What are lesson observations? 

A lesson observation is the process where one or more observers watch a real-life lesson in order to provide feedback to the teacher delivering the lesson. It has been practised for a long time. In Japan, lesson study has a history that goes back over one hundred and forty years! However, in many countries lesson observation, at least of experienced teachers, was not that common during the 20th century – this article points out the relative freedom teachers had in the 1980s in the UK.

This changed from the 1990s in many countries – the idea that teachers could and should be assessed and graded on individual lessons was used more and more and linked to overall school performance reports as well as being used to manage teachers and determine whether they should receive pay increases. In England for example lessons were graded by the national OFSTED school inspectorate (set up in 1992) into one of 4 categories and used to set the overall grading of the school – with potentially highly significant consequences for the school and individuals.

Growing evidence over time, however, found that this was an ineffective use of lesson observation with potentially negative consequences on teacher retention. For example in England graded observations by OFSTED were ended in 2014 and replaced with a greater focus on student progress.

So, where are we today? Observations in one form or another take place in all schools. Research shows that over 40% of schools were still carrying out graded observations in early 2020, while others have tried ideas from learning walks (where a number of lessons are observed at the same time) to remote video-based coaching.

Are lesson observations effective? 

There is a significant amount of evidence now to show that using observation for grading individual teachers is not effective – this article by Professor Robert Coe brings much of it together. However, there is also growing evidence that using observations as part of a non-judgmental and ongoing coaching process can create positive change . For example  a 2017 meta-analysis found 33 rigorous studies evaluating teacher-based coaching programmes with an average effect size of 0.58, conventionally considered to be a ‘large’ effect. (Kraft MA, Blazar D and Hogan D (2018). The Effect of Teacher Coaching on Instruction and Achievement: A Meta-Analysis of the Casual Evidence, Review of Educational Research).

This chimes with our experience at ONVU Learning – when we work with schools that have a learning culture, observations lead to significant positive change.

What does an ideal lesson observation look like?

The best lesson observation would be one that engages teachers in a discussion about what happens in their classroom and helps them to improve outcomes for their students. We’d suggest observers do the following before the lesson to best prepare…

  1. Meet with your colleague. It’s amazing how many times in a school an observer can just choose a date and time and then turn up. This creates stress, with the teacher second-guessing in an attempt to create a ‘perfect’ lesson that meets all the perceived needs of the observer.
  2. Discuss the lesson and where it fits in the wider learning journey. This is a far better way to place the lesson in context than trying to read a lesson plan while observing. Discuss what students have been learning, what the purpose of that lesson is and what will happen next. This become even more important if you’re in a different department or phase to the person you are observing.
  3. Agree the purpose of the observation. Observations are best used purely for development, but if you are also looking to check compliance with school policies and procedures or to contribute to performance management or a qualification this needs to be made clear.
  4. Agree a focus for the observation. There’s clear evidence that trying to observe lots of different things in a lesson is counter-productive. With the right culture in your school your colleague should be happy to ask for you to focus on areas they are concerned about – such as giving clear explanations or managing low-level disruption.
  5. Agree a time for the observation. You don’t have to observe a whole lesson –if you are focusing on activities that take place at a specified time it might be better to watch the same part of two lessons with parallel classes, or to watch how the same class behaves at different times of the school day.
  6. Share how you will be observing. At the start of an observation programme, or if either of you are new to a school, it makes sense to talk through how observation will happen and what will be recorded where. Former head and teaching consultant Tom Sherrington suggests using this single sheet of paper to find ideas to discuss later – you could adapt the headings to your agreed focus.
  7. Fix a time for feedback. This should be as soon as possible after the lesson in order that you can both remember what happened but should be long enough to have a proper discussion – at least 20 minutes.
  8. Arrange a time for them to observe you. Mutual observation is an important way to build trust in a school, as well as to share different levels of expertise. Qualified classrooms teachers rarely get the opportunity to observe their peers, yet they are perhaps the best placed to offer practical and constructive advice.
  9. Review information about the class. once you know the lesson you are observing, review key information about the class – which students have special needs or are EAL, which ones have a history of poor behaviour.
  10. Visit the classroom and work out where you can best observe from. An observer will always change the dynamic of a classroom and you need to keep this to a minimum to add value to the process. If you can watch from an adjacent classroom (science prep rooms often allow this) or sit somewhere unobtrusive. Don’t try to be helpful and sit next to the students you think are worst behaved as you’re really just offering them a further distraction!

