What if all observations were only formative?

“The secret of change is to focus all your efforts not on fighting the old but building the new”

Socrates, around 400 BC



One day, Aeolus the wind and Phoebus the sun were arguing over which one was more powerful. Seeing a passing traveller, they set on a contest to see who could remove his coat fastest. Aeolus began. His strong gusts meant the traveller could hardly walk against them. But the fiercer the wind blew, the tighter the traveller clutched his coat. Eventually Aeolus gave up, exhausted. Phoebus then gently turned his beams on the traveller. The man quickly became so warm he removed his coat.

Aesop, around 600 BC


Observations must have only one purpose: to help teachers improve their teaching, not to judge or grade lessons.

Just as in Aesop’s fable, where encouragement is far better than force, for improving teaching, formative observations are far better than summative observations. My post last weekend collated lots of examples of just how damaging the system has become. The reaction:

‘I want to be excited about observations as a chance to improve my practice, not scared about what they’ll think’.


‘Key for me is separate lesson observations into summative and formative, be clear about the purpose and do more of the latter’.

Stephen Tierney, Headteacher at St. Mary’s Catholic College, Blackpool


‘For observations to be of any lasting value they need to focus on development, rather than evaluation’.‘Open classrooms’ colleagues popping in, informal, builds better culture…’ ‘This needs to be across school and not at odds with observation programme, which it can be.’


‘Lesson observations can work as long as the outcome is to coach the teacher to become a better instructor, not a pointless grade


I don’t see that the problem is with the expectation that teachers be assessed. Rather it is with the ways in which observations are carried out, or are used by weak managers. We may not relish the process, but we must recognise its essential nature. Where there are flaws, let us tackle the flaws, not merely abandon the process…’

‘I think the big question is how we change school cultures & systems in response to this’.

My post this weekend compares some of the alternatives. For me, an alternative system needs to address the four problems I mentioned last week:

  • No high-stakes, high-pressure, high-stress judgements.
  • No numerically graded labels or over-prepared performances.
  • No unhelpful criteria or counterproductive targets.
  • No one-off, narrow snapshot observations.

Here are six alternatives:

  1. Live Feedback from David Didau
  2. No Numbers from Tom Bennett
  3. Longitudinal Process from Tom Sherrington
  4. 20-minute slots from Phil Stock
  5. No Judgements from Chris Moyse
  6. Action Step Practice from Paul Bambrick Santoyo

Alternative One: Live Feedback


David Didau suggests this approach:

‘Lesson observation, if it is to be productive and actually help teachers improve, needs to focus less on making judgements and more on teasing out teachers’ expertise. Observation feedback should be a series of questions with the observer genuinely trying to find out what was going on in the snapshot.


‘The stone we wanted to shake out of the observation shoe was the fact that while we had to make a summative judgement of some sort, could the process not be, at least in some way, formative?

1. As a teacher, you get to explain your thinking to the observer as the lesson progresses. In my case, I take the opportunity to explain exactly why what the students are doing makes the lesson outstanding.

2. As an observer, you get to ask teachers why they have made particular decisions and (this bit’s my favourite part) you get to prompt them to make changes or suggest possible improves at the point of teaching. This makes the process truly formative. If I see something going wrong, I don’t have to just sit and watch as the train wreck unfolds; I can ask questions and offer advice that might improve students’ learning and the teacher’s teaching.

3. As the feedback takes place during the lesson, there’s no need to go through that anxious wait to find out what the observer thought: for better or worse, you know.

‘This has helped to turn what is often merely a laborious way of monitoring into a system rooted in professional development and growth’. I visited one school where live feedback happened online via a laptop that the observer typed into, which the observed teacher read and reacted to in real-time during the lesson! Though this wouldn’t be my preferred alternative.


David says, ‘I accept the inevitability of grading… we have a healthy balance of judgmental and developmental observations’…Every single teacher in the school has received a judgement so far this year and our spreadsheet is duly updated and kept in readiness in the event that the inspector should call’. Do we really have to accept the inevitability of grading?

Alternative Two: No Numbers

Tom Bennett disagrees:

‘Most observations arent really about improving the practice of the teacher; most observations are collating data about the quality of teaching.


‘The aim of a supportive observation – I call it the intrinsic aim – is to help teachers teach better. Then there’s the external aim. This is when observations are carried out in order to evidence the observation process; when teachers are graded, evaluated, and served notice to improve as a result. The observation is a blood sample, taken to satisfy a quantitative appetite. And this is the reason for most observations in schools.


‘When we conflate these two aims, neither is achieved’.

