“Thou shalt not judge” – Lesson observation without judgements

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As I’m in the process of moving to a grade-less system I’ve been reflecting on one of the biggest issues I think it is important to deal with; no judging.

There is a difference between not giving a grade and not judging. I’m guessing that lots of schools will essentially carry on judging but just not put a number at the bottom of the page. I’m not convinced that this is the way forward.

The problem is that I, along with many other teachers have only ever experienced someone judging our lessons. There are huge issues with this. Many have blogged about the issues with an observer wanting to see a preferred teaching style. I’ve regularly heard people say ‘X likes group work so I will do group work’ when preparing for an observation. It’s natural to do so.

However I think we need a real shift in our focus of observations, particularly if schools take a coaching model. My belief is that we should ditch any form of judgement. This includes using the language of judgement.

If I say any of these, I am essentially giving MY view, my judgement:

“I liked the starter”

“It was good”

“It was an excellent task”

The problem with these is two-fold. They don’t have a specific definition as they are subjective; what I ‘like’ or think is ‘good’ is not what you think’. Secondly, they give the impression that what the teacher is doing is ‘right’ and conversely that there may be a ‘wrong’ way of doing things. Additionally if you happen to use the word ‘good’ there are still connotations with previous gradings.

But we’ve used this language for so long that it’s going to take a while to shake it off.

I believe the power in coaching observations is in the questions the observer asks the observed before and after the lesson. But these also need to be carefully considered. Look at these:

“Did you mean for that child to do that?”

“Did you realise they didn’t all finish?”

“How could you have done it differently?”

These are also laden with judgements. They are giving the observers view on an aspect of the lesson. Instead of these questions I would suggest:

“What were the students doing when..? Was this planned? Why?”

“Did all students complete what you expected them to? Why?”

“Do you think X was effective? Why? Would you change it if you taught it again? Why?”

So, for those moving to a coaching model, working on questioning and using as objective language as possible seems to be a key area for training and support.

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RIP Lesson observations. RIP feedback.

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I’ve been thinking about and discussing lesson observations this week. So I thought I’d share my thinking.

A summary of mine and others’ experience of lesson observation is the following:


* You’re told (or sometimes not) that someone is coming to observe you. It could be anyone. Trained or not. SLTS or otherwise.
* They stay anything from 20mins to the whole lesson.
* They have a set of criteria they need to find evidence of. Until recently the evidence was just watching the lesson.
* They ticked what they saw or what they think they saw. Some came with ideas in their head already as to what does/doesn’t fulfil a criteria
*They complete the observation proforma. At the bottom there’s usually space for a grade (or four) and strengths/areas for development.
* They arrange a time to ‘feedback’
* In this time they say what they think they saw and what they thought was good and what they thought they didn’t see became an area for development. In some cases they might ask the observed ‘How do you think it went?’ They pass the observed the piece of paper.
* The piece of paper was filed and not seen again unless put in a PM/threshold folder
* And if the teacher was unlucky, had the ‘wrong’ observer, a pedant watching, an inhumane leader or untrained eye watching them it may finally result in soul/career destroying consequences. As a minimum, tears and at its worst losing their job.


So what was the point of all of this? In many cases it was done to say it had been done. For some they could enter the numbers on a spreadsheet and in rare cases it might link to some sort of CPD that might help address the area for development.
The benefit of this model was it was relatively quick (lesson, writing, feedback) and it didn’t require much thought or engagement from either side. It was mostly seen as a judging process and the judge had power to make or break.

Now things are moving on from this model and I’ve had thoughts on how things could move from ‘Lesson observation’ to a ‘Review of progress’ coaching process that is very different.

It is important at the start to say ‘why’ are we doing this? What is the purpose of this process? If it is for PM or to tick boxes we’re on a loser.

My belief is that anything that is done in this process should benefit the teacher and in turn directly benefit the students or help to develop the reviewer in a particular way, that doesn’t include for the benefit of their spreadsheet.

So I propose that a range of aspects are looked at some of which I will discuss:

  • Teacher discussion
  • Student discussion
  • Questions posed
  • Book look
  • Data
  • Live classroom experience

The first and most important throughout the whole process is…

Talking with the teacher (with all other documents with you)

Not one thing should be judged or decided or added as an area for development or written without a discussion with the teacher. The ideal that this is well before the reviewer goes into the classroom. If not, there should be a reasonable amount of time for the discussion after the lesson.

I propose we ditch the phrase ‘feedback’. It has developed connotations of judgement, that the person observing is in some way in a higher position to make a comment or that it is being ‘given’ to the teacher. In a coaching model what is recorded is what has been discussed. Strengths and areas for development are decided by the teacher in the after lesson discussion NOT on a piece of paper handed to them by an observer. Let’s say ONE thing is enough to develop, unless it is a simply resolved area.

