Reconceptualising observation: Evidence and innovation

Reconceptualising observation: Evidence and innovation

02nd August 2017

The most significant barrier to making meaningful and effective use of lesson observation in FE is its use as a method of assessment, argues Matt O’Leary. Understanding the alternatives can give leaders and managers in the sector an opportunity to lead thinking in this area

Lesson observation is an area of practice that continues to divide opinion and provoke discussion among those in education. At a time when senior leaders and practitioners are being encouraged to adopt ‘evidence-based/informed’ approaches to their work, it is worth reflecting on how many are familiar with the latest research evidence on lesson observation in the further education (FE) sector.

It is over three years since the largest and most comprehensive research study into observation to date was carried out, with the findings from the final report widely reported in the media at the time. Not only did the research act as a catalyst for change among FE providers and schools but it was also a major influence on Ofsted’s decision to remove graded observations from its inspection framework. Despite this, there are still many institutions for which very little has changed and which rely still on observation as a performance management tool for monitoring and measuring the quality and effectiveness of teaching. Given the overwhelming evidence against such approaches and recent shifts in thinking and practice, what then is stopping these providers from changing?

In a word, fear. Fear of relinquishing customary thinking and practice that has become normalised and engrained over years. Such change does not happen overnight but invariably takes time. And sometimes, no matter how compelling the evidence presented, some people will remain resistant to change. Fear of the unknown, in particular, is a key driver of resistance to change. This is where it is important to be able to present credible alternatives to the status quo that have been carefully considered, researched and planned.

A key lesson I have learned from my research over the last two decades is that reliance on observation as a performative tool of teacher assessment has rendered it virtually meaningless. In other words, the single most significant barrier to making meaningful and effective use of observation is its use as a method of assessment. In the last two years at Birmingham City University, I have worked with colleagues to develop an innovative approach to observations of teaching in our faculty. This has involved reconceptualising and reconfiguring how we perceive observation and how it is used in an educational context. At the heart of this process is its removal from an assessment context. We do not use it for assessment purposes at all. Instead, we use it as a lens of collaborative inquiry, a shared reference point for observer and observee to come together to co-reflect and to co-interrogate the complex interactions and events that occur in their taught sessions.

Our work shows that removing observation from the context of assessment creates a safe, low-stakes environment for stimulating reflection and dialogue between colleagues. In doing so, this opens up new opportunities for the way in which observation can then be used as a lens for informing their practice by developing a richer, reciprocal understanding of teaching that provides a platform for meaningful and sustainable improvement. Understanding and improving teaching and learning is ultimately underpinned by collaboration and professional dialogue, both of which are the foundations on which our approach is built. If you would like to find out more about how this works, here is a link to an overview of our observation cycle.

Towards the end of last year we were successful in winning project funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England that has allowed us to build on this work but with an added dimension. Our project Improving learning and teaching through collaborative observation has created a collaborative model of observing learning and teaching, involving both students and teaching staff. This innovative partnership brings students and lecturers together to discuss and reflect on their own and each other’s learning and teaching values and practices. Crucially, the involvement of students as co-observers, co-reflectors and co-researchers reconceptualises their identity from consumers and evaluators of their learning experience to co-enquirers and co-producers of knowledge around learning and teaching in higher education. While the project is only at the halfway stage, enlightening and fascinating insights are already emerging from the data. Even at this relatively early stage it is clear that observation has much more to offer when leaders think of it as a tool for collaboration and co-reflection rather than as a performance management tool for use in assessment.


Matt O’Leary is a Reader in Education at Birmingham City University. He is well known internationally for his work on classroom observation. He is the author of Classroom observation: A guide to the effective observation of teaching and learning (2014), author and editor of the recent book Reclaiming lesson observation: supporting excellence in teacher learning (2016), both published by Routledge, and author and editor of the forthcoming book Teaching Excellence in Higher Education: Challenges, Changes and the Teaching Excellence Framework (2017, Emerald).


4 thoughts on “Reconceptualising observation: Evidence and innovation”

  1. Jane Griffiths says:

    I am delighted that the post-16 sector is finally adopting a reflective and professional dialogue approach to observations …”Reclaiming Lessons Observations” has provided me with evidence to support a totally new approach to lesson observations – supportive and focusing on CPD and based on Professional Standards self-assessment.

    Thank you.

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