Deconstructing my lesson observation thought processes

Recently, Oliver Caviglioli asked me to describe my thought process when I’m observing lessons. It’s hard to generalise because you are responding to each scenario as it presents itself but here is an attempt to organise some of my thoughts:

Mindset and Context:

First of all, it’s important to put the observation in context. I am either there as part of a coaching process with the teacher – so that this will be one part of an ongoing process – or, much more commonly, I am co-observing with someone else who I am supporting in their development as a teacher coach. In both cases I have a few important points of principle to adhere to:

  • Any one lesson is a short snap-shot of a learning process; biases abound and I have to focus on specifics of what can be seen, asking questions and avoiding assumptions.
  • I’m not there to judge or provide any kind of overall quality evaluation; I’m there to analyse learning problems as I see them and to support a process of finding solutions.
  • I’m supremely conscious that it is the teacher who will be with that class repeatedly, long after I’ve left. I have huge respect for them being there in that class, doing the challenging work day after day, and it doesn’t matter much what I think – unless I can support the teacher in their ongoing work.

Practicalities:

I enter, acknowledging the teacher and position myself out of the way at the back. Ideally I take a spare seat next to a student. My goal is to get a feeling for what it is like to be in the lesson from one or two students’ perspective – I don’t like to wander about, causing a distraction. I’m not trying to kid myself that by sampling more students’ books I can make ‘a more accurate/fair judgement’ – because I’m not there to make a judgement.

I do not engage in any chat with co-observers; we should be silent, respectful of the lesson going on in front of us, listening to what is being said. If the opportunity arises during a pair-share or practice task, I will ask the students near me how they are getting on, with some questions about the work. If the teacher is in full flow, that’s not possible, but I can flick through the students’ books to see what they did previously.

I have my laptop for making notes. I don’t use a proforma, but I do have in mind the Bambrick-Santoyo feedback in coaching structure and will be making notes on the following:

  • Precise Praise: specific elements of the lesson that I think were effective including precise phrases in questions, explanations or student responses.
  • Probe: Questions I have about what I see – to raise later with the teacher – or notes on elements of the techniques where I feel the teacher could strengthen their practice.

My notes are private to me; I would never share them so I write things in a way that supports me to have the follow-up discussions described here. It really pays to have specifics to refer to eg “Abdi’s answer ‘both poems have elements of gothic language‘ was excellent”. Teachers often respond incredibly well to this as it indicates that you were paying close attention to their lesson, building trust and buy-in to the process. I might also note specific student errors, difficulties and misconceptions as these provide fruitful material for subsequent discussions.

Three Typical Scenarios.

What I find is that, almost immediately, it’s clear that what you’re seeing is one of three typical situations:

  • Teacher explaining and modelling, largely in instructional mode at the front of the room.
  • Teacher running the room for various modes of questioning.
  • Students engaged in a form of practice task with the teacher monitoring and supporting.

Obviously enough, this sets the scene for the range of issues that will shape the conversation. The information I can gather flows from the activities in the lesson. In addition, a key factor is whether I know in advance what a teacher is working on (- these days, that’s normally expressed through which set of walkthrus they are working on.) If know what a teacher is focusing on, then my observation will focus on the details of that and I try to largely filter out other issues.

Very generally, I look to see if the following might apply:

  • Does the task or explanation make sense to the students around me? Can they do the task; do they understand the concepts?
  • Is the teacher conspicuously trying to involve every student, checking for understanding and responding accordingly?
  • Is it possible for any student to be largely passive, not needing to think or participate, because the lesson dynamics don’t create a culture where all students engage and expect to have to answer questions or contribute ideas?
  • Are there opportunities for practice and consolidation, with scaffolds or less confident students?

These are my typical mental lines of enquiry.. but it’s not a rigid checklist.

Three Layers of Action Response

For any given scenario, another level of thinking is to decide where the various issues might be best handled. Again there are three general groups of issues:

Curriculum Issues: Very commonly, any given lesson throws up a range of curriculum questions. Teachers are typically using resources and a scheme of learning that is produced by their wider team, so it might be better to explore them at the team level, via the team leader. The likelihood is that issues relating to one lesson will be cropping up elsewhere so it’s important to separate them from the specific teacher. I’m often interested in when and how teachers are able to explore the rationale for the materials they use a part of a wider ongoing team process.

Individual Issues: The specific actions and areas for development for the specific teacher in the way they run the room and use the resources. These are the things within the teacher’s control that typically form the core an instructional coaching sequence.

Collective Issues: Very commonly, a team is focusing on a shared set of actions – eg developing retrieval practice routines or supporting students to be more confident with class discussion or working on modelling writing. Here, I might pick up on this when observing a whole series of lessons in a school or a department. I often suggest that it might be more effective to address collective issues within the team CPD cycle rather than with each individual.

In processing the issues and actions, I then filter out things that I think are the most important and coherent in terms of actions that could be addressed meaningfully in a team CPD or coaching process. I find it’s better to distil a few key items rather than attempt any kind of comprehensive review.. because any given lesson can’t support that; it’s the longer-term process overall from which a deeper understanding emerges.

Where there is an ongoing process of coaching and CPD with walkthrus, I use the details of the steps within each technique to frame my feedback responses. The steps are pre-written so they form a usefully neutral reference – a kind of agenda for the probing process that helps keep focused on specifics.

So, very crudely, here’s a summary of how this plays out. It’s not a checklist I use in any formal sense; this is a post-hoc organisation of what is much more organic and responsive thought-process in any given lesson with some example lines of enquiry.

Explaining and ModellingQuestioning
Running the Room
Practice Tasks 
Curriculum
Issues
Sequence of concepts
Resources
Examples; exemplars
Big Picture
Prior Knowledge 
Question design
Expectations of depth and fluency
Hinterland Planning/Culture
Scaffolding Resources
Ladder of difficulty
Opportunities for repetition
Feedback loops
Individual IssuesConfidence and clarity
Multiple Examples
Small Steps
Visual aids
Checking for engagement
Cold Calling
Checking for Understanding
Thinking Time
Responsiveness
Inclusiveness
Challenge and Depth
Monitoring
Scaffold allocation
Guidance to Independence
Challenge and support
Learning goals vs task goals
Collective IssuesApproaches to modelling
Shared explanations for key concepts
Culture of cold calling
Culture of dialogue 
Shared ideas about question stems and responses
Common focus on key techniques
Common approaches to:
•Deployment of scaffolds
•Feedback + improvement tasks and routines
•Peer and self assessment
Image in case the table doesn’t read well on your device

All of this then follows into the feedback processes for individuals or teams:

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