The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Joanne Miles

Lesson observations: quality assurance or quality improvement?

Rather than something staff repeatedly suffer through, a school’s observation cycle can be an invaluable professional learning tool – if you give them a say.

Over the last few years, I have spent much time helping schools and colleges to re-think their use of lesson observations.

Where observation was framed as a quality assurance tool, wedded to assessment and excel sheets of grades, school leaders were disinclined to ask staff how the observations affected them or looked at their effect on development.

When I ask leaders how they have gained teachers' feedback on their observation practices, I am often met with puzzled silence. How well does the observation cycle improve the quality of practice? How can schools tell if this is happening?

For some, it can seem that observation has been ‘done’ to teachers as a way of checking up on professional practices, rather than opening a dialogue about genuine professional learning and evaluating the effect of that on practice.

Quality improvement

We are beginning to see observation become less of a quality assurance tool, and more about professional learning and quality improvement

With the breadth of existing research and reflective commentary on observations, there is plenty of incentive for those seeking to foster developmental, ungraded models for lesson observation that put professional development at the centre.

Many institutions have already embraced this challenge, radically re-thinking how and for what purpose observation should be carried out. As illustrated in Reclaiming Lesson Observationedited by Dr Matt O'Leary, this has produced some truly inspiring work. 

We are beginning to see observation become less of a quality assurance tool, and more about professional learning and quality improvement.

What happens next?

Even if principled and appropriate, quality assurance will only ever help institutions to see what is already there. Quality improvement is what happens next - the actions that deliver fruitful change for pupils and teachers. 

The litmus test for any observation is what happens after feedback.

  • Was the teacher inspired to undertake any additional reading or research, with a view to finding a new approach?
  • Did they tackle a classroom issue successfully after the professional dialogue?
  • Did pupils benefit from a change in teaching practice, prompted by post-observation feedback?
  • Did the teacher share suggestions or resources with others in a way that improved wider practice?
  • How do you know if any of this took place in your observation cycle?

If observations are to be prompts for professional learning and development, staff must have a say in how we structure them.

Teachers know how observations affect them, and the observation team needs to know if staff feel patronised or rushed in the feedback meeting.

Leaders and managers need to determine whether observations are being treated as opportunities for development, or merely as hoops to jump through. 

A critical lens, not a blunt tool

There is so much potential for reflection, challenge and innovation if leaders work with staff to improve observations across the school

If certain observations are prompting developments but others aren’t, it would be important to consider how you might improve conditions for all.

When consulting or training leaders in a school, I encourage them to:

  • gather views on the school’s current observation cycle before making changes that don’t reflect reality
  • create questions that will give a feel for how observations are perceived by different groups of staff
  • look at what happened after observations, and how this might have affected practices for teachers and learners. 

Learner feedback can also be gathered as part of this look at the impact of changes in practice. This process of reflection is thought-provoking, complex and rich. It can open the door to continuous discussions about the potential and pitfalls of observation, something long overdue in schools that have previously used observation as a blunt instrument for quality assurance.

There is so much potential for reflection, challenge and innovation if leaders work with staff to improve observations across the school. Incorporating iterative feedback and evaluation into your cycle will mean that observations themselves aren’t something you ‘do’ to teachers, but with them – as part of a respectful professional learning model.

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