“Shoot an apple from the boy’s head. If you miss, your own head shall pay the forfeit.”
Wilhelm Tell, by Friedrich Schiller, 1804.
In the 14th century, Switzerland was ruled by the Habsburg Emperors of Austria. From 1300, Gessler, the Austrian ruler of Swiss Altdorf on Lake Lucerne, raised a pole in the village’s central square, hung his hat on top of it, and demanded that all the townsfolk bow before the hat. In 1307, William Tell, mountaineer and expert crossbow marksman, walked by the hat with his son and refused to bow to it. Gessler, infuriated by his defiance but intrigued by his fame, arrested him and devised a cruel punishment: execution unless he could shoot an apple off his son’s head with a single crossbow shot. Tell split the apple, struck a blow for liberty, and sparked Switzerland’s successful rebellion for independence.
The fearful prospect of a missed target
Ask any teacher for their experience of summative observations, and it’s likely their answer will involve various expletives. It’s no surprise that The Guardian’s Secret Teacher guest bloggers, given a choice of any topic, have several times chosen to fulminate about them, asking: is the system of judgment on teachers counter productive? why do we continue with this outdated system of pre-planned lesson observations? surely schools can find a better way to assess teaching and progress?
Four of Britain’s top education bloggers, Tom Bennett (‘why we need an observation revolution: being formally observed ranks just below self-immolation as an activity of choice’), Andrew Old (‘there is a big problem with this obsession: the quality of teaching is impossible to judge objectively’), David Didau (‘where lesson observations go wrong: why do we insist on grading lesson observations?’) and Tom Sherrington (‘the snap-shot observation process is flawed’), have asked similar questions.
To my mind, there are four problems with our system of summative observations:
1. High-stakes judgements create undue pressure and stress.
2. Numerically graded labels lead to over-prepared performances.
3. Criteria and targets are often unhelpful or counterproductive.
4. The one-off observation model is a chronically narrow snapshot of actual teaching.
This blogpost, all I want to do is collate what teachers are saying about the current system of lesson observations. Anecdotes and comments from across the education blogosphere tell their own story:
1. High-Stakes Judgement: Under The Microscope
“The stress that this causes some teachers desperate to please is damaging to so many.
The work load and target setting is ridiculous and it solves nothing”.
“If we tried to meet the outstanding criteria in every lesson every day the teaching profession would end up having a mass nervous breakdown.”
I can honestly say that this was the cause of me leaving my post in July. As an accomplished AST, head of department and recently appointed SLE, my and my team’s classes did well and lessons were generally graded positively. Results were outstanding but this was never good enough. However, the constant observations, enforcement of policies decided by SLT without any consultation, lesson format, learning objectives and the like created such an environment that I just lost interest. As teaching is all I’ve ever wanted to do, my sudden decision to quit surprised me as much as my Head. Something needs to happen before more teachers give in, like I have”.
“My colleagues and I work in a climate of fear. We see people crying in their cars; not able to come in for fear of the day ahead. People crying in corridors after years of successful teaching, demoralised and mystified by bad observation feedback. The big difference is that these days judgements are accompanied by dangerous consequences for individuals. Since September we come to work every day with fear in our bellies. We jump through every hoop we are given. Yet, whatever we do, it never seems to be enough and sadly I am starting to see some of my colleagues begin to give up, lose confidence and go on Prozac”.
“I have been teaching for nearly 30 years and I have never felt so stressed. I, for one, am sick and tired of the endless observations, monitoring, scrutinies. Why are teachers so mistrusted in the UK? I am looking for out as I personally cannot think of much longer working in this madness”.
“I recently retired from headship. Two periods of stress and other health complications led me to decide enough is enough. I miss many aspects of the job but I do not miss the demands on school leaders to be an “enforcer” rather than a “supportive” leader.”
“This year it seems like I have been observed within an inch of my teaching life. It has not been an easy process or one full of much joy. There has been a great deal of tears and much soul searching after a succession of ‘Requires Improvement’.
“…My Head of Faculty walked in with a member of SLT. The anxiety levels cranked up. The judgement was a Grade 3 ‘Requires Improvement’. Feedback began with the, ‘How do you think it went?’ question, and being very much negative in my thinking, and relentlessly self-critical, I picked out the flaws in the lesson.
