Instructional Watching – David Attenborough and Ugly Fish

Instructional watching – David Attenborough and ugly fish

There is much focus on Instructional coaching at present. It is the current framework for much individual school work as well as forming a key pillar of the new early career framework. The souped up role of the mentor hinges very much on the successful use of Instructional coaching which aims to underpin the theory with a robust, regular and deliberate approach to improving teaching and learning.

Done well, instructional coaching programmes can be transformative for individuals and for whole organisations. The focus on the specific small steps needed to trial, reflect and improve on  key aspects of classroom practice under the tutelage and guidance of an expert coach is a great model. The inclusion of video for reflection through the use of tech setups such as IRIS provides yet more opportunities to bring the sometimes hidden world of the classroom into stark relief.

But in amongst this focus on instructional coaching and its focus on the practice of the one, we need to remember the power of watching the practice of another and all the associated learning we can glean from this. Yes, it’s not the coachee’s own class necessarily, neither is everything another does directly transferable but having the time and  space to observe the craft of teaching and an opportunity to reflect on it should still be a core part of our developmental approaches.

However, observing the teaching of others has historically had a bit of a bad rap. Think of, “observed  lesson” and, were we to play a word association game, many of us would likely blurt out “clipboard” or “nervous” or “high stakes”. This historical association with the observed lesson being one associated with judgement and performance is one which as a profession we may take a while to shake. The widespread and pervasive use of lesson observations for aspects of performance management and appraisal, support plans and Ofsted inspections themselves means that in some schools it can still be a high stakes backdrop against which “observation” is set.

However, I love an observation. Call me a bit sick and twisted but I’ve always loved them. As an early career teacher I worked in an open plan primary school with zero walls between classrooms. This meant that in Y3 I had KS1 on one side of me and Y6 on the other. I was sandwiched between phonics and fractions and I was inadvertently on show for all day every day. In fact, my mentor was on one side of me and the deputy head on the other. There was no escaping the open plan pedagogical fishbowl. The ability to “watch and learn” from highly experienced teachers either side of me was an utter gift, as was their ability to really understand the highs and lows of my own practice as they could see me either rocking that classroom in full sail on occasions or launching my own emergency rescue mission as the wheels came off rather spectacularly in others. I wouldn’t recommend open plan classrooms now, there is actually nothing more frustrating than explaining the finer points of the correct use of an apostrophe and having KS1 on one side banging glockenspiels in a rendition of “Autumn Days” whilst the Y6 teacher booms out a mental maths test on the other side. It did mean though that the culture of being observed was very different. There was no fear around observations as everyone knew what the picture of “usualness” was like. There was no opportunity for anyone to pull out their one “outstanding show lesson” and pass it off as usual practice and neither was there the crushing feeling of an observed lesson utterly bombing as these were again set against a wider picture of usualness. Indeed, “usualness” and a building of the picture of it, is what I now include in all of my subject and middle leader training sessions. Checking in with what is usual rather than checking up on some high stakes skewed version of perfection is one of the key factors which really helps to drive change. If you base your judgement of practice on the edited highlights, it’s likely that you may be at odds with the real, fuller picture. When considering this “snapshots of evidence” approach it is worth remembering that no feature film, however bad it is in its entirety, ever has an awful trailer. Likewise, some films have a distinctly average trailer which can belie the film’s rich content, charm and cinematography.

My strange affection for observation continued as I then became a lead teacher for the Local Authority for Maths and so often had groups of teachers from across the county coming to see me teach “demonstration lessons”. These were a lesson focusing on a specific aspect of T&L within Maths and would consist of an observation plus pre lesson and post lesson discussion where we would analyse the relative success of the lesson.

After this came National Strategy consultancy where I often taught other people’s classes whilst they watched and, in a similar vein to the demonstration lessons, would analyse the success of the lesson.

Shortly after came lesson study which we rolled out in my third school and which resulted in transformative approaches to T&L development across all phases.

In amongst those there were of course other observations for inspections, performance management and other T&L uses but I have never had a year in my classroom career where the door wasn’t open or where observation was anything other than David Attenborough.

David Attenborough grew up in Leicestershire where I was born and where I have spent the majority of my career. He is one of Leicestershire’s finest and it is David Attenborough who influences my approach to the use of what I’ve termed “Instructional Watching”.

If you’ve ever been involved in ITT or mentoring you will know that there is a lot of observing of practising teachers which goes on. Prompts are often given to colleagues with things to look out for or to focus on and hundreds up and down the country dutifully observe the work of existing practitioners. The same goes for colleagues who want to see great practice. They are despatched to watch a high performing colleague in full flow and make notes about aspects of transferable practice which they can then discuss afterwards.

This is all well and good but it’s not David Attenborough.

David Attenborough is one of the greatest narrators the world has ever known. Watching his documentaries such as “Blue Planet” gives you an insight into worlds you would otherwise never know about or, once discovered, know what on earth they are. His expert narration of exactly what is happening brings these unfamiliar worlds to life and we are able to make sense of whatever awe inspiring creatures or vistas are on our screens.

However, without David Attenborough, it doesn’t matter how closely we watch Blue Planet, if we mute him, we are just going to be looking at ugly fish.

It is David’s expert narration as the action unfolds which helps the viewer to make sense of what they are seeing – he is using “Instructional Watching”.

“Look how the female gorilla sits there. She is the dominant female and the younger members of the group groom her as a way of reinforcing her status.” Without David’s narration we have no idea of the hierarchy of that group or indeed why the grooming may be occurring.

Observations therefore, could do with a little more David Attenborough. Watching a lesson with an expert narrator can illuminate the practice in a room and encourage precision focus on aspects and impacts of practice which may otherwise be misinterpreted or missed completely.

Currently there is often a missed link in the effective use of observations. We often say we do “joint observations” or that we do a joint learning walk but greater focus needs to be put on the development of the skills of instructional watching. Being able to narrate

What is planned to happen

What is actually happening

What effect the teacher’s use of vocabulary or models or equipment is having

What the effect of instructions are

How behaviour is being managed

How questioning is being used effectively

How adaptive teaching is being used and the live effects of this

This expert narration of the “what” and the “then what” and the “why”, the things the teacher is doing and the subsequent effect on the individual or the class and why the teacher is doing that is the key to instructional watching.

By narrating this 3 stage process we can make the hidden worlds of our classrooms and the decision making in teachers’ heads explicit in real time. Holding all the information in our heads for a post lesson discussion, or even through the use of video for post lesson analysis is no substitute for live commentary. Being directed to look at a specific thing a teacher is saying or doing and being able to observe the effects in real time on the class is hugely powerful. For novice teachers who are still developing multiple aspects of their practice, this can also be a chance to ask live questions to their observer about the lesson impact and specific aspects of their own practice. The focus is razor sharp and so much richer than a prompt sheet sitting in a lap to fill in.

Yes, I believe that Instructional Coaching is transformative but I also believe that Instructional Watching is another way in which we can demystify observations and uncouple them from the unhelpful association with performance measures. Every lesson taught in every classroom has the potential to be a huge learning opportunity for not only the children in that class but for every teacher who could observe it and have it narrated by their coach.

Just like in my early career where my mentor would wander over to me in that open plan setup and narrate something she was doing or direct my attention to a teacher in another part of the open plan setup who was teaching using a technique I was currently focusing on, an openness to instructional watching can be a hugely useful tool in developing practice.

Yes, it can be problematic to release multiple people together to watch the practice of another but if we are sending individuals to watch lessons and to explore the unseen worlds of the classrooms of other colleagues, we need to ensure we’re not sending them to watch Blue Planet with the sound off.

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