How to use lesson observations effectively to develop teacher’s subject knowledge

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Take a closer look at feedback after lesson observations and see how it can improve subject knowledge

When you are observing a lesson, it is important to recognise that a lesson does not happen in isolation. A considerable amount of work has taken place which might not be visible to the observer. The classroom is a complex adaptive system, comprised of many things with a high level of interactivity. For example, the profile of the students, the subject knowledge of the teacher, what lesson this is in the sequence of lessons and the room the students are in. These considerations inform a teacher’s choices for a lesson and lesson observations are an important part of a teacher’s development, if handled badly, they can raise more questions, uncertainty and not achieve the desired outcome – to support professional development.

Lesson observation in schools is ubiquitous and should be handled sympathetically. The question is, how does an intervention like a lesson observation support professional development? Ideally the observations and targets that the observer makes contribute to improving the practice of the observed person and they value the observation.

Focused feedback

To develop a teacher’s subject knowledge the observer must be a subject specialist and give their specialist insight on how to improve the next lesson. Subject specialists will often know what misconceptions or conceptual difficulties pupils might have, which is invaluable information to share. Often it is a challenge to do this in the time available for feedback, so it is important to be focused with the feedback and provide the teacher with actionable targets.

The type of feedback given to the teacher is variable. Some observers focus on classroom management, some on generic pedagogy, others on subject knowledge. Effective lesson observation feedback will take note of all three, but this is not always possible when observing outside of specialism. As a teacher trainer, I have read lesson observations from teacher mentors where you would be hard-pressed to identify the subject being taught, such was the generic level of comments. For example, ‘Reviewed answers – hands-up questioning to gauge their understanding’ or ‘Hands-up questioning used to assess students’ answers. Students self-assess their work.’

Improve subject knowledge, help inform the planning of the next lesson, and have a positive impact on student outcomes

The written feedback didn’t comment on the quality of the students’ responses. Maybe this was mentioned in the oral feedback? But that’s not a permanent record of the lesson observation.

Subject knowledge is a constant in a lesson. Newton’s laws and Ohm’s law do not change, but a teacher’s understanding of them can improve, especially if they are teaching outside their subject specialism. If the observer focuses on this in a lesson observation, then this can support subject knowledge development which will improve the next lesson and therefore, have a positive impact on the teacher’s development and student outcomes.

Targets and signposts

At the end of a lesson observation, it is common to give the teacher being observed targets. In an analysis of 20 written lesson observations of student teachers, I noted not one target mentioned subject knowledge development or provided the student teacher with a signpost for where they might develop their understanding.

Instead, the targets were generic and procedural. For example: ‘Have a secure understanding of factors that could inhibit pupils’ ability to learn’ and ‘Develop different types of questioning, practise cold-calling, planning questioning as part of your lesson.’

These targets might well be appropriate for a student teacher, but they will not develop their subject knowledge. A more experienced teacher will be doing these things automatically and will value a more subject-specific focus for the lesson observation. The observer must bear in mind the teacher’s level of experience and engage in a discussion that is tailored to their needs and experience.

For a lesson about the structure of atoms and electron configuration, these targets were given: ‘Provide a more detailed breakdown of the task’ and ‘Provide students with more model examples.’

Imagine when giving feedback, the observer modelled these two targets using subject knowledge from the observed lesson which could be referred to at the start of the next lesson. For example: ‘Provide a more detailed breakdown of the task by drawing a small atom like lithium first.’ This could improve subject knowledge, help inform the planning of the next lesson, and have a positive impact on student outcomes.

Tips for successful observations

As an observer

  1. Be supportive and listen carefully.
  2. Always give subject specific feedback and ensure your feedback helps support the planning of the next lesson.
  3. An observation and feedback are a big deal – thank the person for allowing you to watch them.

As the observed person

  1. Try to be honest about your reflections.
  2. Engage with the feedback and see it as a learning opportunity.
  3. The purpose of the observation is to develop your teaching.

To consolidate this conversation further, the observer could give the teacher additional reading to develop their own understanding of why they should follow up on the feedback. One way to give more constructive feedback would be to signpost where the observed teacher can improve their subject knowledge. For example: ‘Provide a more detailed breakdown of the task by reading this step-by-step guide to drawing electron configuration diagrams.’

If they choose to read the article, they are more likely to act on the feedback and try to improve their next lesson. It might also stimulate further discussion between the observer and the observed teacher as they might critique the approach or continue the process by sharing further resources, which is fantastic professional development. Signposting specific articles, clips or pages in a book wouldn’t take too long to do. Start with the list of resources below (you can also download them as MS Word or pdf). 

If they choose to read the article, they are more likely to act on the feedback and try to improve their next lesson. It might also stimulate further discussion between the observer and the observed teacher as they might critique the approach or continue the process by sharing further resources, which is fantastic professional development. Signposting specific articles, clips or pages in a book wouldn’t take too long to do and you can download our document with a number of useful starting points.

Lesson observation can be done well, but it can be ineffective when the teacher doesn’t know how to improve. Giving the observed teacher a concrete target and signposting resources to access and engage with in their own time will have the desired effect of improving their teaching practice. Sharing these resources will also develop more purposeful conversations about teaching, which is something teachers value greatly.

Tips for successful lesson observations

As an observer

  • Be supportive and listen carefully.
    • Always give subject specific feedback and ensure your feedback helps support the planning of the next lesson.
  • An observation and feedback are a big deal – thank the person for allowing you to watch.

As the observed person

  • Try to be honest about your reflections.
  • Engage with the feedback and see it as a learning opportunity.
  • Remember the purpose of the observation is to develop your teaching.

Download this

A list of useful starting points for writing targeted feedback from the Education in Chemistry website: rsc.li/3DaarbP