Written by Christophe Mullings

Numerous studies over recent years have shown that high-level and consistent performance from teachers in the classroom is central to improving outcomes for learners learners. So, naturally the education world has begun to examine teacher effectiveness more closely and how it can be improved. 

One of the main ways that teachers get feedback on their practice, in order to develop and grow, is through lesson observations, whereby a head teacher or senior leader sits in on a lesson to observe a teacher. However, despite their widespread use in schools, there is a great deal of data that highlights how ineffective traditional lesson observations can be.  

One of the strongest datasets being the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project, which confirms that teaching and learning do not improve unless teachers get high-quality feedback from impartial and authentic lesson observations by consistent evaluators. 

But, according to a UK SmartBrief poll,nearly 70% of teachers said that traditional lesson observation processes do not give them the meaningful and actionable feedback they need to grow. And 62% of school leaders acknowledged that the evaluation systems in place at their schools are not effective in supporting their teacher’s professional development.

So, what can be done to improve the effectiveness of lesson observations? 

How to observe lessons effectively 

Traditional lesson observation and feedback processes are filled with challenges and inadequacies, such as time, perspective and subjectivity, making it hard for teachers to see them as valid and worthwhile. 

Lesson observations need to work better for teachers by shifting them from a “done to”, to a “done with” model, reclaiming their real purpose: aiding teachers’ professional development, instead of performance management. So, what better place to get advice on how to make this happen than by asking teachers and education experts themselves. 

The Learning Spy, David Didau, shares these five useful points for observers to remember: 

  • Don’t make assumptions 
  • You’re there to learn 
  • Make it reciprocal 
  • Focus on instructional support 
  • Watch the teacher 

In his blog, ‘The Observation Gap?’ Angel Cinton Jr cites two important and useful questions to ask ourselves when it comes to effective lesson observations and the feedback that follows:  

  • “Is it supportive and developmental, or based on an arbitrary rubric?”
  • “Is it objective-driven, or based on broad recommendations?”

Professor Robert Coe also has advice on how lesson observation can be implemented effectively and preserved as the best option for evaluating and, more importantly, developing a teacher: 

  • “Apply a critical research standard and the best existing knowledge to the process of developing, implementing and validating observation protocols.”
  • “Stop assuming that untrained observers can either make valid judgements or provide feedback that improves anything.”
  • “Ensure that good evidence supports any uses or interpretations we make for observations.”

From summative to formative lesson observations 

There is often confusion between lesson observation as part of the accountability framework and observation for effective teacher professional development. It’s essential to ensure there is a clear distinction between the two.  

Accountability is important, but it has to be intelligent accountability. Without context and where there is a mismatch between the intended and perceived purpose, observation as part of the accountability framework has limited value for improving teaching and learning. This challenge strikes the heart of why lesson observations must move away from performance management towards development, a significant cultural shift for many schools.

Pitfalls of grading classroom observations 

Ruth Butler’s 1986 study, Effects of No Feedback, Task-Related Comments, and Grades on Intrinsic Motivation and Performance, looked at the impact of grades and feedback on student performance. The study 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 as well. 

The MET project found that lesson observation judgements varied more between observers than between the lessons observed. 

Although there is plenty of research against traditional lesson observations, many schools still use them as a way of grading teacher performance. One theory for this is that finding alternative ways to monitor the quality of teaching and learning can seem a huge challenge. However, it is important that schools find a way to build a shared vision of what good teaching and learning looks like qualitatively and grow this over time. 

Research from Joyce and Showers (2002) looked at the components of teacher professional development needed to help bridge the gap between theory and practice. 

Their research demonstrated that skills transfer into classroom practice was much higher when teachers’ professional development included theory, modelling, practice with feedback and contextualised coaching, findings that are still relevant today.

Observation: The bedrock of effective teacher professional development

Observation is a core component of all of the higher impact professional learning activities and, when part of ongoing teacher professional development with built-in focused feedback cycles, it’s a hugely powerful way of building confidence and motivating teachers. 

Observation shouldn’t be seen as a stand-alone activity, it’s central to: 

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

Think about the structures or professional development programmes that already exist within your schoolLesson observation plays a key role in these. If it doesn’t, it’s likely that including some form of observation will make them richer and more effective professional learning activities, as long as those observations are developmental. 

What is the reality of lesson observations in your school?

Digging observation out of the summative rut can be a challenge. It requires a shift in culture and a drive from school leadership to facilitate a more open culture of collaboration. 

Ask yourself these 8 questions about lesson observation in your school

1. As part of the leadership team, if you’re honest with yourself, how do you feel about lesson observations at your school? 

2. Are your teachers confident about letting people observe their lessons? 

3. Are teacher observations always centered around performance management or are they also used for professional development? 

4. Does lesson observation feedback consist of tick boxes against criteria or a more contextualised meaningful discussion? 

5. Do teachers get an opportunity to see great practice from around the school like you do? 

6. Is there a fear of risk-taking or experimentation? 

7. Are there pockets of outstanding practice, but a difficulty in sharing this across the school? 

8. Are there opportunities for peer observation and self-review? 

So, how do you change your current lesson observations to better support your teacher’s professional development? Read this blog to get some ideas. 

Also, read our guest blog from teacher Josh Roy about his school’s experience in shifting their lesson observation culture to become more collaborative.

