurred. The observer stands by what they saw but sees this as part of the wider discussion with the teacher of their practice, the group and curriculum in question. The aim is to provoke thought, to develop ideas, to explore notions of how we can enhance learning as professionals, and collaborate to identify useful actions. This mindset changes the tone, execution and expectations in the feedback conversation, or professional dialogue, as some colleges are re-labelling it.
So for me, the mindset of quality and observation teams is key when we move forward with enhancing observation cycles and I think it is useful to foster some critical reflection on this within colleges. Some helpful questions might be:
- What do we think the purpose of observation should be?
- What is the real role of observation in the college right now and does this differ from the professed aim on policy documents?
- What mindset, attitude and approach do we want to embody as observers?
- How can we engage with teaching staff to discuss this more widely?
- What do teachers think about the benefits and pitfalls of our current observation processes?
- How can we find out what teachers think about our approach/tone/mindset as observers within the observation process?
- Mindset of teaching staff
In some colleges I can see the mindset of observers moving rapidly and changing quite dramatically in really positive ways. I have seen colleges previously wedded to graded models seeing the benefits, feeling the winds of change and embracing ungraded, developmental processes this year. Training, discussion and exposure to evidence-based research is driving this change this all over the sector, I suspect. I know that for me, reading Dr O’Leary’s book Classroom Observation has crystallised my thinking on observations and encouraged me to critically evaluate observation models in ways that I hadn’t done before. It gave me a wider context for thinking about the topic, beyond personal anecdote.
So where does this leave the teachers who are at the heart of these processes?
In some settings I can see that communication and engagement with staff isn’t getting sufficient attention. There is a risk of the quality team changing policy and protocols without engaging staff in this change. How can teachers come into the process with a developmental, reflective mindset if they haven’t been included in these debates in college? Just introducing a new observation protocol without engaging staff in evolving it is yet another top-down approach. This doesn’t align well with the culture shift towards the development of the reflective practitioner, who owns their own development and works to enhance their practice, much mentioned in college strategy documents and leadership talks. I think staff surveys, focus groups, team discussions, online forums and CPD events can all be helpful in opening up that debate to staff so that our thinking moves on together, as a sector.
In many settings, this shift from graded to ungraded/ developmental is part of wider work on empowering staff at all levels of the college to take more ownership and be engaged in improvements within their own sphere. If that is the vision and the mindset a college is fostering, I think joining up that thinking and debating it openly is a big part of really moving T&L forward. These discussions and the resultant changes to mindset and process will alter the way people experience observation cycles in future and could open the door to a much deeper debate about learning and how to enhance it.