In the Isle of Man, the Department of Education, Sport and Culture (DESC) operates the Island’s state schools. DESC undertakes the role of Government Department and that of the Local Authority, a dual function which is surely unique to the Isle of Man. Earlier this week I was visited by an officer of DESC for a “quality assurance” visit to one of my schools. These meetings are always planned in advance and usually have one or two particular foci which are held up to the spotlight and discussed, challenged and assessed. This week’s QA visit was no different in that respect – although something unusual did happen.
The officer had asked if the meeting could be filmed via an iPad. The camera would be firmly on the quality assurance officer and would not capture a visual record of me. The purpose was so that after the meeting the officer could review the meeting, and self reflect on how the meeting had gone: what was the balance of conversation between participants, did body language help draw out a better quality of interaction, were questions open, were key challenges made and given constructively? Did the school feel sufficiently supported, sufficiently challenged and ultimately in a better place to move forward with key improvements and developments?
Although filming a meeting was a new idea to me, the concept of self-reflection using video was not. In fact it was something that I had worked on and introduced at my schools as part of the “lesson observation” process some years ago – and over the years this idea has been refined, tweaked and honed to get us to the position we are in today.
In 2014 I attended the Outstanding Teaching Conference in Manchester. Two of the speakers that day – Mark Burns and Andy Griffith – led an excellent session; and it was that day my approach to lesson observation changed forever. Delegates were asked “what is the point of lesson observation?”
Certainly it seemed to me that lesson observation had become all about checking up on teachers – it was a rudimentary tool for assisting school leadership with the performance management of their teachers. Mark and Andy however challenged that rationale and encouraged us to reflect on some key questions:
- If you’re honest with yourself, how do you feel about lesson observations at your school?
- Are teachers confident about letting people observe their lessons?
- Are observations always centred around performance management or are they ever used for CPD?
- Does lesson observation feedback consist of tick boxes against criteria or a more contextualised meaningful discussion?
- Do teachers get an opportunity to see all of the great practice from around the school like the observer?
- Is there a fear of risk taking or experimentation?
- Are there pockets of outstanding practice, but a difficulty in sharing this across the school?
- Are there opportunities for peer and self-review?
I found myself thinking about the BBC television programme “MasterChef.” This is the show where talented cooks are shown laboring over a recipe and preparing fantastic meals as they are watched and quizzed by the judges at every stage. Finally, the meals are finished and tasted by the judges who give their feedback. What is interesting though about MasterChef is that although the feedback can be difficult, and the responses it draws from the contestants can be emotional, it is always presented from both sides – judge and contestant – as a constructive process. The judges want the chefs to learn. The chefs, even when faced with what could be considered as negative feedback, are interviewed afterwards where they almost always self-reflective and start talking about what they need to do next time to improve their practice.
Now obviously there is TV drama and a huge dose of the theatrical in MasterChef. But it does show me that a process of observation and feedback can be motivating and developmental. If we apply these musings to the world of education it is not hard to see that lesson observation has traditionally been geared towards performance management. However, paradigms are shifting and the importance of observation for development needs to be increasingly recognised.
I came away from listening to Mark and Andy with an inner-commitment to shift the culture in my school from using observation as a summative assessment towards an open, constructive and collaborative approach. No longer did I want negative feelings from my staff towards the lesson observation process, where observations are perceived as an imposed activity which add to stress and anxiety levels. No longer did I want feedback to be “within 5 days, or 24 hours, or whatever time-frame had been set out. I wanted it to be immediate and meaningful – not just through a series of tick boxes. And no longer did I want lesson observation to be something done TO you – where are the opportunities for teachers to undertake self review and see themselves as others do in the way that a chef frequently tastes his own food?
Lesson observations can be one of the most powerful ways to raise standards of teaching and learning but only when teachers become empowered in the process. That’s why I’ve worked so hard to advocate developmental lesson observation at my schools and move us from a “done to” to a “done with” model.
I wanted to establish a way of helping teachers to use the observation process as a means of CPD and the first step was to gather them together and tell them about my plan for lessons to be filmed. There were caveats, of course: only the teacher could watch the video – never the observer; the video would be deleted by the teacher after they had watched it – it would never be stored or kept as “evidence” by the observer. We started out with lessons being filmed onto iPads – the observer would watch the lesson in the room, the teacher would deliver the lesson and watch it back later that day. Feedback was replaced with a developmental conversation between two people who had both watched the same lesson – one of whom had actually taught it!
The premise was that
teachers seeing themselves as their students and an observer sees them helps them to gain much more insight into the impact they have as a teacher. Using video is like holding a mirror up to your teaching practice and is a very powerful tool for teacher reflection, and helps frame professional discussion and development conversations.
There was initial worry and anxiety from the teachers – I had expected as much. To help, I offered to be the first teacher to go through the process and asked a member of the staff to observe me whilst I filmed my lesson and then give me feedback in a professional and reflective conversation.
We’ve got over those initial worries now, and teachers can see that I’m a man of my word and videos remain in the complete ownership of the teacher: they are there to allow staff to watch their lessons back, allowing them to look their teaching, including other aspects of teaching and learning which may not have been the original focus of the observation; turning that one lesson into
multiple learning opportunities. And all with the aim to improve their practice.
Crucially, the whole process has nothing to do with performance management. It is not linked to targets, appraisal or anything else like that. It is entirely focused around CPD.
We’ve moved a lot since those early days of rudimentary videos on iPads.
An app has been developed for my school. The app has our school-specific learning and teaching foci built in so we can use it to hone in onto a specific aspect in an observation. The app utilizes technology to records snapshots of features of teaching and learning within lessons – and that can be still-photo images, short video footage, written notes and audio files. The app will then generate a short report, using our in-house competencies and the footage collected, which is shared with the teacher who has been observed. This happens immediately with the report arriving in the teacher’s email inbox when the observer taps “end” at the end of the lesson.
The app removes the need for lesson observation to require an “observer” to be sat at the back of a classroom with a clipboard and pen. It makes the whole process more interactive and practical for the observer, who can move around the class, ask the pupils questions, look at their learning in books and capture meaningful examples of practice – both good and developmental. And the app has made the video footage much more refined, too. Instead of the whole lesson being filmed from one angle – as was the case when we initially started this journey – the app captures short “clips” of up to 1 minute in length. And with the app being on a mobile device the filming can be from multiple places in the room – focused on the teacher or the learner. The app has added an extra element of sophistication to what is captured and why.
So, video footage, self-reflection and a non-performance management use of lesson observation: it has made my teachers even better and the culture of observation is very different to what it was – much more positive. Worth a try? I’m convinced.