The purpose of this short guide is to help teachers/lecturers and their managers to:
- be precise about objectives in observing or being observed,
- follow lesson observation processes accordingly,
- raise awareness of the skills sets of accomplished observers and observees, and thereby
- set about participating in lesson observations with increased confidence.
(My apologies if this guide sounds rather dogmatic. I have, however, based it on relevant literature and my experience as a teacher trainer.)
Objectives of lesson observations
- Performance appraisal
- External inspection
- Development of teaching skills
- Action research
1. Performance appraisal / 2. External inspection
It is common for teaching staff to be evaluated once or twice a year on their teaching performance through observation. The observer may be a department head or school vice-principal. Some would question the reliability of this form of appraisal, particularly in the case of inspections. See this article by Nick Morrison on Forbes for the arguments against and further references: http://www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorrison/2014/03/19/lesson-observations-are-no-way-to-grade-teachers/
However, for many teaching professionals it is still a reality to be faced. So, it is important to ensure that it is done as carefully as possible. There are many ways to conduct a lesson observation, but I suggest a three-step process based on reflective practice:
Reflection for action (Cowan, 1998)
- Before the observation
Reflection in action (Schön, 1983)
- During the observation
Reflection on action (Schön, 1983)
- After the observation
Before the observation
Ideally, there should be a face-to-face meeting beforehand to clarify several matters. As Brown (1993) said, “It is not enough simply to devise a universal checklist and send line managers out to do it.”
- The teacher tells the observer about the learners and the lesson objectives
- The observer takes note of any special considerations
- The teacher & observer agree on the observation process and focus
- The teacher & observer make sure they understand the appraisal criteria & standards in the same way. For example, what does “maintains good pace of learning” mean?
During the observation
- The observer tries not to distract the learners or the teacher
- The observer pays attention to all criteria that were selected
- The teacher focuses on the learners and learning and teaches as normally as possible
- The observer summarises impressions by the end of the lesson
After the observation
- The teacher completes a self-evaluation before forgetting the details
- The observer considers the teacher’s self-evaluation and adjusts appraisal or feedback accordingly
- The observer and teacher exchange views on how well assessment criteria were met, or on the focus of the lesson observation
- The observer and teacher decide upon future priorities and concrete action points
By contrast, this type of lesson observation is characterized by the following terms: voluntary, forward-looking, formative and constructive. Such an observation can be beneficial for lecturers/teachers at any stage of development.
Frequently, the observer is a peer, or possibly an external consultant without vested interests. The role of the observer is to act as a trusted colleague to assist their partner in reflecting on their teaching. The observer does not need to be more knowledgeable about learning-teaching approaches.
I would argue that written impressions by observers should not be recorded and stored in teachers’ records. Otherwise, there is a danger of them being used to inform decisions about contract renewals or promotions.
“The process of observation should be developed between those staff involved.” I suggest that the three-step process above could still be helpful, minus the appraisal element.
The focus of observation is also negotiable. For example, lecturers teaching the same subject could witness alternative ways of presenting the same content, or developing the same skills in students. Alternatively, a lecturer could experiment with a revised learning task and get a second opinion on its design and effectiveness. In order to ensure that the observer’s attention remains on the selected focus, an observation instrument can be devised.
Action research observations are similar in nature to professional development observations in that they are non-evaluative of the lecturer/teacher. They are distinguished by, for instance, their greater formality, use of more precisely designed observation instruments and pre-conceived ways to process collected data. Findings are written up for publication or presentation and may inform revisions in learning/teaching practices or curricula design.
In part two of this mini-guide, I will provide more detail about the skills of participating in lesson observations.
Borich, G. D. (1994). Observation skills for effective teaching. New York : Merrill.
Brown, S., Jones, G. & Rawnsley, S. (Eds) Observing Teaching SEDA Paper 79 (Birmingham, Staff and Educational Development Association): 19–22.
Cowan, J. (1998). On becoming an innovative university teacher. Buckingham, UK : SRHE and Open University Press.
Higher Education Academy Resource Pages on Peer Observation of Teaching: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/subjects/escalate/1043_Peer_Observation_of_Teaching
Montgomery, D. (2002). Helping teachers develop through classroom observation. London : David Fulton.
Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner : How professionals think in action. New York : Basic Book.