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When it comes to observation records, I have issues with checklists, matrices, tables, scorecards, boxes to tick and all things criteria. I know this will be controversial and I suspect some might read this and automatically rationalize their own use of these things. Please bear with me and see this through.

This is about observation forms often used to record outcomes from lesson observations. More specifically it’s about the bits of the form that have criteria / aspects to comment against or grade or tick in some way. Sometimes it’s not part of the form itself but an appendix or aide memoire. Not all observation records have these and not all observations even come with a record at all. But unfortunately, many still do. I will get to why I am saying ‘unfortunately’, but first let’s just be clear about why they are often used.

  • To make it easier to collate information
  • To ensure that observers comment on the aspects the provider wants them to
  • To provide guidance to observers
  • To help standardize observation practice
  • To provide easily extractable information about what staff development is needed across college

Even with these good and valid intentions, the boxes often don’t serve their purpose due to how they are completed and how the information is used.   There are other ways to achieve these goals too, and when you consider the issues the boxes can cause, you have to ask if the benefits you could get from them outweigh the risks.

Onto the risks then: Observers often use criteria in an almost mathematical way when grading, even when senior managers attempt to make it clear they are not to be used that way. By the way, let me be clear I’m not advocating grading, another form of wanting to fit the complex into simple boxes.

Observers complete or at least begin to complete them during observations, and as they are busy trying to find the right boxes to comment in or boxes to tick whilst watching, they fail to watch and miss too much.

With the above issue – sometimes they are so busy looking for the next thing on the list that they miss what is happening and focus only on the noise of the session or on the one thing they are looking for. You know that Gorilla video? Well, if you’ve seen it you know just what I mean. If you haven’t, head to you tube and check out ‘gorilla basketball video’. When we are looking for something, we can miss so much.

Observers are often just busy looking at the form even whilst not completing it to help them remember all the things they think they need to look for.

And on that very note, looking for is one of the biggest issues! We should not look for but look at. We should not ‘expect to see’ but instead look at the value in what we do see. Looking for is dangerous in so many ways.

When you look for

  • You miss important things
  • You end up feeding back to the teacher sometimes about a lack of presence of something just because you didn’t see it – when it really isn’t their job to provide you with evidence to tick your boxes
  • You signal to the teacher that there are certain things that should be present in a lesson
  • You help teachers to see observation as a game to play, a hoop to jump though
  • You encourage prescriptive teaching and learning
  • You end up with superficial, pointless activities and lessons that confuse learners and are no good for anyone
  • You risk the credibility of the teacher with their learners if they have succumbed to teaching in a different way for an observation because they feel they need to follow the prescription
  • Worse than just causing poor learning experiences during observations; teachers begin to believe this is the right way or at least the expected way to teach and begin to teach like this all the time
  • You kill creativity, intuition, and innovation
  • You end up with superficial, disjointed, and frankly sad lessons
  • And sometimes, in the worst cases we see, you have a negative impact upon the mental health of your teachers.

I’m not getting into what is wrong with observations that judge and do not ask questions about all the unknown factors (they’re the interesting and meaningful ones); I do that else where. I just want to make the point about this damaging aspect of observation here (there can be plenty more).

Observers, like teachers, have a lot of power. They can pull a teacher down or they can build them up. Instead of trying to fit teachers and lessons into soulless, superficial boxes in order to measure them, we can create rich and meaningful dialogue that helps our educators identify what they need to improve learners’ experiences.

So, can you work to find other ways to observe without checklists? Can you resist the temptation to make the complex simple? Can you create dialogue with teachers, shake off the shackles and help us build teachers up? And in turn, develop wonderful experiences and outcomes for our beautiful learners?

Deborah McVey, Managing Director, Deborah McVey Ltd

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