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.”

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