Classroom observations: Judgements or conversations?

Written by: Jim Mepham | Published:
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Interesting read. Absolutely agree that changing that view of observations being ‘done’ to teachers ...

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As a school leader, why do you carry out lesson observations? What are they for and what do you ‘judge’? Experienced headteacher Jim Mepham discusses what observations should aim to achieve and some alternative approaches

A key monitoring activity in primary schools has long been regular lesson observations of teachers operating in classrooms with feedback that is intended to improve practice and the quality of teaching.

But is it the case that for too long, lesson observation policies have been plagued by the need to make and communicate “judgements”, simply in the name of accountability?

Ofsted’s 2019 Education Inspection Framework (EIF) recognises that classrooms are complex environments and that to try and capture everything that goes on there is neither possible nor desirable.

Ofsted also knows that lesson observation is only one tool among a range of evaluation methods for measuring teacher effectiveness and that evidence should be triangulated to make informed assessments.

For Ofsted, the curriculum is now the key focus under which lesson visits are carried out. Its subject “deep dives” allow inspectors to gather evidence to form an accurate evaluation of how education flows from intention to implementation and finally to impact within a school – the three Is.

It has been a long time now since Ofsted stopped grading individual lessons during its inspections, nor do inspectors judge the quality of teaching of individual teachers – because as we all know, one-off observations of a single teacher are likely to be unreliable for evaluating that teacher.

However, classroom observations still remain an important component of inspection or indeed school leadership monitoring. They continue to feature as a significant part of teacher appraisal as well.

Are we observing the right things?

There is a lot of shared agreement about what good pedagogy looks like. Rosenshine’s principles of good practice (principles of instruction) are broadly adopted by most schools (Rosenshine, 2012).

Recapping of previous learning, breaking down learning into manageable chunks, and good teacher questioning that includes a wide range of children are all accepted as elements of good practice.

In addition to these, the use of on-going feedback and “checking protocols”, opportunities for modelling and scaffolding, differentiation and opportunities to practise and apply learning are standard aspects of good teaching and learning.

But are there other dimensions of practice that we could also prioritise?

In the 2018 research document Six models of lesson observation, Ofsted reports that it is “open to testing new models (of classroom observation) to see whether they improved inspection practice and give a richer measure of the quality of education, in order to benefit parents, pupils and schools themselves” (Ofsted, 2018).

Some of these six models emphasise different elements of classroom practice that do not feature in the 2019 inspection framework. One of these is called the CLASS model.

Initially developed for research, CLASS has been scaled for use in practice over the last decade. Research from more than 2,000 classrooms using this model provides useful evidence about the nature of teacher-child interactions and the ways in which these interactions promote children’s social and academic development.

CLASS measures three broad domains of interactions among teachers and children: emotional support, classroom organisation, and instructional support.

In this model, we have a different focus on pupil and teacher interaction and on emotional support, not just on subject knowledge and academic progress.

Another model – ICALT – is an observation instrument developed by Wim van de Grift and colleagues for use in the national inspection system in The Netherlands. This emphasises the importance of a safe learning climate, the relationship between teacher and class, various teaching strategies that motivate students to think, and whether teachers are sensitive to and flexible in attempting to meet individual students’ learning needs.

Another approach is ISTOF, a generic teacher-observation framework, which was developed as an instrument to work across borders in international school effectiveness studies. One of the features that this approach prioritises is “classroom climate” – the extent to which the teacher communicates high expectations and communicates with and involves and values all students.

There seems to be a strong argument that these features – classroom culture and ethos, relationships, teacher sensitivity, and the motivation and engagement of pupilsactually underpin quality teaching and learning in any classroom. It is the social, moral and emotional climate that is, surely, the bedrock for learning to take place.

Do observations make a difference to the quality of teaching and learning?

My own experience of observations as a primary headteacher resonate with Tom Sherrington’s honest evaluation of much practice (Sherrington, 2019).

In terms of observations, he notes: “The assumption that the observer knows enough about a given scenario to give productive feedback underpins the whole process – and is possibly wildly over-stated. All too often, feedback focuses on teacher performance – their activities and resources and interactions – and not enough on the details of specific challenges relating to student learning.”

Even when there is clear feedback to the teacher, “teachers may fail to respond to it”. Mr Sherrington continues:

“They don’t trust it; they’re demotivated by it; they didn’t ask for it and resent getting it; they don’t articulate their challenges in the terms used by the observer so the feedback doesn’t resonate; the issues described don’t seem relevant after the moment in which they arose; the feedback doesn’t address the problems they experience so it doesn’t help them; they already have a long list of other higher priorities for their professional development; they just reject it – even if it’s valid – because they feel they’ve got too much else going on and work hard enough as it is; they try to adapt in response to the feedback but it doesn’t stick because day-to-day pressures make it hard to break away from default habits; the frequency of engaging in a feedback discussion is so low that momentum is lost; different observers come and go offering different sets of feedback so there’s no sustained focus.”

Mr Sherrington proposes an alternative enquiry model of observation. Teachers identify specific challenges that pupils in class are facing, strategies for addressing these are put into place, and there is a shared supportive approach.

The relationship between teacher and observer, then, becomes one in which there is a collaborative approach, where the observer is both facilitator and coach and where the emphasis is on learning conversations.

Observations that take place have a clear and agreed focus and there is a forensic approach to a specific leaning issue or on the learning of specific groups of children. The focus is not so much on the performance of the teacher but on joint problem-solving in which teachers are encouraged to come up with solutions.

Mr Sherrington’s blog frames the following four questions for these conversations:

  • What learning challenges do your students face?
  • How are you trying to address them?
  • What challenges do you experience in doing that?
  • Can I help you come up with some solutions?

Final thoughts

There is a clear argument for widening the range of observational criteria that we focus on in classroom lessons. The quality of peer-to-peer relationships and relationships between teacher and pupils including teacher expectations, pupil motivation to learn, inclusive learning strategies, and teacher management of pupils with complex needs, are all vital elements of good practice but are clearly difficult to measure.

We need to look for more creative ways to capture good learning and find alternatives to traditional classroom observations and feedback to staff.

One of most important elements of improving teaching and learning is the development of the teacher. Teachers should not be made to believe that observation is something being “done” to them in order to rate their performance.

We want teachers and leaders to take part in shared learning conversations. We want discussions about pedagogy and practice, we want coaching partners, working groups and learning enquiries to replace tick-box judgements of teacher performance. We need move away from a focus on performance to a focus on learning culture.

  • Jim Mepham has recently retired after being a primary school headteacher for more than 12 years. He has worked in education for more than 30 years. He is now a freelance consultant. Read his previous articles for Headteacher Update via

Further information & resources

  • Ofsted: Six models of lesson observation: An international perspective, May 2018:
  • Rosenshine: Principles of instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know, American Educator, Spring 2012:
  • Sherrington: Rethinking observation and feedback: Solving the learning problems, Teacherhead Blog, December 2019

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Interesting read. Absolutely agree that changing that view of observations being ‘done’ to teachers is something that needs to be tackled in order for it to become meaningful.
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