Sunday, 9 February 2014

Don't judge me?

A lot has been written lately about lesson observations and the wisdom/usefulness of grading single lessons or chunks of lessons. There is strong evidence that suggests observation is an inaccurate method of measuring the quality of learning, if indeed learning is something that can be observed or measured in any meaningful way at all.

So even if we accept that judging or evaluating the quality of learning is almost impossible to objectively achieve in a single lesson, should we give up the notion of evaluating the quality of teaching?

If a colleague or qualified peer comes into my classroom to observe my lesson I expect to receive honest and thoughtful appraisal. I’ll listen very carefully, take criticism to heart and feel a swell of the ego when praised. And that appraisal will be in my mind when I plan the next lesson - all to the good generally. That’s because I care about and respect the views of my colleagues and still have the same decidedly uncool desire to please teacher that I had when I was at school.

But not everyone feels this way. The process terrifies some: scared or scarred by poor experiences or aggressive management. Others have a loathing for the very notion of appraisal, seeing it as an unwarranted professional insult and intrusion. I have sympathy for the former position and some disdain for the latter.

I’ve thought about this quite deeply and experienced both approaches – graded and ungraded observations. There are two reasons why I have concluded that offering summative ‘judgements’ at the end of a (full) lesson observation are probably necessary. These reasons aren’t pretty but they are pretty important.

1.     Schools need to be able to identify under-performing teachers, strongly supporting issues of capability and, when sadly necessary, disciplining if the problem is one of misconduct/malpractice. This can’t come out of the blue and is usually (understandably) vigorously challenged by the individual concerned and their professional association. We therefore need a clear framework for the identification of inadequate teaching (what won’t be tolerated) and the subsequent support and actions (how will we help and at what point the teacher be removed from the classroom). Not a pleasant topic or process but essential at times. You have to identify when the teaching seen is inadequate and also when aspects of it require improvement.

2.     The profession needs to have a defined level of excellence to aspire towards. Teachers are generally pleasers – we like our students to get high marks because we loved nothing more than being awarded an A* ourselves. We are motivated by praise and positive feedback. We therefore need to know what we mean by excellence in teaching – there ought to be a means of recognising and celebrating when what you see a teacher doing in the classroom is sublime, inspiring or exceptional.

There are, however, big problems with these as positions. Point number 1 creates fear and point number 2 breeds resentment and jealousy. This is true at both teacher and whole school level.

The table below is an illustration of why I think the majority of lesson observations (those where the teaching is generally pretty good) are not all that useful. The aspects of teaching that ‘feedback’ tends to focus upon are generally the less contentious ones, the elements arguably less personal in terms of the teacher’s own persona and actions. BUT - the elements less often addressed in feedback are the ones that I tend to find get evaluated more when identifying either inadequate or exceptional teaching.

Feedback ‘comfort zone’…

Where feedback fears to tread…
Quality of resourcing
Regularity of feedback
Student effort
Timing/sequencing of activities.

Quality of instruction
Quality of questioning
Interactions with students
Teacher behaviours
Teacher expectations

When trying to define precisely why something went very badly or, conversely, why it went very well you often find yourself identifying precisely the things we politely avoid when evaluating most teaching. Consequently, I would argue that when the element of summative grading or judgment is removed, too much of the observation process gravitates towards the 'comfort zone' of less significant elements of the teaching, rendering the entire process less formative.

We need two things to happen instead of abandoning the notion of summative grading of the quality of teaching in a lesson. Firstly, the element of fear needs limiting by ensuring that progression to capability or career ending disciplinary procedures cannot be the result of a single observer’s perspective or (worse) of a single inspected lesson (moderation). Secondly, we need to abandon the notion that a teacher can be dubbed overall ‘outstanding’ or to ‘require improvement’.  The most skillful teachers deliver duff lessons; even the most average practitioners have inspiring moments. Most of us operate on a spectrum of capability that fluctuates quite widely depending on a range of factors, some in our control, many not (this weeks weather looks like testing lots of us for example!).

In seeking to avoid a system that unfairly stigmatises or labels teachers we must take care not to replace it with a toothless system supporting bland, unhelpful evaluations of the quality of teaching.

Plenty will disagree with me on this one I suspect. Doubtless a fascinating and very important debate.

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