The problems with observations

We can learn a lot by observing others can’t we?

At some point over the last couple of weeks I have found myself in a few conversations about lesson observations. As someone who has often benefitted from feedback after being observed, and someone who has often benefitted from watching others teach, I was surprised at the dismissal by some of observation as a tool with any purpose at all. I have been mulling this over (brooding, some might say) and trying to understand where they are coming from. And I agree. There are some serious problems with observations. 

You can’t see learning

One very valid criticism of observation is that you can see the thing that many people claim to be looking for. You can’t see learning taking place. What you find instead, is people looking for what they believe are proxies for learning. The trouble is that, as Professor Robert Coe has shown, these are poor proxies. 

Judge not, even though thou escapes judgement

This leads to a second issue; that people have historically tried to make a judgement about a teacher on the basis of what they have seen. This is becoming less common but the idea of being judged lingers like a bad smell. Even if we ignored the fact that we can’t see learning (something still being tried by SLT up and down the land) we need to accept that making a judgement based on any one lesson is a nonsense. It tells you next to nothing about how they teach the rest of the time. So you can’t base a judgement on an observation.

It’s us vs them

This neatly links on to a third problem with observations. It is something done by Them to Us. The people carrying out observations are school leaders and managers who have been promoted to their role for a variety of reasons, one of which may be that they are excellent teachers. Or it may not. They may have a lot of insight to offer. Or they may not. The assumption that they will is troubling. There is also an issue with trust. I have been lucky in the schools that I have worked in that teachers and leaders worked together and there was little, if any, animosity, but this is certainly not the case in all schools and in too many bullying is rife and lesson observations have been used punitively. They come with a lot of baggage. 


  1. You can’t observe learning,
  2. You can’t judge the competence of a teacher just by observing a lesson,
  3. Observations can often be devisive and a source of conflict.

Given this, why am I such a fan? Because it doesn’t have to be this way.

When I observe someone in my team I am not making a judgement. I am making a note of some questions to discuss afterwards, to open up a discussion about teaching and learning. I know that everyone in my team is an excellent teacher but, like me, they are always seeking to improve. So we talk about that. Was X effective? Was this work challenging? Can students remember what they learnt last week? These are the conversations I have when I am observed and I always find them helpful. It is more like a coaching conversation than lesson feedback.

Lesson observations also don’t need to be about managers observing those they manage. We have an hour of non-contact time a fortnight added to our timetables to allow us to collaborate, and one thing we use this time for is peer observation. I can learn a lot by seeing others teach and by having the chance to sit down and unpick it with them afterwards. 

Finally learning walks can be invaluable. Not because I am judging what others are doing but because I am judging how I, as a Head of Department, am doing. If we decide in a meeting that to improve literacy we are going to do X, Y and Z then I would like to see if X, Y and Z are being done. This is so that, if they are not done, I can find out why. Maybe they weren’t effective, or were too time consuming, maybe people just forget with the hundreds of other things going on. Again, I am not making a judgement, I am asking a question. The main thing I am doing on a learning walk is collecting examples of excellent practice that we can share in department meetings. 

For observations to work they need to be non-judgemental and not about a manager coming in to tell you how to do your job. They need to be an opportunity to discuss teaching and learning, to get a fresh pair of eyes on what you are doing and to get a sense of what I happening in a department or across a school.

I’ll leave you with this gem.


2 thoughts on “The problems with observations

  1. Pingback: Blogs that tell you how to teach better – Elephant lessons

  2. Pingback: Educational Reader’s Digest | Friday 24th March – Friday 31st March – Douglas Wise

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