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Observing Lessons

Observing lessons is fraught with difficulty.

At Stockport Grammar School, in common with most schools, we ask anyone being interviewed for a teaching job to teach a lesson. At first sight this is an obvious choice, allowing us to spot the best teacher. However, the candidate will be nervous, unfamiliar with the school, the classroom, the IT equipment, the expectations of the pupils and their names and personalities.

Under these circumstances, the chances of teaching really well are probably nil. One can size up whether a candidate is well organised – have they prepared a lesson according to the instructions given – are they creative in their choice of activities and can they relate well to the pupils? Hopefully, these proxies will indicate that the candidate, if employed, may indeed be able to teach to a very high standard. We usually ask the pupils discreetly for some feedback on the victim, reasoning that they are pretty experienced at assessing the merits of teachers. There is, however, a danger that the pupils focus on the quality of the jokes (or otherwise), the flamboyance of the teacher’s appearance and the enthusiasm they have managed to inject into the possibly tedious subject matter rather than thinking about how much they have actually learnt. Some of the most effective teachers I have met were not particularly extravagant in style but they were just very good at organising activities and building relationships with pupils to ensure that they all made great progress; this wasn’t always obvious from observing the lessons, it just dawned on me as I looked at the public examination results and talked to the pupils about their learning at the end of a profoundly productive term.

In any case, as soon as another teacher sits at the back of the lesson the dynamic of the classroom is altered, particularly if the Headmaster has entered the room. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle, familiar from Quantum Physics, comes into play with the act of observation disturbing the system under study. Some teachers play up to the observation, employing excessive cheerfulness and exaggerated gestures which unsettle the class; other teachers are overcome by nerves and lapse back into an uncharacteristic hesitancy, unable to exercise their usual fluency of explanation to the bafflement of the pupils.

On visiting newly built schools, I have noted with interest the increasing trend of the construction of glass backed classrooms, a concept I had only previously encountered when playing squash. This would seem to allow discreet observation and even videoing of a lesson in progress for further analysis and discussion to the benefit of all. Professional ethics would indicate that the teacher should be aware of the observation. The pupils may not be aware although any behavioural changes by the teacher will quickly lead them to turn round and gaze at the wall, rather like a suspected criminal, being interviewed by the police in a TV drama, who senses the presence of watchers behind the glass. I can see real benefits to these facilities for professional development. I can remember as a new teacher making audio recordings of my own lessons and being shocked when confronted with the reality that I was spending far too much of the lesson speaking: this was actually hampering the students’ learning. I now try to say as little as possible in the classroom, offering pithy explanations, contributing encouragement and asking challenging questions in a way that makes every word count.

At SGS all the teachers are observed at least once a year by another colleague and extra peer observations mean that the frequency is usually considerably higher. Over time, most teachers become used to the experience and value the chance for a second opinion on some aspect of the lesson. I rather enjoy observing lessons because I always see some new idea or detail which I can squirrel away in my memory and utilise in my own teaching. Trying to follow every aspect of an entire lesson is virtually impossible because of the difficulties of monitoring the actions of all of the pupils and the teacher at the same time. I usually just watch the pupils and try to see how well they are learning on the grounds that if the pupils are making progress then the teaching must be pretty good.

Interestingly, repeated studies of school inspections revealed that the gradings from the inspectors’ brief lesson observations were unreliable and led a few years ago to OFSTED and ISI (the equivalent body for independent schools) abandoning gradings for individual lessons (the best research evidence on grading lessons can be found here and shows that even highly-trained observers can only tell an above-average teacher from a below-average teacher about 60% of the time. Flipping a coin would give a 50% success rate.)

A more manageable activity is just to look at one aspect of the lesson such as the structure, the success or otherwise of the activities, the pupils’ engagement or the quality of the teacher’s questioning. This allows a much more focused, and probably more useful, conversation with the teacher after the observation. The purpose of observation should be to improve teaching rather than to try to measure its effectiveness. Assessments of effectiveness are better attempted through a wider consideration of the pupils’ learning and engagement, their progress, their results or their desire to continue the study of the subject.

Lesson observation is at the core of reflecting on one’s own teaching practice and at trying to get better at the fascinating, maddening and very human business of teaching.