Yesterday, I posted a blog arguing that “teaching and learning” is dead. It generated some really fascinating conversations online, and I wanted to pick up on something a couple of people raised: it may be the case that curriculum comes first, and that it dictates pedagogy. And it may be the case that in the past there have been some fairly questionable outcomes of non-specialists observing specialists. But:

  1. Are there not some things like retrieval practice which we know are generally good ideas which even a non-specialist would be able to identify?
  2. Is there really no value to observing a lesson outside of your subject?

I think these are completely legitimate challenges to my premise, so I wanted to try and express my thoughts here. I’m not going to be able to be exhaustive, but will try and cover what I think are the most important points. I’ve been lucky enough to work with colleagues who are not scientists and below are the things that I try to do and have picked up from others more experienced than I am.

Ground rules

First, I think it is important to establish ground rules, and I have three of these:

  1. Show some humility

Observing outside your specialism requires humility. Do not go into that classroom thinking that you are the expert and that your poor beleaguered colleague is just desperate for the pearls of wisdom you have to offer them. You don’t know the subject, you probably don’t know the class, you don’t know what they studied yesterday, last week or last year and you don’t know the departmental priorities. Obviously, it is a good idea to have that conversation first and try and get a better picture, but ultimately you will be at a position of knowledge inferiority against your colleague. So show some humility.

2. Lower those stakes

If you are still using one-off lesson observations to give teachers a grade and feed into their performance management, you should stop doing that. Observations should be there for the formative benefit of both observer and observed, and it is worth looking at ways to make sure everyone is perfectly comfortable with the observation.

If you are looking to challenge school leaders around this (and you should) then I have a section here with some materials you may find helpful.

3. Ask the questions

I’ll go into this more below, but when you feedback you need to make sure you get your facts straight first. You might see something you don’t like at first, but then actually it makes perfect sense based on this subject, this teacher and this class – so make sure to ask and have an open conversation.

The general and the disciplinary

There are some things we know work, and we know expert teachers do. Retrieval practice, explanations in short chunks and plentiful practice all spring to mind. How do these tie in with the approach that says curriculum and disciplinary knowledge come first?

I think the answer is that it might be the case that I could walk into a history lesson and see retrieval practice in action, but I wouldn’t really know if that retrieval practice was any good. I wouldn’t necessarily know if the questions and answers were correct or even relevant to the curriculum being studied or these students’ place within it. I wouldn’t be able to notice if there was some aspect of language that should have been picked up on or if the feedback given was correct. An expert teacher might also like to start making connections between different topics, but they would only start doing that at a certain point in their students’ learning journey. Would I be able to know when the correct point was? Probably not.

I normally try and chunk my explanations into small pieces, but there are some things which I do in a more extended fashion. When I teach the hydrogen fuel cell, my explanation often lasts around 40 minutes. There’s a good reason for that – a disciplinary reason for that, and most people who aren’t chemists – let alone science teachers at all – might not understand why that is. Similarly, when I am in my subject’s hinterland, I will often talk for a lot longer and use completely different techniques to when I am in my subject’s core. A non-specialist might not notice the difference, so as above it’s important that there’s a sensible conversation afterwards.

Practice is a really important one too. My fellow science teachers will be familiar with the fact that there are now thousands of resources and worksheets out there of highly variable quality. So it could well be that a non-specialist can observe and see that my students have lots of practice, but would they be able to judge the quality of the actual work I have set, let alone the quality of their responses? To my shame in the past I have given out many a terrible worksheet that at the time I thought was great. But they aren’t always tied to the material, don’t cause students to think about the right thing, don’t tie to previous material etc etc. A non-specialist simply can’t judge the quality of that. We could have a great conversation about it afterwards where I could explain my thinking, but without that the process is deeply flawed.

Sputnik Steve (English teacher) once watched a video of one of my lessons for me and said that after my explanation I hadn’t properly checked for understanding. He was dead right: and I should have done, and his was great feedback. But let’s say I had done and sampled a few student responses – would he have been able to tell how good those responses were? Would he have been able to say “actually Adam, the technical language they were using was all wrong and they were full of misconceptions”? I doubt it.

Is there really no value in observing a lesson outside your subject?

No, there is value. But you need to know your stuff, and you need to understand that you are in a position of knowledge deficit. Often, the conversation afterwards – when done properly – can be incredibly illuminating. Whilst I don’t think I benefited much from watching an entire lesson in Spanish, I know that I have benefited from watching many lessons outside of my subject and from being observed by non-specialists.

So there it is. I’m not in the business of seeking balance for the sake of it, and in this case I do think that the weight is clearly over to one side. So perhaps it isn’t a balance which is sought, but certainly a nuance.

Please keep up the conversation, I’ve benefited immensely from it and I hope others have too.