How to improve lesson observation 

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of poor feedback like Josh Roy shared in his guest blog, then you’ll know how unhelpful it is. Feedback is highly personal and can either make or break a situation. According to Professor John Hattie, receiving effective feedback is the factor that has the most impact on a student’s progress. This can also be applied to a teachers’ professional development, making it one of the most important aspects of professional learning. 

So, to get the most out of lesson observation feedback, you should always be looking for better ways to give it, whether formally or informally. Here are some top tips: 

1. Capture your lesson 

Whether you’re being observed or observing someone else, video can be an objective tool for you both, allowing you to have a twoway discussion rather than just a feedback session. Reviewing the video together means you can actively discuss, pause, rewind, fast-forward and allow your colleague to come to their own conclusions, making it more meaningful for you both. 

2. Use exploratory questioning  

This type of questioning naturally opens up dialogue, giving you time to think and draw conclusions. For example, try saying: “What do you think you could do to tackle the problem of…” rather than “What you need to do is…”! 

3. Make lesson observation feedback constructive 

Even if a lesson doesn’t go to plan, the situation can be turned into a positive one if you give the teacher constructive feedback and help them to learn from the situation. Constructive feedback helps identify solutions for areas of weakness by looking at what can be improved rather than focusing on what went wrong.  

4. Relate back to previous objectives set 

Always keep a clear focus in mind. Relate your discussion to the targets already set, if new topics arise; set these as development targets for your next session. Staying focused will allow you to give some ‘easy wins’, developing a feeling of immediate progression. Be clear in your own mind about why you are feeding back. What exactly do you want your colleague to achieve with what you are telling them? 

5. Be patient 

Give you and your colleague time to draw your own conclusions and then explore them together without cutting across one another. You will develop a stronger, more professional relationship. 

6. Do it again! 

Whether giving or receiving lesson observation feedback, request you do it again and regularly. Only by continually discussing and breaking down what you saw can you understand progression. 

Lesson observations; the next chapter  

Like many who live in this digital age, educators have turned to technology for further help in making lesson observations even more effectiveIn Not All That Glitters Is Gold (2020), Dr Arran Hamilton and Laureate Professor John Hattie state that “Micro teaching/teacher video performance analytics has an effect size of 0.88”. Video-based lesson observations have significant advantages to traditional methods and can overcome many of the challenges that have plagued the lesson observation process for decades. 

In fact, support for using video among teachers and educators is rapidly growing. In a SmartBrief poll, 91% of teachers felt that simply filming their teaching practice would help them to improve it, and 76% said they would be willing to select and submit a video for use in a formal observation.  

This growing support isn’t just coming from teachers either. Eighty five percent of school leaders surveyed by SmartBrief said that using video for lesson observations would help them to provide teachers with more meaningful and actionable feedback.  

Educators are seeing the huge potential that video has for helping them to push their practice to the next level and ultimately improve outcomes for learners. But how exactly does it help? 

6 benefits of video-based lesson observations  

1. Acceptance

Many teachers struggle to accept feedback, not because they don’t want it, but because it’s not accurate, reliable or relevant. Video-based lesson observations provide evidence and a reference point for both teacher and observer, making feedback more objective, specific and acceptable. 

2. Reliability

When it comes to reliability the benefits are threefold. Video removes much of the subjective nature of lesson observations, teachers aren’t left to interpret feedback on their own and, in the event of a dispute, the video can be used as concrete evidence. 

3. Accuracy

Most lesson observations don’t provide a full and clear picture of a teachers practice and classroom dynamics, and yet accuracy is key for providing relevant and actionable feedback. Video overcomes this by providing a more comprehensive view that can be paused and rewound. Plus, with more time to look at the intricacies of a lesson, the observer can explore beyond what they see in the moment.

4. Contextualised feedback

Feedback and dialogue processes associated with traditional lesson observations often take place sometime after the observation itself. This means the observed practice is often dim in the memory and feedback is inevitably broad and subjective. Through video-based lesson observations feedback is contextualised, personalised and immediate, making it truly effective. 

5. Perspective

According to Professor John Hattie, teachers only see and hear 20% of what is happening in any given lesson. That means that when a teacher reflects on a lesson, they are only reflecting on 20% of it. Moreover, they will be evaluating the least important part because they’ll be considering their own perception of the lesson, not that of their learners. Video-based lesson observations not only allow a teacher/observer to reflect on the majority of the lesson, but also understand how the learners experience it and what they get out of it. This is a game changer for understanding teaching and learning through lesson observations. 

6. Time

It’s been recommended in the past that school leaders spend 25% of their time on observation and feedback. But with already high demands on educators time, this is almost impossible to realise without the right tools and support. Video-based lesson observations provide flexibility for observers to view and feedback on lessons at a time that suits them, increasing the number of opportunities as well as effectiveness. 

Read about Head Teacher, Stephen Campbell’s school’s experience with using video for lesson observation in his guest blog. 

It’s clear that video technology provides a better, more efficient way to conduct lesson observations. But what impact could it have on other areas of teacher’s professional development?  

“Through IRIS Connect, we’ve been able to revolutionise access to observations because we haven’t needed to organise cover or even watch entire lessons. So, it’s really helped to free up time. By recording lessons, we are able to use our own classrooms as the context and stimulus for people reflecting on their own practice or each other’s, so it’s a hundred times more relevant and useful” Williams Goldsmith, Latymer Upper School.

Note: This blog has been altered for regional context. The original article can be found here.


If you’d like to find out more about IRIS Connect and how our solution can help you to get the most out of your lesson observations and provide high qualitative professional learning for your teachers, get in touch!

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