Making more effective use of classroom observation – a differentiated approach as a tool for professional learning

A differentiated approach to observation

A differentiated approach to observation goes against the grain of most conventional models of observation insomuch as it involves the identification of a specific focus to the observation rather than attempting to carry out a holistic judgement of the teacher’s competence and performance via a standardised assessment tool. The focus of the differentiated observation is decided by the observee but it can also be negotiated and/or discussed with the observer (depending on the underlying purpose and context) and can even involve the wider team/department. The underlying purpose and context is likely to shape the way in which the focus is decided. So, for example, in the case of the trainee teacher or NQT whose teaching is being assessed as part of an on-going programme, it may be appropriate for the observer to play a more substantive role in deciding the focus than they otherwise might do if they were observing experienced practitioners who have identified a specific area of practice that is of particular relevance to their CPD. 


The rationale for a differentiated approach to observation is multi-faceted. Firstly, a differentiated approach is built on the premise that each teacher is likely to have differing strengths and weaknesses in their pedagogic skills and knowledge base in much the same way that any group of learners is likely to differ. Just as the most effective teachers incorporate differentiation into their teaching, so too does it make sense to incorporate it into the way in which teachers’ practice is observed. Secondly, maximizing teacher ownership of the observation process is seen as an important feature of facilitating professional learning that is likely to endure. All teachers have a responsibility for their CPD and they are likely to value this more highly if they feel they are given some ownership of the decision making process. Thirdly, the collaborative nature of professional learning means that it is not an individual act or the sole responsibility of the teacher but one that involves colleagues working together. So, for example, there may be times when the focus of differentiated observation is driven by wider objectives across a team or department such as a departmental improvement plan. These objectives may stem from a range of sources e.g. self-assessment, inspection reports, appraisal meetings, student evaluations etc and may be divided into separate strands or themes (e.g. use of formative assessment, use of ICT, behaviour management etc) to address through observation. In this instance a team/department of teachers may choose particular themes to focus on 


Example protocol for differentiated observation

Notes for the observee

The purpose of this observation is meant to be formative. YOU decide the focus of the observation and what you would like your observer to concentrate on whilst observing. The rationale for this approach is to allow you to choose an aspect of your teaching which you are keen to explore in more depth. This could be something that you are keen to improve, know more about, have some concerns about etc. For instance, you may be interested in studying how you give instructions, how you manage and deal with feedback, your use of a particular resource/form of technology, your methods of assessing learners etc. The important thing is that you choose something that is meaningful and relevant to your development. 


Notes for the Observer

In keeping with the principles of a collaborative and supportive observation scheme, the most appropriate approach to the recording of data must be one that avoids making judgemental comments about the observed session, as is often associated with those observations that are evaluative in purpose. The purpose of this observation is NOT to evaluate the classroom performance of your colleague, but to stimulate meaningful reflection associated with their chosen aspect(s) of practice. In your role as the observer you are encouraged to record notes of what you actually observe and that these notes should simply represent a factual record of what occurs during the observation and NOT a subjective interpretation of events (see Table 7.1 below). These notes are then used to help guide the follow-up discussion between you and your observee or colleague as they reflect on the lesson and that particular aspect of their teaching that they have asked you to observe and to keep notes on.

Table 7.1 Form for differentiated observations






Number in Group:

Focus of Observation:


Field Notes:



This excerpt was taken from pp. 115-117 of: Classroom observation: A Guide to the Effective Observation of Teaching and Learning, by Matt O’Leary (London: Routledge)


































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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)

3 thoughts on “Making more effective use of classroom observation – a differentiated approach as a tool for professional learning”

    1. I agree Svetlana, which is largely related to the fact that most people only perceive observation as a form of assessment. One of the things I have argued for some time is that this conceptualisation of observation has become a straitjacket. We need to move away from purely perceiving observation in this way and explore its potential as a tool for educational inquiry more.

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