A reason to keep graded lesson observations

There have been a large number of recent blogs that promote the abandoning of grading of lessons, for example here, here and even from an OFSTED inspector here. It is impossible, say these commentators, to judge the effectiveness of a teacher by observing a lesson. They say it is impossible to observe learning. Hence judging lessons on the 1,2,3,4 grade is impossible. In fact, judging lessons at all is impossible, and probably counter-productive.

Professor Robert Coe produced some excellent research on this here.

It all sounds very plausible to me. I can’t believe most OFSTED inspectors – and I’ve heard them say they “just know” after a minute or as they walk in the door – are going to admit that their imagined super-powers of judgement never actually existed and they can’t judge learning after 20 minutes. However, it seems this is the case. Graded lesson observations are crap. Coe makes a great case.

The alternative might be to judge on data. Given our assessment system is up in the air at the moment, and we only really get data that isn’t fictional in GCSE grades, most teachers would baulk at the idea that they will be judged just by outcomes. This is understandable. If I teach a group in Year 11 only, do I get credit/ blame for the previous 10 years of learning? Or the previous 4 in secondary school? This is an understandable worry for teachers.

Then, in discussion of his post here, Professor Coe (or it might be someone else, I’m not sure) suggested that pupil evaluations may be a better proxy for evaluating teacher effectiveness. I’ve seen this banded about on twitter and elsewhere as a possible solution, or part of one. Part of the reason for this is that it is used, to a relatively decent degree of effectiveness, in HE.

And that’s where I think we part. First, setting the bar at better than graded observations, given Coe’s research, is not setting the bar high at all.

Second, there is nothing that I can find that convinces me that pupil feedback will be anything other than destructive.

Pupils go to school to become smarter. They do this because it transforms their lives and gives them opportunities, and they are hence in a position to contribute to society. To a greater or lesser extent, education is a social good. It is provided because it benefits us all.

Some of us have discovered that not all pupils like school.

Many of us who have discovered that have also realised that it is not necessary to like school. The point is for pupils to get smarter, and that is hard and requires discipline and work.

Of course some teachers have mistaken enjoyment or fun for learning, or believe that getting kids liking school means they must be learning. To me, that’s the same side of the argument as those who want pupils to be involved in judging schools. I’m not going to take that on here. If you think the aim, or an aim of school should be to have lots of fun, you probably agree students should judge the effectiveness of teachers.

It’s a continuation of the ‘Student Lesson Observers’ that was popular in crap schools in about 2006 when there were 17 different ways of “personalising learning” and every school was expected to “personalise” for every kid. It was ludicrous then, justified by “well they say amazing things and are so insightful”, but had no outcomes that actually held any water. In itself Student Lesson Observers is a continuation of the idea that anyone on the street can judge teaching because they’ve been to school. I remember hearing one head tell me “well they experience 25 lessons a day – they are the experts in what works”, and then frown at the suggestion that what works is the knowledge they don’t yet have. Anyway, I digress.

The reasons pupils should not be judging teachers – off the top of my head, I’m sure there are many more:

1) We have tendency to mark highly what we enjoy, rather than what we learn. See here. Pupils, if anything, are more likely to.

2) This will lead to teachers caring if their pupils enjoy lessons ahead of anything.

3) Pupils tend to be vindictive, particularly when they have been disciplined.

4) Pupils are often not clear on what they’ve learnt until they have sat an exam several months later. If performance is a poor proxy for learning, as has been claimed, pupils sticking their hands up with “I understand 5/5” is not better.

5) This compromises teachers’ professionalism and infantalises the whole process of performance management.

6) It gives kids the impression they have equal (or actually, even greater) say in the direction of the school than professionals who are appointed, paid, and have far more experience and training.

7) It gives teachers the impression that kids have equal (or actually, even greater) say in the direction of the school than professionals who are appointed, paid, and have far more experience and training.

8) Students will spend time (the most precious commodity in schools) grading lessons

9) Related to (8) it will lead to demands for more student voice, taking kids out of the classroom to sit on student councils talking about toilets, lockers and trainers. These councils have some power, but kids are crap at them, crap at seeing both sides, and should be learning their subjects during this time in order to get better at being representatives and making an argument when they are older and smarter.

It’s actually hard to believe this might be considered useful – that Student Voice, exemplified to play a part in the judgement of professionals.

I don’t like OFSTED judging progress on twenty minutes or SMT judging performance on the basis of 3 announced lesson observations. However, if you want to impose student voice on the judgements, I’d much rather keep them. Thank you.

Last, I want to quote this blog on Student Voice as it gives an insight into what we might be expected to deliver in order to move up the pay grade in future:

“…the intake to Stafford Grove School had no such bias towards learning. When they were consulted their opinions made it clear that what they wanted most were “fun” lessons (i.e. ones with no actual work in) and group work (i.e. sitting with a group of friends chatting). It is here that I realised that the Student Voice not only didn’t need to be listened to, it needed to be actively suppressed. Certain classes put forward their opinion quite forthrightly. The main elements of that opinion were:

  • We shouldn’t have to work if we don’t want to
  • Working is boring
  • Our conversations are more important than anything the teacher says
  • We can treat teachers how we like
  • How we do in our exams depends on the teacher not on us
  • Teachers shouldn’t expect us to follow the rules and any attempt to enforce those rules is unfair and personally motivated”

Think of the worst kid you teach. Would you like them judging you? Given this dystopia, keep graded lesson observations please.


7 thoughts on “A reason to keep graded lesson observations

  1. I accept everything you say about student voice – it’s largely a nonsense. Certainly asking kids what they like is worse than useless. The evidence in the METT report is interesting but hardly conclusive. But to then argue that we keep something crap just because 1 possible alternative is crapper is a pretty weak argument.

    The challenge is this: lesson observations are hugely unreliable for a host of reasons. Using them to determine teachers’ pay is stupid and , possibly, illegal. But do we really need to grade lessons to know how effective the teachers in our schools are? Observation can still us quite a lot about teacher effectiveness – it just can’t tell us anything about student progress. We can also look at the work students are producing and question them about it – in this way we can get a sense of whether they are making progress. Finally, we can also look at results. As you point out, there are problems with this and we need to be sensitive to these when analysing data and be aware that the numbers are not the whole story.

    • I don’t want to keep graded lesson observations. My point was that I haven’t seen a realistic alternative that doesn’t include student voice. I think student voice will lead to worse lessons, reductions in learning, and more issues of behaviour.

      I’m interested that you write that we shouldn’t grade but that we can use observations (in part) to judge teacher effectiveness. I think Professor Coe said that observations are useless to judge full stop, though not useless.

      • 1) I’ve offered an alternative that doesn’t include student voice above. Is it not realistic?

        2) We can judge whether teachers are compliant very easily

      • I don’t think it’s one that teachers or their unions will accept. Most alternative solutions I’ve seen include reference to student voice. I think that’s because the alternatives seem incomplete. This is what motivated this blog. I think involving student voice makes it worse. The blog is about student voice and ranting that people should not include it in their alternatives. The blog is about student voice. The title is to polemicise the argument.

      • Well, it certainly did that! If the blog was called “Why using student voice to evaluate teachers is a foo’s errand’ I’d have had no quibbles. Carry on 🙂

  2. Decide what outcomes you want students to exhibit. Assess that. Judge teachers on their students’ ability to succeed in that assessment.

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