Is advice better than feedback when it comes to lesson observations?

I follow Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, on Twitter (@Doug_Lemov) and always enjoy his willingness to share ideas and engage in discussion and debate with educators.

Over the Christmas break, I noticed a link he had posted to his blog. It concerned lesson observations and posed the idea that, rather than simply wait for the post-lesson conversation to give feedback, it would be more productive to offer advice and collaboration prior to the lesson. A simple idea, yes? So why, once we pass our NQT year, do we tend to allow teachers to teach in splendid isolation and then wait till after the lesson to pass our judgement?

(Now I know that teachers do plan collaboratively and are always to be found sharing resources etc and long may that continue. However, I am specifically talking about lesson observations.)

I was struck by the simplicity of this idea: discuss the lesson prior to the observation. Advice beforehand rather than only getting feedback afterwards. I know how busy we all are though and could foresee some reluctance to making what was effectively a two-part process into three-parts. It felt worth the extra step though, so I took it to my line manager and department and suggested we trial it.

Straight away, their reaction was positive. One of my department team is in her second year of teaching. She said she would welcome the chance to discuss her lesson. She remarked on the loss of explicit lesson planning input, other than informally with colleagues, once you end your NQT year. She commented on how that can sometimes leave you feeling unnecessarily worried about your lesson observation and so would be very happy to be involved. More experienced colleagues were equally as willing to give it a go.

So we began the process. All lesson observations were preceded with a conversation about the lesson. I asked a combination of the following questions to stimulate discussion:

  • Where are the class currently up to in the unit of work?
  • What levels are they working at?
  • What will they have done in the previous lesson?
  • What will they do in the next lesson?
  • What do you want the pupils to learn in this lesson?
  • How will they (and I) know they have achieved this?
  • What are you doing to support pupils who may find this difficult and stretch those who need more challenge?

The benefit of this for the teacher being observed was that we were able to share ideas about lesson structure and activities. They got a chance to try some ideas out and, sometimes, the act of talking their lesson through led to them changing their minds about the structure of activities or how they were going to demonstrate learning/progress. It also helped to contextualise the lesson; with the discussion including previous and next lessons it becomes harder to give in to the temptation of a one-off ‘show’ lesson simply there for the purposes of wowing the observer.

I should point out that I too went through this process with my Head Teacher. Prior to him observing me, we sat down and had our pre-observation discussion. I found it incredibly useful. He is not an English specialist, but he is an experienced teacher, and so his input and questions were very valuable. They challenged me and helped me focus on the pupils’ learning.

During the observations themselves I, as observer, felt much more confident in my understanding of the lesson’s context. I felt more able to engage in conversations with pupils, look at the work they had been doing in their previous lessons as I knew the background to the lesson. I felt I could sit back and enjoy the lesson, rather than juggling the task of reading and digesting a lesson plan, making notes and trying to observe the classroom. As a result, I believe my observations on the learning of the pupils and the progress they were making were more astute and thorough.

And when I was being observed? Well, I was confident that my Head knew what we were doing and could understand the purpose of the lesson. This made me breathe slightly easier. If I needed to deviate from my lesson plan, I was happy that he understood the bigger picture and would be able to see how/why I was re-shaping activities. It was the most relaxed I have felt about being observed.

After the lessons had taken place it was obviously time for the traditional ‘feedback’ session. Again, this felt different. As the observer, it felt much more of a dialogue about the lesson and learning rather than my colleague simply waiting for a judgment to be given. (I should point out here that we currently still grade observations.) We were able to discuss how their planning had impacted on pupils’ learning and discuss what had worked in a more collaborative way. I didn’t feel like I was simply passing a judgment.

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there had been some reluctance elsewhere amongst the staff. Having launched this idea with the English department, it was then taken to our staff Teaching and Learning Forum. Speaking to some colleagues, they felt like it was a false situation as ‘Ofsted don’t discuss your lesson with you’ or one which would lead to ‘everyone getting a better grade than they might’ve without the help.’  To address this, I would argue that an annual observation linked to performance management targets is not the same as an Ofsted observation and neither should it be. As such, we should be supportive and not simply judgemental. Staff should be offered advice rather than simply have a ‘grade’ slapped on them. This three-part process makes that support and collaboration have more of a weight. It became a learning opportunity for teacher and observer, rather than just a judgement.

