Passion, professionalism and pioneer spirit: Reflections on the “Lesson Observations: new approaches, new possibilities” conference at University of Wolverhampton, June 17th 2015 #obsconf2015

Still reeling, in a good way, from Lesson Observations: new approaches, new possibilities conference last week. I attend and present at plenty of FE conferences and they rarely create this level of buzz beforehand or deliver such excitement on the day. This was clearly a topic that people felt strongly about and were hungry to discuss, but what marked this event out for me was the tone. In workshops, keynote speeches and in the coffee queue, people were engaged in lively, constructive discussions about how they have been developing their observation cycles and what else is possible to enhance them further. There was an energy, a forward-looking feel to the day that was refreshing, reinvigorating and exciting to experience.

Listening to the speakers and meeting colleagues from the wider sector, I realised that the tide has turned on lesson observations. Many schools and colleges are owning the process, grappling with it and making creative changes to it, with a positive vision for what it can become for them. Research by Dr Matt O’Leary and others has contributed to this informed evolution of lesson observations and with Ofsted abandoning the grading of individual lessons, momentum is increasing. At the conference I met many leaders who are now feeling more confident to make a transition to ungraded models and create the developmental observation process that they feel will contribute to enhanced learner outcomes through the learning culture of their staff.

So, where do the passion, professionalism and pioneer spirit of my title fit into this picture?

Passion
At the conference there were many animated exchanges showing how passionately people feel about lesson observations. Dr Matt O’Leary was on form and on fire in the keynote speech at the conference he had brought to life. He clearly welcomes the shifts in the sector around lesson observation practices, the opening up of debate, the critical thinking around what observations could be. A strong message was the importance of looking at ways to make the lesson observation process engaging, respectful of teachers as professionals and truly developmental. He warned that simply removing the grade will not in and of itself create a different observation dynamic. We need to look deeper at mind sets, assumptions, processes, skills and paperwork too. We need to re-invent and re-imagine lesson observations and collaborate in this process.

I presented a workshop on coaching approaches within an ungraded observation process and the plenary slots revealed many colleagues who are strong advocates for these skills and what they bring to conversations about T&L. People talked about the value of creating high quality space for professional dialogue and the ways coaching approaches deliver that, both before and after lesson observations. They talked about how respected and heard teachers can feel in a coaching conversation after a lesson in which no reductive grading figures.
In workshops by Jane Martin from Shrewsbury College and Sally Challis-Manning and Sheila Thorpe from Chichester College, coaching approaches emerged strongly again. There was plenty of passion from the presenters of both sessions and mention of the inspiration and motivation that teachers can draw from an ungraded cycle. As Sally said, ‘Without the grade, there is no limit!’
They talked about other benefits such as increased experimentation with new approaches and the stimulation of having thought-provoking conversations with a colleague about professional practices and assumptions. Using ungraded, developmental models where coaching skills are developed and applied, we can really engage teachers to develop their practice. Both colleges had received positive feedback from Ofsted who felt these practices had contributed to improvements in T&L at their colleges. Chichester College secured a grade one while piloting their ungraded observation process and they now plan to roll it out across their institution.
Thank you to Sally, Sheila and Jane for such generous sharing of the work in your colleges. I think there was much food for thought and many practical tips to take away from both of these enjoyable workshops.

Professionalism
During the conference, I realised that there was an emerging theme around professionalism. Many speakers alluded to ways of enhancing the skills and knowledge we bring to the lesson observation process, so that we can gain more from it:
1. Jane Martin at Shrewsbury College spoke eloquently about their peer review process. Teachers have been trained in coaching skills to enhance the conversations they have with colleagues about their classroom practice. They use the professional standards as a catalyst for reflection and debate, a ‘reference point rather than a checklist or criteria list,’ as Jane described it. The video clips showed teachers discussing classroom practice in detail and depth with the support of a colleague whose role was to ask thought- provoking questions as opposed to make suggestions. Inspiring, rich, professional dialogue!
I was impressed and heartened to see that this college had invested in coaching training for the coaching group but also for the wider staff, creating a common set of communication tools for this work. For deep reflection and focused action planning conversations, many specific skills and approaches are needed and training can accelerate the acquisition of those.

2. Sally and Sheila from Chichester College spoke of their work with an in-house professional observation team, who complete a licence to observe course involving five one-hour modules. These staff have also been trained in coaching skills and are involved in top-up training and moderation processes too. How refreshing to see a college investing time, energy and money in preparing staff for this significant college role, as too often I see it simply being attached to the managerial job description with little further thought! As the speakers mentioned, teachers need to feel respect for and see the skills involved in the observer role and those who take it on should be open to that development. If we want observation to be an insightful, respectful and engaging process, the team who lead it need to be appropriately skilled and professionally prepared.

Pioneer Spirit
Throughout the conference there were opportunities to hear about emerging practices around lesson observations from the pioneers in our sectors. For me, it is vital that we share these journeys and articulate what we are noticing, as we evolve new models. Davina Polding from Bolton College spoke about making the transition to an ungraded model of observation and shared tips about potential pitfalls for others to consider. She highlighted the need to plan the transition, to develop observers’ skills and to address the issue of mindset for all staff. It is not as simple as just taking off the number and hey presto, we have a developmental cycle that people engage in positively! At the college they have abandoned individual lesson grading but have a rich profile of strengths to share/enhance and areas for improvement or development, which can facilitate action planning and CPD programming. This is the kind of practice that is useful to share, in a sector demanding rigour and evidence of tracking. Janet Walker from Wakefield College highlighted a similar approach to evidence, used in their ungraded cycle.

Phil Wood’s absorbing keynote speech introduced us to the lesson study model, which has been in use in Japan for over one hundred years. I have heard of this being used in some schools and there is some pioneering work going on in FE as well. It is about collaborative planning and building understanding together. It is about trying to create high quality discussion and insights about learning. Phil described it as a ‘slow’ process, in which quality and depth of reflection is prioritised over quantity of activities – a few cycles a year may be more fruitful than a constant process.

Lesson study stages:
1. A self-selecting group of 2-4 teachers get together to identify a problem or issue that learners have. This is called “the learning challenge”
2. The group then plan a research lesson/ seminar that one teacher will teach while the others observe two “case students” each. In the collaborative planning stage, the teachers predict what learning will happen, what the expected behaviours and reactions might be from the students.
3. The teacher teaches the lesson while the others observe the learners. They are watching the learning process as opposed to the teaching performance!
4. The group of teachers evaluates the learning together afterwards
5. They re-mould the lesson and teach it to a parallel group and look for further insights into learning from this process

Phil described how this can help us focus on the process of teaching and open up the “pedagogical black box” of how this works at the level of planning and delivery. It resonates with current debates around the complexity of learning and questions about how much of it we can ever see. It encourages us to challenge ourselves to be thoughtful, deeply reflective and observant practitioners.

For me, this model offers a fascinating opportunity to work collaboratively and develop our reflective skills. I can see applications for the FE sector in these ways:
1. Work on initial teacher training programmes between mentors and mentees
2. Work on coaching programmes in colleges, with a coach and two coachees
3. Work within professional learning communities, be they configured in cross college groupings or within curriculum
4. Work on subject mentoring programmes for new/ new to role staff

Thanks to Phil for sharing this model and for all the contributions to the wider debate on Twitter.

For links to explore this model, see below:
http://leicls.weebly.com
http://scittls.weebly.com

Thanks to everyone involved in this significant event. I look forward to being involved in work to take observations forward in different settings over the coming year and to hearing about others’ journeys as well.

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