Are lesson observations raising standards?

Written by: HTU | Published:

The government is calling for headteachers to observe more lessons as a way of driving up standards. Former headteacher Chris Quigley looks at the current techniques in place and asks if we are monitoring the right things

The quality of teaching has never been under so much scrutiny and debate. Michael Gove, the education minister, is quoted as saying: “The biggest factor in raising standards in schools is the quality of its teachers.” While the chief inspector of schools has claimed that over half of lessons are “dull and uninspiring”. Both call for headteachers to carry out more lesson observations. To do this effectively, headteachers need more training on how to observe lessons. Unfortunately, most heads do observe lessons, often more than the recommended three hours per year, and yet standards remain stubbornly low in some schools. In some cases, lesson observations do little to raise standards and may even lower them.

This is largely due to four factors. The first is that some teachers, headteachers and inspectors believe there is a preferred way to teach based on good practice or a formula. The National Strategies popularised one such formula: the three-part lesson. This gave rise to a widespread standardisation of teaching methods, where lessons were judged on what they contained rather than what children gained from them.

Teachers were judged on whether particular features appeared in each part of the lesson, and how long each part of the lesson lasted. Even where this particular formula is not in place, it takes much practice as an observer to take out personal preference for how a lesson should be delivered. This can lead to feedback that reinforces a particular way to teach, which encourages standardisation. Instead of standardisation, the diverse nature of our children requires a high level of customisation if we are to meet their needs.

The second factor is that there is no accepted definition of learning throughout the teaching profession. Although we use the word every day, what we actually mean can be vague. Are we, for example, referring to the verb learning or the noun learning, or both?

The third factor is that we often monitor lessons rather than evaluate them. Monitoring is an information gathering, descriptive process. Evaluation is a diagnostic process that seeks to pinpoint and explain effectiveness. To evaluate properly, lessons need to be judged in terms of the learning that takes place and how this contributes to the overall picture of standards in the school. However, in the absence of an accepted definition of learning this becomes very difficult.

The fourth factor is that the purpose of lesson observations has become muddled. Not all school leaders know why they are observing lessons other than to try to drive up standards. This is, however, too vague. Educational leadership is a process of monitoring outcomes for children, diagnosing why they are as they are, taking action to improve outcomes and checking to see if they improve. A good leader has a strong track record of improving outcomes for children. Lesson observations are meant to try to diagnose why outcomes are as they are.


Standardisation of teaching methods has become commonplace in many schools, especially those trying desperately to raise educational standards from a low starting point. This is because local authorities, funded by the National Strategies, have been telling them how to do it. For example, if we were to take the two lessons highlighted on page 20 and ask teachers which is best, they may answer lesson A or B. This would be based on either their personal preference for what a good lesson would contain or based on what they think they are expected to do. In fact, when asked which lesson they would be most inclined to deliver during an inspection, nine out of 10 teachers say lesson A. Not because they think it would be better, but because it is what they feel is expected of them. This is the impact of standardisation. The actual answer to the question of which is best is that it is impossible to tell from this information. It merely describes two different lessons, and tells us nothing of the benefits for children.

To take just one statement from Lesson A about learning objectives, it raises so many issues beyond the descriptive phrase used. Just because learning objectives are present, clear and displayed means nothing if they are inappropriate objectives. In fact, what is an objective? This is a similar issue to the one of “learning”. We all use the word, but what does it mean? What is the difference between a coverage objective and a learning objective? My definition of a learning objective is transferable knowledge, skills or understanding. In other words, learning that can be applied to thousands of contexts without any re-wording. This definition also ensures the objectives are worthwhile – after all, what is the point of learning something that can never be used?

Standardisation has led to strategies such as “mark to the objective” becoming accepted as good practice. It has though, a fundamental flaw: it assumes the “objective” is an objective and not just an activity with the word “to” in front of it.

It also assumes that it is the right objective at the right level at the right time for children based upon an in depth subject knowledge and knowledge of the child’s needs to help them attain what is expected of them. A big assumption?

Defining learning

This is the problem with standardisation. It leads to conformity in techniques rather than an in-depth analysis of the needs of children. It takes us away from looking for learning and into looking for compliance. That is not to say that techniques such as “mark to the objective” are bad or, for that matter, good. They are just techniques. It is our job to try to evaluate the techniques in relation to the learning gains they bring about.

In order to move on, a clear definition of learning is required. This one, that I developed to help train inspectors, is one that many schools are finding useful in empowering their teachers to customise lessons for children so that they meet their needs and help them learn. It focuses on the noun “learning” or what you will see.

The first part of the definition is the “what” of learning: knowledge, skills and understanding. The second part of the definition is the “rate” of learning: children’s mental and physical productivity – or how much thinking and doing is taking place to demonstrate progress. It also includes the application of basic skills no matter what the learning objective. The final part of the definition is the attitudes and enthusiasm of the children. This is the personal development of children within a lesson.

When we focus on these things during a lesson it gives a much clearer picture of whether learning is taking place and which aspects of learning are promoted best. By using this method of observation we are saying to our teachers that we do not have a preferred way for them to teach. What we want to see is learning taking place. With this comes freedom to innovate, experiment and find the best ways to help children to learn what is required.

Too much monitoring of lessons has been taking place and the purpose of lesson observations has become muddled. Monitoring lessons tends to steer us more towards what the teacher is doing rather than what the children are gaining. While monitoring is a highly important task of leaders, we must ensure we monitor the right things. Monitoring activities should focus on outcomes for children while evaluation should focus on provision.

Three main areas of provision exist in schools: the curriculum, teaching and care, and guidance and support. It is the combination of these three areas of provision that affects outcomes, or standards for children. The purpose, therefore, of lesson observations is to evaluate teaching methods to see how they impact on learning. This helps to diagnose why standards are as they are and suggests action to raise standards. We may, for example, decide that more pupil productivity is needed to raise standards. In some cases however we may conclude that the quality of teaching is excellent but to raise standards we should focus more on the quality of the curriculum. By making the purpose of observation clearer, it helps leaders to focus their work and to raise standards rather than pursue standardised methods of teaching.

Encouraging customisation

So by encouraging customisation rather than standardisation of teaching we better meet the needs of children. By clearly defining learning we focus on the product of a lesson not the teacher. Through more rigorous evaluation of lessons and a clear purpose for observation, we can take control of learning. After all, what is so bad about lessons that teach children the right things, at the right level, at the right time, in the right balance? What is so bad about teaching that helps children to think for themselves and complete lots of work? What is so bad about teaching that helps children to apply basic skills no matter what the objective and at the same time helps children to develop great attitudes to learning? Does it really matter, therefore, if a teacher does not display objectives on a laminated card at the beginning of a three-part lesson?

• Chris Quigley was formerly headteacher of a school in Newcastle upon Tyne. Ofsted described him as “an outstanding leader with exceptional vision”. He is best known for his work on curriculum development and now speaks to teachers all over the world. Until recently, he trained inspectors in how to observe lessons. His book, How to Observe a Lesson and details of nationwide courses in managing the quality of teaching may be found at

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