A Plague On Both Your Houses! (Or ‘Why I Don’t Like Observations and Lesson Plans’)

Over the last [insert large number here] years, the lesson observation and associated lesson plan have been the status symbol of the excellent teacher.  Schools living in dread of the next Ofsted inspection elevated them to their position at the top of the individual’s evidence pile.  For any observation, objectives were set out, detailing what ALL must learn, what MOST should learn and what SOME were lucky enough to learn, the minutiae of every activity and its purpose were described, every instance of cross-curricular/social/moral/cultural learning was noted and, in all probability, everything was colour-coded (ok, I made that last bit up, but it wouldn’t surprise me).

The thing is, this doesn’t really help anybody:

  • If shared with students, ALL/MOST/SOME objectives give anyone feeling lazy opportunity to opt out.  If not shared with students it still means you expect the best bits to only be accessed by a few.  What a shame.
  • Describing every activity is a box-tick: it takes you a silly amount of time and lets the observer read what they might otherwise, erm, observe.
  • Proving you know how your topics fits in with other, cross-curricular, aims is a box-tick: give me any activity in any lesson and if there is a tenuous link to something cross-curricular I can find it, so could you, so could just about anyone.  It’s not hard.

Turning the complexities of teaching into a box-ticking exercise and rewarding someone based on their ability to showcase, in an hour, whichever genericism is required by the powers that be is a decision to reduce something long-term and highly subject-dependent into a bit of a game.

The lesson plan is a strange beast, simultaneously essential and detrimental.  When learning to teach, the process of scripting a lesson and planning the content, delivery and context in the most meticulous detail is imperative.  However, to an experienced teacher, writing all that down is a colossal waste of precious time.  It may well be that it only has to be done twice a year, but when it can form such an instrumental part of how teachers are judged (and, nowadays, paid), that is two times too many.

Of course the tide is turning in many schools.  Graded lesson observations should be a thing of the past, we should now be focussing on constructive feedback, but I am still not convinced that the system works.  For a start, a non-mathematician cannot tell me how to improve my maths teaching.  They may have some ideas for those things that are common to all of us (like behaviour management) but that is a small part of what I do.  The only feedback that will make me a better teacher long-term is that of another maths teacher, discussing with me the clarity of my explanations, the perceived efficacy of my activities (I say perceived efficacy as learning is invisible), and the rigour or challenge that I presented my students with.  In short, the quality of my mathematics instruction can only be judged by a good mathematics teacher.  Moreover, the ultimate quality of my teaching is something that’s extremely hard to judge, but that can be evidenced pretty well with assessment results, not in a single lesson.

A lesson is an arbitrary unit of time that fits into another, slightly less arbitrary, block of time you might call a unit or module or topic.  Not every lesson will have students making “rapid progress”.  Sometimes I will teach something new, sometimes I need to spend time on something we’ve already done so I can help my students to remember it.  Sometimes our “something new” will take a lesson and a half, and in the remaining half we’ll revisit something we’ve already done, and that’s quite ok.  If I set homework to complete something we’ve started, because I know that’s the best use of our time, that’s quite ok.  A good department will have very clear schemes of work, where everyone knows what the units look like, what path to take through the content, and how and when the students will be assessed.  Within that robust framework, teachers can refine their teaching, support each other and work together to improve themselves to the benefit of all their students.  Step out of that framework and judge a teacher based on a single lesson plan and a single observation and you have reduced them to a performer.

So what is the alternative? Collaborative planning, coaching and open doors seems like a good start to me. Anyone can come into my classroom at any time and talk to me without judgment about what was happening. If they have ideas to make it better, great, but I would expect the same openness from them in return. Without high-stakes observations and with a convincing alternative, we could achieve genuine staff development that isn’t just another box-ticking exercise, that affords teachers the professional, respectful experience they deserve as adults in an important job.

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5 comments

  1. I totally agree with most of what you said- especially that judging a teacher on one lesson is ridiculous and that teachers can help eachother build skills. However, this statement : “For a start, a non-mathematician cannot tell me how to improve my maths teaching” – I definitely do not agree with. I think that there are good teaching practices and methods in all subject areas. I think there are practical strategies that are utilized by all good teachers in all subject areas from pre-k thru college and those qualities identify good teaching. Overall great post and some awesome insights -especially the collaboration- I loved that! What are your thoughts on videos of classrooms and of teaching? I know some schools are piloting this for new teacher training and for teacher evaluations. This way an evaluation isn’t determined by one day but over a compilation of many days…

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    • Thanks for reading it and taking the time to respond. I think I wasn’t totally clear – on generic methods a non-mathematician of course can help, my point was that they would never know if I explained something well or if my activities were well-designed, as only a specialist would understand this. In the same way I have watched lessons for other subjects in the past and I could make no substantial comment on the subject-specific elements which, ultimately, are the most important bits.

      I can see why videos may be helpful but I would always use the same caution – is it informing genuine teacher improvement or is it being used to judge a performance?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Going into my fifteenth year of teaching I know for a fact that I can still learn myself and improve and the dreaded lesson observation especially if squashed in late in the year is something I can never get my head round. I was employed to teach, watched in the classroom and had an interview (it’s not an interview it’s a chat – no it’s an interview!) and so to be checked up on once a year, gladly not more but still to much IMHO, is a stress maker and not much else. Just so is the watching of best practice clips. I want to practise and self develop in my classroom with my classes myself and ask if I become (un?)stuck. My latest observation just felt like I was going through the motions to reach a mediocre judgment that I’m not proud of but had a general good array of questioning that showed me, with or without the rapid progress, that my top set know what they know and well. Let me concentrate on informal classroom tasks that let them go through the new linear exams without being snooped up on in the best way possible: me teaching.
    Rant over?

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