I observed our department’s new unqualified teacher yesterday. Goodness knows how tough it must be but he is doing really, really well.
Oops… I have just made a statement that has become controversial. How can I possibly know how well he is doing? The message from twitter and a spate of blogs recently is that student learning can’t be observed; that single lesson observations are remarkably unreliable ways of judging teacher quality.
I do actually pretty much agree with those arguments. Schools across the land need to hear that message and stop judging the quality of someone’s teaching based on one lesson, or even a twenty minute snap shot. It IS crass to do so and often our judgements tell us more about our own teaching preferences than the effectiveness of the teacher we observe. If you are unaware of the research that demonstrates just how unreliable individual lesson observations are for judging teacher quality I urge you to read this. http://www.cem.org/blog/414/
However, and it is a big however, I question the assumption of some that we can’t make any judgements from lessons and thus provide other teachers with guidance.
Our new teacher’s lesson was on the events leading up to WW1. I first taught that lesson twenty two years ago, using some of the same resources as he used yesterday. Subsequently I must have taught hundreds of students of all abilities that very material. As I sat quietly at the back of the classroom I realised I just ‘knew’ what was going on. I could ‘read’ the lesson; see each teacher dilemma, anticipate the pitfalls. I just ‘knew’ how much was being learnt and I just ‘knew’ what some of the class didn’t understand. I might not be able to see inside every child’s mind but I knew the sort of learning that transpires longer term from that teaching. Those are big claims but I don’t know how else to describe how it felt. I had some insight into what was going on because I have done my time in the history classroom, earned those metaphorical leather elbow patches. If you’ve read Gladwell’s Outliers you might remember his observation that the apparent ‘talent’ of the expert who reports they just ‘know’ is actually the product of years of experience. I’m really not claiming infallibility (far from it) but I agree that all my experience does not count for nothing.
Ask yourself who you would rather give you feedback on a lesson. Would you prefer an observation by a teacher of another discipline with a few years solid classroom experience or an observation by a highly experienced practitioner in your own subject with a proven track record of success? Actually if I had neglected that class recently and the lesson was near the end of a series then definitely the former! I would be able to pull the wool over their eyes…
That is the problem with these sweeping pronouncements in education. Apparently research shows homework is not useful, that setting is worse than mixed ability, that class size doesn’t matter and now that lesson observation is unreliable. The problem is that there is some useful truth in all that research. I really don’t think we should dismiss all education research out of hand. I am grateful to the researchers that have demonstrated just how unreliable individual classroom observations can be. Thank goodness brain gym and learning styles have been debunked. However, the more general the conclusion, the less generalisable the finding can be to the classroom.
The usefulness of observation really depends WHO is observing and WHAT the school believes they can judge from the observation.
*YES as an experienced history specialist I can give real constructive help to a new department member but NO I could not judge a French teacher’s (or really any teacher’s) effectiveness for PRP or performance management based on a few lesson observations.
*I feel some confidence that I could identify genuine strengths and weaknesses in an INDIVIDUAL lesson of history when I am familiar with the material covered and especially if I have taught that content often before. Even then any specific grade I might give that lesson would not be reliable.
*A history specialist would be less able to reliably spot the weaknesses in a science lesson though. Their comments on things like behaviour management might be helpful but they just wouldn’t understand enough about what the teacher is trying to achieve and any judgements would inevitably depend on teaching style preferences and weak proxies for apparent learning such as degree of student engagement. I could spot something really bad but my ability to judge well would be limited. I think this is the truth we need to accept from the research.
Let’s not dismiss lesson observation out of hand but let’s also take the research on board. I would argue that WHO is observing and WHAT they are attempting to judge are crucial.