Re-thinking Observation and Feedback: Solving the learning problems.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about the problems with standard observation and feedback processes and what a better approach might be.  First of all, let’s look at the standard process:

Typically, a teacher is observed by someone in the school hierarchy tasked with a role related to quality assurance.   The prevailing paradigm is that:

A: by observing the interactions and resources deployed in a lesson, the observer will gain insights regarding students’ learning

B: this will enable them to form a judgement about the teacher’s performance against a set of standards and protocols

C: this can inform a process of generating feedback

D: the feedback will be acted on by the teacher leading to improved performance and consequently improved student learning.

It’s a nice theory – but it’s full of holes at every point.

A: The teacher sees the students on a regular basis; they assess them regularly; they know details about the gaps in knowledge, abilities, levels of confidence and overall fluency and competence that an observer cannot know.  Learning is invisible – so we can only make some generalised hypotheses about whether learning is happening for any number of individuals in a room.

B: Judging is fraught with difficulty; riddled with biases that we project onto a scenario. Even without getting into the utter delusional nonsense of ascribing a grade to a lesson, even making  www/ebi -style statements assumes that the observer has a sound basis on which to base their judgments, despite only having tiny fragments of information about the learning taking place compared to what the teacher has.  The assumption that the observer knows enough about a given scenario to give productive feedback underpins the whole process – and is possibly wildly over-stated.  All too often, feedback focuses on teacher performance – their activities and resources and interactions – and not enough on the details of specific challenges relating to student learning.   This reinforces the show-pony hoop-jumping tick-box compliance-driven speed-camera teacher responses that are all too common.

C:  In the best-case scenario, the teacher will be invited to offer their own feedback rather than the observer weighing straight in with theirs.  (This is Level 1 in Bambrick-Santoyo’s Leverage Leadership feedback model).  However, even here, the interaction and reinforcement are driven by what the observer observes and thinks.  There’s a major and possibly dominant assumption that the things an observer decides constitute good feedback are the actual things that the teacher should reinforce or change in order to secure more learning – despite what is usually an incredibly small sampling of that teacher’s practice across a vast range of specific moments of learning.  Normally this is rooted in applying a generic model of what good practice might look like rather than a specific examination of the challenge inherent in teaching that material to those specific students.

D:  The feedback generated or given might not be acted on – or secure improved learning.    There is a very long list of reasons why a teacher might not change their practice in response to feedback:

They don’t trust it; they’re demotivated by it; they didn’t ask for it and resent getting it; they don’t articulate their challenges in the terms used by the observer so the feedback doesn’t resonate; the issues described don’t seem relevant after the moment in which they arose; the feedback doesn’t address the problems they experience so it doesn’t help them; they already have a long list of other higher priorities for their professional development; they just reject it – even if it’s valid – because they feel they’ve got too much else going on and work hard enough as it is; they try to adapt in response to the feedback but it doesn’t stick because day-to-day pressures make it hard to break away from default habits; the frequency of engaging in a feedback discussion is so low that momentum is lost; different observers come and go offering different sets of feedback so there’s no sustained focus…. I could go on. And on.

What might be better?

My sense is that we might do this whole thing better if our default assumption, our starting point, is a recognition that teaching is complex and difficult and that, despite a teacher’s best efforts, some students continue to find the learning challenging.  In fact that’s a universal truth for any teacher:  some students achieve at a lower level than others or than we’d like – so how do we deal with it?

If we switch from thinking  ‘is this teacher teaching well’ to ‘which students in this class are experiencing difficulties and why?’ then we have a radically different focus. To begin with, an observer would need to find this out from the teacher.  It’s an interesting conversation, even with a highly confident teacher and a strongly performing class.

The discussion goes something like this:

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What learning challenges do your students face?  Not everyone gets full marks on an assessment – why exactly might that be? What do they find hard? What kinds of mistakes and omissions do they make?  Is this about prior knowledge; levels of practice and retrieval; effort and motivation; misconceptions?  These are the problems a teacher can identify for themselves – this is their reality.  An observer can contribute – noting, for example, observations about students’ learning gaps and conceptual struggles.  They might have subject expertise that supports the deeper level diagnosis.

How are you trying to address them? Given that these challenges exist, what are the strategies you are using to address them? How does the selection of tasks, activities, strategies, resources, questions – support the learning issues identified? . What else might work?  Again, the teacher is likely to already know the things that are the normal range of activities that support learning.  An observer might have ideas too, especially if they have experience of success elsewhere that seems relevant.   And, of course, generic sets of ideas such as Rosenshine’s Principles, Teach Like a Champion or Making Every Lesson Count can offer suggestions: Is it about questioning, practice, modelling, scaffolding, explaining, retrieval activities – and so on.  The menu of possible areas is pretty standard.

What challenges do you experience in doing that?  This is the crucial bit: the acknowledgement that teaching is hard: even if we make a list of idealised learning activities and teacher inputs, they’re not always easy to implement with universal impact across the room of ‘easily-distracted schema-forming brains’ (to quote myself!) What are the challenges?  Is it about managing the behaviour whilst also engaging in questioning? Is it about the allocation of time to going over wrong answers? Is it the ever-present dilemma and worry that spending time going back feels like sacrificing the time you need to cover the curriculum fully?  Is it the challenge that some students are ready to fly while others aren’t?

Unless we get into the real challenges that a teacher really experiences for real, honestly and openly, then we’re not helping them.  The feedback conversation has to explore the problems the teacher themselves is trying to solve.  Of course, an observer can highlight challenges the teacher might not be aware of – but that’s how it is couched.  Instead of teacher-focused critique – ‘you are not doing X or Y’… it is student-focused:  ‘it was interesting to see that Jason and Saira were struggling with question 3 and still didn’t understand the answers provided even though most people did. Why might that be?’

