I am hugely privileged in my role this year as a Teaching for Mastery Lead having had the opportunity to join various Teacher Research Groups (TRGs). This, combined with the work we are doing in Year 7 (see this article), and mentoring trainees has meant I have spent nearly as much time joining other teachers’ classes as I have taught my own classes. Whilst that makes me feel slightly guilty, I hope that this will pay off next year and in years to come – I am learning so much in the process. It would be great if all teachers had a sabbatical year, 4 or 5 years into their teaching career where they teach a 50% or less timetable and spend time observing others in their own school and other schools nearby including cross-phase (i.e. primary-secondary). A pipe-dream maybe, but it could go some way to alleviating the retention problem at that crucial stage in a teacher’s career when it should be getting more manageable but often doesn’t. There were some encouraging signs of this in the recent Education Select Committee report on Recruitment and Retention of Teachers.
Sitting and watching (actually I rarely manage to sit still for long, the urge to get up and engage with students is too strong!) someone else’s lesson only gives half the picture, however. Going hand-in-hand with the lesson is the shared reflection on that lesson afterwards between teachers. And this is the point. It is not a lesson “observation” in the traditional, pre-2014 Ofsted sense. I am not there to evaluate the teacher in any way. I am a fellow professional who has another perspective on the learning happening in that room. Because I am not leading the lesson, I should be able to notice things, and I may notice different things than the teacher who is leading the lesson.
A lesson observation is traditionally is followed by “feedback” which is more often than not a one-way conversation between the observer and the observed. Usually it is a very polite affair which starts with a lot of “I liked…”, “I thought … was lovely” – the WWW. All nice to hear, but do you ever get that feeling that these are platitudes and really you are waiting for the EBI? The “I thought maybe you could…”, or “In the past, I’ve tried…” I’m not saying that this style of feedback is not useful, especially when the observer has many more years experience that the observed. But I would say that anyone with more than a few months’ experience in the classroom has something to offer and that the conversation should start off very differently.
Earlier this year I was invited by Danny Brown to join a lesson of his. It was last thing on a Friday and after the lesson I also joined his staff meeting. The lesson was fascinating, but it was the staff meeting that has really stuck in my mind since. It wasn’t a department meeting as such, but a voluntary gathering to reflect on a lesson that had been given by one of the department and observed by others. The focus was on something that was “noticed”. It was not an attempt to analyse everything that happened in the lesson, but a focussed discussion on something that was interesting for some reason and that we can all learn from. There was a high degree of respect and trust between these teachers and the discussion became deep, insightful and .
I have been practising this ever since in discussions following lessons, be they informal “feedback” with colleagues (I dislike this term because it implies a one-way flow of traffic) or more formalised TRGs as part of my Teaching for Mastery work. It takes some practise. Commenting on something without evaluating it can be tricky. You sometimes feel like you aren’t really making a point. But actually just clarifying what happened at a particular point can then open into useful conjectures as to why that happened. This is where different insights from different people in the room can become really powerful and is the essence of a fruitful TRG discussion.
We need to see a major culture shift in our schools. For too many years, lesson observations have been about scrutiny and accountability and not about close collaboration of a team of professionals seeking to improve their practice. This has led to a culture of fear in schools where many teachers still would rather not have someone “observe” them because it causes anxiety as they feel they are being judged. I would warmly welcome anyone into my classroom at any time and would always want to know what they noticed, but I recognise that is not a common attitude amongst teachers. We need to practice how we share these noticings with each other so that they are truly supportive, non-judgemental and lead to fruitful discussions. And we need to be open and receptive to these discussions and realise that they are about mathematics and learning.
The approach can be very time effective. We don’t need to sit through an entire lesson to notice something interesting, 10 minutes might be enough. One noticing might spark a couple of useful insights on a short post-lesson conversation. I might call this “noticings-lite”. It’s not a huge investment of time, the bigger challenge is the shift in culture.
If we are serious, though, we do need to organise this and having more than one adult seeing the same lesson can generate the range of perspectives. This is what the Teaching for Mastery programme is achieving this year and for once it is coming with funding to enable teachers to be out of class. In my experience watching each other and carefully analysing lessons is simply the most powerful form of CPD there is, far more beneficial than most whole-school INSET. I hope it continues to grow in a funded sustainable manner to increase the skill levels of all teachers.