In a year that has seen a lot of change at Richard Challoner in terms of learning and teaching, perhaps the most significant has been in the way in which we conduct and use visits to lessons (observations and learning walks). The shift in they way staff perceive lesson observations is, I think, transformative. One of my Assistant Head colleagues who has worked with me on the implementation of our model recently summed it up nicely:
“we are seeing staff shine their shoes rather than buying new ones for a special occasion.”
The days of one-off, showpiece performances have gone for us. Instead, we are seeing a more authentic picture of classroom practice, and seeing it more frequently than just once or twice a year. Yes, we know that during the scheduled lesson visits staff are probably still adding something a little extra (like shining their shoes), but it isn’t the way it used to be where the grading of a lesson – and the pressure of the accountability measures and threat to professional pride attached to this – meant staff would do something out of the ordinary (like buying new shoes) to impress and to tick boxes.
Lots has been written about removing grades from the point of view that we can’t rely on their accuracy or consistency (variation in assigning grades, bias of the observer etc – see this one from David Didau (LearningSpy) and this one from Professor Rob Coe). This is an important argument in scrapping the grading of observations as a mechanism for measuring performance. But removing grades should be about more than just acknowledging a lack of reliability: it presents an enormous opportunity to shift the very focus of the process towards something altogether more developmental.
What, when, how and why are observing?
Back in September, when we first announced that we were going gradeless and wanted our observation process to be about ‘improving’ rather than ‘proving’, we set about observing all staff for a full lesson observation. We (the whole of SLT were involved, in pairs) chose the lesson (based on logistics of timetables rather than anything else) and gave staff a few days notice that we would be visiting the lesson, at which point they were invited to outline how things were going with the group and whether they would like us to focus on any particular areas of practice they were working on. As much as anything else, this first round was about exposing people to a new of thinking and of doing. Ultimately, we want to be in a position where we can visit any lesson at any time and not have staff feeling uncomfortable, but that doesn’t happen overnight. What it did do was warm people up to the idea of being observed and then exploring areas for development in a way that doesn’t rely on rubrics or proformas that are underpinned by grades and Ofsted-speak. Feedback was, on the whole, very supportive: dissolving the anxiety about what number a teacher had achieved, and unshackling the discussion from tick-boxes and standards gave a new depth and richness to the conversations taking place post-observation.
At the end of the first team, we then set out about embedding a more refined model: one that was more strategic, that engaged our Subject Leaders in the process of individual and team evaluation (including triangulating what we see in classrooms with other data sources), and which continued the journey away from visiting one-off lessons and focussing instead on building an accurate picture for each member for staff, so that we might better support their individual development. This is how I shared it with staff at a twilight in January:
I know what you’re thinking: “that looks very time-consuming!” And it is. Very. Especially when you factor in an additional meeting (which isn’t to be rushed) between step 3 and step 4, where the observation team (myself, one of our Deputy Heads and another Assistant Head) sit and discuss what we’ve seen for each member of the department – in detail – to draw together everything we’ve each seen across the observation period (and then there is the time spent preparing for each individual review… more on that later). But it is sooooooo worth it. So very, very worth it.
We, the L&T Team (and, by extension, SLT) have a clearer picture of every teacher’s ‘default’ teaching than at any point in the past, which means we are in a great position to identify individual and collective areas of expertise to harness, and areas of development to work on. We are also switching our Subject Leaders on to the same things in their own teams, and working to support them with drawing on a range of data (from observations, from books, from data sheets etc) to evaluate their teams and plan for growth.
