Keep talking, keep listening, keep learning
9/2/16: We're delighted to welcome back Bryanston's Deputy Head Academic, Dr David James, as he takes a look at the benefits of lesson observations in his latest guest post.
Excellent teaching is not just about the outcomes for pupils, it is also about how teachers themselves learn and develop. Just as we encourage pupils to reflect on their strengths and on the areas of weakness they could improve, it is important that we, as teachers, do the same. Lesson observations, whether by an inspector or a colleague, provide a vital part in this process and, if approached in the right way, could be seen as the teacher’s equivalent of a Bryanston correction period, helping both the observer and the observed deepen their understanding of their own teaching styles and subject.
When inspectors go into schools a core part of the process is lesson observation: typically, when I inspect a school, I will see about 10-15 lessons and assess whether they are a 1 (excellent), 2 (good), 3 (sound), 4 (unsatisfactory). For a school to gain an excellent in quality of teaching (which is what Bryanston recently achieved) they must have a high proportion of lessons graded as excellent. Putting all those lesson observation forms together at the end of the inspection is an illuminating experience: it reveals, quite clearly and categorically, whether the school puts teaching and learning right at the heart of everything it does. It might surprise you to learn that some schools do not: without clear leadership they have drifted away from this core duty. Inspections are a necessary corrective, a vital part of a process that, hopefully, can help schools to rediscover the transformative impact inspiring teaching can have on young people. Inspections are dangerous when the fear of being inspected leads school policy (this is perhaps more evident in the maintained sector, which is inspected by Ofsted).
No teacher wants to hear that they are anything less than brilliant: in fact, rather a lot of teachers would like to see themselves as a combination of Robin Williams from Dead Poet’s Society and Mr Chips (perhaps there are some chemistry teachers who rather like Walter White from Breaking Bad, but they won’t own up to it). An excellent school encourages debate about teaching and learning. In such schools, teachers talk about pedagogy, rather than complain about the children they teach; a significant proportion of staff are actively interested in learning about their own profession: they read (and write blogs), they try new things, they are open-minded about new strategies, they reflect on the lessons they have taught, and plan future lessons accordingly; and they like sharing ideas. Crucially, they want to learn.
And they like learning from each other. Bryanston is currently involved in a process of lesson study: we have agreed on key areas upon which we want to improve, and we try to focus on these areas when we watch other colleagues teach. We encourage each other to visit unfamiliar subjects, so that we can really learn something new. Such lesson studies need only be for 10 or 15 minutes, and the conversations afterwards can be very focused, or part of a wider discussion. This can be exhilarating: English teachers need to be reminded about the poetry of mathematics; science teachers need to lose themselves in the intensity of Shakespeare’s language; history teachers can only benefit from understanding a little more about economics, but it is also fascinating to hear why a teacher taught that subject in that way.
The aim is to embed an ongoing culture of professional dialogue so that all teachers learn from each other. If we can do that, then inspections, vital though they are, will also become an opportunity for learning, rather than something to be tolerated (or feared). The ultimate aim of all schools, and all school systems, is to view inspections - and inspectors - as critical friends, professional equals who engage in discussion. That happens when a school really is excellent (it happened to us in Bryanston), and when inspectors do not seek to reduce a school to something utilitarian and measurable, but instead treat a school as a complex organisation that needs to be understood on its own terms. The challenge for all those involved in running schools, and to those who want to see them get better, is simple: keep talking, keep listening, keep learning.