Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Grading the teaching profession - can lesson observation be useful?

Lesson Observation help or hindrance

I posted this lesson observation template on Twitter and within 24 hours it had been seen by over 1,200 users and counting (Tweet activity via Twitter analysis tool) - it has certainly left an impression judging by the interactions I have also received, and the many comments and suggestions of how it could be improved. One follower went as far as saying it was "frankly rubbish" - and I agree. 

The template was created using Ofsted's 2014 grade descriptors from its School Inspection Handbook. Ofsted makes a point that its grade descriptors should not be used as a checklist, instead favouring a best fit model (p.38) however it would appear that schools do use them as a checklist during lesson observations with teachers facing the dilemma of not knowing how many ticks have gone into which column until they receive their feedback. I am also aware that Ofsted have made a point that their grade descriptors should not be used as a way of making an assessment on individual lessons.

Ofsted's School Inspection Handbook is actually quite a useful document - pages 15 and 16 are of particular importance as they clearly layout Ofsted's current thinking on lesson observation. The following statements should be printed out on A1 and put on every headteacher's door and staffroom in every school.
  • The key objectives of lesson observations are to inform the evaluation of the overall quality of teaching over time.
  • When inspectors carry out observations in lessons, they should not grade the quality of teaching for that individual session or indeed the overall quality of the lesson.
  • Inspectors must not advocate a particular method of planning, teaching or assessment. They will not look for a preferred methodology.
  • Inspectors will not expect teachers to prepare lesson plans for the inspection.
So how do we make lesson observation useful?
  • Lesson observations are here to stay but how they are conducted can be changed. A few suggestions were offered on Twitter.
  • No feedback should be given.
  • Don't ever use that template, it's demeaning.
  • Only two boxes - strengths and improvements
  • Feedback that has questions to provoke discussion
  • Peer observations
  • Management only conduct one observation, the rest are carried out with peers
  • Video lessons. Reflect and discuss in teams afterwards.
  • Visit other schools and observe teaching there.
  • Definitely do not use this template. Ever.
  • Improve the knowledge of the observers

Unfortunately, when a school decides to ignore Ofsted's advice and concentrate on 'what they think Ofsted wants' they end up creating a system of lesson observation that is more to do with accountability than improving teaching and learning.

I will explore this further and if you have your own suggestions as to how to make lesson observation useful then please do leave a comment. I would advise that you now read the brilliant "Life without Lesson Observation Grades" by Deputy Headteacher Shaun Allison.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

We don't need differentiation, we need to be be better teachers.

I read the following post 'The dangers of differentiation and what to do about them' by Andy Tharby (@atharby) earlier today. I would suggest you read that first then come back here. It's an excellent post and I believe that Andy has gone some way in demonstrating how ineffective our current form of differentiated instruction is at the moment. I believe that we are holding back many children due to our obsession with differentiation in every lesson.

I teach in EYFS, this is a world where differentiation should not exist yet it does. I am continually reminded by my SMT that I should be including differentiated activities in every lesson so that every child can gain access to the learning (I'll hold back from writing what I really think about that). It is true that children come into Reception with varying skills in reading, writing and number. Some children are more than capable of reading simple sentences and their phonic knowledge is good. Others recognise their name and that's about it. Others can write a few words whilst some struggle to hold a pencil using 'the preferred grip'. Realising this wouldn't it make sense to approach every lesson with a set of differentiated activities so that every child could succeed in the learning? No, it wouldn't.

If I did this I am automatically assigning four and five year old children with a label. They will be forever known as a HAP, AAP/MAP or LAP (High, Average/Middle, Low achieving pupil). This label will be theirs throughout primary school and no doubt into secondary too. I stood my ground last year and did not assign labels to any child in my class. However, at the end of the year I had to provide the Year 1 teacher a list of HAP/AAP/LAP/SEN children so that she could fulfil the obligatory use of differentiation throughout the school.

Differentiation means well. In a recent post on EdWeek, differentiation takes the following factors of student learning into account.
• It seeks to determine what students already know and what they still need to learn.• It allows students to demonstrate what they know through multiple methods.• It encourages students and teachers to add depth and complexity to the learning/teaching process.
The problem with this is that it is unworkable in the classroom. The teacher ends up spending too much valuable and productive time on the time-consuming activity of planning for three separate activities that end up not meeting the planned for lesson objective.  Andy Tharby's lists a 'Differentiation Hall of Shame'. (This list should be printed out and put up in every school in the country). 

1. Differentiation because you think you should. 
2. Differentiation to meet an outsider’s expectations.
3. Differentiation according to prior-attainment grade or target grade. 
4. Differentiation that takes time away from planning subject content. 
5. Differentiation according to all/most/some.
6. Differentiation that does the thinking for them.
7. Differentiation as a life sentence.
8. Differentiation as a list of rules!

Teachers blindly adhere to SMTs ideas on lesson planning and what is supposed to be contained in those plans. Yet SMT do not teach your class. You are the teacher, you know your class better than anyone else in the school. You should be able to adapt where you see fit, to change a lesson at any point when you realise it's not working. You should teach your whole class and then respond as and when to those students that need you to make the progress they richly deserve. They do not need watered down activities that hold them back, that will never stretch their learning. They need a teacher.

The most effective differentiation takes place inside the teacher’s thought-processes. - Andy Philip Day

What differentiation does get right is telling us that teaching in the previous year was poor, substandard. That's about it. To ensure we don't fall victim to the curse of differentiation we need to teach our children well. We need to ensure they understand what it is they have been taught, and they need to be able to demonstrate this understanding before moving onto the next lesson. 

We don't need to differentiate. 

We need to be better teachers.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Are we teachers or sheep?

Meek and mild?

I had been expecting the Ofsted inspector all morning due to the Head providing a timetable detailing the team's whereabouts. I was due to be seen just after break. They came after lunch. I was told 10 minutes before. I had French on the timetable but decided to change it to Spanish, I scribbled down a post-it plan that included using the iPad app 'Toontastic' and got the five iPads we had in school into my classroom. The team arrived at 1:15pm, five minutes into my lesson and stayed until the end. I adapted my lesson throughout as I responded to the strengths and weaknesses of every child, I wrote no Learning Objective on the board, nor made a list of Success Criteria, I even had children under tables whilst they used the iPad app so that they could record their spoken Spanish in relative quiet and at no time did I refer to the post-it plan although I did provide it to the lead inspector for a laugh.

I was graded Outstanding. 

I'm sure there are many, many teachers like myself that have taught lessons in this way yet if we I repeated similar lessons today we would no doubt receive a warning from our ever more powerful senior micro managers. We need to ask ourselves why? 

Why have many of us let the inadequacies of senior micro management get in the way of creative and effective teaching? 

Why have we fallen prey to the insistence on very detailed weekly planning for every subject?

Why do we feel inadequate in our professionalism unless we can provide the prescriptive, detailed weekly planning to back it up?

Why we have lost our voices in countless staff meetings and begrudgingly accepted the latest 'Ofsted need the following' tripe as truth?

Why do we continue the ridiculous and non-effective marking strategies that require two or more pen colours and take up most of our evenings and weekends to the detriment of personal life?

Why do we keep allowing our management to add yet another tracking system onto the others we already use so that we can track progress in ever more refined detail and softly, shaded colours?

Why have we become sheep that bow to submission and get on with whatever management has told us to do instead of questioning everything they say and asking for proof that it will actually make a difference in teaching and learning?

Why is it that most of us know we can do a much better job if we just ignored all the crap and got on with the difficult yet rewarding job of teaching?

Are you one of the sheep or a teacher?

Note - Ofsted visited me September 2012.