Does lesson observation still have a role to play in teaching?

In a recent tweet @LearningSpy referred to lesson observation as ‘problematic’ and posed the question, ‘What if we didn’t do it?’ There’s no doubt that the use of observation in the English education system has become a matter of some debate and even controversy in recent years. The crux of much of this debate centres on the way in which observation has become normalised in colleges and schools as a crude, reductive assessment tool, largely serving the interests of a performance management agenda with little benefit to practitioners and resulting in many counterproductive consequences. Teachers have come to experience a growing sense of disempowerment, increased levels of anxiety and general discontent in relation to the use of observation over the last two decades. But is this reason enough to discontinue its use? Whilst I have been critical of what I refer to as ‘performative’ and ‘restrictive’ approaches to observation in much of my work to date, I firmly believe that it has an important role to play in improving the quality of teaching and learning along with contributing to a greater understanding of these processes. For me, it’s important to avoid falling into the trap of ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’. What’s needed is a fundamental reconceptualisation of the way in which the profession engages with observation as a form of intervention. As a starting point, this means stepping outside the current constraints of viewing observation predominantly as a method of assessing and monitoring teachers’ classroom performance and realising its potential as a method of collaborative enquiry.

The way forward in maximising the potential of observation as a tool for improving the quality and understanding of teaching and learning lies in the adoption of an enquiry-based approach where teachers are empowered to become active researchers of their classrooms. What teachers need is more collaboration and less coercion when it comes to interventions in classrooms and a greater trust in their professionalism and professional capabilities to steer change and improvement. Peer-based models of observation have been shown to offer the potential to enhance pedagogic understanding and in turn contribute to the on-going process of teacher development. Putting the case forward for such models as a viable replacement to dominant performative models is now the next challenge that lies ahead for teachers if they are to reclaim classroom observation as a tool for empowering their professional learning and wrestle back control from the hands of the ‘Quality Police’.


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I work as a Reader in Education at Birmingham City University. Prior to this I was the co-founder of the Centre for Research and Development in Lifelong Education (CRADLE) and a principal lecturer in post-compulsory education at the University of Wolverhampton. I have worked as a teacher, teacher educator, head of department and educational researcher for over 20 years in colleges, schools and universities in England, Mexico and Spain. Much of my work and research is rooted in the field of teacher education, particularly exploring the relationship between education policy and the continuous professional development of teachers. I am well known for my work on classroom observation and am regarded as one of the first educational researchers in the UK to investigate and critique the practice of graded lesson observations. I am also the author of the 'Classroom Observation: A Guide to the Effective Observation of Teaching and Learning' (Abingdon: Routledge 2014). Qualifications: PhD in Education (University of Warwick); MA in Applied Linguistics & ELT (King's College London); PGCE in Spanish & ESL (UCE Birmingham), RSA DipTEFLA (King's College London & British Council Mexico City); BA (Hons) in French & Spanish (University of Southampton)

6 thoughts on “Does lesson observation still have a role to play in teaching?”

  1. I’m all for this Matt, and I’m very keen on the model offered by Lesson Study as a way of ‘reclaiming’ observation. But, and it’s a big but, the main beneficiary of lesson observations is, in my experience, the observer. I get observed a lot, and very rarely have I ever had any feedback on my practice which has actually improved it. I’ve had some interesting conversation about why I’ve made various choices but very little real insight into how these choices could be improved. You know why? Because I am the undisputed expert on my own classes; we all are – or should be. That said, I have learned loads from watching other teachers teach and if I’m working with a teacher on improving their practice I will make sure I take them to observe loads of lessons so we can talk about what other teachers do. This doesn’t happen nearly enough. So my point is that observing lessons should be acknowledged as the privilege it is. Observers should be trained to assume that they know less than the teacher they’re observing and that any ‘judgements’ need to be filtered through careful questioning.

    My other big problem with the current system of lees obs is that they encourage teachers to focus on improving short term performance rather than long term learning. The idea of ‘progress’ can be deeply harmful to both teachers and students. Much better to acknowledge that students are ‘making progress’ rather than being deceived into thinking ‘progress has been made’. Once of the most useful things that teachers could be trained to understand is the need to separate learning from performance and to accept that learning can only be inferred from performance.

    Thanks, David

    1. I couldn’t agree with you more David. Observation has become a ‘catch-all’, multi-purpose mechanism that rarely manages to fulfil its purported aims. The point you make about the observer being the only beneficiary is I think illustrative of how the use of observation has become narrow and strait-jacketed, very often leading to it being a perfunctory exercise for observees and something that has only been exacerbated by Ofsted’s inspection framework and the general audit culture that pervades education. There is a school of thought that questions the relevance of observing experienced teachers at all and I certainly understand the rationale for that position. It brings us back to the question of what it is we are trying to achieve in observing teachers’ classroom practice. As I argue in the book, if it’s a greater understanding of teaching and learning with a view to that feeding into wider improvement, then we need to call a halt to current performative practice as we’ve reached the threshold of how far that can take us. It’s time to think outside the box and to start to break down some of the narrow conceptualisations of what observation is for and what its potential is. Your comments about the value of observing others & how that can be a springboard for meaningful professional dialogue are absolutely spot on. Observation needs to be seen as a stimulus for dialogue rather than an end in itself.

      Had hoped to be able to put together a lengthier reply but in the middle of cooking brunch for family so will return to it again later. Thanks for the comments

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