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Can observation pro formas be used well?

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Should observers waltz into lessons armed with a clipboard full of hoops they hope to see teachers jump through? No, probably not. Some years ago I wrote about my preference for how lessons should be observed:

The point of a lesson observation should not be to see whether a teacher is slavishly following a checklist, rather it should be to tease out how effectively they are teaching the students in front of them to master specific curriculum goals. Who cares if there’s ‘evidence of differentiation’ but the quality of students’ work is rubbish? Why would it matter if a ‘plenary takes place’ if students don’t remember the content next lesson?

I stand by this. But might there be circumstances where some sort of checklist might improve lesson observation? Adam Boxer’s blog on observing expert teaching suggests using a pro forma which incorporates Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction.

He caveats its use by clearly saying that it’s not intended to be a checklist but should rather be used as a “prompt for thinking”. There’s a lot to like in this, but I can’t shake a nagging suspicion such tools will end up having unintended – even perverse – consequences. Whatever our intentions, any lesson observation proforma that prompts observers to look for certain principles or behaviours seems to inevitably become a checklist with teachers trying to show observers what they expect to see.

But the items on this pro forma are good things and we almost certainly do want to encourage teachers to do them. So how can this sort of checklist be used effectively? In order to answer this question we need to think about why we observe lessons. My issue here isn’t with observation, it’s with lessons. In a now inaccessible blog called ‘A lesson is the wrong unit of time,’ Bodil Isaksen argued,

Thinking about an individual lesson leads us down the wrong path to the wrong solutions. Inspiration is not something cultivated by a one-off lesson. It is the product of day-in day-out ethos and teaching… Our planning is weakened by lesson-based thinking. It makes it too easy to forget about cohesion and natural progression over time.

Lessons always will be the unit of delivery in schools – there’s probably no other practical way to carve up the curriculum – but they do not have to be the unit of planning. Dividing schemes of work into individual lessons distracts teachers from concentrating on what is to be learned over time. The same problem applies to observation. We observe lessons because that’s what teachers teach, not because they afford us the best insight into teaching.

If we want to use observation pro formas like Adam’s wisely and well then perhaps we need to do more than to simply state tell observers that they should not expect to see every item in one lesson. Instead of using these prompts just as a lesson observation tool, they could be used to prompt discussion on teachers’ thinking about the curriculum.

So, how about using it like this: The teacher and the observer sit down with the pro forma and use it to plan the coming observation. Teachers could be invited to explain where where and when they might do some things and not others. So, if you were planning to observe a teacher teaching a lesson on, say, Macbeth, it might be worth having a discussion about where the particular lesson that will be observed fits into the scheme of work. What has already been taught? How were the principles employed at different stages of the teaching sequence so far? What should students be expected to know already and what might they be expected to have forgotten? Which of the principles should the observer expect to see in the lesson? Why these and not others? Getting teachers to articulate their thoughts on these things focuses them on thinking about the curriculum as the model of progression, but it also sets the agenda for the upcoming lesson. Together, the teacher being observed and the observer could put together a bespoke series of prompts that will guide the observation.

When it comes to watching the lesson, both the teacher and observer knows what they’ve agreed on and why. The teacher can get on with teaching whilst the bespoke pro forma will  keep the observer focussed on the effectiveness with which the teachers attempts what they’ve said they’ll do. Then, after the lesson, the discussion will more naturally rest on how well the teacher helped their students made progress through the curriculum.

The point is, checklists and pro formas can be useful when used at the right time by the right people in the right way. But, when even the most thoughtful and intelligent people design lesson observation pro formas they are likely to go wrong in predictable ways. If you want to use a checklist or pro forma well, don’t use it to observe lessons.

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