What I have learnt from our learning observations

This week I have been the observed and the observer for our new Learning Observation process. Our Teaching and learning team have invented a new process that, rather than having the teacher as the central focus of the observation, places the student at the heart of the observed lesson.

The premise is the criterion which requires teachers to take account of the needs of all students so whilst for the purposes of this observation we are asked to identify two students for the observer to focus on, we are, actually working on developing our thoughts about how we ensure students within sub-groups make the progress that we are expecting them to make.

Prior to the observation we are asked to select the two students – AMA, SEN, FSM etc etc – that we want our observer to focus on in the lesson. Because I was being observed with my top set, I decided to focus on the AMA sub-group. Conscious that I lack experience, and potentially confidence, in targeting level 7 students I thought this was a fantastic choice of class for my head-teacher to come and observe me with. I went through the AMA data and chose two students for very different reasons. Student A, registered AMA had a target grade of a level 7A but in the last reading assessment had attained a 5A and, therefore, was significantly under-achieving. Student B, also registered AMA also had a target grade of a level 7A but attained a level 6A in the last reading assessment and, therefore, was considered on target. I wanted my observer to see if there was any difference in terms of how the students applied themselves in the lesson, their level of understanding and their output.

For each of the four Ofsted strands: Learning and Progress, Teaching, Assessment for learning and Behaviour we are asked to consider, as we are planning, what our expectations for those students are in terms of what we expect their outcomes to be. So when I was considering Student A, I felt producing a paragraph of analysis at a level 6 would be a solid outcome, despite his target being a level 7. Whereas, in contrast I felt that Student B’s outcome would be a paragraph that was more reflective of a level 7. Furthermore, in considering Behaviour, I felt that Student A would appear less focused and would be more easily distracted than Student B who would remain focused throughout but less likely to offer responses. I found this process incredibly useful as it really made me consider how well I felt I knew or understood the students in the class. Considering their needs in that detail made me think more about how I could accommodate them through the range of tasks and activities which did ensure a range of differentiation strategies were used.

Once the students have been identified and the lesson planned, the premise is that you have time with your observer to discuss the lesson and the students you have chosen, exploring the rationale behind both.
And then you, or the students, are observed. The lesson itself in terms of an observation didn’t feel very different. I taught, the kids learnt and the observer, observed.

However, it was the discussion that followed that was of a very different ilk. Rather than focusing on what I was doing in the classroom, we discussed student expectation and outcome. We explored differentiation, progress and mastery, perhaps not with regard to what was seen and my own professional development but with the faculty in mind and so ideas and actions in terms of tackling such areas at a department level were discussed. This was empowering because rather than the conversation being focused on what I had or hadn’t done, the discussion centred around where the students were and why, where we could take them (as a faculty) and how this might be achievable which felt a much more productive use of time.

In addition, it was a really useful process for my observer as he articulated that, as a result of the observation, he had an enhanced awareness of the increasingly complexity with regard to the mastery of English in comparison to maths which, as a subject, is far less subjective. His level of empathy for the work I had been doing and still need to do had also developed but through the discussion we were able to think of ideas, strategies and actions to continue our movement forward.

I also found that I was not as irritated about not receiving a grade as I thought I might have been. I felt so energised by the discussion around teaching and learning that for the most part, I even forgot that grading had once been part of the process.

Then it was my time to do the observing. I met with the teacher in question and went through the lesson plan, the choice of students and the expected outcomes, ready for the observation the next day.
The observation process was really interesting. My mind-set had completely changed. Rather than focusing on the teacher, I put myself into the space of the child and continually found myself asking – was what they were doing benefitting them? Were they showing a development in a particular key skill? Was it engaging? My responses to those questions had to come from the child state which enabled me to view the lesson from a completely different perspective. And then these responses led me to the ultimate question – something we have been discussing for a long time – Does a great lesson from the teacher perspective make a great lesson from the student perspective? And the answer is no. But we knew this already, right?

This is, for me, what the new learning observation process has reinforced. For the past 5 years we have been jumping through hoops in order to achieve the elusive ‘Outstanding’. Modelling, differentiation, questioning, feedback, progress all have previously had to be evident within the lesson to ensure that outstanding grade. It has become a tick box of skills to demonstrate. Yet, 1) we know this is a false economy – we don’t perform like circus chimps every lesson – it would be impossible and 2) This is to the detriment of our students. In trying to hit all of the above criteria in an observed lesson out of a desire to be the outstanding teacher, we are losing sight of the main task at hand – the needs of the students and their learning process. Learning is not as fast paced as a 50 minute lesson and although one can demonstrate progress, it is, in fact, superficial at the least. I watched students attempt the tasks they were given but I also saw them not complete the activities because they weren’t given enough time to complete the task or enough time to develop the skill.

So where does this leave us? Slow down the learning but don’t make rapid progress? Make rapid progress but to the detriment of our students’ deeper learning?

For me, I am clear on where we need to be heading. It has made our direction even clearer and I am excited by the creative KS4 long term plan that will come from this. I am excited that we are going to slow down the learning at KS4 (and KS3) and that we are going to approach the curriculum delivery differently. I feel enthused, energised and motivated about designing this new curriculum with the knowledge that the students will be at the core. Not to say they weren’t before but this time a new approach will ensure that deeper, longer lasting learning will take place.And it is all thanks to our new learning observation. @Academictrust @kristianstill thank you 

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