The culture around lesson observations is, generally, not great. To put it mildly. For a long time, teachers were observed one to three times a year as part of a high stakes performance management cycle, where non-specialists dipped into a class they didn’t know who were working through a curriculum they weren’t familiar with to leaf through books they didn’t understand. Proxies for learning abounded, and the daftness spiralled. Sadly, much of this continues, and a lot of teachers seem to report that they rarely – if ever – get meaningful feedback on their classroom practice.

To be fair, observing lessons is really hard. I think a lot of the madness came from the fact that observers don’t really know what to look for, so opt to go for noticeable things like marking or busy-ness or the like.

In my last blog, I described a series of “things” I was looking for when observing a teacher reviewing a Do Now. This post won’t make a lot of sense if you haven’t read that one, so if that’s the case you can check it out here. In this post, I want to push things a little further and explain how I observe lessons, which fits into a five part model. Hopefully you will find it useful…

Part 1: know what you are looking for

To recap very briefly: when I’m observing a teacher going over a Do Now, one of the things I want to see is that

The teacher is moving one at a time through the responses rather than all answers displayed at once

This isn’t arbitrary, and part of the reason for it is:

Put them all the answers up at once, and students will immediately start working through them, marking their work and ignoring anything the teacher is saying.

As such, I have a thing I want to see (TIWTS) and a rationale for it. I have TIWTSs for most lessons phases and common teacher activities, not just reviewing a Do Now. For example:

Lesson phase: checking for understanding

TIWTS: when the teacher is using questioning to push the thinking of one student (or check the reliability of their answers), they use whole class Ratio techniques

Rationale: the more time you spend talking to one student, the more likely it becomes that other students won’t be listening

***

Lesson phase: independent practice

TIWTS: the teacher is circulating round the room and actively looking at students’ work

Rationale: not walking around at all allows students to get away without doing any work. Merely walking past students gives information about whether students have “pen to paper”, but they could be making lots of errors or Busy Tricking

***

A lot of schools, departments, leaders and teachers don’t have a firm view in their head of these kinds of TIWTSs (I know I didn’t until recently). If that’s ideological – i.e. you or your school think there aren’t things we should specifically look for and teachers do whatever works for them – that’s fine, but this blog is not for you. If you do have a firm view on your head of Things I Want To See, then read on.

Part 2: get into classrooms

I’ve done 1:1 work with a lot of heads of department and senior leaders over the last couple of years, and the majority of them very rarely go out to observe lessons, and when they do it’s part of the Big Performance Management thing. Personally, I think that the greatest gift you can give your team is feedback on their teaching, but you can’t really do that if you aren’t in lessons a lot of the time.* Quick tips:

  • Make it clear to everyone that this isn’t about performance management or formal cycles or the like. A good way to do this is by inviting another colleague into your class (can be your line manager), and then communicate the feedback they gave you to your team (e.g. Danny came to see me with 8Sc2 and noticed that when I was giving instructions I also broke halfway through to take a question about something unrelated…). This shows that you care about feedback too and you’re grateful for it.
  • Book it into your calendar: if you make it an event in your calendar, you’re more likely to do it, rather than push it off in favour of some marking or spreadsheet-fiddling or whatever.
  • Give feedback individually, always
  • Give feedback at a department level too; name individuals who did cool things but anonymise things we need to do better (E.g. Simone did a really fantastic prerequisite check with mini-whiteboards, which helped prepare the students to learn about photosynthesis. Simone can you share the questions you asked…[let Simone do her thing and then]…I did go into a few classes where this wasn’t happening so we need to make sure we sharpen up on that as a department…)

Part 3 – hypothesise

This is where things really get going. You’re in a lesson, the teacher is going over a Do Now, and they put all the answers up on the board at once, rather than one at a time. This is not a TIWTS, so you go “ok cool, I have something to give them in feedback now.” Right? Wrong! Don’t leave it there. If you leave it there, you have become a checkbox machine and you will turn your observations into a proxy-seeking waste of time. Instead, you must hypothesise. Loosely, it goes like this:

Ah, it looks like Tim has put all the answers on the board but is also elaborating on some of the questions. I’m worried this means the students will be marking and not listening to him…ok, so for question 3 he just said “make sure you’ve written ‘protons AND neutrons’ not just ‘protons OR neutrons…’ I hypothesise that students won’t have been listening to that.