Other commentators have made other suggestions for ideal observations, including…

  • Use subject or phase experts to give feedback. In many areas, especially at more advanced levels in secondary schools, only teachers of that subject may understand the knowledge behind a lesson, while those used to older children may not be the best at giving feedback on teaching 5-year-olds! In smaller or less experienced departments it is often a good idea to bring in an experienced external mentor to help here.
  • Working on specific issues, rather than trying to feedback on every part of the lesson as often happens in formal observations. For example, you could look at how best to introduce new concepts, questioning or in-lesson assessment.

How long should lesson observations be?

Traditionally whole lessons have been watched, but with the move towards continuous development, it’s important to get the most value out of observations

Lesson observations have usually lasted for whole lessons but given the amount of time needed to review the whole lesson, and the move towards assessing learning over time, academic advice is suggesting that this may not be idea.

It’s also important that time is set aside not just for the observation but to prepare for the session and to discuss it afterwards. At many of our partner schools regular time is set aside each week for teacher Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and that means that lessons can be discussed quickly, and actions taken in response.

How do you write a good lesson observation?

There are a bewildering variety of lesson observation forms and templates, but the consensus among expert is that ‘less is more’, and checklists are definitely not suitable.

Lessonvu’s ALIGN process looks to transform this further by focusing teachers on ‘critical incidents’ within lessons rather than trying to make overall judgements.

How do you persuade teachers to see the benefits of lesson observation?

The summary above shows the dilemma facing schools around lesson observation – short vs long term and performance management vs real classroom improvement.

you need to work from the top. Ensure that senior set a ‘vision’ for the project. This needs to state clearly that the aim of the programme is to improve teaching, that the necessary time and resources will be allocated, and that it will be supported by a named senior leader.

In our experience, the next step is to set up a pilot project within a subject or phase grouping it would be better to select on this basis rather than choosing participants from across your school. Let them work with you on the project plan and timing. Within this group observations should be it reciprocal. Teachers learn just as much from observing a lesson as delivering one, so it’s important that everyone gets the chance to watch and share their lessons, however senior they are. Once you’ve got the programme up and running, you can share your findings internally, and introduce more and more teachers to the programme.

The impact of lesson observation – done properly!

At ONVU Learning we’ve worked with many schools – and it’s always the impact from the teachers in the classroom that we look for. Here are just some of the comments about benefits we’ve heard following video-based lesson observation and coaching.

  • ‘It’s already had a massive impact on progress. I used Lessonvu with a year 9 class. I just marked their essays today and already they are achieving 30% higher grades (English Teacher)
  • ‘All Classes are quieter and calmer. There is less low-level disruption … The most successful class has been my year 10s. They are my most challenging class. In the most recent GCSE Assessment, 5 students achieved a Grade 3, whereas none achieved this in November. I have not given a C3/C4 (detention, removal from class) this term compared to at least 5 last term.” (Head of Maths)
  • “From using the camera footage of my Year 9 lessons this term, I feel that there has already been a great impact on my teaching practice. The first time I used the camera and then viewed the footage with Ms Francis, I realised just how much I don’t notice about what goes on in my classroom that distracts pupils from their learning.”
  • (MFL teacher)
  • ‘It’s helped me find my teaching passion again’ (Head of MFL)

More detailed case studies of our work with schools in the UK and India can be found here. You can also download our detailed ‘Lesson Observation Guide’  which goes into much more detail about all aspects of observation, including a plan for rolling out changes in your school.

What are the practical issues that schools are facing returning to the ‘new normal’ of teaching? Read our ‘New Normal’ in Schools Guide to learn more!

DOWNLOAD ‘THE NEW NORMAL IN SCHOOLS GUIDE’