(I’m in favour of non-graded lesson observations by the way, but that’s for another post.)

It seems only fair that I give the final words to Katie Yezzi, the teacher whose guest post on Doug’s blog prompted all of this:

“in Success Academies, the teachers and leaders invest more time and brainpower in practicing lessons before they teach them than conducting post-mortems and giving feedback on lessons that already happened.

[Insert head smack here.]

This is such a simple, brilliant idea and makes so much sense.  Here are a few of my thoughts on this practice idea:

As a teacher, getting feedback on a lesson to ensure its success ahead of time is incredibly practical, actionable and supportive.  It means I go into my lessons more confident and prepared.  That sounds like a great way to feel at work each day.

As a coach, it seems like a powerful use of my skills and abilities to engage with teachers about lessons to come, to dig deeply into the content and the “why” of the lesson.  It also positions me more as a partner in the work, rolling up my sleeves to work out the lessons in advance.

Haven’t we all walked in to observe lessons only to find that something is being taught wrong? Then as a coach we have few options, and often have to jump in to ensure students don’t have to later unlearn and relearn the correct version.  That usually doesn’t make teacher or coach love their job. Catching the errors before they happen achieves our goals of teacher and student success.”

– See more at:

David Didau at #TLAB13

As an English teacher (and self-confessed Twitter-holic) then the choice of the first #TLAB13 workshop was a no-brainer: I was going to listen to David Didau’s Anatomy of an Outstanding Lesson session.

For those of you who don’t know David, he is an associate member of SLT and Director of English and Literacy at Clevedon School in North Somerset. He is also an associate of Independent Thinking Ltd and specialises in training on Literacy, AfL, Outstanding T&L and English.

He blogs and tweets under the name of @LearningSpy and I have always found his take on teaching to be both innovative and refreshingly real.

So, I left the theatre with my head buzzing from Alastair Smith’s keynote and entered the room to the sound of Cameo’s Word Up – classic theme tune for an English teacher, right? (Later in the workshop David spoke about playing music at the start of lessons and its potential to change mood/atmosphere etc.)

What a pleasure it was to meet David and to get an insight into how he goes about planning a lesson. He manages to combine authority with an endearing humility which belies his ‘twitterati’ status as the go-to-guy for English.

Alastair Smith had already talked about the problem of many lesson plans being simply “elaborate to-do lists” and David’s workshop continued this theme as he promised us he would demonstrate his “contempt for activities”.

Firstly, the visual metaphor of the iceberg to describe lesson planning was perfect. It really is the unseen ‘stuff’ that makes the observed lesson work. And, as someone currently mentoring NQTs and a PGCE student, it gives me a great discussion point for this week’s meetings.

David’s learning questions resonated with me. (I’m using the word resonate a lot in my #TLAB13 posts – but it was that kind of day. Lots of little lightbulb moments or earnest head nods and palpable relief that I’m not alone in problems, dilemmas etc)

Five Planning Questions

1. How will last lesson relate to this lesson?

2. Which students do I need to consider in this particular lesson? (Pen Portraits.)

3. What will students be doing the moment they arrive? (Bell work.)

4. What are they learning and what activities will they undertake to learn it?

5. How will they – and I – know if they are making progress?

Again, not only am I going to reflect on these questions in my own planning but they will become part of my dialogue with the department. I liked the idea of the Pen Portraits. Having certain pupils in each class who are the focus for that unit, skill, module, term etc seems like a good way to do it.

David is a teacher. He may have additional responsibility and a sideline in writing and training etc but the man teaches. So when he talks about how “time is precious” and offers ideas of how to work smarter, then this fellow teacher is listening. His assertion that “a set of books marked is a lesson planned” and “lessons can simply be working through the feedback” made me think. Could I (and by extension, the teachers in my department) be working smarter when it comes to marking and planning?

I liked David’s idea of the post-it note as instant feedback. I’m a fan of the post-it note as teaching aid. I use them all the time. I’m not sure I have used them in this way though – an instant take-away-and-implement idea. Genius! (The idea: step back during the lesson, observe pupils’ learning & use the post-its to offer suggestions, feedback, next steps etc)

The workshop continued. I was typing away furiously. Discussing ideas as they popped up with Kristian, my fellow back-row occupier. (It was probably at about this point when I stopped forgetting I’d already been up for hours and realising what a brilliant day this was turning out to be!)