This is good, because a hypothesis is something you can test**, which leads us on nicely to…

Part 4 – test your hypothesis

If you want to know if a student was listening to Tim…just go and ask them. Go to a student and very quietly say

Hey, sir just said something about question 3, can you tell me what he said?

Ask a few students at random to get a decent sample and then run with the answer. If they all got it right, then you need to go back to your TIWTSs and your rationales, as you could be wrong and you need to refine your mental model of what good teaching looks like. If, however, the students don’t know the answer, then your hypothesis seems pretty valid, and you will have some strong feedback to pass on.

Of course, you can’t guarantee that what you’re looking at is worth looking at, but it makes things a hell of a lot more reasonable. If a student isn’t listening to the teacher, odds are good that over time they won’t learn much. Be humble and aware of the constraints, but it’s a good start.

Earlier, we looked at two further lesson-phase examples (checking for understanding and circulating), so let’s finish them off:

Sam is asking really strong questions to Zoe about signs of a chemical reaction. He’s asked four in a row though, so I’m worried that other students will stop listening. I hypothesise that they won’t know what Zoe just said. I’m therefore going to go to three different students and ask them what Zoe just said…

***

Emma has set a really good piece of work for independent practice. She’s not sat behind her desk, and she’s wandering around but it doesn’t look like she’s actually looking at students’ work. I’m going to quickly walk down the length of the back row to see if any students are Busy Tricking or writing lots of incorrect answers. If they are, I’m going to take some quick photos of their work so it’s easier for Zoe to see what I’m talking about…

Another couple of examples, one subject specific and one general:

A teacher had been explaining the products of metal + acid reactions, and had done a number of examples that followed the format of:
metal + acid –> ____________________ + hydrogen

e.g. magnesium + hydrochloric acid —> _________________ + hydrogen

asking students to fill in the blanks. I was worried that these examples didn’t vary enough, so I grabbed a mini-whiteboard and asked a few students to fill in the blank:

____________ + ______________ –> sodium chloride + hydrogen

This example follows a different format to the ones they did as a class, so I hypothesise that students will stare at it blankly and say “we haven’t learnt that one yet.”

And then

sulfuric acid + iron –> _______________ + hydrogen

This example swaps around the reactants (thing at the start). I hypothesise that students will algorithmically follow the method the teacher showed them of taking the first thing (sulfuric acid) as the first word for the blank, and the second thing (iron) as the second word for the blank.

For the first one, as I predicted, students didn’t know where to start as it looked substantially different to the ones they had done together as a class. For the second one, as predicted, students said sulfuric ironide, which is wrong but follows the same logic as the examples they had seen (this is also a good example to illustrate the importance of subject expert observations).

***

A teacher was issuing instructions about getting out mini-whiteboards. They didn’t front load their means of participation, so I immediately hypothesised that students would start asking each other for boards, a couple would call out that they didn’t have pens, and following this there would be some chatter and the teacher would have to bring things back in to get quiet.

In fact, I got this one wrong, and the boards were handed out smoothly. I asked the teacher after about this and she said that she had been working really hard on the mini-whiteboard routine, and though she was glad that it worked out this time, she said of her own accord that she needs to stop taking that success for granted.

