What are the potential benefits of unseen observation?


Models and cycles are valuable tools to aid reflection and development and I use them regularly in my practice as a CPD trainer and coach in schools and colleges. The GROW model of coaching, the Supported Experiments cycle and the action learning set are just some examples of cycles/models that can structure and support reflection and maintain developmental momentum for teachers. So, it’s exciting to find another to explore and share with colleagues – the unseen observation cycle, conceptualized here by Professor Matt O’Leary in a slide from a recent online conversation that we had on this very topic. I have taught in the FE sector for twenty years and been a freelance trainer and coach there for the last decade and my impression is that unseen observation is in its infancy in some settings and is unknown to many. With the move to online teaching and learning, some FE colleagues have become interested in exploring this model in its virtual form.

For me, this cycle has immense potential as a tool for reflection and development and sits perfectly in our sector-wide conversation about fostering trust between professionals and enabling teachers to own their developmental process.

So what is particularly appealing about the stages of unseen observation?

The starting point ensures that the teacher owns the process of identifying where to start in this developmental journey. It is not about a manager or a quality team observer selecting what the teacher “should” develop. It is not a developmental action point imposed from outside, aligned to someone else’s agenda. It is not something that Ofsted require but the teacher may feel is not a priority for them and their learners. The area of focus comes from the teacher’s experience and notion of what is of interest to explore and/or develop in their own learning context. This may be unrelated to the hot topics of the moment in the inspection regime. It may not necessarily speak to their college’s top three strategic priorities for TLA. This may trigger concern in some quarters – it may feel like a somewhat maverick approach to development, where the locus of control has shifted from the centralized quality agenda and out into the hands of individual staff members. I would argue that we need plenty of spaces for this kind of individual ownership of development in order to engage teachers in authentic, valued reflection and personal change that speaks to their own specific context and experience. In many FE settings, the dominant model has been broad brush, centrally defined CPD with little space for the individual to breathe and grow, addressing their unique experience with learners.  This model creates a great opportunity for a personalized developmental experience, exploring one aspect of your practice or context in depth and detail over time. It is about empowering the teacher to be a truly reflective practitioner within this process and trusting them to do that with integrity.

A second aspect of the cycle that really appeals to me is the focus on thought, preparation and conversation before the learning session actually takes place. Stages 2 and 3 allow for a thoughtful and focused dialogue about planning, staging, behaviour management, resources, group dynamics and specific learners’ needs. This supports an exploration of assumptions and rationales, about how and why teachers make certain choices when preparing for a session. It is a chance to step back from a process – planning a session – that you may not have thought about in detail since your initial teacher training course. As you gain experience in teaching, it is easy to develop comfortable routines for preparing sessions, with little or no reflective attention on how you actually do that. In unseen observation, the process steps and the facilitation of your reflective partner will encourage you to consider your own thinking and preparation process in great depth. This may reveal many interesting insights and open up spaces for exploring new methods and techniques at both the planning and delivery levels of your practice. Most observation models that I have encountered in my career do not place this amount of emphasis on the thinking and preparation that led to the “observed” session; they might request sight of a lesson plan but that is not the same as inviting reflection on and discussion about the whole planning process, in both a cognitive and a practical sense.

The absent observer

The fact that the session is not observed or seen by anyone except the participants (teacher and learners) is an intriguing aspect of this model and the one that is polarizing opinion among my contacts in the FE sector. This model is built on professional trust and respect for the individual’s perception of their learning context. It is not about an outsider looking at that, forming an assessment about it and then giving feedback. This is a different space with a different purpose and process. In the model of unseen observation in the diagram here, we work with the teacher’s experience of the session and their recollections of learners’ responses; the teacher might gather feedback from learners as well but there is nobody else in the room/virtual space watching the session.

For some of my FE colleagues this absence of the observer is troubling – What might the teacher have failed to notice that an in session observer or video recording would have captured? What “blind spots” may the teacher have in terms of what actually went on in that session for learners? For me this model occupies a completely different space from the process of watching a session and acting as an extra pair of eyes to capture evidence of what happened in the room from your viewpoint. I think each process has value for different purposes and they impact differently on the teacher. The key point here is the potential effect the observer has on the session. Much has been written about the Hawthorne effect, which Prof Matt O’Leary highlights in “Classroom Observation”(p.61, 2014):

Reactivity, or what is also referred to as the Hawthorne effect, is a psychological term used to describe the extent to which the observed environment is influenced by the observer’s presence. In other words, to what extent is a teacher’s performance or behaviour in the classroom affected, consciously or not, by being observed?

In my lifetime as a teacher, coach, trainer and observer, I’ve seen and experienced a range of impacts from the observer being in the space – teachers feeling nervous and thrown off balance, under surveillance or uncomfortably in the spotlight, so that their language and decisions in the planning and execution of the session are not natural, not representative of their relaxed, normal selves with those learners. Some teachers also report that learners do not react naturally either when being watched. For some teachers this performance pressure can mean they make changes to their planned activities or techniques, in order to accommodate what may be expected or desired by the quality regime of the moment. For some it leads to a heightened sense of focus and even greater effort during the session. Whether the result is positive or negative for teacher and learners, the authenticity of the teacher’s behaviour must be in doubt.

In an unseen observation the only people watching are the teacher and the learners. This means that what is delivered can be more authentic to that teacher, closer to their normal classroom persona and therefore arguably a more useful starting point for reflection and development. The fact that the teacher is going through this process means they are putting more attention than usual on their planning, preparation and execution – it is a more forensic operation than everyday planning – but there is no intrusion or skewing of reactions from an extra presence in the space. For some of my colleagues in FE, this absence of the observer is a truly liberating factor and could have a huge impact on the teacher’s ability to operate naturally in a safe space for exploration and then reflection. The absence of an observer armed with checklist, assessment criteria and possibly a grading framework can encourage the teacher to take a risk, try something new, adapt on the spot if needs be, without fear of reprisals in the feedback meeting. The session belongs to both the teacher andthe learners, for the purpose of learning.

What about the idea of filming the session?

This has been discussed with a range of contacts and views differ. Some suggest that this is an immensely useful addition to the cycle, along with gathering learner feedback comments. If the teacher records the session, it can be reviewed with some mental and physical distance from the actual experience. This could allow for new insights or even changes in perception. If so desired, the recording could be shared with a trusted peer or coach, to allow for a second viewpoint on what took place and open up further avenues for discussion that may not have arisen from the teacher’s recollections alone. It appeals to some as it provides a degree of “objectivity” in reviewing the session.

On the other hand, knowing the sessions is being recorded may impact teacher behaviour and bring the Hawthorne effect into play again. There can also be concerns and issues with recording learners in live/online sessions, related to safeguarding, privacy etc.

I suspect this is something that should be discussed with each teacher as an individual so that their preferences and learning context can be considered. Some teachers embrace self-recording as a reflective opportunity; others are horrified by the notion and feel they will be so self-conscious as to distort natural behaviour and group dynamics.

The reflective space

One final aspect of the cycle that I feel has great value is the extensive reflective space offered by stages 5, 6 and 7. There is time here for the individual to mull over the session and note down or record thoughts; then the reflective partner or coach can support further exploration of thinking and practice through the professional dialogue.  The conversation can range over assumptions, beliefs about learners and learning, rationales for activities, decisions about sequencing or activity choices, evaluation of the resources used in the session and the way different learners responded, options for follow-up activity. It incorporates much wider thinking than a feedback conversation focused on what happened in the room and what you saw as the observer. It is more about how the practitioner thinks, plans and then interacts with learners over time. As the reflective partner you are not constrained by your own memories of the session; your role is to create deep and wide thinking through attentive listening and well-focused questions. You are a thinking partner, not a judge.

The teacher will finally identify their own next steps and actions, be those practical changes, areas to read up on or something else entirely.  This is so very different from the observer noting the actions they think you should take onto a feedback form, a practice which unfortunately is still occurring in some settings.

Challenges in the model

There are challenges here and for me, they are worth embracing. Trust is the cornerstone of this model. The teacher and reflective partner/coach will need to be able to talk in a trusting, open and honest way in order to create deep thinking and potential for growth. Not all pairings of coach/peer with teacher will create such a space – rapport, personality, prior relationship, expectations and context will all play a part in defining the dynamic and how far people will be able to gain benefit from this model. To get the most from this, teachers need to feel able to expose uncertainty, vulnerability, areas of concern and things they feel under confident with, if those are the areas that they want to explore. This requires trust and emotional safety to be felt in those conversations and that rapport may be more difficult to build and sustain in an online setting where we are all speaking through the medium of virtual boxes.

The reflective skills of the teacher and the coaching skills of the reflective partner will also affect the quality and depth of the conversations. In some settings, some training on reflective skills and peer coaching approaches would be a very helpful starting point before embarking on this model. In other settings, I have met Advanced Practitioners and TLA Coaches who would be skilled enough to support teachers through this model right now, as reflective thinking and coaching language is already in the vocabulary of their culture. If you are planning to embark on a pilot of this model, I would think about the cultural fit and current skills profile of the staff and plan accordingly.

This model translates well to the virtual realm and I will be very interested to hear about how colleagues are exploring it in their contexts as we look at blended programmes for next academic year; some are talking about a pilot project with a specific group of staff; some coaches are planning to employ it with coachees they already have a close and trusting rapport with; some colleges where ungraded observation is well-embedded are considering it as a new way to extend reflection and developmental dialogue around the unobserved session. On June 11th, Professor Matt O’Leary will join me in a Zoom conversation with colleagues who are sharing plans and practices around virtual unseen observation and it will be fascinating to hear what they have in mind. I think this model has great potential and could well become a powerful reflective tool for developmental use in a range of settings.

Related viewing/reading















This entry was posted in Advanced Practitioners, Coaching, Culture for Learning, FE, Peer observation, Peer sharing, reflection, Teaching and learning, Ungraded lesson observations, Unseen observations and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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