Can I help you come up with some solutions?  So, finally, we reach the point where an observer’s role is to serve the teacher.  If you have expertise to bring to the discussion, it can be useful: in identifying learning problems; in suggesting possible strategies; in working through practical ways to deliver those strategies more effectively.  If a feedback conversation leaves a teacher feeling that they’ve been helped to solve problems they themselves recognise, they’re much more likely to use that information to good effect.  This is even more likely if:

  • The observer knows you so that each conversation is short but part of an ongoing one with some level of momentum.
  • The list of things to work on is short.
  • There’s precision to them, located in the details of subject content and resources.
  • Each observation is one of many carried out by the same person; teachers are known well.
  • The stakes are low.
  • There’s a sustained focus on the short list rather than continually adding new things to it.

This week I had some superb conversations with teachers about their practice where I was taking this approach.   Free from any discussion of their performance, we established challenges they face; we discussed ideas for how they might address them; we talked through reasons that it is sometimes hard to get 100% of student on board with the process in hand; we agreed that, when I’m in again next week, my observations will focus on how these learning challenges and solutions play out; this, in turn will inform the next iteration of our discussion.  I’m not there to judge; I’m there to help.

Some people worry that talk like this is all soft and fluffy and lacks the accountability edge they’re so addicted to.  I disagree.  There’s an intensity to it; there’s rigour in focusing on learning gaps.  If a teacher’s first instinct is to say ‘Look I’m doing Ok – I don’t think I can do much to improve’ – you can always find areas where students find the learning more challenging or where the teacher finds the teaching process more difficult to enact. Even the most confident and successful teacher has things to think about that a good observer can help them to explore – if that’s the spirit they approach the process with.

If a teacher is really struggling, a compliance regime can still misfire because of the assumption that the generic regime will address the specific learning challenges.  The problem-solving process I’ve outlined is likely to be more accurate as well as providing a framework for improvement:  if a teacher has been involved in identifying the things they’ll work on, then it’s much more likely that they will!  You log the conversations,  and follow-through.  It’s the way to go.

Instructional Coaching Resources: WalkThrus

I’m in the process of writing a set of resources with Oliver Caviglioli to support teachers and leaders with feedback or instructional coaching conversations of this kind. Our Teaching WalkThrus are designed as a reference frame for the dialogue about how to solve the learning challenges that teachers encounter.  They are not a series of checklists that teachers must follow; they are a series of guidelines that teachers are urged to A|D|A|P|T.  Attempt, Develop, Adapt, Practise and Test – for their context, their class, their subject. Coming soon. April 2020

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  1. I the process you are going through—as i do looking at all your stuff. Question–how important do you think teacher self-knowledge is in this process? (From a cognitive as well as relational level.) The goal would be for a teacher to accurately answer this question, “Who is most at risk in my class based on what I think is true about learning?” That is some of the work I have been doing—very interesting results. Keep the faith, david dunbar

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like this blog Tom. I am writing about this currently; it does however, overlook one significant factor – many teachers are not in the ‘ready to receive mode’…. the fear of ‘high stakes’ judgment completely ‘crowds out’ any propensity for development… and, of course, this is of little surprise given a raft of factors; inter alia, performance-related pay, the historic use of ‘one-off’ observations to provide an overall judgment of a school’s quality of T&L etc etc. This is why the Chris Moyes GROWTH model is so powerful…
    In the last months of my previous Headship, in consultation with staff, we trialled the use of a ‘pre-ob chat’. Before anyone set foot in a colleague’s classroom we would chat to our staff and seek contextual info about the lesson. For example if we were dropping into an English Lesson we’d like to know where the lesson sat in the learning journey – was the lesson in the ‘immersion’ stage, the ‘rehearsal stage’ or the ‘composition stage’? If it was in the ‘immersion’ stage we would anticipate seeing role-play, discussion etc. The teacher’s compulsion to ‘get something down in books’ was thankfully extricated.
    We also asked where we could add value; instead of passing comment on every facet of the lesson, the observer would ask what part of the learning or teaching was being developed and this would lead the focus.
    Before we can truly embrace a developmental approach to the use of lesson obs (or supported learning reviews as I call them!) we need to work on the ‘ready to receive’ mode.
    Of course, the culture in many schools is ready to support a developmental approach but, sadly, 20 odd years of ‘top down’ influence means that there is a cultural lag for many other schools… Love reading your stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Dave – I guess I haven’t made it explicit that the ‘pre-ob chat’ is exactly what I’m talking about. My meetings this week were exactly that. We discussed the learning problems and that really did seem to deal with the ‘ready to receive’ issue. In the observations I’ll do next week, I’ll be looking to see how these problems are being addressed and working out whether there’s anything more or different the teacher could reasonably do – because they’re pretty tough problems to crack.


      • Hi Tom, thanks for the clarification; sounds like a valuable process. The other thing I forgot to mention was the use of ‘cause of and effect’ statements when having a post ob developmental coaching conversation…
        I’ve been playing with this recently as a tool to further strengthen the coachee’s understanding of effective practice and also to clarify how any developmental points have impacted on the learning. Thus far, the coachees I have been working with have been able to eloquently articulate exactly how their deliberate practice has impacted on the learning with very little prompting from me….

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  3. I’ve read any number of posts relating to the observation process over the last five years. All very good too. However if the approach one experiences as the teacher is of the ABCD variety how does one politely point out to the observer(s) (you know the so called experts) the potential flaws in their approach ?


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