How to observe a lesson – and make a difference

This post is based on my discussions with colleagues at Oldham College involved in Advanced Practitioner training.   The context is that the AP role is designed to support the process of improving teachers’ practice.  Their work is explicitly geared towards helping teachers to deliver great lessons and to secure improved learner outcomes based on our Teaching for Distinction programme.  In that context, the observations are not about forming judgements for an accountability process; they are about evaluating what they see in order to provide developmental feedback.

That distinction makes this process much easier to explain – because we’re in territory a world away from the dubious business of lessons being judged by strangers or of attaching a grade to a one-off lesson.   When APs work with tutors, they will get to know them over time.  That means that any one lesson will form part of a bigger picture; each successive observation and feedback episode will be adding insights to the bank of information they have about how effective a teacher is, their capacity for self-directed improvement and the way that teacher responds to the process of professional dialogue.  Ideally all observations would be done in this spirit.

Here’s a summary of the ideas we shared after we observed lessons together.

Preparation: Establishing a Framework

In advance, it’s important for all concerned to be aware of the framework – an agreed set of clearly communicated principles that inform professional conversations.  In this case, we’re talking about Teaching for Distinction which includes a range of specific ideas and strategies that teachers should be aware of and should be trying to embed in their practice.

Another factor is to develop an understanding of the context and subject specific issues that teachers are likely to be wrestling with.  Once you develop that understanding, an observation is much more meaningful and useful.  It helps to know about learner outcomes within that department and the nature of assessment in the subject.  If you’re observing someone you know to be successful, it puts what you see in a different context to when you know the tutor struggles to secure strong outcomes.

Engaging with the lesson

What do you do when you go into a room?  I always acknowledge the teacher and go to the back so I can see the whole space, then sit next to a student so I can ask them what’s going on.  My first goal is establish what the learning intentions are- what’s being taught and learned.  My feeling is that lesson plan documentation and seating plans are unnecessary – for three reasons.  a) I don’t want to fuel the workload generated in producing these things – people often go to great lengths to impress and I don’t want that; b) Very often the plan and what is happening are different – an impressive plan might not yield an impressive lesson and c) there’s no time to really engage with it – I want to focus on what I’m seeing; if I see issues with planning, I could follow up later.

I ask a student – what are you doing today?; what did you do last lesson?- and usually they tell you all you need to know.  If the lesson structure allows it, a word with the teacher is helpful  – but if they’re in full flow, it might not be possible. I often flick through a couple of books – not to judge the books (I think in-lesson book scrutiny is fraught with issues) but to get a sense of the flow of learning leading up to this lesson.  Then,  I sit and observe.

I find it best to type notes on my laptop live –  that saves time later and keep things accurate; my hand-writing is too poor for notes to be read by anyone else. Live typing is efficient.

Applying the filters

This is important.  At all times, I’m conscious of my biases and my lack of knowledge.  Crucially, I am there to identify possible areas for development – not to reach some form of summary judgement on this teacher’s quality.  Especially where I don’t know about a teacher’s typical success with securing outcomes, I have to suspend judgment – this teacher might secure superb results; they might not.

That means I’m asking myself questions,  compiling possible suggestions,  preparing to report back my observations.  Of course, I am also judging – privately.  That is human; inevitable.  But I need to apply a filter to that – because I’m aware of how partial that judgement might be.  I have to remind myself that there is no one right way to teach; that long-term processes are not fully observable and students might rate this teacher for helping them in ways I can’t see in a lesson – eg the way they structure the overall programme or provide supporting resources or provide long-term motivational drive.  Or the opposite of these things.

Looking for learning

Learning is largely invisible in a live lesson so you have to look for clues – indicators of processes that might support longer term learning.  Usually there are plenty of clues.  I’m looking for questioning, explaining, responsive teaching, engagement of all learners in the process as well as various climate issues – behaviour, relationships, a sense of drive and purposefulness.  I’m also interested to see if key elements of knowledge are made explicit and attention to long-term memory and practice are given sufficient weight.

I think you can normally tell whether a given set of practices are typical – it’s often quite obvious if students are doing something different to normal.  However that’s still a question to ask yourself.

I am also interested in various elements of the curriculum and the way they are communicated.  What resources are used?  Are they helpful? Do they support learning? Are the tasks well designed so that students are being appropriately challenged and supported – both with immediate understanding but also longer term practice and recall?  You can pick up quite a lot from even short observations by engaging with the materials students have at hand.  Again, we’re looking for clues.


In order to support a teacher’s development, you need to pull various things together- all the things you observe; all you’ve seen before; outcomes; the quality of curriculum planning and resourcing; reputational information you might have – everything.  That helps to distil the feedback you might give down to the few things likely to have the most impact.  If you focus too much on one set of information, you can misfire.  This is another reason for getting to know teachers over time:  when you observe someone for the second time, immediately you have a better sense of them than you did the first time and your feedback can be more precise and supportive.

Planning Feedback

The whole point of observing a lesson is to generate useful feedback to support a teacher’s professional development.  Throughout a lesson, your goal is to think of things that you might want to offer as feedback as part of your ongoing discussions.  It’s important to reinforce good practice – and to celebrate progress and success in moving forward – and and also ask questions or make suggestions about things that might be improved.  In theory a blank sheet of paper is all you need – (I’m no fan of the prescriptive checklist) but I normally find that my feedback fits into the same three categories so my feedback sheet looks like this:

Screen Shot 2018-05-20 at 08.14.25
See end note. The columns adjust to the typing, headers can change etc.


