Can we ‘see’ learning?


I had a great conversation recently with an acquaintance who works in school leadership and has done for some time.  However, something he said has been bouncing around in my mind for the past few weeks and I just can’t shake it.

We were talking about graded lesson observations and we had quite polarised views.  I don’t mind this; as I’ve written before, I just don’t think it’s really valuable for anyone (save SLTs) to grade lessons and my view is that if you want to use lesson observation to determine the quality of learning then you have to view lessons from many stand points.  I used some fairly dodgy maths work to show that when we observe teachers teaching (even once a term) we are only ever seeing about 1% of the teaching they do through the year.  Anyone conducting any research on this and hoping to come out with valid conclusions about the skill set or success rate of a teacher, is really barking up the wrong tree.  Even if you take the line that viewing everyone three times a year gives a more holistic determiner is a fallacy; you’re still only viewing a fraction of what happens through the year.  Therefore, all we can really do is to infer the state of teaching and learning from lessons.

However, my learned friend disagreed.  He believed that you can see learning.  You can see engaged students working through challenging tasks set by keen and enthusiastic teachers.  He said that when there is a clear sense of activity and students being focused on the tasks, you can determine an excellent lesson from a good one and good one from a poor one.  I was taken aback by this especially because it’s not the first  conversation I’ve had with school leaders on the topic and it’s not the first time that I’ve been told that it is possible to determine a good lesson.

It reminded me of a job interview I had a few years ago at an independent school in Sussex or Surrey (I can’t quite remember).  I was trying out for a Head of English post and was struck by a number of odd questions:

1) What is an ‘Outstanding’ lesson?

2) More of a task than a question: look at these books and write up a recommendation for what’s going wrong with the feedback.

It was at these two key points that I has made the decision not to accept the job even if it was offered (it wasn’t) as these questions seemed to sum up a certain kind of learned stupidity.  My response to question 1 was vague and more like something from Dead Poets Society than an actual response.  The interviewer clearly wanted me to trot out some kind of Oftsed answer about challenge, differentiation and progress.  However, I just don’t think anyone – no matter how experienced – can reliably ‘see’ progress and I also think challenge is relative and so hard for an outside observer to judge accurately.  I spoke about relationships, a clear culture of inquiring students, a teacher who listened and held back from giving answers.  I also spoke about what you can see around the room and what you might learn from seeing books and speaking with the students.  I also said that I’m always skeptical about teachers who say they have taught excellent lessons because a lesson is a complex hot-pot of many things and how can any teacher say that all students have learned what was intended?  I also spoke about the difficulty of judging designed lessons driven by funky activities that involved pushing bits of colourful laminated cards about the table.  Often these were abnormal lessons designed to get SLT off my back for another term; give them what they want and they won’t come back.  Anyway, it was clear that what he wanted was for me to demonstrate that my department would successfully pass any inspection.  My response to the books was no response at all.  I’m afraid that by that stage I had kind of given up: who can look at someone else’s books in a school you don’t know and determine the quality of a teacher through their marking.  None of the candidates liked this activity and we eventually stopped working on it and had a chat about our own schools.

Anyway, my pub conversation drifted into the work of Professor Robert Coe.  I quoted David Didau and spoke about the ideas of HeadTeacher and Teacher Toolkit and others.  But he was unconvinced by any of the research.  You can see learning and I’ve seen it before and I know a good lesson when I see it.  And so that was that.

I wasn’t happy though.  I think there are ways of ‘measuring the weather’ in schools and being heavily involved in both Quality Assurance and Professional Development for the past eight years, I think it has to be about looking at everything you have.  I’ve written before about the difficulty of using data out of context but it has its place.  I think looking at the broad picture of year-on-year examination results has its place but it can’t be the only measure.  I get a bit sick of some schools touting its A/A* stats, especially when they are selective schools and especially when they are all about the spoon-feeding, teach-to-the-test type places.  They might be able to ‘show’ progress but it is contrived and manufactured.  I do think lesson observations have a place.  But there are cleverer ways of doing this without having the imposition of two clip-board-weilding suits prying into every nook and cranny of a classroom; you will never see reality by doing this and so what is the point?

Better, I think to have student trails where you follow a student through their day.  You can ‘be’ a student for a day if you want or you can choose to focus your attention on particulars.  It’s even better when this is devolved by handing this to middle leaders (year leaders and HoDs) as it acts as QA and PD!  This is a great way of pulling back the blinds of learning as you will see something more normal than the stand-alone one-off.

Add to this student feedback.  We need to ask the students what they think.  Often when we view lessons, like it or not, we are assessing the teacher as if they were on Pop Idol and we’re not trying to dig into the learning.

Even better, get into a habit of recording lessons on video and get teacher to watch themselves.  Self-assessment is a sure-fire way to get teachers to reflect; they can be their own harshest critics so let them assess themselves.

You can also develop excellent learning based around joint planning and peer-observation.  Get the results back from these and you will see what teachers want to work on and you will start to see what the big issues are.

Overall, remove the grade and you might be able to see past the blinds and into the learning.  Yes, you will only ever be able to infer the quality of teaching and learning but at least we might be able to make that ‘judgement’ more reliable and more accurate.

Thoughts appreciated: you never know, my friend might be right!






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