Embracing expansive approaches to the use of lesson observation

Embracing expansive approaches to the use of lesson observation

(This article first appeared in CPD Matters/InTuition – IfL, Issue 8, Summer 2013, pp. 21-22)


In last summer’s issue of CPD Matters I discussed the topic of graded lesson observations in further education and argued that the continued emphasis on measuring teacher competence and performance via the Ofsted 4-point scale had not only become a perfunctory, box-ticking exercise in many colleges, but had also given rise to a range of counterproductive consequences that were impacting negatively on the professional identity and work of tutors in the sector (O’Leary 2012).

In that article I used the juxtapositional terms ‘restrictive’ and ‘expansive’ to describe those approaches to observation that hinder or help professional learning and development. Much of the discussion focused on examples of restrictive approaches and their impact on practitioners, which meant there was less room to discuss the features of expansive approaches. It is to this important area that this follow-up article turns its attention, as I look to present contextualised examples and reflect on why the adoption of a more expansive approach to the use of observation in FE is likely to yield more meaningful and sustained improvements in the quality of teaching and learning than current performative models that continue to dominate the sector.

Defining features

Given the brevity of this article, I have decided to limit my discussion to three specific features:

1) Differentiated observation

2) Prioritising feedback and feed forward

3) Removing the graded element

Space does not allow for a detailed discussion of these three features, but you should at least be able to get an overview. For a deeper exploration please see examples of my other work (e.g. O’Leary 2013; 2014 – listed at the end of this article).

  1. Differentiated observation

Differentiated observation runs counter to conventional models in that it involves identifying a specific focus to the observation rather than carrying out an all-inclusive assessment based on a generic template, as is currently the norm. The observee is given greater ownership and autonomy in deciding the focusand negotiating which session they wish to be observed. The purpose and context thus shape the way in which the focus is decided. So, for example, in the case of the trainee or less experienced teacher, it might make more sense for the observer to play a more decisive role in the focus than they would if they were observing experienced colleagues. What are some of the advantages and reasons for using a differentiated approach to observation?

First, 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. Just as the most effective teachers differentiate in their teaching, so too does it make sense to apply this approach to the way in which teachers’ practice is observed. Second, maximising teacher ownership of the observation process is an important feature of facilitating professional learning that is likely to endure. All teachers have a responsibility for their continuing professional development and they are likely to value this more highly if they feel they are given some ownership of the decision making process. Third, 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 department such as a departmental improvement plan. These objectives may stem from a range of sources e.g. self-assessment, inspection reports, appraisal meetings etc and may be divided into separate strands or themes (eg use of formative assessment, use of ICT, behaviour management) to address through observation. In this instance a team/department of teachers may choose particular themes to focus on.

  1. Prioritising feedback and feed forward

Feedback is arguably the most important part of the observation process as it is generally regarded as having the most tangible impact on professional development. In a previous research study I carried out, three quarters of respondents across 10 colleges said that feedback lasted no longer than 20 minutes. It is difficult to imagine a professional dialogue of any substantive consequence occurring in such a short space of time. But why is so little time given to feedback if it is recognised as being such an important part of the observation process?

The simple answer is that the time available for feedback and professional dialogue is squeezed because so much time is spent on the collation and completion of the accompanying paper trail and performance management data associated with observations. This is further exacerbated by insufficient time being allocated to the observation process from the outset in many colleges. Feedback, occurring towards the end of the process, invariably ends up losing out. But there are more long term gains to be made from allocating adequate time to feedback in the observation process.

My research has found that those colleges that attach as much significance to the feedback and feed forward stages as they do to the observation itself are often the most successful in improving the quality of teaching and learning, along with fostering a culture of continuous and collaborative improvement amongst their staff. What those colleges have in common is the fact that the importance of feedback and feed forward is not just paid lip service to in their observation policies, but is enacted in practice by allocating appropriate time remission on staff timetables in each academic year.

  1. Removing the graded element

One of the biggest obstacles to embracing an expansive approach revolves around the issue of grading. My research identified correlation between an overreliance on using lesson observation grades as a key performance indicator and low levels of trust and professional autonomy in some colleges. Yet when the graded element was removed, levels of trust between colleagues improved and some of the negative associations surrounding observation vanished, as illustrated in the extract from a research interview with two observers below:

Abdul: We started to not give numerical grades as we felt people concentrated on the number not the feedback and we felt that that worked really well but then the principal decided one day that Ofsted wouldn’t like that and everything came to a halt. We have now moved completely away from that again and everything is performance driven and that’s a shame because that’s where I think we made all of our advances in improving the quality of teaching by getting people on side, being formative as opposed to punitive.

Molly: We did it for just under a year and the impact was quite startling. The quality of learning that was going on rose because staff listened to the developmental feedback rather than focusing on ‘oh I’ve got a three’. We had got staff on side with observations and they were no longer terrorised of having someone in the classroom. They became far more accepting but like Abdul has just said, all that progress has been undone now with the return to grading.

The idea that the summative element can overshadow the formative feedback is well documented in the field of assessment. The grade can take on such importance that it threatens to undermine the value of feedback and the professional dialogue. Abdul and Molly’s account reveals how removing the graded element can be liberating and help to break down some of the negative barriers (i.e. anxiety, fear, suspicion etc.) associated with observation. In their case, it enabled them as observers to gain the trust of tutors and to engage in meaningful, collaborative work, which subsequently led to improvements in the quality of teaching. By concentrating on the feedback and not the grade, the formative aspect of the observation process took on a greater significance and tutors were more disposed to engaging in professional dialogue about their practice.


The way in which staff experience and engage with the use of observation is inevitably influenced by the teaching and learning cultures of the institution itself. The commitment of senior management to promote particular notions of professionalism and professional learning is crucial in establishing an institutional ethos towards observation, which is cascaded, both implicitly and explicitly, to observers and observed alike. The key question for senior managers to consider is therefore a very simple one: what kind of culture do I want to foster amongst staff when it comes to the use of observation? Expansive or restrictive?


O’Leary, M. (2012) ‘Time to turn worthless lesson observation into a powerful tool for improving teaching and learning’. InTuition/CPD Matters – IfL, Issue 9, Summer 2012, pp. 16-18. 

O’Leary, M. (2013) Expansive and restrictive approaches to professionalism in FE colleges: the observation of teaching and learning as a case in point. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 18(4), pp. 348-364.

O’Leary, M. (2014) Classroom Observation: A guide to the effective observation of teaching and learning. 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)

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