Over the past few months, I have been fortunate enough to work in a wide variety of contexts around the country with fabulously open and highly reflective practitioners. Of late, I have been involved in engaging and often very challenging debates around the ways in which all forms of observations are used in schools to improve the learning experiences of young people.
One of the main areas of my work is concerned with how to develop and sustain a safe and effective culture of quality professional reflection. An integral aspect of this involves the design of dynamic professional development programmes that integrate a culture of coaching, action research and developmental lesson observations.
- the constant testing and revision of all observation formats
- clarification of the purpose of all observations
- agreement of the intended and expected outcomes of all observations
- reflections on the language for and of learning
- creation of a range of observation tools (different tools for different purposes)
- systems that reflect and embrace the values of truly developmental and highly reflective professional learning
An often neglected area of the process of all forms of observation is the post-observation conversation*. In establishing a culture where developmental lesson observations are used to develop the quality of learning opportunities alongside and not instead-of or as separate-from judgmental or graded observations, the challenge is to find the most effective way to ensure that every post-lesson conversation is about professional learning and not professional telling.
Quality post-lesson conversations
The conversation following any type or style of learning observation can, and should, make as many of the demands on the professional expertise of the observer as on the practitioner whose lesson has been observed. This is just as true for a developmental lesson observation as it is for a graded / formal / judgemental lesson observation. It’s certainly true that just because there’s no grade to be given doesn’t make the complexities (practical, emotional and professional) of the discussion any more straightforward.
We can employ as much reassurance as we can think of in the form of…
‘It really IS developmental, there are no judgements here’ OR…
‘Remember, I’m not using the criteria to form any judgements in this, so don’t worry’ OR…
‘The lesson observation format I’m using doesn’t allow me to look for evidence that could be used to grade the lesson’
…BUT until a reflective and developmental culture is established (and even after it is), it is worth remembering that it is likely that it may always feel, for the person whose lesson has just been observed, that the ‘grading elephant’ is present in some guise in the room.
This is particularly true at that critical point of the commencement of the post-lesson conversation when the crowd of learners have packed up and their backpacks have disappeared towards their next lesson. For most, it is worth noting that this is when heart rates spike again, for both the observer and practitioner. It is at this point that the sophisticated skills of the observer have to be fully deployed into the situation, immediately and expertly.
A typical structure of much of our feedback conversations with learners involves providing some positive reinforcement and actively noticing some elements of effective practice followed by some ‘points for development’. This is often encapsulated as ‘What Worked Well’ and ‘Even Better If’ or ‘Two Stars and a Wish’ AfL-style feedback. At other times, it comes in the form of a ‘feedback sandwich’, where the effective element is followed by a developmental point and finished with another effective element. This structure has been adapted by many schools for observers to use with practitioners as part of the post-lesson conversation. The actual structure has many merits, whichever version or adaptation is used.
What I have been reflecting on most recently, however, is the relative impact of the effective elements (WWW) against the impact of identifying the (WWW) developmental points.
What often happens is that the person receiving the feedback does’t really listen to the WWW, however fabulous these are because they are waiting for the EBI. So whether there is a formal judgement hovering and waiting to be delivered or simply a non-graded developmental EBI, or both, the ‘EBI’ can still act as an unhelpful sting in the tail of the conversation, regardless of how massively positive the impact of learning has been as a result of the WWWs. And however accomplished the practitioner has been whilst employing these WWWs.
One of the main reasons for this is:
(1) The WWW and the EBI are often, although not exclusively, presented as two very separate, distinct elements of the observation.
(2) The source of these separate elements is often very different. This is because the process of identifying the elements of effective practice and the elements that we would consider as goals for development, even during the lesson itself, tends to involve an entirely separate search.
So the observer might see…
(1) (WWW) The lesson structure is clear
(2) (WWW) The Learning Outcomes & Success Criteria were communicated effectively to students
(3) (EBI) The teacher-questioning didn’t encourage expansive answers from the learners.
All three points are really important, but when this particular post-lesson conversation occurs, there is a danger that all the practitioner hears is point (3) and leaves the lesson thinking, ‘My questioning isn’t good enough’. In doing so, they may fail to acknowledge and or even care that their planning was really effective and that the construction and communication of learning outcomes and success criteria ensured that all students knew why, what and how they were learning throughout the lesson. These elements may constitute two things into which they’ve invested huge amounts of time and energy and with this, elements of practice that another practitioner two doors down the corridor would really benefit from seeing in action. But they leave the experience thinking, ‘my questioning isn’t good enough.’ and add this to the infinite ‘to-do list of a self-imposed ‘must-do-better’ mindset.
The M.O.T.** and avoiding the STING
So, in implementing Marginal Learning Gains Theory, the observer has the opportunity to be as meticulously selective as the reflective practitioner for whom they are observing the learning. In doing so, they can identify a specific area for development directly from the effective elements already in place. This means that the onus is on the observer to make a clear and specific connection between the elements of the lesson that have been effective and identify how more of this will enhance the quality of the learning experienced. This also means that as observers, we have to really up our game in making a highly sophisticated professional analysis of what really needs to be ‘grown’ from existing practice that will make the biggest impact on the quality of learning.
Obviously, in a coaching relationship, the options for what to focus on in terms of growth are identified and prioritised by the practitioner, but the elements from the observed learning presented by the observer still need to inform and enhance the depth of this conversation.
So, here’s one very simple strategy (and yes, it will very soon be appearing as a Marginal Learning Gain) and the bonus is that is has an equally transferrable application for peer and self assessment activities with our learners.
* I am deliberately not referring to the post-lesson observation conversation as ‘feedback’ because in doing so, it still feels like I’m describing something that is predominantly a one-way process. This is regardless of how much we insist upon the need for there to be several feedback channels where the ‘loudest’ feedback channel is that from the ‘learner’ (or the practitioner’s lesson being observed in this instance) to the ‘teacher’ (the observer in this case).
**And yes, this means I have a new acronym (because I really don’t think we have enough in education).