[by Tony Bird]
Following on from Tom Bennett’s recent blog of the week on observation, I thought it would be good to take his message one stage further by putting some flesh on the bone. I must confess to struggling with the word, ‘observation’ as it conjures up a vision of all that is wrong with the term and how many teachers view it. Observation suggests one person being watched, assessed, judged by another person who breezes in and out, with no real connection to the kids or teacher. Observation shouldn’t feel, or be like that. Similarly, is there a better term that inspires all of us to think differently about observation and the way it should underpin all that we do in schools- Pragmatic Partnerships? Collegiate Conundrums? Elixir of Education…..?
Here are 5 things to start the ball rolling on how we can all benefit from a different approach to observation
Empathy, not enmity
- Getting alongside people who want to work with you in improving the learning outcomes for students; people who you feel at ease with, but who will enter into an honest dialogue throughout the process of working together – and ‘together’ is the key word.
Understanding, not undermining
- Being jointly involved / interested in the planning as well as the progress made in lessons. Understanding how the lesson has been put together, together with the issues, anxieties that may have gone into the construction; which students need stretching, which ones need support and how the plan moves the students from where they were last week to where the teacher now wants them be. Observation can seem a little like them and us for those being observed. Why not make it us together?
Focus, not fudge
- Many teachers feel uncomfortable about being observed. We have to remind ourselves that in any observation, the observer should be looking at the students rather than the teacher; they are the main focus. How is the lesson impacting upon the students? Are they being stretched, challenged? Are students being supported throughout the lesson, and does the pace leave some behind? Do the student responses show that they understand, and are all the students involved? For example, we might say to a teacher, ‘you didn’t explain the reasons for global warming very well’, or you might say ‘ the three students at the front of the room struggled with understanding the second and third reason for global warming………’ . What might be needed is a more thorough explanation, or some examples to reinforce the point, but that is an answer that can be worked out jointly.
- Secondly, it is good to have a specific, jointly agreed focus for observing students. The focus could be broad or narrow, and if it can be teased out through a discussion in advance of the lesson[s], there is more of a feeling of joint ownership of the focus area – it is as if both of you are working towards the same aim / goal.
Journey, not ‘job done!’
- Looking at how we can improve what we do as teachers is all about experimenting, risking, tweaking, coming at things from a variety of angles, looking at what others do, measuring and assessing the impact of ideas on different students and different class groups. All of the above rarely slots into place in one lesson. Improvement often comes through trial and error, and over time. Similarly, by the time we have finished a lesson, we will already have an idea of what worked and what might be modified in future, and might already be thinking about small improvements for future lessons. Improving our teaching is a never-ending journey, and that should be remembered in the observation process.
Celebrating, not concealing
- One of the things that concerns me most about observation is the apparent lack of fun and joy in the process. Observation should involve lots of laughter as well as everything else, because this shows, as much as anything, the relationship between the colleagues involved. If improvement is all about trial and error, we shouldn’t worry about the error, and we should really celebrate the successes by sharing them with colleagues and in departmental meetings, training days etc – we are sometimes reluctant to do this, but this might become easier if we are working as a partnership in our observing[?] If we find a new way of explaining something that has made student X understand something for the first time, we shouldn’t just think, ‘Oh, that satisfies Teaching Standard 1’ [‘promotion of student progress’, by the way], we should be shouting about it from the rooftops, all of us!
Working together [notice, I am no longer using the term observation] in partnership, on lesson improvement, should be so good that it develops and strengthens friendships, in a united and collegiate network of support, and it should be a natural part of what we do, no big deal, just lots of fun!