By Robin Macpherson, Head of Professional Learning
This year we’re making a big push on lesson observation as a way of improving professional practice. The bulk of observation in recent years has been done for the sake of ITT, PDR or inspection preparation so was heavily judgmental and, unsurprisingly, fairly artificial. The forms used emphasised box-ticking at a furious rate as if carpet-bombing a piece of A4 was the best way of evidencing good teaching. Whenever observation was taking place outside of the usual auspices it was within departments and in an ad hoc fashion. It seemed we were missing a huge opportunity to develop teaching in a structured fashion.
After doing some digging for info at the end of last term we put in place a framework which would allow us to observe regularly, positively, and with variety. Firstly, academic subjects were grouped into six areas:
- Modern Languages
By pairing the subjects in a rotation, it gives five days across the year for open door observation days. We work on a two-week cycle so varying the day is important; a Monday and Friday from Week A, the same from Week B, and a Wednesday. This prevents staff being caught out by a full lesson day (hence not getting out to observe) each time we do this. On the given day teachers are free to leave their department and head to the paired subject area to find lessons that can be observed. Equally they can see things in their own department if that proves more beneficial for a particular period. The simple rules are:
- If a lesson is fine to observe then open the door, or put a note to welcome visitors.
- If a class is doing an assessment or similar task which is not good for observation, then shut the door (or again put up a note).
- Maximum two people observing at any one time so lessons are not unduly disturbed.
- Stay for at least 20 minutes to get a good flavour of the lesson.
- No paperwork, unless ITT people need to collect evidence (this can be arranged beforehand).
- For the love of God, no ‘show lessons’. Regular every-day teaching is what we want to see, not the lesson plan that gets dusted off when inspectors come calling. Organic is good.
Following an observation staff are encouraged to catch up with those they saw to discuss the lesson. Conversations in departments are vital as sharing best practice and adopting new methods can be done in collaboration.
So after the first day, what were the results? Personally I saw seven MFL teachers (five French and two Spanish) and came away with a sense of the culture of language teaching which I wouldn’t have from just seeing one or two lessons. There is a striking commonality between the teachers despite a diverse range of approaches and individual styles. The use of the body to communicate non-verbally is so essential, and so creative; I’m thinking of ways in which this can be brought to History (without looking too ridiculous). The precision with which language is used (English, French and Spanish) is really impressive. Each word and sentence is weighed in a fashion which I need to build into my lessons. I often do this for source analysis, but it needs to be done all the time. The quality of displays around the room are excellent and provide constructive prompts as opposed to just a bit of wall filler. We have a lot of good decoration around History but some more focused displays and posters that target technique and writing skills would be useful. Finally, the challenges posed by varying levels of language and the shifting of sets (particularly in IB) makes MFL teaching a tough existence. We have a lot less of this in History so I came away feeling rather thankful that I enjoy a simplicity which I had never truly appreciated.
What also proved to be highly beneficial about the day was the chance to see tutees in action. This can go a long way to adding to our understanding of our tutees and shift our perspective of them. This feedback from a colleague (with a wealth of pastoral experience) merits quoting at length:
“I went to four half lessons today; one just to see a teacher and the other three to see my tutees in the classroom. Perhaps it’s because I have a vested interest in their academic performance, but I did find that the three with my tutees in were far more powerful for me… they allowed me to have an insight to my tutees’ approach to learning, understand the kinds of academic experiences they have, match their assessment grades with their demeanour in lessons. I think it has not only strengthened my relationship with those tutees, as they see that I’m taking a genuine interest in their education, but I feel better placed to discuss academic issues with them, as well as feedback to parents about how they’re doing.“
This adds a new depth to our tutoring and can bring so much value to one-to-one conversations. We’ve been advised to see tutees in lessons before, but who could seriously find the time to add lesson observation to all the other things we do with and for them? The open door day allows us to cover two bases at once and can only strengthen the quality of pupil learning – the main aim of doing this in the first place.
Other feedback from colleagues showed what a positive experience this was. Take these comments, for example:
The Harkness discussion was totally engaging – so interesting to listen to, and it was so useful to see the students leading the learning in such an adept way. I loved your encouragement of silence (“silence isn’t ignorance”) and contributing pertinent points, rather than contributing for contributing’s sake.
I very much liked the sheets that they were making notes on – it clearly showed the evolution of ideas and cyclic thought processes. The way that the students articulated their points was exceptionally eloquent – “I’ve noticed that…” and “What’s interesting is…”, alongside the questioning of each other’s’ thoughts and opinions.
The clear sense that the pupils knew exactly what they were heading towards. They are all involved in complex project/portfolio/CW work but they operate within this openness with focus and a clear sense of enjoyment and engagement, brought about by very clear understanding of various exam rules, AOs, outcomes. Once these are established (as was happening) the teacher is free to teach and the pupil to learn.
Mature collaborative work. Pupils are enjoying seeing each other’s pieces and commenting. Exemplar work (in DT, notably) is readily available, inspirational and instructive.
Using space. The use of two sets in two spaces to critique each other was very impressive, not least from a classroom management point of view (!)
What you can learn about your pastoral charges by looking at their work. Seeing their art sketchbook was as insightful as any conversation.
