Several years ago, I was given the task supporting a school in an Interim Headship capacity that had recently been placed into Special Measures. The teachers were hardworking and keen to improve but the school was in a challenging context, and over time inconsistency in the quality of teaching had led to entrenched low outcomes.
I came up with a plan – a colleague knew of a school a couple of miles down the road that had been consistently outstanding in Ofsted. I rang the Head, booked a visit and the whole staff headed over there, notebooks at the ready – we were going to watch and learn.
Of course, it was a disaster. None of the things that were being drilled into teachers to get the school out of Special Measures were anywhere to be seen – no detailed curriculum planning, progress checks or three levels of differentiation (it was a while ago) – and in fact it was very difficult to understand how the school had ever got an outstanding judgement. The teachers did not seem to be putting in the extra hours that their Special Measures colleagues were, there were no detailed and complex systems of review and analysis, no endless meetings. However, there was no reason to question the inspection judgement – the children’s achievement was exceptional, they loved school and the place had an air of quiet purpose.
We left downbeat, demoralised and none the wiser.
The problem with observing truly high performance is that it looks so effortless. If I want to learn how to juggle, then it doesn’t matter how many times I go to the Cirque du Soleil and watch someone throwing and catching 6 flaming torches, it still wouldn’t be advisable for me to have a go. If, on the other hand, I could spend time watching someone struggling to learn the technique of keeping two tennis balls in the air, I might learn something.
It’s an often-stated fact that we learn more from our failures than our successes, so it’s not too far-fetched to suggest that we may learn just as much from watching the failures of others as we do from watching their successes, for exactly the same reason.
Behaviour management is a perfect example. If a teacher is struggling to control their class, then sending them to watch your most skilled behaviour manager is unlikely to be effective on its own. They won’t be able to see how their colleague manages poor behaviour because they probably won’t see any – they’ll just see that mysterious alchemy which means that the student who refuses to stop talking in their class, will be the model of conformity with their highly-skilled colleague.
Of course, we need both to really succeed – we need to know what good practice looks like, but we also need to know how to overcome the hurdles that stand in our way, and understanding what not to do is equally as important as knowing what to do.
I’ve been privileged to have been present in a great many lessons taught by a huge range of teachers over the years, as a school leader, adviser and inspector – I can honestly say that I have learnt something in all of them. It’s an unavoidable human instinct to think ‘What would I have done in that situation? What can I apply to my own practice and what would I do differently?’ It’s this reflection and application to one’s own context that makes observation such a powerful tool for learning.
I have been very interested in the revolution that is taking place in CPD at the moment. I welcome the desire to establish a coherent structure and the recognition that high-quality professional development is at the heart of effective school improvement. I also welcome the way that those who are charged with leading CPD appear to have been selected based on the evidence of their own good or outstanding practice. It gives them credibility and experience of practical strategies. However, it’s very important for those charged with delivering CPD to remember the overwhelming importance of context.
At the risk of over-simplifying, it appears that there is definitely a favoured delivery model. Find individual examples of very good practice, gather them together in a ‘Hub’ structure, pair them with underperforming schools or individuals and let them learn from the experts. I’m sure this has the potential to be effective, but only if it goes beyond the master-pupil dynamic, and once that relationship is established it can be hard to disrupt.
When we’re engaged in improving teaching, especially in the light of underperformance, it’s crucial to take into account that teaching is a complex process, especially teaching large groups of individual pupils at the same time. That’s not to say that there may be simple changes that can make a difference – we’re all always on the lookout for those inspired tips that we can pinch from colleagues and that make our lives easier. However, if we want improvement, the first step is understanding, not compliance, and the way we gain understanding is to see how something works, and why it sometimes doesn’t work.
Teaching is not the same as following a recipe, although CPD can often present it in this way. Whether it’s following a National Strategies 3-part lesson, or ticking off a Rosenshine checklist, there is often a temptation to say that the key to a successful lesson is simply to make sure that you’ve done certain things in a certain order. If only it were that easy.
One of my favourite CPD approaches is Lesson Study – groups of peers working together under the guidance of an expert facilitator to observe one another and give constructive and supportive criticism. It’s a safe place for people to try things out, some of which will work well, others will fall flat – it’s a brilliant learning experience for the person being observed and for their colleagues who are being observed. Sadly, it’s one that it’s very difficult to deliver on a practical and cost-effective way – wouldn’t it be great to install a teaching and learning classroom in every school, with cameras and recording equipment and space for teachers to work together?
The key principle, however, is that while teaching is often an individual endeavour, learning about teaching is far more effective when it’s a shared activity. Opening up our practice takes courage and a culture change – many colleagues are understandably very nervous about allowing others to see them at work, especially if they aren’t feeling particularly confident. If we want to improve schools, leaders have to establish professional communities of trust. To do this we don’t need less observation, we need more – but it needs to feel very different.
I’ve never seen a lesson so perfect that it couldn’t possibly be improved, and I’ve never seen a lesson so terrible that there was nothing that could be built upon. If we can establish the principle that the point of observing teaching is not to judge, but to learn, then we really will be revolutionising CPD.