“This lead to feeback delivery being in the tone of a doctor delivering news of a terminal illness, and was relentlessly critical for what seemed like forever, to the extent I stopped the conversation demanding some positives. I was so angry. I then spent a good hour in a different SLT member’s office sobbing, and sobbing, and sobbing.
“…The process? Vampiric in its demands on your mind, body and soul.
2. Numerical Grading: A Game of Twister
“We have so many priorities and so many different focus areas that we all have stress paralysis. We have no idea where to start. A basic lesson is now no longer good enough. We try and shoehorn all our priorities into one lesson when Ofsted arrives, but, alas, trying to get them all in means you now spend too much time talking! Your lesson, despite your best efforts, still ‘requires improvement’.”
“When I observe my teachers, I am reduced to grading a teacher on a 1-4 tick box sheet.”
“Outstanding becomes so unattainable you give up trying, it’s like playing a game of twister.”
“Spot on, simply impossible to attain ‘outstanding’ without literally working 14+ hours per day, everyday”.
“I recall the weakness of formal lesson observations from my own experience as an observer. (I reluctantly did them to play the OFSTED game) I watched a good teacher produce a lesson that was inadequate – she was teaching a demanding concept to a low ability class – she had taken a gamble to try something difficult. I couched the feedback into a something more positive unconvinced that labelling her inadequate would do anything than undermine her confidence as a practitioner. I then went back a week later and dropped in on the follow up lesson. Far from giving up because the first lesson did not work she retaught that concept making adjustments gleaned from her experience of the less good lesson. The students had grasped a concept many would have thought well beyond such a group. To me that teacher was not, and should never have been left, with a message that she was inadequate”.
“I went from being an outstanding teacher (in an OFSTED observed lesson) in July to a notice to improve in a peer obs lesson in October. I was given a ‘pep talk’ by my line manager informing me that if I didn’t get at least a grade 2 on my next observation I would be put on capability proceedings! This is madness – one bad lesson does not make a good teacher incapable. Anywhere else this would be an off day and nothing else. Incidentally, I got a grade 2 in my next observation but the damage has been done. I have decided that I cannot stay in this profession any longer and am leaving teacher at the end of this year”.
“14 days ago I delivered an inadequate lesson after 8 years of solidly good and outstanding teaching but more importantly after dedicating my life to 100’s of children at the expense of my own 3. I was then watched again to deliver another inadequate lesson unsurprisingly though as I was terrified of not “pushing the more able” and ended up teaching something far too complex. I just don’t get it …what is the magic formula? It’s not as if myself and my colleagues want to be awful, we wouldn’t spend all our waking and sleeping hours on the job. I might as well have sat at the front of the class and eaten my lunch during my observation 2 weeks ago. The verdict would not have differed. I am now a shadow of my former self trapped and exhausted and well on the way to capabilities. Teaching is a living nightmare.”
“If teachers are waiting to find out what grade I think their lesson is they won’t hear very much else. And as soon as I’ve told them, they’re either too relieved or devastated for any kind of developmental conversation”.
“Can we define an outstanding lesson? No. ‘Outstanding’ is a chimera. You can’t bottle lightning and you can’t show someone how to be outstanding”
“During a short observed segment of a two hour double lesson, I was judged requires improvement because “I didn’t see you assess their progress, you knew you were being observed so you should have played the game and done a different lesson that ticked all the boxes.”
“Good and outstanding are arbitrary, subjective judgements made of students performance. If all we’re interested in is an ability to respond to familiar cues then, really, what’s the point?”
“When I was training I didn’t get a 1 because “I didn’t stick to the timings that I wrote on my lesson plan” – they were personal little reminders to keep the pace as I certainly never expect a lesson to run by a minute by minute timing guide! The second was that to get a 1 I needed “to create more humour” in my lesson. Didn’t realise I needed to be a comedian to teach!”
“I agree with you about the arbitrary and subjective nature of “outstanding” judgements. Two examples of terribly frustrating feedback from SLT: (My lesson – HOD English- Y10 poetry using drama): that was enjoyable, fascinating and an inspiring lesson. However, although last week you would have got a 1 (beware HT who has been on Ofsted training), this week you are a 2 because there was not enough differentiation. Me- I did differentiate the written response. HT- yes, but you should have differentiated the drama. Me – How? HT- I don’t know. (Colleague’s lesson, a teacher I rate as outstanding in every way): that was a “good” lesson. It wasn’t a 1 because Courtney had her head down on the desk for 3 minutes. (Never mind the poor kid’s headache in 30+ temperatures as the windows won’t open for H&S reasons…and her later involvement in the lesson.)”
