The Madness of Lesson Observation Checklists

Checklists can be useful and they can be a curse…

In a recent blogpost David Didau looks at how checklists can be useful and also about how there is life beyond them, here I want to question, in the context of lesson observations, whether they are useful at all.

Checklists can be useful for routine yes/no answers, the ‘To Do’ list is the classic example: you have either done that email, fed the cat, watered the plants and bought coffee at Tesco’s, or you haven’t. Where they can become problematic is when they are not being used for something that is so easily sorted into yes and no and lesson observations (should) fall into this category.

Of course some things can be ‘checked’: Did the teacher take the register, was she there on time? Were the children in the same classroom as her? Away from this obvious, ‘yes-noing’ the going should get a bit more difficult. If an argument was to be made that, no it is not difficult, the checklist is a good way of ensuring high standards, then I begin to worry.

There is a lovely line in Moby Dick where Ahab spouts: “All my means are sane; my motive and my object mad…” it is this that comes to mind when tick boxes begin to deliver madness in a seemingly sensible way. If a leadership team decides to design a lesson observation tick list then no matter how easy and sensible the bureaucratic task seems, by wishing to impose directly onto teachers such easily ticked objectives, the curriculum will suffer and an institutional madness will hold sway.

This week I read the following question in an online forum:

“I’ve got an observation from the head teacher… any ideas of how to tick all my ‘good lesson’ boxes in this type of lesson?”

Now this seems a perfectly good question to ask, especially as it is probably the questioner’s first observation and as it is being done by such a senior figure the NQT might be feeling the need for some support but notice the line how to tick all my ‘good lesson’ boxes, this should ring warning bells. All the advice received was well meaning and could appear to be useful but, I believe, the advice was indicative of where observations have begun to crush good teaching and good teachers:

Children should set their own targets; there should be peer and self assessment; assessment criteria should be shared at the start of the lesson; children should identify what they need to work on at the end; Mini plenary should be used; the teacher shouldn’t do too much; the more independent work the better; DIRT. GREEN (!) Feedback from last lesson; Green pen marking; all children should be engaged…

And it went on and on…

When senior leaders bring in policies from on high and expect to see them take place in a classroom they often arm themselves with a checklist and a clipboard and pen. They then visit classrooms, expect to see DIRT or whatever the latest corporate mindset has decided is a ‘good thing’. Staff are made aware that when an observation is to take place the teacher has to perform the corporate dance so that they may be ticked off, rather than ‘ticked off’ for not doing the waltz. But what folly, what madness! The most obvious lunacy is on display during the dreaded ‘learning walk’ where the ‘team’ have decided they want to see something ‘tickable’ in every classroom, in the five minutes they’re with you quickly ‘do’ what ever is necessary for a quiet life and get the green tick whether the current fad has any relevance to the lesson being taught or not.

When the classroom door is ‘closed’ and the clipboards are back in the cupboard the day to day teaching carries on and no-one is any the wiser as to what is going on. Like speeding between speed traps, the game is played but what really changes? Maybe with the drip, drip of checklist thinking it is possible that teachers begin to metamorphose into ‘tickable’ thinking and fill up the rest of their lessons with the check-listed, observable stuff. Might the checklist lesson end up being so full of little tricks that the actual teaching falls down the list of priorities? Might target setting, peer assessing, independent DIRT, green penury et al, all begin to worm their way into every lesson and become the first thing the teacher thinks about? This would be madness, the madness of tricky little techniques taking the place of content and wisdom.

There is a need to get away from the checklist approach and a move towards more long term planning, based on what is being taught, a link between content and delivery, a more thoughtful approach to curriculum design. Instead of clipboards and high stakes observations classrooms should be ‘open’ and colleagues should be regular visitors, supporting, helping and offering advice…

Leave the checklist in the office, next to the rubber plant and the Nescafé…

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9 thoughts on “The Madness of Lesson Observation Checklists

  1. Please, please someone tell the rest of my SLT. As the only ‘teaching’ SLT person, I do feel like rock and hard place has been monkeyed and I am in limbo. They are scrutinising planning; a backward step. Observations are not graded but they have to have something to do………I say, let them eat cake… the classroom if possible. They could provide cover for those peer observations they keep bleating on about.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great post. I remember observing a lesson at an international school when one of our aims was to develop ‘international mindedness’ as part of the IB curriculum. It was on a list of things we thought was important but was never meant to be a checklist. One teacher interpreted it that way – the Head of Maths. At the end of a lesson, students half-way out of the door; he called them all back. “One more thing: Where did Pythagoras come from?” …Boom! He was chuffed. There you go, the full set… box ticked. International mindedness in action?! We had words…

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  3. I completely agree that checklists are a terrible way to *judge* lessons, but not necessarily a terrible way to observe – if they serve as a reminder for things you want to check out, then they might be a handy aide memoir which frees up working memory to enable an observer to observe more freely. As ever, the Banarama principle applies: it ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it.

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  4. In my first school, I spent two years excelling at ticking checklists, all in the name of survival. Fear of getting a crap grade and being hauled infront of SLT was there. Again, the culture was one of fear – can you guess about the learning and teaching in this situation?

    In my current school, the level of trust and sensibility in the way leadership check on teaching and learning is high. There might even be some checklists Martin, but they are a bit more abstract than simple statements.

    Yes it is hard to say “are children aware of what they are learning and can they explain it?” this might be sharing of learning objectives, it might not.

    Check the books for progress and come and talk to children, you’ll quickly find out about the learning.


  5. One of the things that really surprised me when starting teaching was just how quickly (properly involved) management know how good a teacher is. Word gets back to the Principal within weeks — a parent says how pleased Johnny is with his new Maths teacher, another teacher mentions in passing how badly behaved the new English teacher’s class is — and this is with a year backed up with results (not just tests — a teacher I worked with was famous for his ability to make his students hate his subject so much that they dropped it for the next year).

    Lesson observations between fellow professionals trying to improve are useful. The only people whose advice I take about my classroom management are those I work beside, who know how I work and can see the weaknesses.

    Lesson observations by outsiders, tick box or not, are a stupid dance. The management already know who the good teachers are, and who the bad teachers are.


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