Steve Puttick, University of Oxford, Department of Education, UK
Written lesson observation feedback is a significant and shared aspect of school/university collaboration across diverse programmes and initial teacher education (ITE) partnerships internationally. This article explores written lesson observation feedback during ITE by briefly reviewing this emerging body of work and reporting on a recent empirical study. In this study of the written lesson observation feedback given to beginning teachers, we analysed over 500 lessons across a one-year ITE programme, focusing on how this feedback constructs ideas about what counts as ‘good teaching’.
Written lesson observation feedback
There is limited existing research on written lesson observation, but the written feedback analysed in previous research highlights an issue with genericism, in that the subject or curriculum content being taught is rarely explicit and the comments might apply to teachers of any subject. In one example from geography ITE, Roberts (2010, p. 112) describes being ‘struck… [by] the large amount of attention given to generic matters and the very limited feedback on the actual geography’. Similarly, in Soares and Lock’s (2007) research, only three per cent of physics mentors gave subject-specific feedback (at least as perceived by beginning teachers), a figure that increased to 95 per cent after additional subject-specific mentoring training and tight constraints around what mentors were allowed to include in their observation feedback (including banning generic areas of feedback such as classroom management!). The larger body of literature on verbal post-lesson conversations is similarly critical, suggesting that they are ‘often superficial and centred on classroom management and procedures rather than learning or socio-political considerations’ (Land, 2018, p. 494). Asking how the subject (knowledge/curriculum) might be ‘made visible’ through lesson observation feedback has been explored recently by Healy et al. (2020), who argue that mentors’ subject expertise is key, particularly for moving beyond simplistic binaries of knowing/not knowing subject knowledge and into richer discussions about the fascinating and intellectually challenging task of introducing young people to the riches of subject and disciplinary traditions.
Our research is based on an assumption that one result of feedback (whether intended or not) is to ‘construct’ ideas about what teaching is, helping beginning teachers to understand not only how to teach a particular concept or a specific student better, but also more about the nature of teaching itself. In Winch et al.’s (2015) account, this includes (or should include) developing the capacity to critically explore a wide range of different types of evidence. The ability to consider different knowledge is particularly important when considered against the conclusions from previous research, which cast some doubt on observers’ agreement and ability to recognise ‘effective teaching’. In Hudson’s (2016) small-scale example, mentors observing the same videoed lesson ended with around half criticising the teacher’s instructions for being too complex and the other half praising these same instructions for their clarity. The experiments conducted by Strong et al. (2011) found greater levels of agreement, but respond to their guiding question ‘Do we know a successful teacher when we see one?’ with a resounding ‘no’: ‘judges, no matter how experienced, are unable to identify successful teachers’ (p. 367). This finding leads us to question the certainty with which observation feedback is often framed.
To explore different ideas about what counts as ‘good teaching’, our research (Puttick and Wynn, 2020; Puttick and Warren-Lee, 2020) drew on Winch et al.’s (2015) distinction between teaching as:
- Craft: Teaching is learnt through practical experience, from experienced teachers with expert local knowledge
- Technician: Teaching involves remembering, practising and implementing maxims about ‘what works’ in the classroom
- Extended professional: Teaching is inherently complex and good teaching must draw on a combination of the situated knowledge of experienced teachers, practical experience, technical principles and research evidence, all critically evaluated and applied to individual classroom contexts.
In arguing for the last of these – an expansive conception of teachers as ‘extended professionals’ – Winch et al. (2015) describe the way in which (p. 202):
’teaching as a professional endeavour demands of teachers practical know-how, conceptual understandings of education, teaching and learning, and the ability to interpret and form critical judgements on existing knowledge and its relevance to their particular situation.’
In asking how good teaching is ‘constructed’, we were particularly interested in the ways in which feedback demonstrates and promotes different ideas about teaching: in what ways, and to what extent does feedback construct teaching as a craft? As a mainly technical activity? As a professional endeavour? Linking to the dimensions of craft/technician/extended professional, we were keen to understand more about the kinds of evidence that the feedback presented, the claims that were made and the ways in which teachers were told how to develop.
