Roll up, Roll up! Observations of the Absurd

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell has stayed with me for years. The central ‘science’ behind the book (though I hate to use that word in @tombennett ‘s company, but we’ll give Gladwell the benefit of the doubt here) is that we are able to make judgements in the ‘Blink’ of an eye, or one twentieth of a second (now, that really is made up…by me).

Subtitled ‘The Power of Thinking without Thinking’, these judgements, our intuition, the minuscule fluctuations barely observable, but perceptible on an almost sub-conscious level, are powerful. We ignore them at our peril. Arguably, we owe these ‘thinking without thinking moments’ thanks for our very survival. How does this translate to teaching, lesson observations and grading? Is there a place for snap shot judgements?

Joe Kirby’s January post on Lesson Observations, highlighted research collated by Professor Coe which shows that “if a lesson is rated outstanding,the probability that a second observer would give a different judgement is up to 78%…if a lesson is rated inadequate, the probability that a second observer would give a different rating is 90%”. These judgements are masked by preferences, context, prejudices and ‘I’m not sure I like the cut of his jib’. He continues “only 4% of those judged outstanding actually produce outstanding gains”. This statement resonates in the week we saw lovely Mr Beach (Tough Young Teachers) graded Outstanding, facilitate less than outstanding results for his class, who looked, quite frankly, gutted. I have nothing but praise for the Tough Young Teachers. It’s not their fault someone thought it was a good idea to professionalise the profession by training yooves for a mere 6 weeks, thereby de-professionalising it. This, also in the week the Guardian’s Secret Teacher, blogged about going from Outstanding to Inadequate in 6 weeks, highlighting the true, Circus Freak Show that is Graded Lesson Observations.

Let us transfer, for a second, the assessment process of lesson observations to students and consider it’s validity…You tell your class one day before, you are going to test, check, question and observe them in your subject. Many fail. You tell them they are inadequate. That is the outcome for the year, never mind that it’s February. Oh, and they have to keep turning up to your lessons every day until July, even though they’ve already been judged.

Back to Gladwell. Blink suffered a counter-attack by Micheal LeGault in the form of ‘Think: Why Crucial Decisions Can’t be made in the Blink of an Eye’. LeGault proposes that emotion and instinct should not be the key tools of the decision making process. So what do we rely on?

When I walk into any class, the atmosphere is palpable. There is no escaping this fact. I know when a class is working ‘with’ a teacher and it has nothing to do with noise levels. This is the Blink moment, which, translated to an Ofsted judgement in an inspection or observation, is then set out to be proved, using a crumpled up ticklist and a set of dodgy tools. It could be that either (or neither) teacher or students are ‘feeling it’ that day. Or it could be that there is a breakdown in the trust bond between teacher and students, learning and listening is not taking place, and strategies are needed to support both. A single observation with a single judgement will not determine which it is.

But what if we use that snap shot to examine teaching over time, rather than as a definite judgement? Domini Choudhury in her blog looks at the ‘typicality’ of teacher performance by pulling together evidence from a number of sources to show if students really are making progress over time. We can use the Blink moment as an indicator only, but it needs to be matched with other sources of information. Less smash & grab, more Long Con, in a Hustle style.

Couldn’t we have a system where teachers are assessed as part of an ongoing system, genuine low-pressure continual professional development, open door ten minute walk-ins as well as longer observations, gradings only at the end of an academic year, highlighting strengths and areas to develop?

All hail the day when teachers are not performing monkeys, sacrificing the quality of teaching content, in order to pull rabbits out of Post-It notes and fashion sculptures representing Marxism using nothing but lolly sticks.


3 thoughts on “Roll up, Roll up! Observations of the Absurd

  1. Can I ask a question? What are the consequences of a bad observation?
    I don’t mean this as an attack, but somehow all this complaining about observations is making me think that teachers are a bunch of spineless jellies. I work in a different profession, and my work gets judged on a regular basis. Often by people who I think are incompetent. Sometimes by people I respect. I learn to accept the judgments, grind my teeth at the stupid ones, and try to learn from the good ones. What is it about observations that is so different, and why does it apparently give teachers nervous breakdowns?

    • Thanks Phil…I don’t see it as an attack at all!
      I think several factors combined make it an invalid exercise. Teaching is not a science, no matter how many people try to reduce it to a set of variables or theorise it. A good teacher is not always a good teacher – she/he may be outstanding on many occasions throughout the year and satisfactory or even inadequate on many occasions also, especially with split classes only seen once a fortnight! Teachers interpret the judgment as definitive because it is not looking at an aspect of your work it is inspecting your ability to Teach. Your ability to Teach is impacted by many things that are not accounted for during your individual lesson obs: the strength of the wider behaviour policy and the length of time you have been teaching the group for example. This leads to unrealistic expectations from an external body like Ofsted, which cannot be met. That is very damaging for anyone in a job.
      We would not judge the progress and performance of our students in the way Ofsted judges the profession (1 day preparation, on the spot observation etc.) because we know it would be counter-productive.
      Teachers need to be checked for professional standards in the same way as other professions. It would be a far better system if schools monitored their teachers, and Ofsted monitored schools – not individual teachers.

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