What is attention? I have struggled with question on and off for some time, and have been unable to answer it. Attention is a veritable 'will o' the wisp'. I become aware that my attention has been drawn to a sudden sound, to a movement... In each of these cases it seems attention, whatever it is, is drawn or attracted. It does not seem to be under my control.
[John Mason, Attention]
This week I was observed by an Ofsted inspector. This post is my attempt to describe why this lesson was not an accurate representation of my practice, leading to a suggestion that such high-stakes observations do not provide accurate representations of lessons generally.
I have been teaching maths for 11 years, and am confident I am a good teacher (although there is always room for improvement). My students enjoy lessons and do well in exams, and other professionals have generally given me good feedback. I would estimate that I have been 'formally' observed at least 50 times, but I still find 'high-stakes' observations hugely problematic - why?
1. Tiredness. I can't help but spend many hours thinking about to-be-observed lessons for days beforehand, playing the lessons in my mind, often not sleeping very well in the days leading up to them. When it comes to the lessons, I often feel 'strung-out' and find it difficult to concentrate, to focus.
2. Over-planning. I usually plan lessons quite informally. I think about what I want to say, make a few notes, decide what problems me and the students will work on, and then go from there. The creation of full lesson plans, and the high-stakes nature of observations, leads to me forcing too many contrived activities into the lesson, and important opportunities for spontaneity become planned out.
3. In-attention. In a normal lesson, the students and I give each other our full attention, but during high-stakes observations we are very aware of another presence in the room. Making decisions becomes very difficult when one's awareness is displaced, when attention is attracted away. My usual awareness is completely altered. I sense my inner-witness scrutinizing my own decisions from the point of view of the inspector, a sort of 'observer empathy' that reduces my ability to attend to what I am doing. This creates distracting questions and emotions not normally present: What does the observer think of this lesson? What do they think of what I just said? What are they talking to those students about?
4. Tension. My teaching style involves fostering dialogue with and between students, which is only possible in a relaxed atmosphere, with full attention from all participants. Dialogue does not flow freely in a high-stakes observation. Teachers and students become aware of the gravity of the situation; teachers say strange things, students over-compensate by either going very quiet or shouting out answers. Questioning strategies go awry. It is difficult to hold a conversation (let alone one with 25 people) when one's attention is drawn. The atmosphere becomes palpably different; there is less propensity to take risks, there is less freedom and enjoyment.
A large aspect of my practice is considering student responses, acting in-the-moment, exploring ideas, taking risks. The combination of tiredness, over-planning, in-attention and tension leads to a lack of ability to concentrate-on and respond-to what is happening in the lesson, the result being a lesson that is a poor proxy to what normally happens.
Some of these issues have reduced slightly with the relaxation of Ofsted observation protocols (lesson plans, removal of grading), but while high-stakes observations remain, they are likely to provide an inaccurate picture of what happens in classrooms day-to-day.
Do other teachers feel this way? Conversations with my colleagues suggest so; many of us expressed frustration at lessons not going as they normally might have.
What are the implications of all this for the usefulness of high-stakes observations? What are the alternatives?
What can we learn from this?