Our research explored written lesson observation feedback on one ITE programme in the Midlands in England, with 127 student teachers, 508 lesson observations and over 200,000 words of written lesson observation feedback. We analysed the data through four frameworks:
- the Teachers’ Standards (in England) (DfE, 2011)
- Bunton et al.’s (2002) typology of descriptive, questioning, reflective, evaluative and advisory
- subject-specific or generic
- Winch et al.’s (2015) craft, technician and extended professional.
Further discussion of our methodological approach, including the ethical decision-making that we undertook for researching written lesson observation feedback, is detailed in Puttick and Wynn (2020) and, focusing specifically on geography lessons within the data, in Puttick and Warren-Lee (2020).
The volume of textual data that we analysed struck us: if, across just one year on one ITE partnership, over 200,000 words of written feedback are produced, how much time must be dedicated to this nationally? And internationally? This provides a strong argument for thinking and researching further about this important activity.
Our findings support the following claims (in which ‘feedback’ refers to ‘written lesson observation feedback’):
- Feedback is often generic
- Feedback is often presented in highly certain terms
- There are almost no references to research evidence in feedback.
Our findings support the critique made in previous research about the largely generic nature of feedback. It might be fun to play a game of ‘guess the subject’ – as an example, see this written lesson observation feedback on one full example of strengths (Puttick and Wynn, 2020, p. 11):
‘Relationships with pupils: High levels of mutual respect clearly evident. Appropriate use of humour, regular use of praise and responding positively to pupils’ questions and comments all helped with this.’
‘Planning: A well-planned lesson with a range of interesting activities that you were prepared to adapt to allow all pupils to access the learning.’
What subject might this be? What curriculum content was being taught? Or, to ask this another way, are there any subjects that this could not be? These examples are typical and illustrate the generic nature of much feedback in our data. The certainty of observers’ statements was notable throughout, often expressed through terms such as ‘it was clear that…’, ‘you have clearly…’ or, in the framing of the example above, ‘clearly evident’. The certainty with which observers state their views seems to undermine the ways in which beginning teachers are introduced to ideas about educational research: the naïve certainty of these claims would presumably be challenged if submitted in a student’s assignment on a Masters-level ITE programme. Similarly, the absence of research evidence jars against the wider claims made by ITE partnerships of the strength of the links that they actively seek to foster between research and practice. Across these 508 lesson observations, there was almost no explicit mention of other sources of knowledge (such as research) that beginning teachers might engage with to expand their thinking and improve their practice. This seems to be a missed opportunity.
Reflections and suggestions for practice
Beginning with the opportunity that written lesson observation feedback provides for developing strong, mutually beneficial relationships between research and practice, ITE partnerships might:
- explore how written lesson observation feedback could feature more explicit engagement with research evidence – initially this might include developing exemplars and tweaking lesson observation pro-formas by adding prompts (such as ‘what research articles might be useful to support thinking further about this issue?’)
- support subject-specific mentors to facilitate deeper engagement with subject-specific questions and research evidence, including collaboratively reflecting on subject-specific research on lesson observation and feedback, and questioning the role and limitations of non-subject specialists’ lesson observations.
More broadly, and in support of these specific suggestions, ITE partnerships might critically reflect on the purpose that we expect lesson observation feedback to support. Spear et al.’s (1997) suggestions include: ‘To convey the mentor’s craft knowledge? To satisfy the student’s desire for written feedback? To emphasise important points the student should focus on? To help the student engage in reflective evaluation? To provide a summary of previous discussion? To provide a record of a student’s achievements and progress?’ (p. 279) Our research expands these ideas about the purpose of written lesson observation feedback, particularly by prompting us to reflect on the extent to which this activity supports (or subverts) wider aims to develop teachers as ‘extended professionals’ who are able to critically engage with and skilfully apply an expansive range of knowledge for the benefit of their students.
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Puttick S and Warren-Lee N (2020) Geography mentors’ written lesson observation feedback during initial teacher education. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education. Epub ahead of print 28 April 2020. DOI: 10.1080/10382046.2020.1757830.
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