Digging deeper in lesson observations

One of the best parts of my job is visiting lessons. Lesson observations are a funny thing because they are always trying to achieve two things: 

  1. They are trying to be developmental.
  2. They are trying to complete quality assurance processes.

In Middle Leadership Mastery I made a partial case for separating these two processes. While I still believe it is better for them to be distinguished if possible, that’s not what this blog is about. Heen and Stone identify clearly in Thanks for the feedback that all coaching contains an element of appraisal because to develop someone you have to identify areas of weakness. I’ve also seen enough schools to realise that culture is a huge part of how the development and QA process feel. This blog is not about those things. So far, off to a bad start. Right, let’s get back on track!

I get to see a lot of lessons in many different subjects. I try to visit lessons with the subject leader if possible. Paired learning walks are great because they give me a subject level view and familiarity with subject policies. They also hopefully provide the subject leader with an external perspective and guidance. 

I’ve been thinking about writing a blog on lesson observations recently and fortunately for me last week I went into a fictitious lesson which managed to exemplify a point I was thinking about making in this blog, I know, weird huh? 

There were loads of positives in this imaginary lesson but I won’t write them down because of word count and y’know lack of reality. 

These were the possible areas of improvement (leverage points) I noticed:

  • Cold call missed twice
  • Poor use of board game analogy
  • Show me routine did not have all boards down before count
  • Lack of checking for understanding (CFU) of the key components of explanation before independent work. 
  • Explanation itself was not always clear with some aspects of ‘guess what’s in the teachers head’ questions instead of teacher input.

So what to choose as the next best step? 

I think there is currently a huge emphasis on the visible habits of teaching. In general I love this. It’s super concrete and helpful. They are vital and they are highly ‘pointable’ as Ruth Ashbee says. There is a danger that their ease of noticing is also a problem. They are the lesson observation equivalent of seductive details. They risk drawing the observer’s attention away from other areas that may be harder to notice. 

In my school we embrace Teach Like a Champion like a long lost sibling. We wrap our arms around its pragmatic and powerful language and ruffle its hair of easily instructable habits. However we have a problem. In my school the number 1 TLAC technique praised is the use of cold call. I bet you can’t guess what the number 1 leverage point is?

Yep, also cold call. 

So all our tracking of our observations aimed at trying to identify common CPD needs ends up with a bit of a fuzzy mess. Are we good at cold call or not? 

Taking our example teacher, let’s call them Gates McFadden, they did miss cold calling a few times, should this be their leverage point? 

Here I could see two possibilities:

  • Yes because cold call is super powerful and every opportunity is crucial.
  • No because they asked 18 questions and everyone makes the odd mistake especially when a senior member of staff walks in. 

I’m going with the second. I think the reason our school has so many positive and negative cold call mentions is that it is highly frequent and easy to spot. I also try to remember that my presence in the room will instantly change the teacher’s thought process. This might disrupt their habits and lead to a bit more variance. 

It’s not therefore a particularly powerful leverage point for my observation. Anyone would notice that at any time. It might be a good idea for me to mention it in the feedback by saying something like “Cold call was used with high regularity, there were a few times you forgot but on the whole you established a high think ratio.”

The check for understanding is however a much more appropriate leverage point. It still has a high degree of pointability as it is based on observable habits. However it is more nuanced in its content. As a leverage point this would facilitate a strong feedback conversation. We could unpick barriers, why we check from a student and teacher perspective, the mechanism of checking and the participation ratio. It’s nice, meaty and quite powerful. This is probably the sweet spot for most non-specialist lesson observations. 

However in this case I’m not choosing it. This is because when I discussed the lesson with the fictional head of subject, Patrick Stewart, He told me that they use common resources. The CFU was delivered via a series of pre-made slides. Any feedback I give will lack the impact it needs to have on Gates. They will just let it wash off them as a problem with the resource and nothing to do with their teaching*. 

So for this situation it is better for me to deal with that issue by talking to Patrick later on. It’s either a department issue or at the minimum a resources QA issue. 

So my leverage point for this lesson will be about the explanation. Having students guess what is in the teacher’s head is a practice that many have been trained to use. You can see the idea of co-constructing ideas from students’ prior knowledge has an appeal. Unfortunately when students are being taught new things they are novices. At best it will be an inefficient use of time, at worst students will reinforce each other’s misconceptions and not grasp the salient points. Checking or activating prior knowledge is great and must be done before the new content is explained but the new information should be explained clearly and concisely, possibly following the directions of travel

So that will be my leverage point. It’s worth pointing out that in this case it should be my leverage point no matter what. After all, these other aspects are second place the quality of explanation the students receive. That is our foundation. Get that right and everything else falls into line. One of the reasons why schools with high ability students can accelerate progress more easily is that the students can bridge the explanation gap. A greater range of explanations are suitable for them to understand in the time available. There are more potential paths to understanding and so teacher variance is not as much of an issue. This is not the only factor but a small contribution.

Anyway, Gates and I had a feedback conversation about what makes a good explanation, why explicitly explaining new things is so important and when the co-constructing is valuable (e.g. for prior knowledge and revision). Their concern was for student engagement so they were asking questions to keep the students attention. We discussed how and when to break up an explanation with a burst of CFU to help keep students attention using the lesson as an example and then replanned a different explanation coming next week.

The key takeaways from this blog are:

  1. Just because something is easy to spot doesn’t mean it is the right thing to identify as a leverage point. 
  2. Leverage points should be prioritised by the impact they will have on the teachers development. For new teachers see Bambrick Santoyos Get Better Faster. 
  3. Some issues seen in lessons are systemic of the department policy and you won’t know what they are until you ask someone. So always discuss your thoughts before agreeing on a leverage point. 

*Yes all teachers should be responsible for adapting resources blah blah blah. Bottom line is they don’t. It’s why of all parts I’m not a huge fan of prescribing, the CFU is my number one. Central resources, guides to explanation obviously but staff should be trained how to plan backwards from the independent work to the CFU.

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