Lesson observations in secondary school

David Didau’s book “What if everything you knew about education was wrong”, has a chapter entitled “Why lesson observation doesn’t work”, which is a fantastic response to members of SLT who think observation is the key to school improvement. However, the one thing he omitted to mention was that observations at secondary level become even more pointless if the observer does not have the specialist subject knowledge.

I remember observing an A level physics class and having to grade it and comment on the teacher’s subject knowledge. I felt a complete fraud. Of course, I could see whether the students seemed engaged, knew what they were doing, were receiving feedback and having their written work marked, but beyond that I didn’t have a clue what the teacher was going on about. She could have been teaching them absolute rubbish, but I wouldn’t have known.

Now that I am a head of department, I have had many observations by people who do not speak or understand a word of the language I have been teaching. I have even had some “outstandings” from them. When you think about it, it is quite frightening to think how easy it could be for me to go on for years peddling misconceptions. Equally, when being criticised, I resent comments from non specialists wondering why the children were noting down vocabulary in the lesson ( surely it was all in their textbook or couldn’t I have given them a sheet), or telling me that it was too teacher centred.

This leads into another issue – we all have our own prejudices as to what constitutes a good lesson and we will look for things that confirm those prejudices and disparage things that don’t. We are all human beings and we are not as objective as we like to think. I have to observe my colleagues teaching and I do not always agree with everyone’s approach. I find it difficult to keep my own prejudices out. Nevertheless, at least my colleagues are aware that I have specialist subject knowledge and know what it is like to teach it, day in and day out.

That being said, Didau has now convinced me that observations as we currently carry them out are largely pointless. He does have some useful ideas as to how to make them better and I recommend his book to anyone who works in education. For myself, the only value of observations is picking up new teaching ideas which I could use.

P.S. I think head teachers might take a different view on observations if they were required to be observed, say twice a year, by a member of the governing body. This person could shadow the head teacher all day and take time at the end to dissect what could have gone better (“that assembly was well handled, but really the phone call to the parent required improvement and you didn’t chair that SLT meeting properly!”). They, too, might then appreciate the need for observers with specialist knowledge!

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4 Responses to Lesson observations in secondary school

  1. I like the idea of lessons observations to pick up helpful practices from others.

    Where I work, performance management hinges on your results and on your lesson ob gradings. I am quite worried because my line manager is the complete opposite to me in terms of teaching style!


  2. Fantastic idea.
    They should teach AND be observed, and not just by their ‘friends’ who they’ve just promoted.
    They need to have a class for 1 yr or 2 so that they have some personal VA to defend.
    They should show us sets of books so that we can all see how well they are following their own marking policies.
    Also I have come to the conclusion that I am ‘pissing in the wind’ regarding appraisal as a recent lesson was downgraded because of what I consider to be subjective contradictory opinions.


    • nictaewa says:

      I teach in an open spaced modern learning environment. I have to say that I learn far more in terms of observations teaching next to people teaching different subjects across a year then I can merely going into one-off sessions. To make any meaningful conclusion or discussion it must be a prolonged period of observing & conversations.


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