The data must be discussed. No judgement must be made by a reviewer about the data without a discussion. Data can be very informative but also very dangerous.

Questions posed

I propose that as part of the review the reviewer comes up with key questions for the teacher and students before, during and after the lesson itself. These may change with the lesson. Every proforma should have a large space for questions and these must be asked either in the lesson or in the after lesson discussion.

It’s the answers to the questions that are important. They are the things that can help create a full picture of what is happening.

Have you ever asked a teacher you’re watching…

  • How is it going with this group?
  • How do you know?
  • What have you already tried with them?
  • Why did you do X? Did it work?
  • How might you resolve X?
  • What is working well with them?
  • What are the challenges?
  • What happened in previous lessons?
  • How does this lesson’s learning sit in the overall scheme?
  • What will you do with them next lesson? Why?

Coaching and asking the right questions is far more powerful in terms of development than giving a target in a ‘praise sandwich’ and writing down a target for a teacher they don’t agree with.

Book look

Another dangerous process that without full explanation from the owner of the book and the teacher can really misidentify what is going on. Is it really possible to see ‘learning’ from a book? Can you see ‘real’ progress?

In no circumstances should a teacher have their books reviewed and recorded ‘results’ on paper without a discussion about them.

Why are we doing this?

Giving grades has always been dangerous. They is a tendency to think that 2 is good enough and people take a sigh of relief when they get a 2. There are huge issues using numbers. We’re moving from using them with students so let’s replicate this with our own development. Using a coaching & reviewing model means that the teacher themselves are ‘in control’ of the outcomes and even someone considered to be ‘Outstanding’ has an opportunity to reflect and think about what they’re doing and the impact it is having. The review should not be in isolation and the decided areas for development should form part of the teacher’s personal development focus. If this model was fully implemented I can see that it could work with the PM process. But that’s another blog.

The past few years and weeks have reminded me…

Observations can be emotional & tiring.

We generally try our best.

We generally want a positive experience & to be appreciated.

We are humans.

Lesson observation forms – suggestions

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Having observed a lesson this week and fed back to the teacher I’ve been thinking about the lesson observation forms that people use. If you’re still doing traditional lesson observations rather than lesson study, these might be useful.

I know some people prefer to go in with a plain piece of A4 or some use a pro forms but I have some suggestions of what to include with either if you don’t already.

Questions for the teacher
I found that due to the focus of the observation I had lots of questions that I wanted to ask the teacher. It wasn’t appropriate during the lesson so I wrote down some of the questions I had that would help me understand how and why things were planned etc

In the conversation following the lesson (I’m avoiding the word feedback) I asked the questions which lead to me finding out so much more than was obvious in the lesson. It also lead to more questions and more important info being shared.

Of course a discussion with the teacher before the lesson would be ideal as well…. So a section saying Pre-lesson discussion would be useful.

Questions for the students

If you have an observation focus it would be a good idea to note some questions you’d like to ask stduents BEFORE you go in. What can you ask them that will help to find out what you want to know?
You can then add further questions asked and responses during/after the observation.
This is a great way to really focus on what the observation focus is and get you thinking about it BEFORE a you walk in the class.

In-lesson and post-lesson proforma?
Finally, I’ve been thinking that the piece of paper that you use in the lesson should not be what is given to the teacher. The process of the observation should be the record on the paper which includes pre-lesson discussion, discussions In the lesson and also a record of what was discussed after the lesson. My perceptions and understanding was significantly enhanced by the discussion afterwards. The original paperwork was not representative of what was happening. I am going to rewrite it using the newly discussed info. This is significant because the ‘areas for development’ changed because of the discussion.

This does of course beg the question ‘Can a lesson be accurately judged by going in for 30mins and not discussing anything with that teacher?’ But I think we probably know the answer to that……

Will book scrutiny become the new lesson observation?

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I just read this in an Ofsted report..

 Although joint observations during the inspection indicated that senior leaders are accurate in their evaluations of teaching, school records show that the quality of teaching is judged to be good in a high proportion of lessons. This gives the school an unrealistic picture of the overall quality of teaching, because the detailed scrutiny of pupils’ work undertaken by inspectors with school leaders indicated that teaching requires improvement.

It concerns me. 

Are we just moving from using lesson observation to judge teaching to using book scrutiny instead?

Here it seems to be a real limiter. 

I’m concerned about people looking at student books without the teacher present to explain, guide and show how they use student books.

I have a particular way that I get students to work. I mark in a particular way. However if you were to just look in their folders no-one would be able to work this out without explanation from myself or indeed the student. 

In the way in which people started to plan to teach in a particular way for observations/Ofsted, will teachers be under pressure to make student books look a particular way so the outsider can see progress? Should we be deliberately enforcing a set style for student work and marking, for someone outside to recognise what’s going on?

I fear it’s the way things are going.