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How To Observe A Lesson

Updated: Dec 7, 2023


How To Carry Out a Lesson Observation - Aidan Severs Consulting Ltd

As I was putting together my 'Starter for 5: Monitoring and Evaluation' blog post I realised that, although I talk about lesson observation with leaders who I work with, I hadn't actually blogged about it. I thought I'd better change that (Edit: this post is now part of that post!).


Professor Rob Coe's excellent blog post 'Classroom observation: it’s harder than you think' outlines several ways in which observing teachers teaching is quite difficult to do. In short, he outlines the following 5 points:

  • Observation produces a strong emotional response

  • Learning is invisible

  • Accepted ‘good practice’ may be more fashionable than effective

  • We assume that if you can do it you can spot it

  • We don’t believe observation can miss so much

I've been sharing Coe's summary with subject leaders over the last couple of years but have found that it only serves as a warning of things to be aware of so that you either try to avoid doing them, or at least acknowledge when making a judgement that it may be flawed.


What would be equally useful to subject leaders, and other members of staff carrying out observations (or drop-ins, whatever you call them), would be some ideas of what can be done to best assess the teaching and learning that is happening.


I've been observing lessons for years in various capacities and whilst I am well aware of the possibility of flawed judgement, hopefully there are a few things I can pass on.


Before I start, I'll direct you back to a previous blog post of mine 'Monitoring 101' where I provide a basis for any monitoring you might do:


Be clear about:

  • What you are looking for

  • Why you are looking for it

  • How and where you will look for it

  • When you will look for it

  • Who will provide the information you need

So then, how to observe a lesson:


Agree a focus - know what you are looking for and why. This can be linked to whole school priorities, subject priorities (perhaps linked to any CPD delivered) or personal goals that teachers are working towards (perhaps set as a follow-up to previous observations). And when I say agree, I mean agree - meet before the observation to do this so that everyone is on the same page. We are not, or shouldn't be, in the business of trying to catch people out. These are our colleagues; these are our team members.


Know your staff - character, personality, needs and preferences all must be taken into considerations when walking into someone's classroom. You want teachers to feel confident and at ease - you want to see them at their most natural, as well as at their best. There probably is no one-size-fits-al approach to lesson observation: knowing your staff well will help you to tailor your approach to lesson observation. Some would like you to melt into the background, others will welcome a little conversation; some would rather not know you're coming; others would like it in the diary. Speak to each member of staff to gain an insight into how they think a lesson observation can be carried out in a way that will best help them to develop as a teacher.


Know the context - the more you have a good knowledge of the class dynamic, individual children and their needs, how things are going on a day-to-day basis, the better. Leaders who have taught the classes they are observing arre potentially at an advantage, whether they have taught them in previous years or teach the class regularly whilst they provide cover, for example. Leaders who are present during planning are perhaps similarly advantaged, as are those who coach the teachers they are observing: anecdotally, it seems to be the case that the more touchpoints a leader has that connects them to the teaching and learning happening in the classroom, the more insightful they are able to be during lesson observations.


Stick to the focus - although we might miss a lot in lesson observsations, we also see a lot that we don't need to labour on. I'm thinking particularly here of when it comes to feedback time - some leaders (and you will have almost certainly had this happen to you) attempt to look at everything and then give feedback on everything. This can sometimes lead to multiple action points which is just not manageable for either the teacher to action or the observer to provide support for. Sticking to the focus might mean that you notice other things, and you might even make a note of them, however, you will acknowledge that they are less important right now than the agreed focus. If you are looking for specifics, you are less likely to miss what you are looking for. Look for everything and of course you will miss things. Consciously make the decision to prioritise action points for now and file away any other areas for improvement for a later date.


Pre-identify the how and where - stepping into a lesson can be overwhelming as there can be so much going on. Once you've decided what your focus is, decide how and where you will look for evidence of that thing when you're in the classroom. Will it be by watching children interact? Speaking to them? Noticing the actions of the teacher? Taking note of the exact words that the teacher is saying? Get granular. Be specific. Know exactly what your actions will be before you walk in that room, onto that field or through that forest. A great way to do this is to pose some questions to yourself as an observer. Write them down and leave space for notes which you can either complete during or after the lesson. This particular aspect of my advice hinges heavily on what you select as the focus - this stage could look very different depending on what you werre looking for.


Interrogate yourself - Prof Coe's warning is one to be heeded. You probably need to be more ready to assess your own biases than you do the practice of the teacher in front of you. What if what they are doing fulfils exactly what you are looking for but it just looks different to what you expected, or to how you would do it? You would do well to second guess yourself before going and making any firm judgements and pronouncements. A simple generic question such as 'Does that achieve what was intended?' asked of yourself sincerely and refelectively could go a long way.


Develop lines of enquiry - whilst you watch a lesson, one of the best things you can do beyond asking questions of yourself is to generate questions which you might later pose to the teacher. These questions can be written so as to fill in gaps in your knowledge of the class, individual children, the curriculum, sequencing, decision-making, prior assessment, and the list could go on. The teacher knows the class far more intimately than you do so will be able to help you to develop your understanding of the context into which the lesson has been delivered.


Follow-up discussion - there is so much to be gained from the teacher's side of the story which can often put lots of what you've seen into context. A follow-up meeting in which you prompt discussion based on the lines of enquiry you've developed will most likely be hugely profitable. Not only will you gain insight as an observer, the observee will feel like they are a part of the process and that it isn't just something be done to them in which they have no say. For more on providing feedback, see my blog post 'How To Give Feedback To Your Work Mates'.


Aidan works with lots of school leaders, particularly subject leaders, on the development of their monitoring and evaluation practises. If you would like him to work with leaders in your organisation, you can get in touch using the contact details on this website. Alternatively, you can use the links below:


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