Knowledge Bank - Leadership

Lesson Observation

Lesson observation is a key element of any teacher’s CPD, and done well, it can have a transformational effect on the teaching process and on developing a consistency of values and approaches across the school. But it can be harmful to individual teachers and a school’s culture and is subject to ‘fashion’ swings in the styles of assessment used.

The many benefits of lesson observation include:

  • Developing reflective practices
  • Evaluating and considering pedagogical approaches
  • Evaluating inequities within student groups
  • Sharing experience and knowledge
  • Gaining new insights on students’ behaviour
  • Calibrating expectations of students and learning outcomes
  • Improving individual teaching practice
  • The lesson observation process can lead to benefits for everyone. Head teachers become stronger instructional leaders with frequent and purposeful visits to classrooms. Teachers enhance their practice when given constructive and appropriate feedback from an observer. Students benefit from these enhancements in teacher practice and from the improved educational experience.
  • Despite all the potential and known benefits, there is also evidence showing that there can be a negative side to observation of lessons and that the way it is handled can significantly impact the outcome. To many teachers ‘being observed’ is an ordeal they have toget through, and is often seen as judgemental and arbitrary. If it is linked too rigidly to performance management, it is seen as potentially career threatening.
  • It is important to consider thatclassroom observation judgements may not always (or even often) be reliable when quality of teaching is being assessed, particularly where observers are relying on ‘experience’ and have not been specially trained. It is difficult for an observer not to project their own preferences for particular styles of teaching onto a situation, even where other styles might be equally or more effective. It is also the case that while a skilled observer might be able to pick up clues as to teaching ability, lesson observations are still only an isolated snapshot that might not be representative of a teacher’s true ability.
  • The current feeling is that if lesson observation is approached from a hierarchical, top-down approach, where the observer is positioned as the expert who knows more than the teacher, or if it the outcome of the observation has significant consequences, it can have a detrimental effect on morale and encourage behaviours that may lead to a higher grade on the observation, but which undermine teaching and learning over the long term.
  • In order to have an effective lesson observation system, it is now argued that the observation should not be an endorsement for promotion and tenure, a judgment of the teacher’s teaching methods, styles and skills, or an assessment of the teacher’s knowledge of disciplinary content. It is more effective when it is developmental rather than being grounded in assessment and having job-related consequences.
  • Critics of this approach say it is pandering to the over-sensitive, over-protectionist ‘rights’ of professionals who are too used to being independent, and ‘untouchable’ in their classrooms. It also produces a situation where poor teaching practice, especially if it is widespread, is never really challenged and where every teacher automatically achieves thethreshold or receives undeserved responsibility awards.
  • Be that as it may, formal assessment of lesson observations has given way to a more mentoring approach, where lessons are not graded and instead are seen as advisory and supportive. Increasingly, they are conducted by peers or are replaced altogether with lesson-study style collaborative teaching reviews (See articles on lesson-study).
  • In practice, most schools will have some management observation of teaching practice and some peer observations. The trend in management-led observations is for much more frequent, less high-stakes observations that support ongoing mentoring, coaching and professional collaboration, with formal, judgemental observations becoming less common.
  • However, if you see it on a continuum, the closer a teacher is to competence enquiry and disciplinary action, the more the pendulum will have to swing towards formal assessment.
  • The articles in this knowledge bank consider the ways in which lesson observation can be approached and what practices are effective. They also include observation ideas for technology-based observation tools and guidance for providing effective feedback, as in the i-WIGT tool (What Is Good Teaching?), which is included with this library. The main purposeof these tools is to provide a clear set of standards for teaching that the school aspires to, and which teachers are reviewed against, no matter which approach is used.
  • It is clear that classroom observations are a key CPD tool, and that they can have significant impact on teacher effectiveness and job satisfaction. But the most important aspect of any teaching review is that it supports a sense of, and an actual process of, continuous teaching improvement. 
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