A discussion about learning outcomes followed. David shared his use of the phrase “so that we can” which was a little slice of genius. This allows you to split the learning from the outcome but still make it meaningful and coherent. See the example he gave below:

Learning: To be able to analyse characterisation.

“so that we can…”

Outcome: Evaluate Steinbeck’s intentions

Or another: zoom in on details “so that we can” zoom out on the big picture

This was my second instant take away from the workshop. I’ll be framing my learning objectives/intentions/outcomes (whatever the phrase du jour is!) in this way from now on. It makes sense.

As a fellow English teacher, I always appreciate training delivered by subject specialists. I am confident that whatever subject the audience taught, they would have gained much from David’s clear breaking down of the elements of a lesson but, as an English specialist, the subject-specific element gave this the edge.

David on writing was very interesting. He writes with his pupils. Sometimes this may be typing straight on to the screen in full view, other times it may be on paper and then shared with them at the end of the task. It sharpens his own writing. It helps him re-frame tasks or questions. It also models good practice and, let’s be honest, good writing takes deliberate practice. (I do this. I think I miss a trick though; I don’t perhaps explicitly talk about the writing process enough. My third instant takeaway from this session.)

I’m going to pinch a Didau-ism and make it my own. Henceforth, I won’t talk about writing… it’ll be called drafting so pupils realise it is a process. I’m also going to channel David when I say: “If it isn’t proofread, it isn’t finished.” 

David went on to talk about how there is no magic formula for a perfect lesson. I agree. He did however point to one fact that separates the good from the great when it comes to lessons. What is it? The relationship between teacher and pupils. As the class teacher, you have an innate advantage or trump card you can play on the observer: your knowledge of the pupils in front of you. “Dare to know” challenged David and he’s right.

Thinking about the outstanding lessons I’ve observed and, dare I say it, the best lessons I have taught and they hinge on the teacher’s knowledge of the pupils in front of him/her. If you dare to know your pupils and teach a lesson tailored to meet their needs, designed to help them progress or to challenge them to exceed expectations, then how can it fail to impress those who may be observing?

What a workshop. What a guy.

Sycophantic? Unashamedly so. I had the privilege to meet someone whose writing I’ve long admired and, do you know what, he deserves the plaudits.

Books I recommend

I’m a terrible hoarder of books and, since becoming a teacher, have found a wealth of weighty educational tomes to add to my collection.

I thought I’d share a few that have made a real impact on me:

The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook by Jim Smith 

The Lazy Teacher's Handbook

I bought this at the end of last academic year and am excited to put some of the lazy philosophy into practice this year.

The Pefect Ofsted Lesson by Jackie Beere (Edited by Ian Gilbert)

The Perfect Ofsted Lesson

This is a great little book… and I say that in the nicest possible way! One of the best things about this is its size; it isn’t a weighty tome you have to be daunted by. It’s small but jam-packed with practical lesson planning tips. If you’ve an observation coming up or if you just need some basic but refreshing tips on how to make your lessons better then read this.

The Teacher’s Toolkit by Paul Ginnis

The Teacher's Toolkit

Now this is the kind of book you can dip in and out of. It has a range of activities which can be adapted to suit different phases or subjects. For every activity it gives you suitable room layout, equipment needed and ideas of how it could be adapted to different subjects. Love it!


More to follow…

“Have you read all these books then, Miss?”

“Have you read all these books then, Miss?” asked an enquiring Year 8 pupil, as she helped me take some texts back to our Aladdin’s Cave of a stock cupboard.

Regretfully – but probably not surprisingly – I had to say no. I’m lucky to work in a school with a long tradition of success in English Literature. That makes for a well-stocked text cupboard. As I looked round I was aware of the many gaps in my reading knowledge. Perhaps worryingly, this didn’t seem to surprise the Year 8 pupil, who nodded sagely at my answer.

“To be fair Miss, if you had read them all then you’d not really have much of a life, would you?”

Try as I might on the walk back to the classroom, I don’t think I convinced her that actually reading more would be a great thing to do. Shame I couldn’t instantly recall these wise words:

“When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.”

Maya Angelou

Whilst I couldn’t convince her to give one of the classics a go, before we left the room I persuaded her to take a copy of Neil Gamain’s Coraline.  All reading is good reading in my book!