Tom’s prescription is simple:

  • Take out the damn numbers.
  • Forget Ofsted.
  • Design your own observation criteria.
  • Have a conversation afterwards.
  • Decide to use the fruit of the conversation.


Alternative Three: Longitudinal Process

Tom Sherrington wants to broaden the approach across time:

‘Any single lesson exists in a wider context. Teachers need to have the confidence to plan lesson sequences where learning and progress are evidenced over time, not in artificial bite-sizes just to satisfy the accountability process. One-off lesson observations are very limited in value. We need more points of reference’.


‘We’ve been looking to develop what I call a ‘longitudinal’ process, that moves us far far away from the limits of snap-shot observations.


‘If OfSTED ever do come… I will say, ‘Sorry, we don’t do that false snap-shot thing; it’s not good enough for us… we have a better way.’

‘There are a few key tensions to absorb:


1.  We want a highly developmental process where lesson feedback helps us to improve;…but we can’t meaningfully separate that entirely from accountability responsibilities.

2.  Snap-shot processes are inherently limited but adding other elements and taking a more longitudinal view does also add to the level of scrutiny (albeit scrutiny that already exists).  It’s an unavoidable double-edge:  a chance to demonstrate the good work you are doing is also another moment of scrutiny.

3.  Middle leaders are primarily interested and skilled in supporting in a collegial style but are also responsible for maintaining standards in their area – which must include securing improvement and tackling underperformance whenever issues are identified.

4. Student work, with the organic record of feedback, represents the best evidence of the routine practices of individual teachers and of the department in securing progress over time but work sampling can be cumbersome and is, de facto, a source of scrutiny pressure.

5. Subject specific processes allow for more subtle fine-tuning but there is a need for a fair and transparent process that allows standards to be consistent’.

In reply to the imperative, ‘make observations formative!’, we keep coming back to the need for performance management and the tension between accountability and improvement – a point I will return to.


Alternative Four: No Judgements

Chris Moyse tweeted: ‘We haven’t judged lessons for 3 years now and ALL obs are developmental for the very reasons you state in this post’. He shared his school’s process:

  • All teachers video one of their lessons in September.
  • After watching it, each teacher creates a Personal Development Plan (below).
  • This must be focused on areas of effectiveness such as feedback, subject knowledge, relationships, challenge etc.
  • All teachers are observed at least three times a year, and more if they seek it.
  • There are no grades, numbers, judgements or evaluative comments.
  • All teachers are expected to coach to build capacity, foster team spirit, spark dialogue about pedagogy, lead to sustained improvement, personalise CPD and empower staff.



Alternative Five: 20-minute slots

Phil Stock argues that for observations to be of any lasting value they need to focus on development, rather than evaluation’:


‘Many schools have already moved, or are in the process of moving towards, a developmental model of observation, doing away with planned observations in favour of more informal visits and abandoning gradings in order to focus on working with individuals on specific areas for their improvement. These schools recognise how grades and generic targets muddy the water of the feedback process and get in the way of talking about specific teaching techniques and processes that teachers can and should begin working on immediately…


‘Shorter, more frequent observations might enable specific techniques to be isolated and practised. These are not so much observations as coaching opportunities. A series of 20 minute observation slots over the course of a week or two will hopefully enable teachers to hone specific skills and techniques through repeated practice and immediate feedback’.


Alternative Six: Action Step Practice

Paul Bambrick-Santoyo in Leverage Leadership, adds to this:

Observations are usually infrequent, stress-packed rituals. The purpose of observation should not be to judge the quality of teachers, but to find the most effective ways to coach them to improve student learning. Teacher feedback isn’t about the volume or length of written feedback – it’s about one bite-sized action step where every teacher receives face-to-face feedback every week. We learn best when we can focus on one piece of feedback at a time… Paradoxically, weekly observations make them less, not more stressful: ‘Because they happen so often, I never worry that one bad lesson will give a false impression.’ Observation and feedback are only fully effective when leaders systematically track whether feedback is improving teaching practice. By receiving weekly observations and feedback, a teacher develops as much in one year as most teachers do in twenty.’


Instead, his model is:

  • Weekly 15-minute scheduled observations of each teacher
  • Weekly 15-minute scheduled feedback meetings to decide one action step weekly for every teacher to practise

Examples of areas for action steps, which must be tightly focused on a root cause affecting student learning, and highly leveraged to make an impact on student learning within one week, are below:


There are myriad possible action steps, but the 15 minutes weekly coaching feedback is for the teacher and coach to decide on the one highest-impact action step to focus on for the week ahead. The key difference that Bambrick-Santoyo advises is using on-the-spot roleplay practice there and then in the feedback session.

