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Written feedback on lessons is mostly pointless. Better to meet, review and plan – together.

I’ve been thinking of all the many hours I’ve spent over the years writing up lesson observation notes for various purposes and, more and more, I feel that this was nearly always a giant waste of time. I tweeted this – it seemed to resonate.

Quite often people confuse ‘ego’ with ‘having an excessively large ego’ – and I didn’t really mean that. What I meant was that when we’re writing up a lesson observation – distilling our insights and wisdom, crafting those sentences of sharp feedback, giving ourselves the satisfaction that what we’ve produced is ‘good feedback’ – it’s really mainly for us – to meet our needs – and not the recipient. It serves our purposes more than theirs. We feel we’ve done a good job because the written task is done to a good professional standard. I’ve known SO many people who pride themselves on doing this – and are naturally quite defensive about the idea that it’s not worthwhile.

But who it is for? Dylan Wiliam says that good feedback to students is feedback that leads to better work; poor feedback is feedback that doesn’t. It didn’t work, so it wasn’t good. The same must be true of feedback to teachers. I like the food/diet analogy. A diet coach might support someone to choose a certain selection of foods, suggesting what to eat based on an analysis of their diet and healthiness. They might feel they gave ‘good advice’. But what matters is what the person actually eats – and they are the one who actually chooses, day to day. There is not much point evaluating the advice; we only need to care about the choices that are made.

Now, of course, arguably good advice will inform better choices – but we know that this is more likely to happen if there is dialogue; if the subject of the process is involved, agreeing to changes they believe they can and will make. If the diet coach and their client talk through the options and agree a plan, it’s way more likely that the advice will be influencing those choices than if the coach just wrote it all out and then left the client to take it or leave it.

This is what I feel about written feedback on lessons. Even if my reports are ‘impressive’ in some way… it’s just not really going to make nearly the same impact as when I talk to the teacher and support them to make their own plan. The feedback no longer means that lengthy wordy stuff I’ve written down – it means the ideas that develop in teacher’s mind as they formulate them into a plan of action. And this cannot be done without the teacher – obviously.

Nowadays I actually think it is just bizarre (laughable really) that school offices have cabinets full of files of teacher observation reports from years and years ago – as if that makes a difference to anyone. And, even if you end up doing a write-up (for tedious misplaced accountability reasons) how can you really formulate meaningful feedback after a lesson without talking to the teacher first? At least do that!

When I first started doing consultancy work, people would ask me to observe lessons and give feedback. I was finding my way and because I didn’t always have time to talk to all the teachers I was asked to see, I used a template for my notes with a www/ebi – style format, labelled Strengths and Areas for Discussion. This was meant to be given to them. However, I soon realised this wasn’t appropriate and wasn’t really helping – it didn’t seem to make any difference. I’d revisit teachers and it was as if I’d never been there the time before.

There were lots of issues.

  • I didn’t know the teachers well enough. Snapshot lessons just raised various questions.. but I didn’t have the opportunity to ask them, so the feedback was very much ‘hit and hope’. I also didn’t know exactly how to couch the language. Sometimes people were upset by the very existence of it, justifiably irritated by the lack of dialogue; sometimes they read it as overly praising when I’d meant to be more direct but couldn’t convey that in writing.
  • The format caused issues. I needed more space to finesse the ‘areas for discussion’ section – because of the sensitivities – so the column was often wider. However, this made it look visually as if I had more negative things to say than positive things – that’s literally how it was interpreted.
  • There was no right to reply, no follow-up and crucially, I was not there when the teacher received these notes so I had no idea whether they even understood what I meant, nevermind whether they went on to act on my great insights.

All in all – the one-off lesson plus feedback write-up was not a good model. I’ve now started to insist that I only do joint observations so that I am always supporting a capacity building process in a school. I’ve worked with lots of people where the person I’m observing with has that internal role of supporting teachers over the long term.

Now, I’m developing my thinking more around the idea that the teacher must really be the person who records their own feedback after a discussion with their observer. This could be a one-off but, ideally, will form part of a process – an ongoing series of interactions that might constitute instructional coaching.

In line with ideas from Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, I feel that most important thing is that action steps are agreed and planned – with an associated timeframe. I’m finding that the best person to write this down is the teacher themselves – so you sit around a computer and quickly type something up, a few bullets to record the key decisions: the specific action steps, the time frame, the specific class and curriculum etc. This leaves the observer’s notes to be purely for them. When you’re in a lesson you are only making a few notes for yourself to inform your discussion with the teacher, to plan some precise praise, highlight some learning issues and some suggested action steps. But the teacher leaves your meeting with their record and nothing else.

