Image: AJC1, Flickr
Observing teaching and learning across EYFS, KS1 and KS2 has been an absolute privilege for me in my role as Head of Teaching and Learning. I’ve always found that visiting other people’s classrooms is a fantastic learning experience that aids me in reflecting on my own practice as much as it helps me support others in reflecting on theirs.
Recently, I organised a round of peer observations at my school. Every teacher was observed and every teacher observed a lesson alongside a member of the leadership and management team before the three colleagues sat down to discuss what had been observed. The observations were not graded and the aim of the discussion was very much to focus on identifying and analysing the learning that had taken place during the session.
I’d like to say that being observed is like marmite for teaching staff; they either love it or hate it. However, I think that I’d be hard pressed to find any teacher who actually ‘loves’ being observed. The pressure felt by some teachers when the observation cycle comes around is visible and I’ve seen a number of teachers struggle during lessons that they have often over prepared for and that are completely different to their usual, effective teaching practice. It is the negativity that surrounds the observation cycle and the perceived pressure that is placed upon staff that I am sure is part of the problem fuelling the recruitment crisis in schools. This is something we must strive to improve.
Observing teaching and learning is obviously important for school improvement. There is no argument in my mind for removing observations for, as John Hattie in Visible Learning highlights:
‘We know that the major source of controllable variance in our system relates to the teacher, and that even the best teacher has variability in the effect that he or she has on his or her students … teachers, schools, and systems need to be consistently aware, and have dependable evidence of the effects that all are having on their students – and from this evidence make the decisions about how they teach and what they teach.’
However, if we are to retain teachers and make the most of observations in terms of driving improvements in learning, we must seek to make changes to how our monitoring cycles work.
If we want teaching and learning to improve, we must build teachers’ motivation and take a positive approach to the statutory cycle of lesson observations. This, alongside talking about learning and analysing and modelling effective learning experiences will help build capacity for improvement. I think that encouraging more peer observations that focus on observing and discussing learning is one way of beginning the shift in observation culture that schools need.
In his recent webinar, ‘Leadership for Teacher Learning’, Dylan Wiliam (assessment guru) explored some of the key components of successful professional development in teaching. The webinar provided much to contemplate in terms of how leadership teams can shift their thinking around constructing development opportunities for teachers. One key message was that ‘teaching quality is not the same as teacher quality’ and that the quality of children’s experiences depends on many factors (curriculum, class size, resources, etc.). The crucial variable in determining the effect of the learning experiences of pupils, it was discussed, is the skill level of the individual teacher. Wiliam delved into the research and effect sizes of studies that have been carried out into teacher improvement and explored issues surrounding ‘elite’ development, a teacher’s personal commitment to improving and the importance of focusing teacher improvement around formative assessment practices.
Perhaps the key message I took away that directly links to the peer observations that I have organised was that ‘we can create huge achievements in school improvement if we can get teachers together in a structured way’. Details of the leading indicators of success within the realm of teacher development recognised that giving teachers time to meet as critical friends and scaffolding robust conversations were two elements resulting in increased quality in learning experiences. As Hattie, similarly poses, ‘We need to collaborate to build a team working together to solve the dilemmas in learning…to cooperate in planning and critiquing lessons, learning intentions and success criteria on a regular basis.’
The positive impact of this round of peer observations on teaching and learning at my school has been made clear in many different ways. Teachers who had the opportunity to observe during the first week of the cycle showed, in their own lessons, that what they had learnt about effective learning experiences had been put into place in their own practice. In addition, the quality of the dialogue that ensued post-observation showed rigour in its focus on the learning of pupils. Lastly, the impact on teacher’s attitudes to being observed have, informally, improved. Since the observations, many members of the teaching team have commented on how beneficial the opportunity to observe and discuss learning has been for their own development.
I’ve looked at many models of leadership as part of my own self directed professional development as a leader. What I strive to be is a ‘learning leader’ (Hattie, Visible Learning). In my leadership practice, I place high emphasis on student and adult learning. The questions, ‘how do we know that learning is effective?’ and ‘how can we use this to improve teaching and learning?’ are at the centre of my thinking. I want to encourage rich discussion and analysis of a learner’s learning rather than a teacher’s teaching and to focus on student outcomes as a result of actions in class. Organising a round of peer observations is, obviously, only part of my role. But it is one that has helped improve practice; started to improve pupils’ learning; and motivated teachers to engage in professional development. It is definitely something that we will continue to embed as part of the monitoring cycle at our school.