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Command and control or something more meaningful?

Monitoring and observation visits by senior managers would seem to be commonplace in most schools. They are supposed to provide some assurance to managers and others that the quality of teaching and learning is of a satisfactory standard, though Dylan Wiliam and others have demonstrated that no-one is quite sure what this actually looks like. Such visits have become the norm and they have traditionally focused on the teacher. I have felt for a long time that a lot of these are are more about 'command and control' mindsets, and a continuation of inspection processes, rather than genuine attempts to improve teaching and learning experiences for pupils. Each year schools will produce a diary and programme of monitoring and observation activities that will happen over the course of the school year. This is supposed to be part of an open and transparent process that all can see and understand. A lot of schools even detail the roles and expectations for all in the process. In many, agreement is reached between management and teachers about when observation visits will happen, what the focus will be and what the 'success criteria' might be. One of my own contentions has always been, if you know when the observation is taking place, what the focus will be and what the observer is looking for, how poor do you actually have to be to not be able to deliver this during a lesson observation? What then prevents you then going back to practices you have always felt comfortable with, but which might not be the most effective? It is artificial and contrived and to my mind is a perfect example of something that 'does not do what it says on the tin'. It assures us of nothing and it helps teachers to improve in no way whatsoever. It smacks of box-ticking and hoop jumping, neither of which contributes meaningfully to teacher or school development. Most importantly, such processes are and attitudes are unlikely to lead to sustained improvement experiences for learners. 

So, what can we do instead that will be more meaningful and which will support teacher development as well as improved learning experiences for learners?

It has always been my contention that to really understand the learning experiences learners are getting, school leaders and managers need to be engaged in the complete learning and teaching process. That does not mean that they need to be in every lesson and every classroom, an impossible task anyway. What it means in my schools is that members of the school leadership team start by sitting in as teachers plan collaboratively and contribute to the professional discussion and thinking around the plans across the curriculum. When you do this, you hear the thinking of the teachers and how they plan to meet the learning needs of the children, and you contribute to this and help to sort out any misunderstandings and issues. You are in a position to address issues with planning and assure that teachers are clear about the intended learning, and have thought about how the learners will be able to demonstrate this successfully. You can check out how the 'pupil voice' is being included in planning the learning and see if what is planned is based on sound understanding of where the learners actually are. You can also detect if it is the learning that remains the focus, rather than the activities. This is not done in a 'command and control way' but more through coaching conversations with staff.

Having been involved at the start of the process, you are better informed about the learning you are likely to see as you visit classrooms. I have always made a point of being in classrooms as much as possible. Not in terms of planned and formal visits, but just on a regular basis, as part of being a school leader. My contention is that it is through these 'unplanned' and daily visits, often for relatively short periods, you soon get an accurate picture of the ethos, culture and learning that is pertaining in each room. I am open with staff about the fact that when I am in a classroom, talking to learners, I am collecting information about what is going on so that I can build up a picture of the learning happening and the experience the learners are getting. I don't give formal feedback from such visits, but I will speak to staff if I have concerns about what I see, or if they ask for any observations. I also like to speak to others who come in to school to work in classes, or visit, and gather their opinions, because all that information contributes to my holistic understanding of what is going on.

Of course we have more formal observations in our programme as well, but we have very much changed our approach and focus of these as well. This session we are asking teachers to peer review each other's teaching, based on their collaborative planning conversations. So teachers who have planned learning together will decide on a particular area of the learning planned and will visit each other's classrooms to see that aspect being taught. They will focus on the learning planned and then observe and speak to the learners to help colleagues assess if they are being successful in their intentions. Afterwards they will then have a professional conversation about what they saw, what was working well, and what was perhaps not working as planned. Again, these are very much coaching type conversations and they aim to improve teachers' reflections on their teaching and the learning and to help them identify the next steps they may take to make this even more effective.

The senior leadership team are also formally visiting classrooms. This session we have decided to ask teachers to let us work with groups of learners, because we believe this will allow us to assess the effectiveness  of the teaching in delivering the planned learning. This year we are revisiting our formative assessment practices and so we are sitting with groups of learners and asking them, do you understand what you are learning? Do you know why? Can you link this to previous learning? What strategies might you use? How will you know if you are successful in your learning? Can you say what you might do next? Can you link your learning to real life outside of school? We work with them on an aspect that the teacher has taught and are able to feedback to the teacher on the group as a whole, as well as individuals. They come with work, jotters etc so we can see the work they have been producing previously as well. We can link the feedback to the planned learning and have a dialogue with the teacher about what we both are seeing. Again, this is to promote reflection and for the teacher to consider what is working in their practice and what might need tweaking. It also gives myself and the leadership a picture of where the learners are in their learning. Our focus is more on the learning and not the teacher, though of course both are connected. This takes pressure off teachers and helps change mindsets, and ensure that everyone's focus really is on the learners and their progress, and we are not advocating a particular pedagogy in achieving this. For some seven years now we have being using teacher enquiry approaches for individual and school development, and this promotes reflection, teacher agency and using data to inform changes in practice. Our approach to monitoring and observation activities is a natural extension of this and sits comfortably with teaching staff, who are used to reflecting and having a relentless approach to their professional development.

After such peer and management observations, we are able to have deep and informed conversations with teachers at the end of blocks of work. As everyone has been active and involved in the process from the outset there should be few surprises. What is really powerful though, is the insights teachers have about their own practice and their impact on learning. My role then is to support, advise and help them to make the adjustments they have identified they need to make, and in a non-judgemental way. Together we can begin to clarify how the insights they have gained about the success or otherwise of the learning that has happened is going to shape and inform the next round of learning planned, for their class and individuals. Again, we will be active participants in this process.

We will review all of this, as we do with everything, towards the end of the session and adjust where necessary. But, already having our focus on learning, rather than teachers and teaching, feels more meaningful and is having impacts for learners in every classroom. We are not ticking boxes and we see these activities as part of a continuous process of development that has as its focus impact for learners. It is also allowing us to connect activities into the whole process, rather than having a series of separate events with little connectivity around a common purpose. That purpose is improved impacts for learners, not command and control.

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