This year I am supporting some FE colleges with the transition from graded to ungraded developmental lesson observations and what a fascinating journey that is! I am watching these colleges develop a new mindset about how to watch classroom practice and talk about it afterwards, as they grapple with creating a genuinely engaging and developmental model of observation. In this process, the topic of language keeps emerging, as the vehicle for signalling and facilitating that change.
In ungraded developmental dialogues after lessons, observers talk about the increased use of questions that prompt reflection and put the onus on the observee to bring thoughts and ideas to the table. There is a move away from the general questions such as “How do you think the lesson went?”or “What do you think went well in that lesson?” and towards more incisive, evidence based questions drawing on incidents from the class, such as “Which learners do you feel contributed the most in the discussion task?” or “How did the presentation stage support the written task?” or “Who did you notice struggling in the writing activity?”
For the observer, it becomes less about preparing your feedback to share with the teacher in narrative style and more about preparing the evidence examples and related questions to start a reflective discussion. The aim is to prompt reflection and debate as opposed to simply sharing your opinion of the lesson in a lengthy narrative. You still act as a witness to the lesson but the professional dialogue moves far beyond your point of view, to focus on the learners’ experiences and the teacher’s too.
The harnessing of incidents, language and actions from the lesson means that during the observation comprehensive evidence notes need to be taken. Observers are mentioning to me that they may be noting down:
- Running order of timings of key events in the lesson
- Room layouts and group composition
- Diagrams to show where questions land or originate from
- Examples of teacher or student language
They are often doing this on a blank sheet in an attempt to allow for free, unfettered observation, and then they return to any criteria grids or boxes for the writing up phase after the lesson. The benefit here could well be that a wider range of observations are made, with less problem of the tail wagging the dog. Staring at criteria grids can surely colour your viewing of that lesson, however hard you try to see what is in front of you? You will be looking for as opposed to looking at, maybe?
As a result of this shift to a more dialogic style, the written reports after ungraded developmental lesson observations tend to include concrete examples of things that happened in that lesson, with comments on the impact on learners as well as prompt questions to encourage further thought and actions from the teacher. They read as a springboard for further action as opposed to a final assessment. They feel personal and in many colleges, observers are telling me that they are using “You ” or the teacher’s name instead of “The teacher” to reflect this personal approach.
In this developmental dialogue, the observers are often harnessing coaching skills related to attentive active listening and solution focused questioning, where these skills are available. I am seeing an increase in demand for this training in my own consultancy work, as colleges recognise that observers can really benefit from developing these communication skills, if they are to enable deep developmental dialogue with staff.
It is great to see teachers beginning to claim their rightful space in the process of ungraded observation. Their language has equal place along with the observer’s as they evaluate their lesson before the professional dialogue meeting and bring along observations, questions and ideas for enhancing their own practice. In the meeting, their observer can act as a thinking partner to unpack incidents from the lesson and explore options for future change. In meetings after ungraded observations the teacher’s voice figures more strongly than in the classic graded observation feedback meeting.
Some colleges are asking teachers to complete written reflections on their lesson before they meet their observer, which gives them a platform for voicing their views early in the professional dialogue. These might be written entirely freestyle or in response to criteria or prompt questions. Some example questions could be:
Which aspects of that lesson worked well for particular learners?
How would you enhance certain stages of the lesson, if you could do it again?
What is the most useful follow-up activity to that lesson?
How effectively did that lesson stretch or support specific learners?
In some settings, where reflective dialogue is not a familiar practice, the prompt questions or criteria may support teachers who are learning to self-evaluate in deeper ways. In some contexts and with some staff, these seem entirely surplus to requirements as the teachers already have these reflective skills, so a flexible and differentiated approach would seem sensible. For me, the main point is that the professional dialogue is richer and more thought provoking if the teacher comes in with their take on the lesson as opposed to arriving ready to be talked at and judged, while they remain passive.
Observers I work with have mentioned these language snippets from teachers during professional dialogues:
I realise that student A was not focusing on the task in the group work activity and this is often a problem with him. Maybe I could have…..
I think my questioning approach is a bit limited. What else could I do to use questions in different ways with the whole class?
I was really pleased with the practical as they all followed the instructions accurately for once! I think it helped that I …..
Attitudes to reflective developmental dialogue
From the small sample of colleges that I am working with, I can see a range of staff attitudes emerging to developmental dialogue and ungraded observations. Some teachers are wary, not quite trusting the transition to a more developmental model yet; some have tentatively embraced it and are learning to reflect with their observers, as both sides develop these skills; some resist this process, not wanting to engage and be challenged to develop; some have engaged immediately and comment on how welcome the change is; some have responded with surprise, relief and delight to find that the observation process can feel so constructive and involving. With all the baggage from graded, often high-stakes models, these reactions are no surprise.
For all the colleges embarking on this journey, viewing it as a change process and transition helps everyone see that this is about a shift in mindset, process and skills, and that this takes time, creativity, persistence and effort. In the FE sector, the next year could add a great deal to our understanding of this transition, as more colleges move into the ungraded world and share their experiences. Together we are building new ways to carry out and discuss lesson observations and the innovations of these pioneer colleges are energising and inspiring to see.