This is a short reflection on the massive difference it makes when you stop grading lessons. I’ve embarked on the process of observing all of my teachers in my new school. Wow – what a privilege that is. So far I’ve seen 20 lessons – I saw 9 English lessons last week. I’ve got some joyous weeks ahead of me as I work through each department in alphabetical order. 97 teachers to see; a big undertaking but an absolute joy. This is all taking place in the context where, until this year, the school accountability systems and OfSTED gave grades for lessons. Grading was embedded in the culture, the policies and the documentation. I feel like the liberator – it’s a massive culture shift that is long overdue. Meanwhile, elsewhere, I know some schools are still grading lessons. Wake up people! You are Hiroo Onoda, fighting after the war has ended.
So, what difference does it make? Here’s a sample.
The lessons are more normal. You see regular lessons. People tell me so; they fret less about putting on a show and I’m more confident that what I see is what the students get on a normal day. There may be some tidying up but it’s not a performance.
The process encourages a stronger focus on learning than teaching. Grading could only be about the lesson snap-shot and that led to a focus on teacher-performance during an observation. Learning is long term; without grading, the discussions are about the whole process – what goes before, what follows and how a lesson fits into a big picture. Grading could never meaningfully capture that. Never.
The discussions are entirely different. You can get alongside the teacher; you can work together as professionals discussing the teaching process. What’s the thinking? How do you find that works? Could you try something else? How do you manage the ability range, the behaviour system, the scheme of work, the marking workload, the assessment process…? It’s all open for discussion, leading to a healthy exchange. People open up; they have the confidence to be confessional about the challenges they face. They are more receptive to suggestions for improvement and firmer messages about things that really ought to be better are easier to give.
It’s motivating. We are professionals – we can all discuss teaching and learning openly and freely. Gone are the days of a great teacher leaving a feedback session gutted and irritated with their Good because ‘technically’ it wasn’t an Outstanding. What a load of rubbish that is/was. It’s utterly liberating to have a professional discussion where that bit of stupidity has been removed.
I’ve had superb feedback from my staff about the discussions they are now having after lesson observations by me and our review team. There is not the slightest suggestion that this softens the process in any way. If anything, it helps to talk about everyone’s need for improvement because we are all in it – everyone has strengths and everyone has areas for development and we can get into the detail without the spectre of a judgement casting a shadow.
I once attended a conference session where a senior leader told us that, in his school, 85.26% of lessons were good or outstanding. Two decimal places – I kid you not. How pitifully delusional that all seems – and how toxic; a symptom of how far we’d fallen into the accountability abyss, losing sight of our professionalism. With a big sigh of relief, I don’t need to quantify the quality of teaching in my school to satisfy a spurious accountability measure or create the illusion of measured improvement. What I need to do is work alongside each individual teacher to help them develop to be the most effective teacher they can be. That’s an entirely different emphasis and, thankfully, that’s the environment I am in.
Just like Truman – we have found the wall. And there is a door in it.