Through the looking class

Paul Burton - July, 2018

Alice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
The Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to."
Alice: “I don’t much care where."
The Cheshire Cat: “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go."

Sitting under an azure sky marred only by an occasional, wayward, delinquent cloud attempting to obscure the hot spotlight of a bank holiday sun and focused on a tall schooner of Pimm’s, I sat relaxed, listening only to the occasional crack of the iceberg-sized cubes as they began melting and watching the slow meandering of condensation droplets sliding down on the outside of the glass as gravity exerted its will on them. Concentrating on this ‘wellness’ opportunity, I was rudely interrupted by an incessant, thrilling, vibrating noise in the pocket of another fashion failure, my denim cargo shorts. Memo to oneself: switch off the phone when ‘in the moment’! It was an app informing me of the best ten reads for Summer. Now I like a good browse when on holiday and I take with me an eclectic range of books, including the occasional educational literature. However, I missed ‘Six Models of Lesson Observation: an international perspective’, and an Ofsted report published November 2017 which must have dipped below the news radar probably due to the higher- profile, if tedious and repetitive, events of Brexit.

Overall it was a sensible read. Highlights included these noteworthy points:

  1. That lesson observation in the UK via inspection is not considered effective or reliable when the quality of an individual’s practice is judged on the basis of a one-off lesson. In contrast, the international models presented focused on the individual teacher observations and accountability alongside a variety of checklist tools. Ofsted are interested in seeing how elements of this work without wanting to opt for an off- the-shelf model and are considering what changes should be made in their development of a new framework for 2019.
  2. Ground zero for lesson observation according to the report was established in 1992 when Ofsted was established; this in itself raises questions.
  3. In the early noughties, it was expected that 60% of inspection time on schools was to be spent on lesson observation.
  4. According to the main findings, none of the models presented openly attempted to measure learning. The report stated: ‘It was generally agreed among the experts that learning is not something that can be directly observed, while the quality of teaching can.”

In an ever-changing educational landscape, all of the above raises some thought-provoking questions based on the very knowledgeable research presented in the report. However, what I outline in this paper is a reflection on some of these points, based on empirical knowledge gleaned from some nineteen and a half thousand lesson observations which I have undertaken in various capacities and roles during my career. In no way do I consider myself an expert as I recall from a youthful joke. ‘An "ex" is a has-been. A "spurt" is a drip under pressure. So, an "expert" is a has-been drip under pressure.’ My own approach has always been similar to that of Professor Alison King, ‘Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side’. The intention is both to help navigate the reader through some thoughts on the rocky terrain of lesson observation, as well as to offer advice which hopefully will not precipitate some unintentional, but nevertheless, disconcerting landslides.

‘No grandad, not like that! You put the bananas on the tray and press the fruit picture.’ I was observing a little girl of about four teaching her grandfather how to use an automatic check- out machine in my local supermarket. ‘Now try it with the peppers,’ she said encouragingly, ‘but press the vegetable pictures.’ A few seconds later a beaming smile from grandad and a big grin from his granddaughter were the acknowledgement and confirmation that learning had taken place, all within the space of a few minutes.

I challenge the assumption that learning cannot be directly observed. It can happen in moments, over a short timescale or over a longer period. In the significant majority of lessons observed in a variety of contexts, in different subjects, with pupils of all age ranges (including adults) and abilities, one can see learning taking place. I offer three totally different examples which are indelibly printed on my memory.

Pre-YouTube, I was asked by a headteacher to validate his judgement by observing what he considered was an exceptional, highly-talented physics teacher who had declined promotion because he merely wanted to teach. The proposed advancement would have meant the physics teacher would be spending less time in the classroom. Rather than having him resign to go to another school, the headteacher had negotiated with the trustees to offer a retention allowance based on an independent review and report on his teaching. One Friday afternoon I went in unannounced to see him teaching a Key Stage 3 lower mixed-ability group. The subject was wave motion. Within the first five minutes, using carefully-directed and thought-provoking questioning and the use of a skipping rope, he had pupils demonstrating practically the dependence of the speed of a transverse wave travelling along a rope. This was immediately followed by the class using water troughs with tuning forks to show ripple and wave effects. However, the particularly curious and innovative youngsters soon discovered that by hitting the tuning forks and putting them on their heads while opening and shaping their mouths they could produce a variety of hilarious sound effects. Anticipating and capitalising on this, the teacher then introduced the concept of sound waves using a laptop and oscilloscope to show these visually. He then used the pupils’ own vocabulary to have them describe their experience which he carefully matched and translated into scientific terminology. In less than twenty minutes a range of learning had taken place and sustained progress made. Afterwards, I met with the teacher who asked me for feedback.

