Saturday, 6 April 2013

Observations, Burgers and Mystery Shoppers

Why is it most of my teaching is based on one hour’s worth of observation?

Aside from the endless reams of data, my teaching is judged successful or unsuccessful based on a miserly sixty minutes worth of sheet ticking and pensive, thoughtful looks from an observer. It is the career equivalent of having a driving test every year. You know you can drive, but you must have a test every year to see if haven’t forgotten how to do it. This is how teaching is. If you are lucky, it happens once a year. If you are unlucky, it happens a few times a year. If you are really unlucky, Ofsted will do it.  On my driving test, I stalled the car three times, because of the pressure of the make or break moment.

We try to plan outstanding lessons; it just doesn’t always coincide with the one time you are being observed. Often our teaching is judged on one snapshot : a single hour in several months’ worth of lessons. It can be a simple case of hit or miss. And when it is a miss, we feel it most.

The preparations for an observed lesson are often military in its scope. Minutes are planned in fine detail. Resources are prepared, cut, colour-coordinated and alphabetised. You might even have scented candles prepared, just to get the ambiance just right for learning – jasmine is a personal favourite! Lessons are trialled and retrialled with the hope of finding that one weak point. Students are surveyed to find out the engagement level of the materials. Even at 11 pm at night, you still make those changes, because you worry that you might have under planned the whole lesson. The mantra is repeated several times during the whole planning process: you can never have too much. Finally, you have the printed list from a friend of a friend and you check to see if you have included every buzz word under the sun that Ofsted like with the hope of attaining greatness.  

Then, the day of the observation comes. The class don’t all arrive on time. You panic and fret. You look worryingly at the observer and notice they are already writing something down. Better start the lesson. It goes well, but you feel the pressure and you notice that you are speaking twice the normal speed of a human being.  You rush around the room, while the students are on task, hoping that the observer notices that the people you go to are the ones highlighted as your focus group. Then, you notice that the observer is talking to one of the students. You causally look to see if you can lip-read their words. Nothing.   You can always interrogate that student afterwards. Next comes your feedback of the task. You know this could be the make or break moment. There’s one of those awkward moments when people don’t respond or there is the general lack of understanding.  Cue silence. Lots of silence. So much silence that you can hear the sands of time falling grain by grain. Generally, at this point, I think: sod it. Then, I act as I normally do, thinking that I failed it already, so I may as well be myself.

It is so artificial. The 60 minute observation is a performance.  It is a show. It is your debut night. The performance isn’t an accurate view of teaching. If you know you are being observed for an hour, then every action of that lesson is planned. It may be the one occasion to show off, but it is also the one occasion to see if you are the square peg that doesn’t fit in the round hole. Are we focusing on the learning? Or, are we focusing on the teacher?

If we are focusing on 60 minutes, we are looking at the learning in that lesson, right? We are more bothered about what the teacher is doing, than the learning. If we were to have three 20 minute observations, then the focus would be on the learning. What are these students learning? How are they progressing? After all, most observations by Ofsted are 20 minutes long.  I think you could sit in a classroom for 20 minutes and judge the ‘learning’ of that lesson. Note I say ‘learning’ rather than ‘teaching’.  Are they learning? Are they engaged? Are they making progress? You would have enough from that, which would make the other 40 minutes surplus to requirements.  Then, you can focus on learning over time – the real issue. A flash in the pan lesson is fine, but where is the deep seated learning? I agree that the emphasis should be on learning, rather than teaching. If the emphasis was on teaching, then we would have the issue of teaching to a preferred style of teaching?

Personally, I want my teaching to be judged over time, not because of one isolated block of 60 minutes long. We have all had the lesson where it has gone wrong. You may have pitched it too high. You might have pitched it too low. Perhaps, the class were really late for some reason. Maybe, there was a fight before the lesson. Possibly, there’s a bit of salacious gossip being spread around school and it just so happens to correspond with your lesson. It can all happen to us and it does happen in the normal progress of lessons. Rarely do things go to plan.

I once had a lesson observation where I was disturbed 8 times. The observer’s phone went off. A student came with a message for the observer. A student came with a message for a student in the class. Another student came with a collection for a teacher leaving. That wasn’t a normal lesson, yet it was one that I was being judged on.  All these things affected the lesson that I was being judged on. If they came to the next two lessons with the class, they would have seen a normal lesson and seen the student learn a lot.  

Before people go mad at me for saying this, listen: if we have this culture of seeing real lessons, then our expectations will be less on perfection and more on the learning. Twenty minutes here and there could be more effective than one performance that has to be pitch-perfect. I get nervous. A bum-note in 20 minutes of lesson can be redeemed with a harmonious tune in the next lesson.

On the other side of the argument, are we now focusing too much on the ‘consumer’ rather than the product? Are we focusing more on how satisfied the consumer (the student) is and less on the teaching?  Are Ofsted taking on the role of the mystery shopper?  Do they walk into an establishment and expect certain phrases from the students and they expect the teacher to say at the end, ‘Have a nice day’?

Learning is messy, imperfect and certainly not a straight line.  It is boring and fun. It is easy and hard. It is quick and slow. It is a lot of things at once. It is complex. That is why it is such a problem when people observe, because it can be an artificial thing. We might be having a plenary every twenty minutes to show progress, or we might be crowbarring in a strategy that is the latest thing. These things might not fit into the natural layout of that particular lesson, but we feel the need to put these things in, because we are being observed.

I have a growing concern for the consumerism of education. Should we really be questioning the students like a mystery shopper, when Zeus in the Olympus of education doesn’t know what real learning is? Students can be part of the talk, but are they really the most reliable source of information in a classroom. It is like asking a customer of Burger King about the hygiene in the kitchens, yet the customer doesn’t even step into the kitchen.  They might see a bit of it behind the counter, but they don’t know what really goes on in there. They eat the product, but they don’t know all the different components that go into making that burger.  

The mystery shopper needs to see the burgers being made, or the teacher teaching. However, will one 60 minute observation really show them the true picture? They will see the burger prepared correctly for the whole of that period of time, but is it consistent? The mystery shopper needs to visit again and again to see that it is consistent and that the people in the shop are not just preparing the burgers correctly when being observed.

Thanks for reading and have a nice day.  Would you like fries with that?

Xris 32  


  1. You are quite right to interrogate the 1 hour evaluation. Absolultely ridiculous. In some cases it may help to spot brilliant/inspired and disastrous/unfortunate teaching but I'm sure it has very little to do with the 70% in between. Also agree strongly with your ideas here: "Learning is messy, imperfect and certainly not a straight line. It is boring and fun. It is easy and hard. It is quick and slow. It is a lot of things at once. It is complex." !!

  2. Thank you, Ian. The whole thing is crazy - judging something over one short period. Do we apply the same principles with safety or medicine?

    I have to say I am a big fan of your blog. Lots of useful stuff. I highly recommend it to all. ;)

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  4. OFSTED have made it clear that a teacher should now be judged for their qualities overall by school leaders, and that means that teaching is evaluated beyond any one off lesson observation, as important as snapshot findings can be for evaluation and diagnosis. Also, the idea that OFSTED are judging the teacher in the classroom on a school inspection is not quite accurate - in fact, they are assessing the school's leadership team on whether they properly know the true strength of their teachers. If so, the school leaders will already know what the OFSTED visitors will find the moment they step into that classroom.

  5. Thank you for the comment. Two years ago I wrote this blog. Much has changed since then. ; )