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Non-Specialists Judging Lessons is Wrong

17 November 2013

The past 20 years or so have convinced me more and more that discovering learning through classroom observation is incredibly difficult and nuanced.  I am a mathematics specialist, but have inspected lessons of all subjects.  My first ever inspection was a PE lesson – the kids were trampolining.  All jolly good fun, but I didn’t have a clue whether or not the 12 year olds were bouncing at a height and with an aplomb suitable to their age.

There is a little book that inspectors carry, which briefly states what kids of a certain age should be able to do in given subjects.  I could look up a description and try to spot those things happening.  But learning is terribly complex to spot with any real accuracy or insight.

So, I am now absolutely convinced of this fact: the exact same lesson observed by a non-specialist and a specialist will receive a different judgement from each.

And so, I am now absolutely convinced of this: where Ofsted grades are to be given, or the observation is formal and linked to performance management, the observation must be by a highly experienced and skilful subject specialist.

I have long believed this but this academic year has really solidified my belief.  Several times this year, I have observed mathematics lessons alongside senior leaders / consultants / inspectors / colleagues who were not mathematics specialist.

What is interesting is that their judgements had some remarkably common themes.

Time and again, lessons where very little mathematical progress had been made were judged ‘good’ (and even ‘outstanding’ on a few occasions).  Conversely, in lessons where pupils had made significant gains in their learning of mathematics, judgements were often that the lesson was ‘inadequate’ 

I want to share those common themes so that, I hope, at least some headteachers can re-assess their approach to observations.

Firstly, and I guess because my colleagues were non-specialists, they all focussed heavily on generic (and fashionable) teaching styles – they all were concerned if there was no group work, yet were delighted to see it happen even when the kids were learning no mathematics from the task.  They cooed at card sorts and were simply delighted to see whole class, teacher led discussions even though during those discussions the teacher did all the work and nobody learned anything.

To a tee, my colleagues were dismayed to see textbooks being used, and preferred to see interactive whiteboards beaming teacher created resources at the class, despite the fact that the textbooks were carefully designed and scaffolded to give meaningful, deliberate practice.

Each of my colleagues also had no idea (I really mean absolutely no idea whatsoever) about how to spot mathematics being learned or what appropriate progress might be.  Often, year 7 classes involved in happy-clappy 3-part lessons, resulted in the teacher being praised and patted on the head like a well behaved infant, because the children were all ‘engaged’, ‘happy’ and ‘motivated’ and got ‘all the questions right’.  But yes, of course they did.  Because everything they just did, they were able to do in year 5! 

Yet, see classes struggle and wrestle with mathematics towards a eureka moment and teachers were berated for not ensuring pace.  See classes practice and refine a mathematical process and the teacher may as well have just resigned.  I wondered if they might go to a music lesson and insist that once the children had had a paired discussion and feedback session about how to play the piano, they would all be able to do so and therefore would not have to spend years in practice. 

I could go on and on.  The mistakes were abundant and teachers were being encouraged, rewarded even, to use teaching methods that would actually take the children nowhere mathematically.

Interestingly, when addressing this with the non-specialist colleagues, almost all would not allow their judgement to be undone.  Their ego more important than the learning.

Of course there are aspects of lessons that anyone can discuss and help teachers to explore, but I believe that what really matters is whether or not it was actually worth the kids attending that lesson – and this comes down to one thing alone: do they know more than when they walked through the door.  Spotting this is difficult enough for a subject specialist (only a few are really good at doing so).  For a non-specialist, it is impossible.

Using non-specialists to judge the standard of a lesson is simply wrong.

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