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Leadership, Outstanding Lessons

Observing Lessons, So What’s Changed?

A year on from when we stopped grading individual lessons I’m wondering how much progress we have made.  Just before the summer I reviewed our new process for evaluating the quality of teaching, with middle leaders, and made a number of tweaks to the system though no substantive changes were suggested.

The biggest changes we made in implementing our new system were: separating summative and formative processes (though in truth we didn’t really have a formative process), creating a set of criteria to evaluate and feedback against and basing the summative process on a range of evidence not just what was seen in a lesson.

With the benefit of hindsight and twelve months of working through the new system the creation of a set of criteria was more powerful than I had anticipated.  Workload is massively reduced, no more writing long prose, and the the feedback is very focused.  As with many happy accidents of my headship I inadvertently produced a set of criteria which were at a far more helpful grain size to help teachers improve their practice.  The conversation in the bad old days of lesson grading, “You are good now go for outstanding”, has the same problems as we’ve experienced with levels, a lack of appropriate specificity on what exactly to improve.  The criteria have already had some success in focusing staff on a very specific aspect of their practice to work on.  Early days but the system has much more potential, now to realise it.

Assessment of the Quality of Teaching

The revised process for evaluating the quality of teaching:

A single class (secondary colleagues) or particular class and subject (primary colleagues) is identified to observe.  At St. Mary’s preference should be given to observing Key Stage 3, where possible, as outcomes data at Key Stages 4 and 5 already provides a measure of the impact of teaching over time.

Three “lessons” are observed during the delivery of a particular scheme of learning.  The observer should be in the lesson for about 30 minutes or so on each occasion.

There is no need to observe consecutive lessons in fact it might be better if you don’t.  The learning that takes place between observations will be evidenced through discussions with pupils/students, the sampling of their books or files and the end of unit or interim assessment.

A judgement is made by the observer on each of the criteria for each lesson observed.  It is not expected that each criteria within the “Practice” strand is seen each lesson and may not be seen at all in the three lessons as these only provide a brief snapshot of the teaching experienced by pupils/students.

The scheme of learning for the lessons taught should be made available to the observer, before the lesson observations begin, and can be used to determine where criteria covered in the “Planning” or “Follow Up” sections may occur.

The observer will need access to the lesson planning, pupils’/students’ books and progress data for the class.

Each piece of information has limited validity and reliability when taken in isolation.  The observer should be seeking to identify patterns of highly effective, effective and not yet effective practice through triangulating the different sources of evidence. 

What became apparent as we reviewed the process was how much weight teachers placed on it and the emotional impact of what seemed like minor details.  For example, the spreadsheet, which has a series of drop down menus, used to record judgements within each lesson were set to “highly effective” and appraisers felt they were downgrading a teacher when they changed it to effective.   The “not seen” comment was seen as a negative by teachers rather than a neutral statement.  They thought all criteria needed to be ticked off, if not in every lesson certainly by the end of the three observations.  The revised procedures tried to clarify this, stating it is not reasonable to expect every aspect to be covered in every lesson.  The process is based on building up an evidence base, from a variety of sources, over time.  However, I’m not convinced this statement will do the trick.


The sixteen criteria were selected because we believed they were important aspects contributing to great teaching so they carry an understandable gravitas with teachers.  This concern was supported by teachers’ desire for feedback between the lessons observed so they knew what they still needed to be ticked off.  This type of thinking leads to contrived lessons and less than effective teaching of pupils/students.  The focus must be on deep highly effective practice rather than ticking boxes.  But what are we getting from our new process?  Teachers want, need and deserve high quality feedback about what is occurring in their classroom but this requires careful thought and analysis by the observer.  Any feedback given must be phrased within the very tentative nature of the data collected particularly early on in the process.  I believe the new procedures are a step in the right direction but I also know we are not there yet.

Development of Quality Teaching

Unlike the summative process, which is linked to appraisal, the whole formative process and documentation is under the ownership of the teacher.  The process is supported by a peer mentor assigned by the Head teacher.  The outcomes will be used, in the coming year, to identify individual, academy and Trust priorities for professional development.  The challenge is to build an efficient, coherent and seamless process using the priorities identified by teachers which develops teaching and enhances learning.

The formative process is relatively simple.  The first stage involves the teacher recording her/his own perceptions within the spreadsheet.  The quality of teaching judgements may then be copied across from the Summative Quality of Teaching document already completed and if wanted the peer mentor may also undertake some lesson observations.  Finally the data from the November and March Pupil/Student Voice questionnaires are added to the “Student Voice Perception”.  The final Formative Quality of Teaching spreadsheet will look like the one below.

Example of a completed formative quality of teaching sheet

Example of a completed formative quality of teaching sheet

Each element of the formative process gives a perspective.  It is important to find the overarching narrative provided by the feedback rather than looking at a single element to the exclusion of others.  The final part of the process is for the teacher supported by her/his mentor to identify the area(s) of teaching s/he wishes to focus on.  It is perfectly reasonable for a teacher to focus on one area and it may be possible to focus on a second one at the same time.  However, attempting to focus on more than this is unrealistic and may well actually damage or limit the development of the quality of teaching.  Most areas are “deferred”.  This means, the area is not one of my super strengths and I will work on it in the future but not this year.  This will allow me to focus my efforts on effectively improving my chosen area(s).

The data has now been collected from across the Trust using a simple Google form (thanks John) apart from NQTs who had a different lesson observation process.  We can no longer remember why we didn’t include them.  There are the criteria the teacher wants to focus on and crucially those teachers whose practice is highly effective for each criterion.  The latter form our “go to” professionals when teachers need advice or support.

The formative process has some real potential but it now needs the “follow up, consolidation and support activities” required to turn good intentions into tangible outcomes.  The move away from grading individual lessons to looking at the quality of teaching felt a significant step forward.  I’m now left with another feeling … there is a long way to go on a road yet untraveled before we have this cracked.

More details on going beyond lesson observations and formative lesson observations and the resources we use are available.



3 thoughts on “Observing Lessons, So What’s Changed?

  1. Reblogged this on Esse Quam Videri.

    Posted by heatherfblog | October 1, 2015, 9:40 pm


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