Recently I was undertaking a series of interactive ‘advice-giving learning walks’ in a large primary school and was watching a Year 1 class making ‘buggies’ out of shoe boxes and other containers with an assortment of simple cardboard and wooden wheels on the end of dowel axles. The children’s finished results were good, and they enjoyed pushing them along to see how far they would travel. I then helped a small group working with a learning support assistant under the guidance of the teacher by showing them the technique of using elastic bands tied around the axle stretched to a clothes peg clipped to one end of the box. The ripple effect was a eureka moment for the whole class, and it was a real pleasure to see the wide eyes of the little ones, delighted that they had all made their ‘buggies move under power.’ This activity was soon complemented by the introduction of advanced technical and scientific vocabulary, the start of extended writing, questions, annotated drawings, and design art work. The children had shown impressive dexterity and measuring skills. Demonstrable learning was taking place. Afterwards, I met with the teacher who also asked me for feedback.

Before moving onto the other example, it is time to review the terrain of inspecting and lesson observation. According to Ofsted, inspectors have used classroom observation as part of the inspection process since its foundation in 1992. Concomitant with this, is an on-going, wider debate about what tools should be used to collect evidence and record judgments about teaching and learning - for example, the use of a check-list, tick boxes, free text or aide-mémoires. Both these aspects I consider somewhat disingenuous to the practices pioneered pre-Ofsted by the work of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of schools. As a young head of department and later as both a subject and general adviser, I had the privilege of attending residential Summer schools on the developments in Design Technology and Science. Venues included Loughborough and Brunel Universities and, for shorter training sessions, York and Birmingham Universities. I was fascinated by the input of prestigious senior inspectors such as George Hicks or the now-knighted Michael Tomlinson. What an amazing opportunity to associate with leading practitioners who were at the cutting edge of the ‘craft of teaching’; learning from them was truly inspirational. I was also fortunate enough to have access to a range of informative publications such as the then-known ‘raspberry ripples’, a series of HMI subject reports and guidance. One of the most important publications - still used as a reference point for me - was the 1994 Handbook for the Inspection of Schools, a veritable tome containing well over 150 years’ worth of HMI knowledge and experience. Later on, in this piece, I shall make further reference to this publication when considering the extent to which colleagues at have acknowledged and incorporated this wealth of information into ‘Learning Walk’ training materials.

It was during one of these training events attended by several retired and soon-to-be- retiring HMI colleagues that we had the opportunity to discuss and have access to an un-published paper which for some unknown reason had been ditched by the then Department for Education. It was an attempt by this group of HMIs to provide some guidance materials on how to judge in a lesson observation if learning was taking place. Recently working on Assessment Without Levels (AWoL) with several schools, retrieval of my notes and other pre-Ofsted materials from that meeting proved very useful and relevant, because sooner or later ideas that were put forward years ago resurface. Or as Robert A. Heinlein stated: “A generation which ignores history has no past — and no future.”

Those retired HMIs asserted that pupils should be:

  • learning the right things. The pupils should be acquiring or consolidating one or more of the key competencies that underpin the subject at a level appropriate to their age;
  • challenged about previous earlier work. Pupils should be able to understand and cope successfully with lesson content, but only with an intellectual, physical or creative effort;
  • productive. Pupils should be working at the optimum pace – not too slow (off task, marking time) or too quick (failing to ‘keep up’);
  • motivated. Pupils should be seeking help when needed, asking questions, learning from their mistakes, learning from each other, and so on.

Pupils are likely to be learning effectively and therefore making more progress than expected when they are:

  • clear about what needs to be done;
  • engaged in and informed by good teaching or participating in activities in which they are learning the right things suitable for their age;
  • clear about what they are trying to achieve and how their work can be improved;
  • understanding what they are doing and finding tasks demanding but achievable with sustained effort;
  • seeking and getting help when needed;
  • staying on task throughout, and maintaining a good work rate when set challenging tasks to do;
  • well-motivated.

Taking account of the above, I now present a personal example that learning can be observed even within a short time span. When we first bought our house, our now twenty-year-old kitchen had recently been extended and completely modernised. I found myself in possession of the Lamborghini or Ferrari of culinary facilities. Unfortunately, as far as cooking was concerned, I could only just about ride a bicycle! Back to school I went, enrolling in a one-day course for beginners taught by the chef who had trained Jamie Oliver. Within a matter of minutes on the course, the mixed-age and mixed-ability group were learning preparation techniques and skills for using different types of knives along and acquiring health and safety knowledge about correct methods of dicing onions and vegetables. Using the new-found competencies, and with constant guidance, encouragement, and help from ‘Chef’, we prepared a variety of mouth-watering dishes such as roasted Butternut squash soup and Mushroom risotto which we savoured our magnificent efforts during lunch. At the end of the session, I still had all my ten digits intact and sat down to write, as requested by the trainer, an evaluation in which I used many of the remembered pointers in the afore-mentioned HMI aide-mémoire.

What was evident from that illustration was that, irrespective of the context, age, groupings or abilities, learning could be seen to be taking place. As highlighted in the ‘Six Models of Lesson Observation’, described in the three examples I have given, and observed throughout the majority of my observations, one major factor always emerges: people want feedback.