Giving the feedback is a whole other area – probably worthy of a blog series of its own.  This is all about knowing people, motivating them, engaging in a cycle of professional dialogue, generating self-reflection.  Some people only need to be asked ‘how do think it went?’ and they have ample capacity to generate their own improvement agenda with a bit of encouragement and guidance.  For others, that doesn’t happen; some people really do need external feedback.  Here, it’s important to get to know how to pitch the feedback.  Some people hear criticism and get defensive even though you think you’re being super-positive, merely offering gentle prodding to tweak in a certain area.  Some people are very thick-skinned and, even though you think you’re highlighting some quite serious concerns, your attempt to create balance by offering some positive praise, mutes the concerns down to zero.

If your goal is to engage someone in dialogue so that they work on their self-improvement process when nobody is looking, the nature of feedback is vital to explore and get right.  The observation is a starting point – ideally part of a longer-term process.

Final thought – observing a lesson is real privilege; it requires sensitivity and respect – and we must always remember our place! We’re there to learn; there to help… and getting that spirit right is often the key to opening up future dialogue.  The ideal goal is to conduct the whole process so that the teacher is not only motivated to improve but wants you back and spreads the word….


See also: The five forms of feedback I give to teachers most often…

End Note:

I’ve swapped the feedback template from the one originally posted – because people were getting hung up on the size of boxes.  I think that’s a sign of how bad things can be.  The document I use is a word doc and the table columns adjust for each version- sometimes you have a lot to say in the questions/ebi column even in a great lesson because you have so many questions which take up space.  If any teacher or leader feels the size of box or the word count is a measure or symbol of how they’re valued, then they’re in a pretty dark place I would suggest.

Also some folk object to ‘ebi’. The original form I posted just had ‘ebi’ in the header but actually what it normally says is ‘areas for discussion’.  However, I don’t see the problem with the idea than any given lesson might have been better or that on observer with some expertise and credibility might have valuable insights to offer.   I’d say that most of the lessons I’ve ever taught could have been better and I’ve certainly benefitted from feedback.  That’s my perspective.

Frankly, we’ve become way too defensive about feedback and observation – a sign of the culture that’s been created in schools – there’s still a long way to go to fix that.  It’s not simply about trusting teachers to be professionals and leaving them to it.  Some teachers need a lot of developmental support even if others don’t but also, when we’ve got the system right, teachers at every stage will be asking for as much feedback as they can get.  We’re not there yet.


  1. If Ofsted took this approach …….. what a difference it would make. I was thinking (clearly having taken some powerful hallucinogenic) in a better world, schools would be trusted to provide an inspection team with their analysis of the teaching standards based on this approach (with an anonymous historical narrative). Inspectors then follow up to provide feedback to leaders of T&L with advice for refining their whole institution action plan.

    Excellent stuff as usual Mr. S

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The majority of my observations have been as Head of Maths. Most of the feedback discussions have been about different ways to deliver topics or deal with misconceptions and less about overall lesson delivery but obviously where I see something important I would raise it. I had one series of lessons where the teachers were not in their own room; they were science or IT but did a little maths. All three spent the whole lesson dancing round a wastepaper bin that had been left in front of the IWB and didn’t think to move it out of the way!
    I like your feedback form, much more positive than what I have seen or used in the past. One way of promoting discussion in the follow up would be to get the teacher to fill it out from their own perspective. You might then get some subtle pupil or topic management things they did that were not obvious which would be praiseworthy.

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  3. As ever, Tom, your post contains some excellent and perceptive practical recommendations that are based on the wealth of understanding about pedagogy contained in your Teaching for Distinction programme. It is in its format and content exactly what I hoped you would bring to our FE and Skills sector in light of your extensive experience in the schools sector. Your energies, insights and enthusiasm are very much needed on teacher education programmes for those of us who work in the post 16 sector. I hope there will other opportunities to work on similar programmes around the country. (By the way, it was a pleasure to say hello briefly at the International Festival of Learning a few weeks ago at West Suffolk College!)


  4. An interesting approach born from a wealth of experience. At the school in which I work, we live and breath “reflective practitioner” although I don’t hear Schon discussed to often these days. Rather than an observer coming in and making value judgements about what went well and what did not, we have a pre observation discussion between observer and observee. The process is a bit like peer coahing. A particular aspect that the observee wishes to address and reflect on is agreed and the nature of the process described. The observer will then focus on the issue of concern to the observee. Of course if anything galringly obvious comes up there is an AOB bit where a bit of serendipity is the order of the day.

    Assuming that the observer is the sage on the stage is for me a fundamental flaw in the observation process. Most people who have ever observed me (most) have been poor practitioners. The idea that a large store of outstanding performers are out ther to come in and preach the gospel is for me misguided.


    • I understand this perspective. It probably depends where people are individually and as a whole staff. In this context, we’re training people who have a certain skill set in a context where developing deeper expertise is important is some places. They won’t be going in as experts – but they will be supporting the observees to focus on things that are likely to be good bets in their improvement process. In an context, some people lack the self-awareness they might need to drive their own improvement alone. Like anything, context is key. If the observer has no credibility or genuine insight to offer, then it’s no good to anyone. Hence the filters… we can’t comment on things we don’t see or know; we can only ask.


  5. Thanks Tom. A really useful post ad I’ve been asked to do a 20 min obs, followed by feedback then write a report as part of a job interview. For APs are you following the SET programme?

    Liked by 1 person

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