***

These examples are pretty straightforward, and follow the Hypothesis Model:

  1. Know what you’re looking for
  2. Get into lessons
  3. Hypothesise
  4. Test your hypothesis

When I first started like this, my hypotheses were right about 60% of the time. Now I tend to be right over 95% of the time, because when I got them wrong I adjusted my model of “what works when.” This constant seeing-checking-refining cycle has made me better at figuring stuff out in the classroom. It takes time and effort, and at the start it can look like sorcery:

I was recently at a school for all day training with the science department and various leaders. I went on a learning walk with the HoD, Lead Practitioner and a member of SLT. We went into a lesson where the teacher had just explained how to perform a complex calculation. We left the room and I said to the others: we are going to return in exactly 15 minutes. When we come back in, where exactly do you think students will be up to? They agreed that the students will have completed approximately three problems, and around 80% of the class would be getting them right [I pushed them to make sure they were as specific as possible]. I said to them that I hypothesised that when we came back in:

  • a handful of students would have completed more than one problem
  • the majority of the class would be on the first problem
  • despite the perfect behaviour we had observed, when we came back in there would be a lot of off-task conversations
  • 6 to 8 students would have their hands up and would be waiting for help
  • the teacher would be going round the room supporting individual students with the first problem

The looked at me like I was totally mad. We left, and came back in 15 minutes later. When we left again after a further 10 minutes, very few students had progressed beyond the first problem. A large number of students were sitting around chatting. Five had their hands up and were waiting for help, and the teacher was going round helping students with the first problem. I was asked how I knew that it would be like this, and I said:

  • During the explanation, the teacher had been mashing her way through a powerpoint, reading out the steps. There hadn’t been much “thinking aloud” of why each step happened, and when it did it wasn’t always in sync with what was appearing on the board
  • She had not provided students with a worked example that they could easily refer back to (printed or written down). Similar for a step by step or any other kind of support
  • There were no mini-whiteboards anywhere, which made me guess there wouldn’t be a proper whole-class check for understanding or opportunity to do an example together

Because of the above, I hypothesised that when released to practice, students wouldn’t be ready. With complex problems, students who don’t know what to do often won’t even try, leading to lots of kids sitting around waiting for help. The longer a student waits for help, the greater the chances that they will just start having a chat, which then begets more chat. You can add to that general noise because the few students who do know what to do will be asked by others to help, and noise begets noise.

My co-observers looked at me like a wizard, but there’s no magic here. I spent three years actively working and thinking about this, and have been blessed to work with colleagues who are decades ahead of me in their skills and have been gracious enough to share their findings.***

We recently had a visitor in the department and after our joint learning walk and talking her through the Hypothesis Methodology she said “it’s just like good teaching, really. You’re constantly trying to figure out how what you say and do will affect the students’ behaviour and learning” and she couldn’t be more right. Observing like this has also helped me to become a better teacher – it’s helped me see that one of the key ingredients to classroom success is to relentlessly focus on what is going on in the students’ heads, and how what I do increases or decreases the chances of them thinking and participating in my lessons.

So, in sum:

  1. Know what you’re looking for
  2. Get into lessons
  3. Hypothesise
  4. Test your hypothesis

One final postscript is that this method of observation is energetic and dynamic. You’re constantly switching your attention from teacher to student, and constantly going to them and talking to them about what they know and what they have understood. I flipping love it, and it sure beats the way I used to observe, which was glued to a seat in the back corner of the room filling out some proforma. I guess we can then therefore add a final step:

  1. Know what you’re looking for
  2. Get into lessons
  3. Hypothesise
  4. Test your hypothesis
  5. Have fun!

So get out there, observe some lessons, give your colleagues the precious gift of feedback and have some fun whilst you’re doing so.


*I checked my notes and I have observed 74 lessons this academic year for at least 10 minutes. That excludes all the lessons I’ve just popped through on my way to my office or whatever.

**Thank you, Karl Popper

***As ever, for TIWTS I am indebted to Doug Lemov, both for actual Things and for helping me realise that there were Things. For this general approach I am indebted to my boss Mr G, who is the most skilled and perceptive observer and giver-of-feedback I have ever had the privilege of working with.