Top-down observation and feedback models are flawed. Time for change.

(NB This post does’t work if you can’t see the images/diagrams: )

Earlier this week I tweeted this short twitter thread:

The more closely I work with teachers and schools/colleges, supporting CPD processes of various kinds, the more I realise just how woefully inadequate the standard ‘top-down drop-in and give feedback’ approach is..

I’m now working on the principle that observers can only form hunches, opinions and offer ideas… this info only turns into feedback of any value once it’s been filtered by the teacher and meshed into their existing plans of action and sense of the problems they face.

I’d willingly concede that most of the top-down fly-by feedback I’ve given over the years has been ignored or wrong with no impact on teaching quality. Because I was giving it – not helping the teacher to generate it; imposing my agenda, not helping the teacher with theirs.

In my experience, leaders under all the pressure the accountability system has sent their way, have developed an over-inflated sense of the value and impact of their lesson observations – the drop-ins, learning walks and formal lesson observations.  Some schools even still grade individual lessons which is just pitiful.  It’s become part of the system-wide leadership thinking that top-down feedback is important; an intrinsic element of keeping standards of teaching high.

But how important is it?  My recent work has illustrated just how small a role the feedback generated by observers plays in a teacher’s improvement. There are a couple of simple reasons:

1. It doesn’t happen much; most of the time teachers are on their own.  Most of the improvements they generate emanate from their own self-evaluation. By miles.

Teachers are largely on their own and follow this cycle all the time. 

If a teacher improves it’s likely to be because they’ve planned a change informed by their own evaluation of what is working for them in relation to their analysis of student learning.  If a teacher is either strongly self-confident or, alternatively, thick-skinned (for good reason), external feedback hardly features in their thinking at all.

2.  Observer Feedback has to get over lots of hurdles:

Observer feedback doesn’t make an instant impact

Even if an observer is knowledgeable and wise, forming sound insights regarding the teaching-learning interactions they encounter, potentially allowing them to formulate useful feedback, the teacher still has to hear it, receive it, evaluate it positively enough (or under enough duress) to accept it, add it to their list of things to do, factor it into their planning and then enact it in their practice.  Even if what an observer has to offer is sound – and that’s quite a big IF, because we can’t Know, we only hypothesise – the feedback often falls at the first hurdle.  It rebounds.  It’s almost a matter of chance if feedback arrives in tact after all the other hurdles such that the teacher teaches differently as a direct result of feedback someone gave them after a drop-in visit.

Raw observer feedback is like chucking peas at an advancing tank. You need to influence the driver to change direction… and that means they need to be involved in the process.  The chances of change increase if feedback is formulated during a post-observation discussion.  However, if the feedback is delivered remotely via a feedback sheet or something merely logged on ‘the system’ (Yes, that happens), it’s virtually pointless.

Where does it work well? 

Teacher improvement is teacher driven. 

In this diagram,  the focus remains on the teacher.  It’s understood that teachers can only improve themselves.  However, at various points, they can be supported in generating plans of action that address the students’ needs and their own:

  • Analysis of learning – identifying gaps in knowledge, performance, standards – is essential for informing the evaluation process.  Whilst remaining teacher-driven this can be supported by someone who knows what the standards are and can offer insights. It’s important to reinforce the idea that we’re only looking to improve how lessons are run so that students’ learning needs are all addressed; it’s not about some kind of generalised song and dance.
  • Lesson observation feedback can be useful in offering insights to a teacher.  As an observer myself I see all kinds of things that teachers can’t necessarily see; I have experience, expertise and ideas that I can bring to bear, floating suggestions for a teacher to consider. Sometimes my ideas resonate immediately.  Sometimes a lot of much deeper discussion is needed for me and the teacher to see eye-to-eye enough for anything I say to have meaning in their world from their perspective.  (In some situations the limits of my experience and knowledge preclude me from having much to offer. )
  • Team supported curriculum knowledge and wider school CPD processes can support teachers in developing their planning – whether it’s subject specific, assessment orientated or some form of teaching and learning framework.  Any decent CPD process will go beyond the one-offs and will include iterative cycles of reflection and planning, involving everyone.