“The day I realised that applying ‘interpreted’ and disaggregated OFSTED criteria for single lesson observation was nonsense: “It’s a 1 for everything except progress in the lesson which has to be a 2 – so it’s a 2 overall. The students have made the expected progress but not necessarily ‘outstanding progress’ in this lesson.”
“Because I talked too much, did not include half a dozen necessary ‘priorities’, did not have the aims and objectives on the board, it was a Grade 3 – “requires improvement”. I was told that I must now undergo mentoring to improve my performance, to which I said “Bollocks – show me how to do it, then”, (and the demand was promptly dropped). These students, so badly let down by my teaching, went on the score 8xAs, 7xBs, 9xCs and nothing less in the subsequent exam”.
3. Ever-Shifting Sands: Unhelpful Criteria…
“I was observed by my head with a Year 7 DT class. Normally they would be busy making their little wooden toys with great enthusiasm and the room would be buzzing. However this lesson would not tick the boxes so it was a whiteboard, objectives, AFL and differentiation! The system is on its knees!”
“I am fed up with being told what to do. I cannot be as passionate about ticking boxes as I can about demonstrating science”.
“I’m sick of the half-witted box-ticking exercises which simply get in the way of teaching and learning.”
“Classroom teachers know that the ‘outstanding’ criteria are unsustainable on a lesson-by-lesson basis, as do middle and senior management. As must OfSTED. However, we all play along with performance management targets, classroom observations, and inspections which assume that we are all working towards these externally set ‘success’ criteria.”
“Right now I spend nearly as much time documenting as I do doing”.
“As a primary headteacher, where I have a huge issue is with the outstanding rating. If you look at the Ofsted criteria, the difference between good and outstanding descriptors is frequently the odd adjective or adverb, often fairly meaningless and open to wide interpretation”.
“The general feeling I’m getting is that, in many cases, the observation process is actually hampering teachers’ self-confidence and ability to do the job well. The flow of learning across a longer period of time is disrupted as teachers tie themselves in knots attempting to demonstrate all the strategies, skills and outcomes dictated by the ever-changing criteria against which they are to be judged”.
“One school I worked in decided lesson objectives simply weren’t enough. There should be a “WALT” (We Are Looking To) -a short description of what the students were hoping to have achieved by the end of the lesson – and a “WILF”. WILF turned out to be a description of three different levels of achievement and the academic grades they corresponded to, all of which were to be explained to the entire class. This was promoted as something that would help the school pass OFSTED. When OFSTED did arrive they ended up complaining that the teachers spent too much time talking to the class.”
“Hideous ever-changing goalposts don’t reflect any trust. We are losing the inspiring teachers and this is unforgivable. The system has gone beyond just weighing pigs to measuring every conceivable aspect of the pig irrespective of it adding any value to the learning”.
… and Unhelpful Targets
“Having sat through many an inset day presentation on how to ensure an ‘outstanding’ grade in a lesson, I think I know the drill:
• Always do group work and never ever have the students writing for any length of time as this is boring and therefore ‘inadequate’.
• If the teacher talks for more than five minutes at a time, this is boring and therefore ‘inadequate’.
• You must demonstrate progress every 10 or so minutes through some sort of questioning or feedback. If an observer walks in, then you should stop the children from working and immediately ask them to tell you what they’ve learned.
“Kids weren’t allowed to read aloud in class as it wasn’t a challenging activity. It would have been better if they had got out of their seats”.
“Told to foster independence with no further guidance as to how. Told not to talk so much. Told the lesson not outstanding because 2 students didn’t take enough ownership of their learning”.
“Quality of explanations are literally never commented on. At worst you’re told to eliminate the explanation which enabled them to do the work.”
“Simple straightforward practice is labelled boring. Apparently 5 questions would have been enough for my low ability year 9s to master simplifying fractions and then I should’ve moved on. Rather than giving them 10 of the same questions, couldn’t you give them maybe 3 or 4, and then start putting in something that requires more effort, like a reverse problem? My blunt answer was no.”
