Observing Lessons

Observing Lessons

Two of my #teacher5aday pledges for 2017 were to get out and explore more of the area where I live, and to keep practising taking photos.

I decided to take a trip to the Otter Estuary and see if I could take a few pictures of birds. I have never been birdwatching before, and wasn’t sure if I would enjoy it, but the experience of spending an hour just siting and looking was really interesting.

I tried very hard not to think about work, but I never seem to be able to completely switch off. I have been thinking a lot about lesson observations lately, and in the time I spent walking and watching I was able to clarify my thoughts about some of the limitations of formal lesson observations. I came up with three issues for lesson observers to bear in mind:

  1. If you just look for one thing you might miss something wonderful


I sat on a bench overlooking the estuary looking for the wading birds listed on the very helpful information board. I must have chosen a bad time to be looking, but all the birds I could see were so far away it was difficult to tell them apart, even when using the pictures to help identify them. I gave myself a good amount of time, but began to feel that I was wasting my time. Then I caught a glimpse of this beautiful robin out of the corner of my eye – she was sitting on a branch just to the side of me, and it felt like she was watching me to see what I was up to. She sat still while I took a photo, and I as really pleased not to have missed her. When you observe lessons you can only see what you happen to be looking at, and may well miss the magic happening elsewhere in the room. If you just look for one thing you might miss something wonderful. 

2. You’re only ever seeing a snapshot of what is really happening


I found a bench underneath a bridge where the water was moving more quickly. I took this picture, and could try to describe exactly what is happening and what I can see. But this would not be describing the river – however much detail I put in it would only be describing a split second of what was actually there. When you observe a lesson you only see a small part of what is going on in a classroom. You can’t see what happened before or after you were there, and it is so complex that no-one can really accurately describe it to you. Making any sort of accurate summative judgement about the quality of teaching with this limited information is impossible. You’re only ever seeing a snapshot of what is really happening.

3. Being there changes what you are observing


I saw a flock of birds in the distance, so walked towards them to try and take a group photo. It was a bit of a walk, but I was enjoying the challenge of not thinking about work, so headed off to a spot above where they were. In the meantime, a group of people walked past and the birds relocated themselves. I took the photo anyway as it is a lovely view. In the same way, when you go into a classroom, the children and adults can change the way they behave and interact. Being there changes what you are observing.

These conclusions aren’t new and they’re not a comprehensive analysis of the problems associated with formal lesson observations, but I have found it helpful when thinking about what we might do instead in the future.