On observation rubrics


‘the dark irony and cruelty of hegemony is that teachers take pride in acting on the very assumptions that work to enslave them’

Graded observations must go. I’ve argued before that they are this year’s brain gym; I’ve shown the damaging impact on teachers in around 50 anecdotes; and I set out several alternative solutions other than grading. Now I want to compare some observation rubrics that schools use.


Matt O Leary asked me a while back to review his book Classroom Observation. Here is his argument:

The high-stakes nature of performance management-driven observation for monitoring and measuring militates against professional development; school leaders must challenge the hegemony of graded observations and redesign observation as a tool for reciprocal learning, decoupled from summative high-stakes grading.

‘Good teaching is a contested area and cannot be easily defined … any search for a simple model of good teaching is ultimately doomed to failure.’ 

‘There’s a mismatch between teachers’ work and the means used to evaluate it – managerial models fail to capture the complexity – they fail because they are flawed.’

‘Some of the key qualities of the good teacher are often not observable – humour, compassion, enthusiasm, determination…’

‘Why do we insist on grading teachers against this arbitrary Ofsted 4-point scale?’

‘There is no published research which shows that meaningful grading is possible.’

‘Other professions such as medicine and law are not subjected to this arbitrary system of measurement. Why can’t the same apply to teachers?’

‘The failure of the teaching profession to reach any agreed consensus on what constituted best practice meant that it was at the mercy of whichever political wind was blowing.’

While I completely agree with Matt O Leary’s diagnosis, I’m uneasy with this prescription:


The jargon of ‘maximising potential’ ’hypothesis-building’ ‘inclusivity’ and ‘resilience’ makes me feel uneasy. And here lies the rub: any selective list of what makes good teaching will never be agreed upon.

Let’s look at some examples. One school uses these observation criteria:


It seems suspiciously designed to fit the acronym BRAD PIT.

Another school uses this apparatus:


What these two and many other observation rubrics have in common is the 1-4 numerical grading judgements. But how are the criteria decided on? The first neglects subject knowledge; the second is more exhaustive but demands an extraordinary 20 numerical judgements per lesson observation.

As an experiment, school leaders were asked to write down what they thought was necessary to be a good teacher:




Such lists are endless; combining and prioritising them into a selective list of 10 or 20 is intractable and interminable. Itemising and quantifying things like tenacity, creativity and idiosyncrasies (undoubtedly important parts of being a teacher) is a fool’s errand.

The problem is, we are asking the wrong question. Debates over ‘what makes a good teacher?’ and ‘what makes an outstanding teacher?’ or even ‘what makes good teaching?’ are circular. There are as many possible answers as there are teachers in the world.

Instead, we should be asking: how can observations most help improve our teaching? Not by grading or quantifying or judging. Observations most improve teaching when they are disconnected from performance management, appraisal and pay, and only formative. Observations most help when they are low-stakes, frequent and give one clear, prioritised, next-step piece of feedback. As Paul Bambrick Santayo argues:

‘By receiving weekly observations and feedback, a teacher develops as much in one year as most teachers do in twenty.’

He proposes this rubric:


One colleague I trust says he can’t find any way to improve on this. I think it’s missing two vital components: planning and assessment. So here is the rubric I propose:


The vital difference is not the criteria. The vital difference is that it is only used formatively. Numerical judgement must not take place at all if teachers are to get the best out of observations for their professional development. Beyond that, the criteria are only used as guidance, a tool for focusing rather than judging.

In a world without graded observations, these two ideas might have an impact on CPD:

Video allows teachers to reflect on their teaching and analyse their pupils’ behaviour, concentration and effort beyond their lessons. Matt O Leary makes the case for them in his book, and says that in the best schools, teachers ask for their worst classes to be observed. Why? Because of the culture of trust and learning.

Observing to learn: one obligatory, unscheduled weekly observation to learn from another teacher would create an open-door culture. I rarely found enough time to observe other teachers, but when I did they were some of the most valuable experiences I had in teaching. If I’d been forced to make this into a regular habit, a bit like practicing a musical instrument, I would have learned far more.

The research that shows grading is ineffective is out there. School leaders now have a responsibility to replace graded observations with an alternative that works.

You can already hear the pleas of panic: but how will we manage performance and underperforming teachers without graded observations? How will appraisal and capability work? What will we tell OFSTED when they arrive? Those are questions I take up in my next blogposts.

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
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9 Responses to On observation rubrics

  1. You say that the wrong question is “what makes a good teacher?” and the right one, “how can observations improve teaching?” – surely answering the first question must inform the criteria that you use for second one? Otherwise, what guides the formative feedback? (and I do agree that obs must be formative)

  2. Pingback: Observation rubrics – a response to @joe_kirby | Perspectives on professional development

  3. drmattoleary says:

    Thanks for this contribution Joe. Here’s a link to my response: http://wp.me/p3R0xs-2P

  4. dodiscimus says:

    I think you are absolutely right to argue that the same lesson observations cannot be used to make high-stakes assessment, and provide formative feedback. I think on this basis you are quite correct that graded observations are not appropriate as part of the process of helping teachers improve. I also think that your rubric is a good example and you have successfully avoided the trap of promoting any particular teaching approach – I think this is what you are criticising Matt O’Leary’s rubric for, to some extent. So it’s a good rubric but do we know what kind of feedback helps teachers improve? E.g. maybe giving feedback on behaviour routines has no impact, or maybe it has a big impact: do we know? This matters a lot, I think.
    My other thought is something I posted about a while ago http://wp.me/p44DHA-2L so I feel vindicated to some extent by Matt O’Leary’s post http://wp.me/p3R0xs-2P. It really matters to me what Rob said, and what the research says, because in ITT we do have to assess trainee teachers and at Southampton we have chosen to include a large number of low-stakes, graded observations, to improve the reliability of this process. This isn’t the only way to do it and is something we keep under review, but our feeling is that these become so routine that they do become formative whilst still contributing to a reliable summative judgement on teaching. This system is very different to what happens to experienced teachers but if graded observations become an anathema it makes it hard for us to justify using them with trainees. If we found clear evidence that our system is either unreliable, or hampers trainees’ progress, that would change what we do but I haven’t seen that evidence yet, and I would like to see the argument against graded observations in schools to remain nuanced; I don’t think observations are the same as Brain Gym.

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  8. PaperlessEdu says:

    Another thing worth considering in this regard is the impact of grading on teacher’s willingness to experiment and try anything more ambitious than ‘approved’ lesson formats. The use of constant ‘progress’ in particular as a metric for effective learning is problematic, as it fails to allow for the reality of learning – wherein forward movement is the result of consistent effort but still comes in sudden bursts.

    The desire to ensure all students are making progress at all times minimises the ability of even experienced professionals to take time (even a single lesson’s worth) to try something new – a new arrangement of tables, different group sizes, lesson formats – out of fear of ‘losing’ the time.

    Tying the process – and discussion – of teaching more closely to Incremental Learning Theory; identifying lessons with grades is damaging not only in the ways outlined about, but in the way it restricts the creativity of professionals to move education forward.

  9. mrswardster says:

    So if grading doesn’t make us better teachers – does not grading students make them better learners…<>

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