Still buzzing after a day of vibrant discussions with cross sector colleagues at the Optimus Education event in London. It is a rare thing for staff from Primary, Secondary, Further and Higher Education to join together with colleagues from training providers and share experiences, challenges and practices. I can see how enriching and beneficial this cross fertilization can be as there were so many points of contact, shared concerns but different approaches to bring to our discussions on rethinking lesson observations.
In group discussions and plenary slots, I heard from a range of colleagues who are clearly rethinking, reframing and reformulating lesson observations in their setting. Inspiring to hear of such creativity and ownership of this process. It was great to hear about a number of settings where:
- Teachers are centre stage in identifying some areas of focus for the ungraded observation and subsequent professional dialogue. In some places a pre-session meeting is happening, so that developmental dialogue begins even before the lesson is delivered. We discussed the opportunity here for real engagement by teachers in this process as the observation experience can differentiate for needs and interests in this way.
- Coaching approaches based on attentive listening, insightful questioning and judicious sharing of ideas/options are considered a natural part of the process of observation. Observers in some settings are receiving training in coaching and developmental dialogue skills, recognizing their need to facilitate reflection as opposed to dump feedback on the person they visited.
- Colleagues are very clear on the value of observation as a developmental tool and aware of all the complexities around watching a session while trying not to judge it.
In Dr Matt O’Leary’s session, the idea of observing without criteria or checklists came up in discussion. Some very interesting conversations ensued about whether it is possible to observe without judging – we all have assumptions about what effective T&L look like and these are culturally, historically and socially situated. We all have “the flavour of the month” thinking instilled by current Ofsted frameworks and trends in pedagogy. Colleagues were acknowledging the challenges of “seeing” what is happening in a lesson without triggering considerable subjective bias that will limit the reflective depth of the subsequent professional dialogue. We talked about the notion of trying to be aware of this fact and turning the volume down on assumptions in conscious ways through the use of coaching skills and avoiding checklists that keep us in blinkers. How much more would we notice and be able to discuss if we weren’t grappling with lists of criteria in that moment?
Yet the blank page affrighted some. It wouldn’t help us to report in coherent ways on key themes arising as strengths or areas for development; it wouldn’t provide the overview we need to plan CPD. These are real and valid concerns in our work to enhance the quality of T&L for learners. So several colleagues spoke of allowing for free, open, unconstrained observation without criteria checklists but then using filter key words to look for themes and trends at the point of summary reporting. This might involve some grappling with IT systems to wrestle with the data, or seeking out an Excel wizard in your setting. The benefit here is the summaries allow for profiling by curriculum team and identifying where strong practices sit so that sharing and collaboration can be fostered more effectively. This does not involve grading anyone.
It was an inspiring day as I saw how much thoughtful, principled grappling is going on as we grope our way towards truly developmental, ungraded models of observation. It was clear today that there are pioneer institutions in all sectors that are well on the way to forming practical processes for bringing these to life; they are no longer hypothetical models. Observation is not the fixed entity, the dysfunctional monolith it has been in some settings – it is being reinvented and reformed right now as people take ownership of it. It is deeply exciting to see how much rethinking is going on around lesson observations and long may it last. Cross sector events such as the Optimus Education one today will support people on that journey. If you would like to join this big conversation, I hope you will book in for the repeat of this event in November in Birmingham, using the link below: