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Primary Education News
News Secret Teacher: schools have got lesson observations all wrong
With teachers playing the system and students clamming up in observations, surely schools can find a better way to assess teaching and progress?
I loathe observations. I hate other people sitting in my room, po-faced and unsmiling, scribbling on their stupid clipboards every time I breathe. I hate watching other people for performance management – the visible strain, the change in atmosphere, the slightly awkward relationship between the observed and observer. And as a means of weeding out the 'good' from the 'inadequate', I think that there are flaws in relying on observations.
It's difficult to behave and speak in an observation as you would at any other time. Knowing that a bad performance might result in a member of the senior leadership team placing you on capability measures is seriously intimidating. This is also true of the students. During an observed lesson my year 9s, who at any other time would have been enthusiastically calling out ideas, went silent. They saw the observer (who happened to be their head of year) and were instantly on their guard. I couldn't do anything to drag them out of their self-imposed mutism so the discussion and paired work were dead in the water.
From my perspective, it was crushing and hilarious all at the same time. Crushing because I pride myself on delivering good lessons – and this evidently was not going well; hilarious because my year 9s were so deliciously proud of themselves afterwards for 'behaving well'.
I also find it irritating that so much stock is placed on a single observation. I've had Ofsted inspectors in my lessons for 10 minutes at a time; hardly representative of how a whole lesson or series of lessons is planned. Having sat through many an inset day presentation on how to ensure an 'outstanding' grade in a lesson, I think I know the drill:
• Always do group work and never ever have the students writing for any length of time as this is boring and therefore 'inadequate'.
• If the teacher talks for more than five minutes at a time, this is boring and therefore 'inadequate'.
• You must demonstrate progress every 10 or so minutes through some sort of questioning or feedback. If an observer walks in, then you should stop the children from working and immediately ask them to tell you what they've learned.
I have issues with all of these. Group work is great, but it isn't always the most appropriate method of working for some classes. Eventually students have to work alone in the exams and in assessments, so sometimes it's useful to practise. And I don't plan stand alone lessons. Like many teachers, I plan a sequence of lessons with a range of activities. Not every lesson has to have paired work, group work, kinaesthetic work, student talk – this range should be over a period of time and tailored to the needs of the class.
Plus, teacher talk – properly utilised – can be fantastic. Some of my most memorable lessons as a child were entirely teacher-led. After all, if the children can complete all the tasks and learn just as much without me addressing them at all – why am I there?
Progress is important and I don't know a teacher anywhere who would argue otherwise. But some lessons are about building skills or practising something or revising something previously learned, and not about learning something new. I would argue that practising writing for an extended period is just as valuable as learning a new skill.
But that's boring so you mustn't do it during an observed lesson. Instead you must stop the students, regardless of how long they've been working on a task, and ask them what they've learned.
One of my colleagues proudly boasted how he'd just finished a Q&A session when a member of SLT dropped in on a 'learning walk'. So he stopped the students again to ask them exactly the same questions he'd just asked. He was told that this was 'excellent practice'. Why exactly is it good for the students to be stopped every five minutes just to prove something to someone who with a modicum of intelligence could find out what progress had been made through asking individual children? Why is this 'excellent practice' when that time could have been spent doing something more productive?
I know I have to be observed and I know that observations are important. But I long for the day when I will be trusted to do my job and people can just wander in when they want to instead of sitting there, po-faced and unsmiling, writing everything down when I so much as breathe.
This week's Secret Teacher works at a secondary school in the south of England.