Does this take lots of time? Not really. Your first meeting is longer.. as you get to know each other… but then, over a series of interactions, each subsequent discussion is shorter and leaner. Punchier. There’s a flow to it. And of course, this is time well spent.

Your dialogue is recorded in the series of action steps that you agree each time – the record is ever-expanding as weeks and months go by and as such represents a much more meaningful record of the process than a long one-off lesson write-up on a complex template ever did. But the teacher owns it; it’s their record. And that makes a difference. You obviously need to talk about what to write – what types of record help subsequent discussions but that can form part of the ongoing healthy dialogue.

So – there you go. Lesson feedback write-ups RIP. You won’t miss them.

Discussion

5 thoughts on “Written feedback on lessons is mostly pointless. Better to meet, review and plan – together.

  1. Really enjoyed reading your thought on lesson observations. Do you have a form that you’d be willing to share which allows you to frame your action steps?

    Like

    Posted by Steven Mavromichalis | May 6, 2021, 10:15 am
    • Hi Steven. Thanks. We have produced some forms and booklets with the Walkthrus materials that our subscribers have access to. The Walkthrus themselves provide the detail for the action steps. The documents are pretty simple google docs that allow the sharing permissions to reside with the teacher. We’re working on some more scripted google forms to guide the discussions – they’ll be part of the package next year.

      Like

      Posted by Tom Sherrington | May 6, 2021, 2:48 pm
  2. Interesting suggestion to flip it, Tom. Teachers to record feedback- why not!! makes more sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by parveenkj | May 10, 2021, 11:32 am
  3. Nice post, and rings a lot of bells for me Gets me thinking on how I have developed my lesson observation routine over the years.

    As a teacher educator I’ve done my share of lesson observations. In my own practice I have developed a routine of making the student teacher responsible for the write-up, and limiting my role to:
    – helping to identify interesting areas of analysis (what is there to notice that is interesting: this is always a blend of what the student notices and is concerned about and what I can help the student to start to see), and
    – providing sources/theory to help the student with an in depth analysis of a small part of their practice (focus is key here).

    My routine is:

    1) ask for lesson plan and student’s concerns and questions up front. I don’t make a fuss of there is no lesson plan, I go with where the student is.

    2) pre-brief just before lesson: ask about development as teacher, context of lesson, emphasize the observation is formative, not an assessment. Ideally I also speak with the mentor. Always interesting to see the dynamic between student and mentor.

    3) observe and videotape, note interesting patterns to bring up, questions to ask. I also do some ‘notice and wonder’ verbatim transcript, just to stay aware of my interpretations of what I see

    4) lesson debrief. I generally start with a moment of success. This helps to connect with ideals and qualities students already have, and counteracts their general tendency to be over-critical about themselves. I ask about intentions and whether these were accomplished. We discuss the agenda (see Timperley). Then we explore interesting moments in the lesson, themes, patterns. I try to set it up as a co-inquiry.

    5) debrief exit-ticket, with 5 questions:
    a) Insights about yourself as a teacher
    b) Insights about the lesson design (tasks, questions, activities, sequence etc)
    c) Insights about teacher behaviour in the lesson (and effect on pupil behavior)
    d) Interesting topics or moments to analyze in-depth with video
    e) Puzzles, unanswered questions

    6) Providing some sources to provide the student with concepts, principles and courses of action relevant for the in-depth analysis of video. And a model text of how this analysis might look (decompose what you did + effect on pupils, reframe in terms of concepts/principles, design alternative course of action on paper and argue why this might be better, what effects might be).

    7) Student does analysis. I suggest they don’t wait too long & provide reasons for that, but sometimes life intervenes and I don’t make a fuss about that.

    8) Small follow-up feedback to signal/appreciate qualities of the analysis, wrap up with some suggestions, note patterns of how the student is approaching their learning.

    Looking back that’s quite an elaborate routine, but I generally hear from students it really helped them forward. It’s not something to do every day, would be way too intensive, but good to do periodically.

    My routine is specific for my role as a teacher educator, since I only get to see students in a one-off, not in a cycle of sessions and lessons (that would be better, but see below). And I tend to be more connected with theory, so I see my role as supporting that part especially.

    Our mentor teachers do lesson debriefing more systematically since they are there alongside the student teacher continuously, but they also tend to struggle with debriefing (feedback becomes everything and the kitchen sink) and co-planning is often not part of their repertoire yet. See for instance these articles on lesson debrief and mentoring practice:
    https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13598660120061309
    https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0022487118773996

    Like

    Posted by G van Ginkel | June 15, 2021, 9:14 am

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