Take-away for me: what all three subjects and lessons gave me was a sense of how the pupils benefit from calm steerage in a calm environment. There was a real sense of (dare I say it) artistic therapy for some of the pupils. I wonder if more of my teaching / classroom set-up / choice of task could, once the curricular parameters are in place, be more … contemplative? Food for me to think about.
What also emerged from the day was that pupils became completely relaxed with teachers in the room. For most of our pupils it isn’t an out-of-the-ordinary experience, but for new pupils (mainly Third Form and Lower Sixth) it might well be. One of my new Lower Sixth asked why we did it, and it led to an interesting conversation. When pupils realise that we do this to inform our own practice they respect our commitment to professionalism and this filters back to parents. I love a good ripple effect.
Judgment-free, form-free, high-quality professional learning, a stone’s throw from your own classroom. Sometimes the best things are simple and free, as this is. Roll on November 16th for round 2…
Round 2 Staff Feedback – November 16th
Update: this is a sample of staff feedback after round 2. The subject pairings were:
- Maths and MFL
- Humanities and Arts
- English and Sciences
Getting up and running first period on Monday, when you’ve been covered the previous lesson, is no easy task! Bravo. The use of OneNote Classroom is clearly highly effective and gathering knowledge in one place, providing continuity between lessons (and teachers if covering) and supporting students in keeping them focused on what is being taught, why, and where to access info. Your use of it as a live document, and projected, is excellent and a big take-away tip me.
It felt like I was walking into a pharmacological work-place rather than school. Quietly self-regulating and focused. The fact that the aspirin samples are quantified off-site by a drugs company is total news to me and must dramatize for pupils the real-world applicability of the subject. Also salient, for me, is the fact that this kind of activity has to be ruthlessly prepared before, during (weekend drying out of aspirin!) and after.
So that’s why Litvinenko died … Peer marking is v.useful. I wonder how we can ensure that they are marking accurately all the time and the checks and balances in place for this? Any tips gratefully received.
It was really interesting experience seeing something so different, though I appreciated the ecological references to animals creeping and the idea of isolating prey. It is a lovely atmosphere reading in the round, with everybody taking turns and seeing reading as a skill. You were very attentive to their language and where they were less confident over terms. Emphasis on this precision of meaning is also probably true for Biology, such as where students will use alleles and genes interchangeably even though they have very different roles.
I was wondering if I should ever have students read through the textbook in class. I’ve had 3rd formers read a few passages from The Road to identify the role of photosynthesis, but wonder if there’s a value to doing the same with the actual textbook, so that we can talk through sections and clarify our understanding. Sometimes I say to read through a section without picking out specific points or checking understanding at regular intervals. I almost use it in the belief that they will have understood the whole context. Students also make their notes in the (text)book, which I feel is probably more valuable than large-scale copying out of notes which some of my students do.
I like the whiteboard mind-maps on the wall, which links texts. There were lots of aspects which set high expectations – the use of language such as promethean and gothic (which I don’t really understand!), the comparative discussions about which is most scary. You also get them to register themselves and tell them that they should be aware of the structure of the course; they have the outline plan so they know where the course is leading. It countered my belief that English teachers might just read for as long as it takes and then write lots of iterations of an essay.
I observed Third form maths and really enjoyed the experience. The students were working very independently on their tasks, and the level of challenge was high. The teacher was very calm and positive and I particularly liked how when a student gave an answer, he asked them to explain how they had got there without saying whether it was right or wrong, allowing them to piece together the steps. We had a brief conversation following the lesson, and it was refreshing to speak face-to-face about the experience too.
I think the Open Day observations are really useful, and it is very encouraging to be able to learn from colleagues.
I was so impressed by how well you had set up the feedback task. I loved the way you allowed them either to do peer review or personal review and comparing their review with yours was really effective. This is certainly something I’ll try in geography. There was a really warm and happy atmosphere in the room, which was lovely to see.
I was so impressed by how brilliantly engaged all of the pupils were in the task and how well they were working in groups. I think the pace and energy you brought to your lesson were excellent and I really liked the use of photos (whist leaving space on the whiteboard to write) worked extremely well.
I loved the collegiate atmosphere and it was lovely to see how passionate you were about both the language and the book that you were studying. This shone through and really affected the pupils’ motivation and engagement. I thought the use of the cartoon images were excellent for aiding the pupils’ understanding and ability to visualize the story. You also clearly had an excellent relationship with each of the pupils.
I was thoroughly inspired by the work you were doing with the girls, which was brilliantly creative and educational. I think that you displayed superb emotional intelligence in the way that you gave feedback to each of the pupils and you were really sensitive to what would motivate them most effectively and what was going to have the greatest impact on their dancing. The atmosphere was extremely supportive, which seemed to give the girls more freedom both to express themselves and to challenge themselves. You are also, clearly, a superb dancer, passionate about your subject and hugely knowledgeable – you were a joy to watch!
I observed an Art History lesson earlier: there was a wonderful conversational feel – focused on the topic but also drawing in all sorts of ideas and historical events, so that it really felt like an education beyond just dispassionately covering the necessary material.