The Continuing Cult Of Classroom Observation

Prisoner: What do you want?
Number Two: Information.
Prisoner: Whose side are you on?
Number Two: That would be telling. We want information . . . information . . . information!
Prisoner: You won’t get it!
Number Two: By hook or by crook, we will.
Prisoner: Who are you?
Number Two: The new Number Two.
Prisoner: Who is Number One?
Number Two: You are Number Six.
Prisoner: I am not a number; I AM A FREE MAN!!!
Number Two: [Laughter]

The Prisoner (1967) opening sequence

The looking glass world of Patrick McGoohan’s 1967 TV series The Prisoner has, I feel, many parallels with modern education. Our careers, our hopes and aspirations, even our very dreams, often depend on numbers . . . information, if you will. Or data as modern educational parlance would have it.

Some of the most important numbers in a teacher’s life are the (now happily defunct) single lesson Ofsted lesson gradings; although, not so happily, many schools still insist on using them for appraisal and performance management.

For the past few years I have mostly been Number Two. However, at times I have been Number Three (because one student copied an answer from another student and I didn’t notice — I kid you not!); and once a Number Four (because I asked the students to copy a model paragraph off the board — “We’ll have no copying in this school, sirrah!”)

“I AM NOT A NUMBER, I AM EXPERIENCED AND SKILLED INDIVIDUAL WHO DESERVES DUE MEASURE OF PROFESSIONAL AUTONOMY!!!” [Cue maniacal laughter from SLTs and the DfE as lightning flashes and thunder roars.]

Rob Coe ably summarises the problems with minimally-trained observers in this blog post. He writes:

…if your lesson is judged ‘Outstanding’, do whatever you can to avoid getting a second opinion: three times out of four you would be downgraded. If your lesson is judged ‘Inadequate’ there is a 90% chance that a second observer would give a different rating.

He mentions that observers tend to overestimate their own observational prowess. If you fall into this camp, and haven’t seen the clip before, do the selective attention test — go on, do it, I dare you!

As Richard Feynman said of the scientific method: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” 

Too often, the high stakes observations we undergo end up enforcing educational fads rather than real good practice. As a colleague dryly observed to me the other day: “It shows that with one week’s notice and four hours preparation I can teach a lesson the way they want me to!”

Rob Coe makes some measured and sensible suggestions at the end of his blog post. However, for my part, I will finish with a further quote from The Prisoner and a bit of wishful thinking:

“I will not make any deals with you. I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own. I resign.”
The Prisoner

2 thoughts on “The Continuing Cult Of Classroom Observation

  1. ijstock March 8, 2016 / 9:51 pm

    My heart-felt agreement, Sir!

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