In the early days of Ofsted, over 60% of inspection time was spent looking at lessons. Now – and I do not say it is a bad thing – the focus is much more on validating how a school, college or any educational setting judges its teaching. However, in some ways, this denies many of the institution’s teachers the opportunity to have a rigorous and impartial external evaluation of their classroom practice and be provided with feedback, even if it is for a one-off lesson. Possible resistance from professional associations, political concerns about the impact on the retention and recruitment of teachers, together with the high cost of the early inspection model, are all factors for the shift away from lesson observations. Put at the side of this, Ofsted’s assertion when dispelling myths about inspection that anyone can teach and that lessons do not have to be taught in a particular way or format. They go on to affirm their intention not to add to teachers’ workload by advocating a particular method of planning, teaching or assessment, leaving it to schools themselves to determine their practices and for leadership teams to justify these on their own merits rather than by reference to the inspection handbook.

However, even in the peak of inspection, I invariably found that the majority of staff that I saw welcomed the structure, methodology, and evaluation criteria for inspecting teaching and learning. Opportunity for feedback was offered and gladly received, and even the most outstanding practitioners – like the physics teacher – always asked the question: ‘How do I get better?’

Since their inception in the 1840s, HMI has been instrumental in helping shape the British educational system. I mentioned earlier the 1994 ‘Handbook for the Inspection of Schools’ containing over a 150 years’ worth of HMI wisdom and experience and how this wealth of information has been acknowledged and incorporated into Rhinoss’s ‘Learning Walk’ training materials. Even now, when I am invited in by schools to undertake ‘Learning Walks’, I still take in with me an A4, one-sided aide-mémoire/prompt sheet with the key pointers emanating from HMI’s profound knowledge and experience. I refer to this sheet constantly, regardless of the context, and it helps me identify if and when learning is taking place effectively, and pupils are making expected progress. Alongside this prompt sheet is a structured learning observation form to make detailed notes/diagrams/references, because, unless the school has CCTV cameras in all the classrooms (and I am aware some schools possibly do!), this is the only record of a visit. By referring to notes during feedback, it reassures the listener and helps if one ever is challenged! From my experiences of looking at learning, feedback ensures ‘feedforward’: it provides new knowledge and insight, suggests ways to improve, reassures and boosts confidence. I have always found that honest and constructive feedback, given sensitively, leaves the teacher feeling that it has been a useful and a positive experience, even when a hard message has been given.

According to the contributors to the ‘Six Models of Lesson Observation’, there was some debate about the use of videos in training staff on lesson observation before they ‘go live’ versus from what I always suggest, that is asking schools to identify an outstanding practitioner who has agreed to allow two people to jointly observe them so it can be used as part of ‘benchmarking’: my view over the years is that a dual approach is most effective. When undertaking such training, I still have to remind even the best of teachers that they are watching the ‘theatre’ of learning and to try not to interact unless it is a safeguarding issue. Most importantly to leave their ‘baggage’ about teaching when they cross into that classroom threshold. They are not teaching that lesson! Recent work in the area of quantum mechanics has revealed that the actual instrument and methods used to measure the interaction of protons may in itself be interfering with the process. Could the way we currently try to observe learning in context also be altered by the intrusion of another person watching the process so that we do not see learning in its true sense?

To sum up. I have probably conducted more than 19,000 classroom observations during my career and am still involved with schools via in helping Senior and Middle Leaders to undertake ‘Learning Walks’ or pupil pursuits. I have always taken in with me an ‘aide memoire’ containing key pointers, in abridged format, derived from 150 years’ worth of HMI experience. I do not have a tick box checklist. Learning can be demonstrable within the first few minutes of an introductory session taken by a teacher or pupils who clearly state the L.I.F.T. ( Learning Intention For Today) and expectations for the session, present new information, use innovative stimulus materials (Youtube has some great materials) and regularly question carefully to check if learning is taking place.

What is of significant importance is not just the structure of lesson observation but more importantly the opportunity to give robust, secure ‘feedback’ to all teachers to help them ‘feed forward’ - even the most outstanding teachers request reassurance and praise - we are all human! I urge Ofsted as they work towards developing a 2019 framework to revisit their orgins and review what worked well. I do, of course, recognise the wisdom of what Alice said ‘ I can’t go back to yesterday, because I was a different person then’. We have similarly moved on in education. Nevertheless, learning has not changed, just the way we learn. I leave the last word to Lewis and Alice

“Have I gone mad? I’ m afraid so, but let me tell you something, the best people usually are.”

― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Acknowlegments: Lewis Carroll, Ofsted, Braxted School of Cookery, Jim Al-Khalli Quantum A guide for the peplexed, Disney characters: Cartoonmania ultmate image free 7000EPS files, Rhinoss consultants: © Paul D. Burton 2018