In this context lesson observation feedback can be seen as a supportive, non-judgemental ingredient in a healthy professional learning process.  It’s explicitly up to the teacher to take it or leave it – depending on what else they are using to inform their own improvement cycle.  There’s no top-down delusion that the feedback is the thing driving the improvement; it’s more likely to be the culture of professionalism with high expectations around engaging in the whole process of student-focused CPD.

Where might it work better still? 

The instructional coaching process: more intense; more holistic

In some situations  – and I’ve been directly involved in just a few of these myself over recent years – there’s time given to support instructional coaching.  To me, this represents the strongest model.  It’s not to be confused with more general coaching – where people have a non-specialist coach to discuss whatever problems they have. It’s very specifically instructional coaching where the coach has expertise and brings it to the table very explicitly – as in sports coaching.  The process is all about the teacher and coach working together to identify issues and solutions and to engage in an ongoing evaluative cycle.  The coach has a presence in every element including some lesson observation.   It requires multiple interactions sustained over time; a significant shift from just having a one-off drop-in and leaving some feedback.

The advantage of this system is that it allows discussions to be tightly focused – just exploring one or two issues at a time.  When feedback interactions are one-offs, they tend to drift into multiple areas; there’s a sense that we need to cover lots of bases while we can, which dissipates the focus almost to oblivion.  But with a cycle of instructional coaching, where there will be multiple short interactions, the focus can be much tighter.  Planning the structure for these cycles is key – setting out a timeframe requires consistency of personnel and some flexibility in the diary/calendar.   Scaling up to include multiple coach-teacher pairings can be a challenge, depending on how long cycles last and how many people have capacity.   However, I’d say it could be a goal to involve everyone.   Some people with particularly difficult learning challenges to wrestle with or perhaps less experience might need more intense, more frequent cycles than others.

For sure, the fly-by drop-in top-down approach is woefully limited.  At the very least, I’d recommend that feedback processes are constructed around the premise that observations are there to serve a teacher’s own improvement process; they’re not designed to judge ‘quality’ –  and that SLTs adopt that mentality with all sincerity.  If leaders want to see what’s going on in their area, walking around for a bit is a great idea  to get a general sense of things for your own purposes – but that’s not a sound basis for developmental feedback for any individual.

Teacher-focused feedback and observation cycles are important, not just because there’re the right thing to do in principle, but because they’re the best way to make things better.  Some schools are already far down that road; others have a lot further to go.

Quick Plug: The WalkThrus book that Oliver Caviglioli and I have just written provides a set of tools to support instructional coaching discussions.  Take a look – and note the A|D|A|P|T concept.

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  1. Tom,
    This is a great post. Where I come from, we have workload survey data that says only 12% of teachers think that the observation process produces benefits that outweigh the costs. I have a theory that development aspects and accountability aspects have become mixed over time , and accountability dominates – hence the result. Evaluation by “superiors” is not a problem per se, if the observation is teacher driven, and the observed teacher regards them as knowledgeable peers or people to learn from. Teacher-driven is the key, it seems to me. I’ll keep the post as we work through the mire. Thanks again and regards.
    Graham Moloney.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really love that you also point out that sometimes the teacher knows more in that particular situation – I welcome feedback but time and again have found that SLT think they know it all and I know so little. When the conversation is so unequal, I just cannot engage with what I perceive as some pompous ass telling me a load of BS. My elephant hide is very thick but my desire to be better is keener than ever – thank goodness for research and blogs which are helping to break this useless cycle and re balance the power. Spot on.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Really interesting post. I have experienced the same: instructional coaching (with myself as “expert” but still as guide on the side) works for me, since I am sitting with the teacher who has a question or a lesson plan to discuss. Getting close to practice and to the teacher seems to be the key – for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This should be happening everywhere and the quality of outcomes should form a major part of judgements for individuals, teams and schools.
    My only concern is who chooses the starting point with an NQT?


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