The system can change


Can we change the entire system around using observations as inspections? Thinking of this analogy makes me optimistic: in a book on the 1989 fall of the Soviet Empire, the Communist bloc, the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain all within a year, Alexei Yurchak writes: ‘to the people who lived in that system the collapse seemed both completely unexpected and completely unsurprising.’ No system lasts forever, and when it happens, collapse occurs quickly. In 1988, no one expected the USSR to collapse in Eastern Europe, nor the apartheid regime to collapse in South Africa. But it happened. With hindsight it looks unsurprising – it seems such regimes cannot last long. System change happens quicker than we think. What’s more, changing the observation regime in our schools is within our control – much more so than the entire Soviet Empire ever was!

My call is for every school to remove high-stakes, high-stress, high-pressure, numerically-graded observations. Let me be clear. Instead of merely separating summative and formative observations, as others above suggest, I am arguing that we should get rid of summative observations altogether. All observations must be kept sacrosanct as formative only, as a powerful way to improve our teaching. Nothing less will solve the chronic problems I set out last week, and no other solution will meet the crucial criteria of removing unnecessary grading, undue pressure, unhelpful targets and one-off snapshots. How big a difference would it make if all observations were frequent and developmental, and none were infrequent and judgemental? As Aesop saw over two thousand years ago, gentle kindness succeeds; forceful pressure doesn’t. As Socrates suggested, we must focus on building the new.

But what about performance management? How are we to evaluate, support and recognise teachers’ performance without judging their lessons? I’m convinced there are other, better ways than summative observations to evaluate teaching quality and performance-manage teachers – and that is the subject of my next post.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to What if all observations were only formative?

  1. Great post as ever. As you suggest at the end… PRP without this summative type of observations will be a challenge. A lot of schools reference the lesson grades explicitly in their progression criteria. eg ‘At least 2 out of 3 lessons must be Outstanding’ etc. Ridiculous but very real now.

  2. mamcbrooker says:

    Thanks for bringing this together so clearly. Really helpful to have support of this nature when you are under pressure.

  3. mamcbrooker says:

    Thanks for bringing this together so well. It really helps to have support like this when under pressure.

  4. ExecutiveHT says:

    Joe, I’m interested in this post and the next one but not sure I can agree totally with you on either no summative lesson observations in schools or as part of PRP. Great interchange on twitter this morning, I decided just to sit back and observe. It isn’t that summative is bad and formative good, they are different and both have a purpose. My concern is that in too many schools there is an absence of the formative element and in a few schools they have totally lost the plot with a ridiculous number of graded lesson observations. We have professional knowledge about assessment that we use with students and forget when we work with our peers – summative assessment needs to be distributed, extensive and synoptic. As a teacher I need to know “how I’m going” and as a leader I need to know “how we’re going” but it is the formative element that helps me and us to get to a better place. Summative lesson observation “yes” but in judging teaching student voice and examination outcomes have to be put alongside for them to be valid and reliable hence the table in our new draft Pay Policy – out to consultation with staff as soon as we get back but the staff helped develop it. Keep blogging, Stephen

  5. brmontero says:

    Reblogged this on Artebato.

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  7. CristinaM. says:

    I don’t teach in the U.K. so I am not subject to Ofsted inspections and this type of observations.
    In my school the principal asks you to create a presentation (in any format you wish – from PPT to essay or video) and outline the following:
    – your strengths
    – your weaknesses
    – how you intend to address the latter
    – a time frame for reaching your objectives
    – what sources you will use
    – what self-assessment tools you can generate
    – how will you know you achieved your goals
    The observations are quick (10 to 20 minutes), frequent and non-intrusive (at times I didn’t even notice the principal was in the classroom until I got to the desk she was sitting at – I was too busy with the kids). The feedback is oral or by e-mail.

    I think this is the best approach – as a teacher you alone know what you still need improvement on. If there is something else you might have overlooked, she is there to point out out but always in a supportive, positive manner.

  8. marymyatt says:

    Terrific, deep common sense. Need to get all schools working this way. High stakes LOs don’t move practice on

  9. Shaun Wood says:

    Thank you for bringing these teacher observation ideas together so well. As a teacher observations have always been a stressful and not always helpful experience. I also believe that even if you as a leader are using one of these great assessment methods, it is vital to have open conversations with your teachers about the process so they understand too. Teachers are learners too.

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  12. Enjoyed the post and all points your brought together. As someone who has to observe teachers for accreditation purposes, I try hard to make the opportunities rather than evaluations too.

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