Whether it’s a discussion about the value of lesson observations, learning walks or the new drift to instructional coaching, there’s been a real shift in the language people use for feedback now. One type of feedback that has caught our attention is the habitual tendency of observers to use nebulous terms which describe symptoms rather than cause.
Let’s take the term ‘teacher talk’. At one time (and early career teachers won’t believe this I’m sure), but OFSTED inspectors used to go around lessons in OFSTED inspections watching teachers teach and then not only would they grade the lesson, but they’d mark the teacher down for too much ‘teacher talk’. In a similar way, some enthusiasts, pushing back once OFSTED backed down from this position started promoting for more ‘teacher talk’. As if either side, with their stopwatches and clipboard are adding anything to a teacher in giving the feedback: ‘too much teacher talk’ or conversely ‘too little teacher talk’.
It is clear we need to stop focusing on the symptom of something like teacher talk and instead focus on finding the cause. Take a classic error from a teacher – not deploying questioning strategies effectively: involving all students, sufficient wait time, targeted questions, supplementary questions, social constructivist questioning, understanding if you are seeking recall of knowledge or if you are constructing new knowledge and so forth. There are many more questioning strategies, of course, but the point is that if you are not good at deploying an evidence informed range of questioning strategies effectively then the voice you’ll hear the most will be your own! The symptom is too much teacher talk – which is a valid observation, but a terrible target or feedback. Instead, you should be accurately identifying what particular aspect of the lesson is causing too much teacher talk and then undertake some form of coaching around that particular area. If, as an experienced teacher, you can see that one of the questioning strategies is being used ineffectively, then you can work with the teacher to bring a focus on how a particular approach to questioning is being used and how to use it more effectively and in keeping with the evidence.
Another key bête noir of ours is the ambiguous term of ‘pace’. If you ever want to ask a teacher to talk for an extended period of time to fill a gap, ask them to explain what ‘pace’ is in teaching. Setting pace as a target is similar to that of teacher talk. It’s a very loose, collective noun for all manner of things which could be done differently. Routines within the classroom is a common issue where an experienced teacher can observe a less experienced teacher and think to themselves – I’ve lots of very small but strategic routines which I use within a lesson, but I’m not seeing such routines here. But pace isn’t just about time spent and routines. Switching back and forth between student-led tasks and teacher-led tasks, or simply switching from one task to another leaves you with transition issues (in particular the running and the end of a timed activity). There’s a reason that teachers call timings through an activity and circulate feverishly at key points during segments within the activity. They are undertaking formative assessment, often allied with adaptation and monitoring progress to squeeze maximum learning from the time pupils are spending on an activity. When an experienced teacher observes a novice teacher they might see missed opportunities to adapt a task for a student to make it harder or easier, or even to drop in some key missing knowledge in a mini-teaching spell. All these things and many others all contribute to what we call ‘pace’. But setting pace as a target is really not helpful – it’s just a symptom. It would be better to focus on small sharp segments of a lesson and discuss individual students, strategies and when to deploy them because then you are focused on the causes instead. What does not work is when an observer can only see symptoms and even worse, when they think the cause is something else.
Even the often-used ‘behaviour management’ or ‘low level disruption’ are still symptoms. Children going off task might be seen as a behaviour management symptom, but the cause could easily be poor instructions, lack of challenge or inconsistent routines – all pedagogical issues (though I do not prescribe to the view that lessons have to be ‘entertaining’ or ‘engaging’ for good behaviour management. They should be cultivating curiosity but that’s another blog). They might not be caused by a lack of familiarity with the school’s behaviour management policy and more to do with routines, pedagogy or simply inexperience. If you’ve never worked or trained in a school that routinely undertakes group work and then you go to do it, then you might find it difficult to manage clear expectations. An experienced teacher knows to put into place for group work, structures such as timings, roles, agendas and very very high expectations about participation as well as ensuring the groups are well selected. As an experienced teacher, you might notice something missing within the pedagogy – the lack of an agenda or explicit timings. Telling someone that they need to work on low level disruption or better behaviour management during the group work isn’t the feedback that is needed. Instead, you would work with them to establish each component of the activity and which is contributing to the symptom of behaviour management.
What is left then, is a clear model. Feedback and coaching should focus on causes, not symptoms. The inexperienced teacher will often quite correctly identify the symptom and an observer communicating the symptoms in their class is not going to be great revelation to them. However, having that forensic focus on the cause of the symptoms is much more helpful for the inexperienced teacher who can then start to develop new strategies in order to target the cause of the symptom.