Lesson observation: to grade or not to grade?

Posted by Charlotte Curl on 20 February, 2014

Lesson observation: to grade or not to grade?Lesson observation

This is a complex issue made more complicated by a confusion between observation as part of the accountability framework and observation for professional development.

A recent article which grabbed my attention, and highlighted this tension, was "Secret Teacher: from outstanding to inadequate in just six weeks". This personal account outlined the impact on confidence and motivation that judgements can have on a teacher (as it would in any profession!). The following except is particularly telling of the challenge that's faced:

"I had received no written feedback from the observation. I could remember bits and pieces of the suggestions for improvement, but what stuck in my head most was that grade. Inadequate, inadequate, inadequate."

This brought to mind Ruth Butler's 1986 study "Effects of No Feedback, Task-Related Comments, and Grades on Intrinsic Motivation and Performance". The study looked at the impact of grades and feedback on student performance. They found that students who received only comments on their work (no grade) consistently outperformed students that only received a grade. Interestingly, students that received comments and a grade performed worst of all.

If this is true for student learning, it probably applies to teachers too. The debates taking place online and the Secret Teacher's comments certainly make a argument for the obsession with lesson observation grades eclipsing the value of feedback.

A new focus for lesson observation?

On a more positive note, there seems to be some consensus about the power of developmental lesson observation for improving teaching and learning. When lesson observation is part of on-going professional development, with built-in focused feedback cycles, it's a hugely powerful way of building confidence, motivating colleagues and cultivating a growth mindset in the teaching community of a school.

Since I began writing this, David Didau, Ross McGill and Tom Sherrington have published blogs following their meeting with Mike Cladingbowl, OfSTED’s Head of Schools at Ofsted HQ, announcing that "lesson observation grades are over". In Tom Sherrington's post he highlights Mike Cladingbowl's good intentions for Ofsted and his explicit directions on whether individual lessons should be graded. "Inspectors should NOT be arriving at judgements about individual lessons. They should NOT be telling teachers or the Headteacher that any individual lesson was RI, Good or Outstanding". Observations should inform the overall picture of the quality of teaching and learning, rather than be used to judge the quality of a teacher in a 20 minute snapshot.

Is moving away from grading observations easy?

Lesson observation IRIS ConnectThis is very positive news, but how easy will schools find it to move away from grading individual lessons? Tom Sherrington talks about the Stockholm Syndrome and how the fear and culture of accountability will make it difficult for some to believe that the grading of observations is really over.

Accountability is important, but it has to be intelligent accountability. Without context it has limited value in improving teaching and learning. This challenge strikes the heart of why lesson observations must move away from performance management to development.

How can you do this?

Firstly, it's essential to ensure there is a clear distinction between performance management and developmental lesson observation.

At IRIS Connect we believe the components of effective developmental lesson observation include:

  • Objective self-reflection/self-observation
  • High quality feedback
  • Coaching
  • Mentoring
  • Peer-observation
  • Sharing within a community of practice

Lesson Study, teaching triads and peer coaching are just a few of the ways these components can be put into practice. We're really proud to be working with so many schools that use our technology to enable these activities; placing teachers firmly in the driving seat of their own professional development and re-focusing observation on what makes a difference in the quality of teaching and learning.

What are your thoughts on the lesson observation debate?

Topics: Lesson Observation

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