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More Questions Than Answers?

As we all understand, questions are very important in the teaching and learning process. Thinking carefully about the questions you are going to ask in order to develop learning and understanding is a key skill of the competent teacher. Questions are also equally important in school development terms. Just about my favourite question is, 'for what purpose?' This is a great question to use in all circumstances when you are considering change and new directions of travel. It really comes into its own however, when you face constant demands from those outside of the immediate school environment for the introduction of changes and strategies they are pressing you to implement. It is amazing how many times you can ask this question and find people struggling to come up with satisfactory reasons for what they are asking you to do.

This key question can be further expanded with, 'what will be the impact of what is being proposed for learners?' and 'How will this improve or develop what we are doing already?' My argument is always that if we are proposing a change or development it must demonstrate, and we must be able to evidence, improved outcomes for our learners. If what we are proposing is not going to have positive impacts for learners, let's not do it, and do something else instead.

I would like to apply my initial question, 'for what purpose?' to classroom monitoring and observation visits.

These visits are a common practice in most schools and have been for many years. They are part of the 'accountability' agenda and requirements for schools and those authorities who have responsibility for them, internal and external. They are carried out by headteachers and other senior leaders and are usually part of an annual programme of quality assurance activities. This is seen by many as 'good practice.' But are they really delivering what they purport to deliver? Are they serving meaningfully their purpose?

Most headteachers and senior leaders would say that the purpose of monitoring and observation visits to classrooms are part of the processes they have which help them assure the quality of teaching and learning in their schools. They may add that it is part of their professional responsibilities to carry these out as a key component of their quality assurance programmes. They need to confidently assure various audiences, parents, HMIe, local authority, governors, Ofsted, etc that they 'know' their schools and their teachers deeply, and that M and O is a key component in this. They may argue that this provides them with part of the robust evidence and data to back up their evaluations of learning and teaching across their schools and in individual classrooms. I have heard others argue that such visits are also necessary to make sure teachers are doing their jobs and not slacking off. I must say that this is not an argument that has ever worked for me, or which I would apply. But, I mention it, because I know it is still out there for some.

So we may have identified various, apparently valid purposes, for monitoring and observations of teachers and classrooms but the really crucial question now is. Do such visits deliver on the purpose? I must admit I have my doubts! By having such formal observations of learning and teaching are we really able to say with confidence that we really know where learning and teaching is across our schools? Having carried out many such visits to classrooms myself, over many years, and in many ways, I have formed the view that we really cannot rely on these to deliver what we are looking for. It may well be that we have been deluding ourselves, and others, for many years.

The current model we employ in many schools is one where there are no surprises. More and more M and O visits and time tables are agreed as a staff. The focus for visits is agreed in a spirit do consultation and collaboration, and we even share the success criteria, just as we do with our pupils. Hence the no surprises model. Teachers know when these visits will happen. They know what the focus is and they will understand what we will be looking for to assess their success. I happen to think this is a much better and professional approach compared to previous practices where observers might turn up unannounced, with no agreement ( and possibly idea!) of what they were looking for. Then you had people in management who 'looked like them.' That is , they looked for teachers who thought and acted like they did when they were in their position of class teacher.

However, I do find myself asking another question more often, and that is, 'how poor would a teacher have to be if they knew someone was coming to observe, knew what the focus was, and knew what success looked like, for them not to have their teaching and lesson judged as fine?' Such an approach also encourages teachers to put on a 'show' for the observer and then revert to their usual and comfortable practice as soon as the observer had left. I don't know about yourself, but this is not what I am looking for from teachers in the schools I lead, and is certainly not behaviour I would be looking to generate or encourage. I want reflective and thoughtful practitioners, who are professional and committed to self and school improvement. I want those who think deeply about their practice and understand the impact they have on learning, and how they might develop this.

Can I suggest a different approach? In this approach we really put teaching and learning, and it's development, at the heart of all we do. We spend time to develop a culture and ethos within our schools which is truly founded on high expectations and standards for all. One that is built of professional and personal values and trust and where the currency of professional dialogue is valued and encouraged amongst all. Where we expect and promote innovation in approaches and where senior managers model the attitudes and behaviours they seek in their colleagues. One which truly recognises that making mistakes is a crucial element of learning and development of ourselves and everyone else. Where we do not look for the 'quick fix' or 'magic bullet' because we recognise there are none. We will abhor ticky box approaches to school and personal development, especially the using of these to satisfy the agendas of others. We will recognise that through cooperation and collaboration we can all improve and develop in order to grow as individuals and within our schools. Within the culture and ethos, everyone is valued and their contribution recognised.we will have in place peers support strategies including the observation of each other's practice. Senior managers regularly and routinely move about the school and in and out of classrooms, talking to pupils and staff. They talk regularly to themselves and others and cross check and reference their observations. They commit to carrying this out continually over time in order to develop a clear and informed picture about learning and teaching across the school and within classrooms. Colleagues are accepting of this and are not threatened because of the ethos and culture that time has been spent developing. This is what we do.

It is my contention that it is only by adopting a deep and meaningful approach as described above will we be able to have confidence in our articulation and view of where the school and individual teachers are. It is not easy. It doesn't allow for a tick box approach and, like most things worth doing, can be messy and complicated. But I would much rather take this approach in order to encourage deep and meaningful changes and development in practice, by myself and others. I don't want to be kidding myself, or anyone else, about where we are at.

Suddenly John Lennon's 'Imagine' comes to mind. You could say I'm a dreamer!

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