Doing the right thing even when nobody is watching: Unseen observations

I often have the definition of ‘insanity’ offered (allegedly) by Albert Einstein in my mind when I plan developments at my own school. My wonderful late colleague Paul Ginnis often started his training days with it.

Insanity is ‘Doing the same thing, the same way and expecting a different result’.

As the outcomes and quality of teaching improve year on year at Bridgwater College Academy (Third most improved school in SW England), I often wonder ‘Where does our next 5% come from?’ The bar is higher now and raising it even further is harder.

Recently my colleague, Candida Gould (@candidagould), and I have been keen to establish our vision for professional development, learning and growth at BCA and have now arrived at this as our statement of intent:
To promote and sustain professional growth that is based on collaborative high-trust processes with a collective responsibility for children’s outcomes.

Underpinning this vision are these 6 principles that will hopefully guide us towards that vision:

Shared values and vision.
Mutual trust, respect and support.
A collective responsibility for children’s learning.
Learning focused collaboration.
Reflective professional enquiry.
Solution focused approaches.

The purpose of lesson observation at our academy:

  • To stimulate professional reflection and dialogue.
  • To inform the coaching process and future developments both as an individual and at whole academy level.
  • To help us to deepen our understanding of learning and how we can, and do, make an impact upon it.
  • To make us even better teachers.

The main purpose of lesson observation at BCA is NOT to judge the quality of teachers but to help teachers, through support and coaching, to become even better at improving children’s learning.

We have moved away from using lesson observation as a method of evaluating teachers and now more typically use:
Outcomes (not just in exams).
Data tracking of children’s progress.
Typicality (not show boating or show casing) evidenced in ‘drop ins’ and ‘on call’ visits.
Evidence in ‘books’.
Behaviour log patterns.
Student voice; understanding of their next steps.

To further extend the trust we have in our staff to ‘do the right thing when nobody is looking’ we plan to trial the idea of ‘unseen observations’ in the summer term. This is process I first heard of through the work of @drmattoleary in his book on classroom observations.

unseen obs

the unseen observation will be the third of three observations. The first one in the Autumn Term focuses on an area of personal development; the second in the Spring Term is going to observe a colleague who is working, or has worked, on a similar focus in order to learn from them; the third one is the ‘unseen observation’. One of the principle aims of the ‘unseen observation’ at our academy will be to provide an opportunity for our teachers to engage in analysis of, and reflection on, their teaching. There is no observer entering the classroom and, therefore, no disturbance to the classroom dynamics.

ted_wragg_small“When someone new comes into the classroom to observe, then the very presence of an additional adult who is not normally present may influence what happens”
(Wragg, E. C. 2012. An introduction to classroom observation).

The ‘observation’ is undertaken by the teacher with the development work happening mainly in the pre and post-lesson conversations.

The purpose of this approach to observations is to further eliminate ‘showboating’ and ‘hoop jumping’ and create an opportunity for reflection, analysis and sharing. This takes place through the detailed conversation about the teacher’s planning and analysis of its effectiveness. The stimulus for the professional dialogue between the supporting teacher(s) and the teacher and is based on the letter’s self-analysis of the lesson itself. The focus for the work is the teacher’s own chosen area for growth as outlined in their personal development plan (PDP).

1: Phase/Year group/subject meeting

The teachers share and explain to their respective teams what they have been focusing on this year. The purpose is to find out about the different PDP focuses, what strategies are being employed, what learning tasks and activities are being used, and how they use them in order to address the focus of their PDP.

quotation-marks-1“The teacher’s experience and perceptions of the teaching situation form the basis for the collaborator’s work in development.”

(D. Freeman 1989 Teacher training, Development, and Decision Making: A model of teaching and related strategies for language teacher education).

The teachers at their respective planning meetings talk through their PDPs; what they have been focusing on and what impact they hope to have. Then they present their plans for their ‘unseen observations’ and the team collaboratively plan further to ensure the explicit practice of their chosen focus. The other teachers’ (‘observers’) role is to listen, not to judge. To support, guide and challenge each other.

‘Observers’ should play the role of ‘question asker’ only without interfering in the teacher’s thoughts or impeding the plan they have prepared. The observers’ job is to inquire more than to dictate or even suggest. The focus here is to encourage the teacher to reason their decisions about the lesson and to create a self-analytical approach.
(Quirke, P. 1996. Using unseen observations for an in-service teacher development programme).

Each teacher may be given a series of questions to consider during the lesson to facilitate further reflection and analysis. These questions help focus on ‘why’ and aim to aid the teacher’s objective analysis. They are worked out with the teacher and differ for each case. The various year or subject teams encourage each other to articulate their ideas and put them into practice, thereby hopefully promoting the teacher’s development and tangible impact on the children’s learning.

2: The unseen lesson.moonwalking-with-einstein-book-cover

The secret to improving a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practising…to force oneself out of autopilot.

(Moonwalking with Einstein. J Foer.)

The teacher teaches the lesson without worry that something might not go to plan. The purpose of the lesson is to consciously practise and make explicit the strategies that address the issues outlined in their PDP. The purpose is not only to observe ‘How do I teach?’, but to decide ‘Why do I teach what I teach?’, ‘Why do I teach how I do?’ and ‘What impact am I having on the children’s learning?’ The other purpose of the unseen observation is to inform the write up of their PDP.

3: Post lesson discussion and feedback.

51mIhQBPyiL__SX402_BO1,204,203,200_“Conversations about practice constitute a critical vehicle for professional learning.”

Charlotte Danielson – Talk about teaching

At a subsequent team each teacher recalls the lesson, sharing a realistic picture of what happened. The team listen to the teacher’s version of it after the event. They see the lesson through the eyes of the teacher and rely on the teacher as a professional to accurately report back.

The ‘observers’ role is to ask questions about the lessons. This does not include any type of evaluation by the observers as the main purpose is to reveal what happened in the unseen lesson.

Reflective discussion can be quite a challenge and it is important that the team encouragPicture2e reflection through a series of questions that enable the teacher to unpick the ‘unseen’ lesson.

The familiar GROW structure helps here.


4: Personal development plan (PDP) write up and sharing.

Each teacher prior to the feedback team meeting complete a write up of their PDP which addresses the following four questions:

What did you intend to achieve this year?
What did you do to move towards achieving this aim?
What has the impact been of this work on the children’s learning?
How might you further develop this work?

At the team meeting, after all have shared their unseen lesson, each teacher has an opportunity to share this write up so all team members are aware of their colleague’s work and may also learn from each other. To ensure that professional growth is seen as a continuous process, the team may suggest possible areas for development and a potential future focus for continuing research and professional growth.

This approach is a way to encourage trust and autonomy; for teachers to take responsibility for their own professional growth, to depend on themselves and each other in terms of evaluating their own practice and further move them towards excellence without the need for an observer. It also encourages accountability as all are expected to contribute and is an efficient and effective way to round off the year of PDP focused professional growth.

 I trust my teachers to be do the right thing even when no one is watching…
…and they do!

Tell me what you think.