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Can lesson observation be a tool for improvement, rather than just accountability? - Chris Morris

16 November 2023

By Chris Morris, programme leader at an FE college in the Southwest of England

How can we use lesson observations as a tool for improvement and not just for accountability? In this blog, I will share my insights and reflections on the purpose and impact of lesson observations in FE. Not only will I draw on my experience as an FE lecturer and IT professional, but also as someone who works closely with those in middle and senior management roles and understands their anxieties around college accountability. If done in the right way, I believe lesson observation can develop teaching practice in a way that feels supportive while also performing a role as a quality assurance mechanism.

I have always been interested in how middle management can support teaching staff to develop their professional practice. In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the usual education delivery method, colleges across the country had to adapt quickly and switch to remote teaching and learning. Many of the middle managers I spoke to were impressed with how quickly and creatively teaching staff handled the crisis. College lecturers throughout the country demonstrated outstanding professionalism and dedication and they did this, due to the pandemic restrictions, without the usual oversight and scrutiny from managers. Some colleges tried to move their observation process online, but most trusted their teaching staff to do their best without being constantly monitored and evaluated.

The surprise success of how well we all managed our teaching and lesson during the pandemic made me wonder why some colleges felt the need to return to pre-pandemic observation systems. Essentially old-fashioned and unpopular, they use a top-down approach with a senior member of staff scrutinising and grading teaching practice. It is an approach that does little to empower or engage lecturers. To explore this question, I surveyed lecturers working in local colleges about their views and experiences of observation. The sample size was small and the results were mixed. Nonetheless, the exercise did prove there was more to be discovered. The general feeling seemed to be that many lecturers felt it was a box ticking exercise, something done to them, rather than for them. The whole process caused a great deal of stress, anxiety, and was extremely time consuming. Time which teachers would rather spend doing the things that made them want to become college lecturers in the first place.

There is, however, change happening in colleges around the country, scattered and unconnected to each other they operate independently and without much awareness of what others are doing. A middle manager working in a college in northeast England once told me: “I’m always looking for ways to improve the learning experience for our students. One key factor that influences this is the validity of the observation process. It’s difficult to challenge established norms. However, we must be driven as a sector by the evidence, which seems conclusive. I know there is no simple or universal solution because every college and every lecturer is different”.

What a better place we would all be in as a sector if we could pull together and share our experiences. After all, don’t we all want the same thing? Imagine if the knowledge and experience of this middle manager could be easily disseminated throughout the sector. This was the moment my curiosity was ignited, and not long after I decided to conduct some wider research. My aim was to find out what works best for observation in FE. I contacted 148 FE colleges and asked them about their observation policies and practices. A total of 87 per cent of all colleges had stopped grading individual lessons as part of quality assurance. It soon became apparent that many colleges had concluded that this approach was ineffective, unfair, and did not help lecturers develop their skills. Instead, they adopted a more evidence-based and professional approach focused on feedback and support. Some have completely ditched the idea of watching lecturers in action. One college that responded is using a technique called “unseen observation”, based on Professor Matt O’Leary’s work. It’s all about conversing and reflecting with other lecturers rather than being judged. It sounded to me like an excellent way to help lecturers improve their practice without feeling stressed or pressured. My research showed most FE colleges still do lesson observations in the traditional sense. However, they are not graded, and the lecturer has more control over the process. For example, they can choose which lesson will be observed and what kind of feedback they want to get. This seems far more democratic and empowering for the observee as opposed to the long-established system where the observer holds the balance of power via that all-consuming observation grade.

I have had the privilege of working with some fantastic teaching staff and managers over the years. They have a wealth of industry experience and a passion for their subject. They are well respected in their colleges for their expertise and ability to engage learners from all walks of life. They balance the different needs of helping learners grow as people, achieve academically, and meet the high standards that colleges hold themselves to.

Unfortunately, I have also seen great lecturers who are unfairly labelled as failing because of a system that tries to measure something that is not measurable. Using lesson observation as part of internal quality assurance is fraught with difficulties. The classroom is a dynamic environment where multiple factors are at play, not all of which are necessarily within the lecturer’s control. As colleges can choose their own internal quality assurance process, there is no consistency in how lecturers experience lesson observation across England. I have always wondered why colleges use different methods for lesson observation. Therefore, this got me thinking about the role that college leaders could play in moving the sector forward in a coherent and evidenced based manner.

I would strongly encourage college leaders to foster a supportive culture, moving away from the traditional surveillance model. They can do this by training observers to provide constructive, growth-oriented feedback, introducing peer-led observations for collaborative professional learning, and creating flexible frameworks that respect teachers’ unique strengths and developmental needs.

Feedback should be part of an ongoing dialogue that reduces anxiety and emphasizes continuous improvement. Empowering teachers to have a voice in the observation process, incorporating technology for self-assessment, celebrating successes, and staying abreast of current research are also crucial. Regular policy reviews to ensure alignment with educational goals will further ensure that lesson observations meaningfully contribute to the enhancement of teaching quality and student learning experiences.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.