These benefits are borne out of the way we are using a fairly intense series of learning walks rather than single lesson observations. Across the period of a week or two, each member of staff will be seen for a scheduled 20-25 minute slot with a particular group of their choice, at a time of their choice, with a focus of their choice (arrived at in consultation with their Subject Leader, giving opportunity for SL’s to set the agenda, but for staff to retain some sense of ownership over some aspects of the process). It has been pleasing, to say the least, that staff are using this scheduled visit for genuinely development purposes rather than as an opportunity to invite us to see them reverting to showpiece teaching with their favourite group. Alongside this scheduled slot, each member of staff will expect to be seen at least another 3 times (probably more like 5-6 times) for 15-25 minutes during the week or two. When putting the timetable for this together, I endeavour to make sure we are seeing each teacher with a range of teaching groups across the key stages and at different stages of the lesson.
All staff are also engaged in going out on learning walks with a member of the L&T Team – a great opportunity for all staff to see what is happening elsewhere and to do some ‘magpieing’, and also an opportunity for us to support our middle leaders and aspiring middle leaders to develop their noticing skills and to think about the sort of reflective coaching questions that they might now follow-up with colleagues – this will be invaluable in terms of the way we hope our Learning Communities will develop an approach to coaching and peer observations over the next year.
After the L&T team have met to compare notes on what we’ve seen, each member of the subject team is then engaged in a reflective conversation, which is rooted in a more comprehensive analysis than ever before.
Don’t just focus on one pixel on the screen
Key to the success is the work that goes into preparing for the ‘reflective discussions’ that take place with each individual in the department. There is a whole other post that has been in draft for a while now about the ‘theory’ behind the coaching methodology we are using to drive these discussions and what it looks like in practice, but at the heart of the approach is a desire to change the relationship between observer and observed from one of ‘administrative supervision’ towards one that promotes professional self-regulation within a culture of collegiality and dialogue.
Visiting a teacher while working with a range of different groups, students, ages etc, allows us to build a mosaic and then focus our discussion on these key themes, rather than just talking through the snapshot of a single lesson which may not reflect the bigger picture: we aren’t just focussing on one pixel on the screen.
In this way (and perhaps counter-intuitively) conducting learning walks across a number of lessons before having a conversation with a colleague (rather than watching a single lesson and then discussing that lesson) enables us to actually be more specific in our discussions in terms of identifying important themes in a teacher’s practice. This approach lends itself to rich opportunities for reflection that takes us away from what Stephen Covey describes as a ‘dependent’ and direct approach towards an ‘interdependent’ and collaborative reflection (except where a direct approach is necessary, either due to the career stage or level of expertise of the teacher). For example, rather than “student X gave an answer and you simply reformulated it for them – what could you have done differently?” might become, as part of a bigger picture approach that invites deeper reflection on our own assumptions, “when managing class discussion, how do you decide whether to reformulate a student’s answer or whether to put it back to them to develop?”
I can honestly say that the conversations I’ve had with a wide range of colleagues as a result of this approach constitute some of the most stimulating professional discussions I’ve ever had the privilege to be part of.
But these discussions do take careful planning. I typically formulate a few key questions based on the big picture for that teacher, and think carefully about how to sequence them, how to lead into them, how and when to invite reflection, what sort of language I want to use to reinforce the collaborative ambition of the approach. This preparation can often take as much time as the meeting itself (though it is getting quicker!), especially if you anticipate needing supplementary questions to lead the teacher to a particular end-goal rather than simply telling them what they should do to improve their practice (though this is still sometimes necessary).
The final stage, after each teacher has had an individual reflective conversation, is a final meeting between me, the Subject Leader, and their SLT Link. This is a final debrief to ensure we are all on the same page about what the subject team and the individuals in it need to consider moving forward. Progress towards these recommendations are then followed-up through our Link system, though this needs refining.
building capacity. Inviting other colleagues to become part of the observation team will allow us to keep on top of it, and help us out with follow-up work where we need to revisit teams/ individuals to support them with specific needs. That said, we won’t rush into this and compromise quality – it takes time and practice to crack conversations in this way. Related to this, we’ll also continue to do the moderation work within the team (and expand this) by way of quality assurance. I’m thinking some video recording of the odd meeting her and there for us to unpick as a team (and to build up a bank of resources for training staff into the coaching methodology)…