Classroom Observation – shifting the focus

We had a very productive discussion this afternoon at the secondary headteachers meeting about classroom observation.

I was delighted to see the range of strategies being implemented in our schools but the overwhelming point which emerged from the discussion was the shift from observation with a focus on judging competence to one where the focus is on learning about the practice in our schools and how we can share and develop what we see.

When formal classroom observation first appeared as part of the school evaluation process it borrowed from the only models that we really knew – the HMIe observed lesson,  and the more pervasive model of the university/teaching college “crit” lesson – where the observer sat in a corner and took notes about the  entire lesson.  Feedback was provided through the “crit” which identified good and weak aspects of the lesson.  As someone who was a teaching tutor for three years at university I know from experience that the feedback provided was so extensive and ranged across so many aspects of practice that it was practically worthless.  The crit therefore became a right of passage which the teacher had to endure but was rarely seen to be a productive aspect of teaching practice.  Now I’m sure (or shoupld that be hope that)  I made some impact over the three years I delivered these crits but I don’t think I actually provided any feedback which was focused enough for teachers to really change them.

As I’ve written about before the current focus of my observations – Learning intention and learning tasks – have opened up a new world for me in terms of what I see and what I learn.  The beneficiary of the process is not the person being oberved – its the oberver! – a direct opposite of the traditional model where the beneficiary is supposed to be the person being observed.

Now if we could just develop this concept and establish a more substantive link between what we observe and how we improve the quality of the  learning and teaching which goes on in a school then I believe we could take the lid off our schools.

So how do we judge if someone isn’t competent? My response here is simple – there are so many other indicators available to us to judge whether someone is doing damage to children’s learning that we need not depend on classroom observation to be the tool of choice. Where such concerns arise the classroom observation process takes on a different slant but is part of a very different process and one which had been clearly set out beforehand – our classroom observation policy actually captures this very well.

10 thoughts on “Classroom Observation – shifting the focus

  1. Thanks for this. I agree with lots of your points and when I am being observed by HMIenext week, I will try to remember that he/ she is the beneficiary!

  2. Am I alone in finding the word ‘observation’ uncomfortable? Maybe if you offered to be more involved in the lesson it would seem less like an ‘observation’.

    The key issue here is that staff do not visit each other’s classrooms and team teach and discuss pedagogy. Head Teachers do not shadow each other and reflect on their own practice. Only when we become more open in our reflection within schools ‘at all levels’ will the benefits you have experienced become developed.

  3. I have always wondered what it is that makes teachers wary of strangers in the classroom: observers, inspectors or even support staff can be seen as somehow threatening.

    My own preference (and I’m fortunate that this is shared by my Physics department colleagues) is that the door is open: I think it’s a sign of a healthy department (and by extension, school) that encourages and welcomes anyone with the right to do so, to pop in and see what’s going on. If this is a regular thing, all are comfortable with it and ideas are advanced and along with them, attainment.

    I’m happy to show off my teaching or to have the chance to blether about better ideas with my colleagues, whether gnarly old hacks or naive and sharp students. We all have so much to learn from each other in this complex business of ours.

  4. Pingback: Teaching is to Emancipate

  5. Student Success Tied to Teacher Mentoring:

    I just found your blog and I just saw the article above earlier this week. It’s not exactly the same thing, but then again, maybe it is very close.

    As a teacher in training, having just done an extended observation followed by teaching three lessons…I found that the teacher cited as things I should change the same things that I found to be the things that I saw her doing that I didn’t want to do. Huh! I’m still puzzling that out, but it was interesting to read a couple of comments and think, wait, that’s *you* not me. Good food for thought, at least on my end of the critique.

  6. Pingback: Don’s Learning Log » Blog Archive » Learning or checking?

  7. The word ‘observation’ certainly makes many teachers feel uncomfortble. This area of observation needs to be embraced by teachers as a learning experience or as Don mentioned, from his visit to West Barns Primary ‘watching to learn’. In answer to ‘a teacher’ November 29th 2007 staff in some schools do visit one another’s classrooms, they do team teach and they do discuss pedagogy. I my school we have, 4 times over the year, an observation by a member of the SMT or by a colleague of our own choosing. The teacher being observed identifies the focus and the observation is discussed and signed by both parties. This can also be carried out in reverse, where a colleague observes a lesson by a member of staff who is particularly strong in a certain area of the curriculum. This ‘classroom observation’ procedure works very well and all staff feel very positive about it. We are also starting sessions, within CAT time, where we can share good practice within ICT. As a profession we must try to work together to make ‘observation – an act or instance of regarding attentively or watching’ a less threatening and a more supportive process. The idea of ‘observation’ as ‘watching and learning’and as a vehicle to improve one’s own teaching and learning must also be embraced by Senior Management in schools in the spirit of ‘team work’ and not for Senior Management’s own ‘agenda’.

  8. Gael

    Thanks for this “observation”! It’s examples like this which should become the norm in our schools. PS Watch out for Thursday mornings – I’m coming to get you!!

  9. You might be interested in keeping an eye on a pilot that the National CPD Team and SCSSA are doing on a slightly different approach to ‘observation’. It’s based on a medical rounds model, called professional learning rounds. You can read a briefing paper on the CPD Team blog (

    One feature of this approach is that observation and enquiry are not carried out by a lone individual but by a team of colleagues who create a base of evidence around what they have seen. In essence, the observers and the observees are the same people! This evidence is descriptive only. It is not shaped by evaluative comments or value-laden points.

    The pilot is looking at leadership at all levels, starting with 6, brave Directors of Education in local authorities!

Comments are closed.