Over the last month or two, Mr. Simon and I have been conducting annual appraisals of teaching staff, which includes both lesson observation and work scrutiny. This, I must admit, is a tricky task and one which I have been questioning over the years in terms of both its effectiveness and reliability. Why? Well, even as a teacher, I always felt that a ‘one off’ lesson observation was not a great way of determining whether learning was actually occurring in my classes, and that it was unfair to judge my ability based upon this snapshot. However, despite this always being in the back of my mind, once I moved into Headship I still fell into the trap of replicating the process, as I was struggling to find an alternative, since for me, there still has to be a sense of accountability, as well as checks and balances. After all, isn’t that part of the job?
And here’s the first quandary – because if I’m looking for good teaching and learning, what do we mean by this? What am I actually looking for? And is it possible that an isolated lesson observation can truly witness and account for this?
Well, this has got me thinking very hard, and I’ve been doing a of research lately and turning to trusty sources of reflection such as blogs by Tom Sherrington, Robert Coe and John Tomsett, which I find invaluable. From reading and reflection, I feel it is important to first consider what the purpose of appraisal is, specifically from my standpoint as a Headteacher. And I have to admit, it has become more about accountability than professional development. It has become increasingly about checking boxes so that I can make judgements about the teacher and produce a paperwork trail for accreditation. Does this then play a formative role in development? Well, I’ve tried to make it so, but I’m having my doubts. Firstly, I’ll confess to finding the whole process of observation very difficult. As we are a new school, with limited numbers in leadership, this means that I have to commit to a lot of observation, which is for the vast majority of instances, outside of my subject specialism. This makes it very difficult to make an accurate judgement, which, according to Coe is very common. The following link is an interesting article from the BBC which outlines his criticism of high stakes, summative observation;
Indeed, my teachers would agree to much of this! Coe has also considered through his excellent blog (http://www.cem.org/blog/414/), that the stress that observations can cause can actually do more harm than good, and that factors such as observer effect, observer prejudice (in terms of preferred pedagogy), pedagogical fashion (read Brain Gym) and inherent weakness in some observer’s abilities can actually render judgements meaningless and often wildly inaccurate. Let’s take a look at some figures that he puts forward:
• if a lesson is judged outstanding, the probability that a second observer would give a different judgment is up to 78%
• if a lesson is judged inadequate, the probability that a second observer would give a different rating is 90%.
These figures are actually pretty stunning, but I must say that I’m not surprised. I’m reassured in that as part of policy we do not actually grade lesson observations here, but that we have always concentrated upon formative feedback, including areas of strength and opportunities for development. These figures simply, for me, highlight the inherent weakness and flaws evident in isolated lesson observations, at least in measuring whether successful learning has taken place. Upon reflection, perhaps this is an impossible ask anyway? That’s because any outward signs of learning – being busy, answering questions, engagement – are only temporary. Learning, it should be considered, can only take place if it is embedded over time and when students demonstrate increasing ability to recall knowledge or demonstrate skills. So this begs the question –what am I sitting in lessons for, filling out forms? Why are teachers planning all singing, all dancing lessons, when their regular practice might be vastly different anyway?
Well, although I agree with criticism of stand-alone lesson observations used as judgements of teacher effectiveness, I do not feel that they should be entirely abandoned. They are useful to me as a Principal if they act as indicators on whether teaching staff are using tools and techniques that encourage successful learning, and which we have discussed and agreed to as a team. This I feel is totally valid. Considering our nature as a new school with staff from a wide variety of pedagogical experience, it’s also absolutely essential that we set ourselves standards of working and teaching styles that we believe are vital to a good education (see AfL and dedicated improvement and reflection time, for example.) However, it is becoming apparent to me, that this formative approach falls more within the remit of CPD, and that it is imperative that we begin to pull apart the role of lesson observation as an accountability tool, and its role in collaborative reflection and improvement. I have therefore set myself the following tasks over the next few weeks to review and improve our systems;
• To firstly sit with staff and reflect upon an agreed set of standards that we feel reflect successful learning
• To separate these from teaching techniques which we feel aid the above. These techniques should inform the CPD programme and be part of lesson study and collaborative observation
• To investigate how we can distribute observation and make it more formative, seeking to share good practice and encourage staff to reflect and engage in research
• To enquire as to how teacher self evaluation can fit into our system of review and improvement
• To separate summative accountability from formative improvement, and for staff to offer ways in which they feel they can more successfully demonstrate learning in their classrooms – such as books, video observations, consistent walk throughs, student feedback and data
• To then reflect upon the role of lesson observation, which still has importance, but to adapt it and change its focus. Making it less stressful, but also less ‘prepared’ and more useful to leadership to understand learning over time.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll blog on how we get along.