Category Archives: lesson study

“I noticed” vs. “I liked”

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.


What does teacher collaboration look like in practice?


Over the last few weeks I have had the privilege of meeting a range of primary school maths leaders who are in the process of adapting their maths teaching to a mastery approach. This post is not so much about what mastery teaching and learning looks like but more about how teachers work with each other to improve their teaching.

This year I will be working with these schools to develop TRGs (Teacher Research Groups) under the auspices of the Maths Hub programme. The impetus initially came from looking at all things Shanghai. However, the context there is so very different (e.g. 20-25% contact time vs. 80-90% in UK and specialist Maths teachers in Primary) that it is hard to see that on the topic of teacher collaboration we can “lift” very much from this particular school system.  I have written before on my issues with a focus on the “South Asian method” and no doubt I will again, however I want to focus here on some good practice that I have observed so far in the UK.

I will use the label TRG, but you could call co-planning, teacher collaboration, lesson study, action research, INSET or CPD.  Ideally it should be all of those things.  With increasing pressures on budgets and many teachers feeling highly time-constrained, there is an imperative that any time out of the classroom is time well spent.  My measure of any good INSET/CPD is that it is directly relevant to me, and that at some point over the next week, it will either improve my teaching or save me time, or both. Ideally I would like to spend some time during each INSET session planning a lesson such that I have one thing less to do when I leave.

Last year, I was involved in a TRG for teaching our Year 7 maths classes and this year I have already seen a wide range of approaches to TRGs in Primary.  Here are some of my early thoughts, which I will add to as I see more during the year.

Observe it in practise

At one end, a TRG can literally just be a traditional-style INSET where teachers gather and listen to the presentation from the “expert” and then have some form of discussion. However, this misses the opportunity to see some teaching taking place and see how different teachers do it.  The key to any peer-observation of teaching is that nobody is there to judge how good a teacher you are, nobody should be passing such judgements and nobody should be feeling that that is what will happen.  The legacy of Ofsted grading of lessons and teachers being evaluated in this way still means that many teachers feel that being observed by others will result in a grade.  We need to move on from this, to work together as professionals to support each other in our development as teachers.  What can work well is that you observe a teacher who is NOT the Maths lead or the person running the TRG.  This can mean that conversation is more fluid.

It might take some planning, but you should try to do the whole thing in one sitting, i.e. some introduction, followed by observing a lesson, followed immediately by discussion on that lesson.

Chose a focus / theme

This might be something that you all agree at your first meeting for each session that you have throughout the year.  The purpose of our primary TRGs this year is to embed a mastery approach so for us, we can pick a theme of mastery, e.g. variation, fluency, CPA, use of a specific text book, whole-class discussion / questioning, etc. The lesson would be planned to incorporate that theme and there could be a short discussion before the lesson is taught to explain how it was incorporated and what to look out for.  Alternatively, your focus might simply be a topic, e.g. Year 7 fractions.

Facilitate the Discussion

It needs one person to take the lead in setting up the session and asking the questions if the conversation “runs out of steam”  But this person is not there as the expert, they are there to keep the conversation moving.  Everyone brings a diverse range of professional experience to the TRG and it is this range that should come out in the discussion.


Share out the planning

This might not work in all scenarios but it worked really well for us in Year 7 as there were 6 teachers with a class each following the same scheme of work. In terms of actually preparing lesson resources, each teacher therefore only had to do one in every six lessons, but the value was in the richness of discussion that went on when these lesson resources were presented to the group.  Any resource / slide is only as good as its presentation to students so it was vital that we all felt confident in utilising other teachers’ work. For me, this is what the discussion achieved.



A simple template for capturing Lesson Observations

When observing lessons, whether as part of a Lesson Study, collaborative planning, a learning walk or something more formal, it is, of course, essential to take notes on what you are seeing in the classroom. Scribbling notes in a notebook is simple, but if you need to “type it up” to formalise it, or even just to share it with other colleagues, that becomes another task on the to-do list and yet another burden on your time.  Better to take a laptop into the lesson with you so you at least have the undistllled notes in a digital format.

Here is a really simple Google Sheets template that adds a timestamp as you type the comments. I’m no expert in writing scripts but this guy is, so thanks Azad!

screen demo

It works like this:

  1. When you are ready to start select the Draft tab at the bottom.
  2. During the lesson, write in the Comments column. Each time you press enter it automatically fills in the Time column.
  3.  When you have finished, copy the cells you need from the Draft sheet to the Final sheet and fill in whatever other detail you need at the top.

I find that I tend to write a lot when doing lesson observations even though some of it isn’t relevant or worth sharing with the teacher.  I can easily delete that extraneous waffle by deleting rows from the Final sheet.

I have kept the template really simple, because I don’t like templates much.  However, it would be easy enough to adapt this to two columns, e.g. www, ebi if you wish.  Also, you can play around with the Final sheet to make it look like your school’s lesson observation template with all the extra fields you need in the space at the top.

Hope this works for you, please get in touch with any comments or to let me know how you are using it.



Lesson Study – the best type of CPD you can do in school!

Last week, I joined two colleagues to carry out a Lesson Study looking at Decimal Place Value with Year 7.  The actual resources we used are here, this is just a quick reflection on the process.

There are various ways you can do lesson study, but ours looked like this:

  • 3 consecutive lessons taught to one class by their normal teachers (this happened to be me)
  • 4 reflection / planning sessions: 1 before the lessons, 2 in between and 1 straight after the 3rd lesson. These were about 30 mins each.
  • The 2 other teachers arranged cover for the 3 lessons they missed and they both observed all 3 lessons.
  • Before the 1st lesson, we identified 3 students in the class whom they were to observe closely and have a quick chat with at the end of each lesson.

It was intense, but highly rewarding.  It also had quite a high impact in terms of lessons requiring cover.  I have done lesson studies in other formats before, e.g. over a longer period of time where each teacher teaches the same single lesson to their own class over a number of weeks with the others observing.  My experience was that this was the best for a number of reasons:

  • Seeing a series of lessons is how we actually teach and it is useful to see the learning building from one lesson to the next
  • The observing teachers get to know the students and observe and understand their learning needs
  • There is no such thing as a “perfect way to teach Topic X” as every class is different and so comparing the “same” lesson between different classes is not as instructive as watching the learning develop over a series of lessons.

Of course, another reason this worked so well was my excellent colleagues who had so many interesting things to say about the lesson.  I learned a lot.

I’m sure we have all sat through INSET sessions where you simply feel like you are not likely to use the ideas any time soon in your classroom, because they are generic whole-school sessions. It’s looking like a lot of next year’s twilight INSET time at my current school will be allocated for Lesson Study next year.  I reckon that’s the best CPD you can do.  It’s an effort to set it up, but well worth it.