“If I were to teach a lesson where I told them what iambic pentameter was and made them practice looking at examples, I’d probably get no more than a 3”.
“I was told there was not enough AfL in my Maths lessons because there were no mini-whiteboards.”
4. Flawed Snapshot
“Announced observations create a false impression”.
“I used to treat observations like a driving test. You don’t fail your driving test for not looking in the mirror, you fail because the examiner did not see you look in the mirror. I would tell them, via the students, exactly what I was doing. “I’m not going to share the exact objectives today as I don’t want to destroy the discovery…” “Obviously, I can’t teach you anything without knowing what you know so ….” and 20 minutes later “I wonder if you have made progress, let’s find out ….” It was a whole nonsense performance, but proved to be very effective in getting “Outstanding” grades. Never assume the observer can see what you are doing”.
“A former colleague told me they’d spend hours planning a lesson for an observation by their boss. Resources had been perfected, an incredibly detailed lesson plan written and an overly-complicated PowerPoint produced. Why? The opinion of their boss matters, as it should, and they were aiming for an outstanding judgement. But isn’t this twisted logic? Not all lessons can be planned and prepped to this level of detail, so the question that needs to be asked is: is the system of judgment on teachers counter productive? What about the other lessons that week? If I can achieve an outstanding after five hours of prep, but usually I plan lessons in 20 minutes, is it fair to class me as an outstanding teacher?”
“The idea of observing one lesson which forms a series of lessons to make a judgement, is entirely flawed. It shows a lack of understanding of sound pedagogy.”
“…and not only one lesson but a part of one lesson, during which you are supposed to demonstrate all the ‘priorities’”.
“Any single lesson exists in a wider context. Teachers need to have the confidence to plan lesson sequences where learning and progress are evidenced over time, not in artificial bite-sizes just to satisfy the accountability process. One-off lesson observations are very limited in value. We need more points of reference”.
As a headteacher, I watched a lesson alongside an observer taught by someone who I believe is a cast-iron teaching expert, who year on year secures extraordinary outcomes and who I feel knows their subject so well that if they think teaching a certain way is appropriate, no-one bar none (and certainly no inspector) could really argue. So how on Earth did we end up accepting that this lesson segment was judged ‘Good’ without running the observer out of town? I’m ashamed of myself for allowing that to happen. Not enough differentiation? Get away….. Nothing about the overall, long-term experience of learning in this teacher’s lessons is less than outstanding; it was the snap-shot observation process that was flawed.
What’s so problematic about our observation system?
In sum, summative observations are high stakes, high stress, high pressure. They judge teachers by grading lessons on a 1-4 number scale, unhelpfully labelling them. They encourage over-prepared ‘performances’ and don’t enable anyone to build any kind of picture of what learning is actually happening day-to-day. The criteria don’t often help teachers improve. The feedback is unhelpful or counterproductive. The whole process of taking a one-off snapshot is flawed.
As Old Andrew says, “the key problem here is that something that should be informal – the monitoring and support of teachers – has become formal. As ever the education bureaucracy has decreed that good practice only counts if it generates a paper trail. I welcome any teacher coming into my classroom, but the moment they are bringing forms to fill in, they have ceased to be anything but a nuisance.”
As Tom Bennett says, “High stakes observations help no one; they turn what should be beautiful opportunity to learn and train into a gauntlet… Observations stifle good teaching, when they should be helping to generate it. As a teacher, being formally observed ranks just below self-immolation as an activity of choice. Careers are moulded by such things, and broken too. Observations are a powerful lever to enact change, especially when they are linked to career progression, pay increments, and performance management measures. The thirst for hard data to feed the maw of the evidence machine perverts and vivisects the practice of teaching… It is a death by a thousand ticks.”
As David Didau says, “Lesson observation, if it is to be productive and actually help teachers improve, needs to focus less on making judgements and more on teasing out teachers’ expertise”.
The most striking questions from the comments on the Secret Teacher articles ask, with urgent insistency: “If we can see the stupidity of all this then why aren’t we doing something about it?” “Why teachers don’t argue their case more?” “Why are we continuing to let this happen?”
It is to this I turn for my next blog: how can we improve our system of observations? Just as in the story of William Tell, instead of subserviently bowing to false idols, the struggle may yet be won.