Lesson Observations: Too Important Not To Get Right

Lesson observations have the potential to offer invaluable professional learning to both teachers and school leaders. Through the process of watching a teacher teach, teachers and school leaders alike can develop and refine their understanding of what makes great teaching. Depending on its quality, the conversation that teachers have with professionals who have observed them teaching can help to transform their teaching practice. 

Just leave me to get on with it!

Why is it, then, that the very mention of the phrase ‘lesson observation’ provokes such a defensive and negative reaction from so many teachers? For example, I once heard a teacher with around 20 years’ experience and whom a school had only recently appointed say to a colleague, ‘I just want them to leave me to get on with it.’ The ‘them’ to whom they were referring were members of the school leadership team, and the specifics of what they were referring to were lesson observations. Why were they so reluctant to have someone observe a lesson? 

It turns out that this teacher’s experience of lesson observations in the past had been very negative. In their previous experience, school leaders came into classrooms and formed judgements about the overall quality of teachers’ teaching. If teaching was deemed to be poor, a teacher would be given negative feedback, and told that they needed to improve and that the school leader would be back to check that they had. Also, a rating was assigned to lessons; for example, ‘outstanding’ or ‘unsatisfactory’. No wonder this teacher was wary of lesson observations. If I felt that someone coming in to observe my teaching was going to use that lesson to arrive at a judgement about my skills as a teacher, that I might receive negative feedback, or that my lesson might be assigned a negative rating, there is not a chance I would welcome this. Who in their right mind would feel comfortable about that? 

Professional learning

Sadly, this teacher’s experience and perception of lesson observations is shared by many across the profession. This is both sad and harmful. Carried out in the right way, lesson observations have the potential to offer teachers a rich professional learning experience that they genuinely value. Conducted in the spirit of professional learning, with the process including support, praise and healthy levels of professional challenge, lesson observations should come to be welcomed by teachers. Teachers should want their lessons to be observed regularly. They should feel disappointed and frustrated if they haven’t had the opportunity to get into rich conversations with another professional about pedagogy. How are teachers supposed to develop their teaching if they don’t get the opportunity for regular, focused discussions with another professional about specific aspects of their practice?


Using golf as an analogy, the world’s top 100 golfers all have swing coaches. The swing is the fundamental aspect of the golfing game – scores are made as a result of a golfer’s swing at a ball. It doesn’t matter how experienced the professional golfer is; it doesn’t matter how good their game currently is – they could be the world number one and have won their last six tournaments; they will still be working with a swing coach (someone who knows what they are talking about and who provides them with high-quality feedback) week by week. 

Use of the coach isn’t their only means of evaluating their performance – their scores help with that, just as student test scores can help a teacher with their self-evaluation of their teaching. But a professional golfer can have a bad score, having played well, and a good score, having not played well. The score in itself isn’t enough to evaluate the quality of their swing. The input of their coach is key. Lesson observations should be about coaching.


Guiding the coaching approach, those observing lessons and leading conversations afterwards need to learn to SURF. When we SURF, we ensure that conversations with teachers are: 

  1. Specific – they focus on specific aspects of pedagogy 
  2. Understood – we check that the teacher understands what we are saying
  3. Research-informed – as opposed to being based on opinion or ideology 
  4. Followed up – teachers need to know that they are practising the right things, in the right way, by having regular opportunities to discuss progress being made. 

Link feedback to planning 

If teachers have a Professional Learning Plan, then people observing lessons can link their feedback to this. Having access to the plan before observing a lesson, they can home in on the particular element of practice the teacher is focusing on improving. This is not to say that feedback can’t be given on anything else, but feedback linked to the plan should be the priority. 

Ask teachers what they want 

If teachers don’t have a Professional Learning Plan, ask them what they would like feedback on. You could do this before observing the lesson, which can help to guide what you focus on, or afterwards. Don’t just blunder in and give teachers feedback on anything. If they identify specific areas themselves, they are then far more likely to value your feedback and act on it. 

A coach, not a judge 

The fundamental point for everyone to keep in mind with lesson observations is that they should be a low-stakes opportunity for rich discussion about pedagogy. It is the process of reflection that is most important. The person who observed a lesson should be supporting this reflection, acting as a coach, not a judge. Judges reach verdicts; coaches help people to improve. 

Lesson observations are not about drawing conclusions – they are about supporting professional learning. They are formative. If a teacher doesn’t come out of a meeting to discuss a lesson feeling that it was useful, then it hasn’t been. 

Feedback meetings 

With this in mind, inviting teachers to a ‘feedback meeting’ after an observed lesson doesn’t quite chime with the culture we are trying to develop. Inviting teachers to meet and discuss the lesson, or to have a chat about the lesson, is less formal, and is better. ‘Let’s meet up to chat about the lesson’ is a far warmer expression than ‘We will have a meeting to evaluate this lesson.’ I know which of the two I’d be feeling more anxious about! 


Following this principle through, perhaps the word ‘feedback’ is wrong. Perhaps it puts too much emphasis on teachers being ‘told’ something – ‘this was good’; ‘that wasn’t so good’ – when really it’s the conversationreflectionadvice and suggestions that are most important. 

But then again, this is often the way with words. They don’t always convey the exact things we mean them to convey. It’s unlikely that people will ever start to talk about having ‘conversation, reflection, advice and suggestions meetings’ with teachers after observed lessons. ‘Feedback’ serves as a catch-all term. We just all need to be clear about we really mean by this: coaching

Learning schools

Without lesson observations, and without lesson observations carried out in the spirit of professional learning, a school cannot claim to have developed a professional learning culture. Without a professional learning culture, there cannot be a culture of improvement. Schools that don’t make use of lesson observations, or in which lesson observations are used exclusively for the purposes of quality assurance, are not learning schools: they are static schools. Schools do need to measure, but they also need to move. Moving is more important than measuring. Accordingly, professional learning is more important than quality assurance. 

Adapted from The Teaching Delusion: Why Teaching In Our Schools Isn’t Good Enough (And How We Can Make It Better) and The Teaching Delusion 3: Power Up Your Pedagogy. Available here:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s