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When 2 + 2 = 3: Why lesson observation and feedback for student teachers is not the sum of its parts

Written by: Chris Powell  Dominic Shibli
8 min read
Chris Powell and Dom Shibli, Senior Lecturers, Secondary PGCE, School of Education, University of Hertfordshire, UK

Why do we observe teachers in the classroom? From the 1980s onwards, there has been an increased demand from successive governments to ensure that schools provide value for money and are accountable for their performance. As a result, managerial strategies have been brought in from the private sector and lesson observations have become a key tool within the appraisal process used to assess a teachers’ capability (O’Leary, 2020). As well as a tool for assessing performance, it is argued that lesson observations can also exist to help improve the quality of teaching through providing feedback. In his book An Introduction to Lesson Observation, Wragg suggests that ‘Skilfully done, classroom observation can be a valuable tool for improving the quality of teaching; badly handled, it can be a menace.’ (2010, p. viii) If this is the case, then the quality of the feedback from the observation becomes of central importance, especially in the development of beginning teachers.

When a teacher mentor provides feedback to a student teacher after they have observed them teach a lesson, they are often adopting a summative approach. The lesson has already been taught; nothing can be done about what happened, good or bad. Therefore, to try to make it more formative and developmental, the feedback comments provided by the teacher mentor are supposed to be used by the student teacher to inform their future planning. However, their next lesson will most likely be with a different year group and on a different topic, so the developmental feedback comments provided by the mentor need to be sufficiently generic so that they might be applicable to whatever the trainee is teaching next. Furthermore, due to the workload of the teacher mentor, it is not uncommon for feedback to be given several days after the lesson was taught, by which point it may become difficult to recall specific instances or for the trainee to remember the reasons for the decisions they made. 

The role of the teacher mentor is crucial because they must ensure that the student teacher receives the highest quality of feedback that helps them improve. But, as Shulman put it, ‘classroom teaching is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented’ (2004, p. 258), and O’Leary (2020) describes the classroom as a complex system with many entities that display a high level of interactivity.

The quality of the mentoring and the comments should be integral to the student teacher’s development, but Hudson (2010) noticed variability in the quality and quantity of mentors’ feedback. Soares et al., (2006) also found variability in the type of written feedback given to a student teacher, with some mentors focusing on classroom management and others focusing on pedagogical issues. The variation in mentor feedback might be because we see with our pasts (Storr, 2019), and a mentor can demonstrate their own bias when prior knowledge influences the nature of the feedback (Hudson, 2010). In addition, feedback might have a limited impact because, in this complex environment, it is difficult to know what feedback produces what effects. This is complicated further when, in the next lesson where the feedback could be implemented, a different teaching approach is required. 

To highlight the difficulty in giving feedback, here is an example from a lesson observation of a science student teacher in their third month of training:

Broad area for development:

  • Plan and teach well-structured lessons


Suggested specific developmental target:

  • Use of deliberate practice in lessons
  • Plan a sequence of lessons

The feedback is well intentioned, but it is trying to cover the whole lesson and therefore lacks the specificity that would enable the student teacher to know how to go about addressing the target. Is deliberate practice an answer to planning and teaching a well-structured lesson? A lack of shared language and surface-level explanations of concepts like ‘deliberate practice’ might well lead to lethal mutations, where the student teacher has to interpret what ‘deliberate practice’ means themselves. This is one example of how vague targets are not helpful to student teachers at the beginning of their training. We can’t be sure whether the student teacher interprets these targets in the way in which they were intended or whether they are clear on how to go about making the changes suggested.

Typically, student teachers are left to plan their lessons on their own (Schwille, 2008) and are only told after they’ve taught their lesson whether it was successful or not. After receiving their feedback, the student teacher again goes off and plans their next lesson on their own and waits till the next post-lesson feedback conversation to find out whether they’ve implemented the feedback well or not. This approach to developing a student teacher’s practice is essentially based on trial and error (Feiman-Nemser and Beasley, 2005), and is exactly the model that most of us experienced in our own training year. However, the trial-and-error approach involves getting things wrong a lot of the time and we must question whether this is an appropriate approach to use when children’s education is at stake, and whether it is the most effective use of a mentor’s time. Planning lessons is a very difficult task, and beginning teachers need significant help to do it well (Norman, 2011). 

Shulman (1986) argued that experienced teachers possess pedagogical content knowledge (PCK); this is not just knowledge of their subject or knowledge of how to teach, but knowledge of how to teach their specific subject to a particular class. An experienced geography teacher knows what will likely work well when planning a lesson on the concept of contour lines to class 8AB, who have geography after lunch in the week before half-term. They also know that a different approach will potentially be necessary for their other Year 8 class that week. This is because they have PCK. A beginning teacher may have excellent subject knowledge and a growing knowledge of pedagogy, but what they do not have yet is PCK; as a result, when planning, they cannot visualise the lesson (Mutton et al., 2011) because they are missing the hidden understanding of what is likely to happen (Schwille, 2008). They don’t know the class and so they don’t know what the pupils already know, how they may respond, what they might find difficult or how long each task might take; however, they can gain access to all this vital information ahead of the lesson through engaging in collaborative lesson planning.

After we conducted a four-week trial of co-planning, one modern foreign language (MFL) student teacher explained:

When I plan on my own, it’s so weird to explain… like it will be a little bit blurry. Whereas, if I plan it with [my mentor], I would have clear visions of how this is going to work.

This student teacher went on to explain that co-planning conversations with her mentor meant that she was able to anticipate possible scenarios that may arise and so plan accordingly. She was finding that she was now planning flexibility into her lessons that would be responsive to the needs that may come up during the lesson. By planning alongside her mentor, everything was becoming clear. We can perhaps put ourselves in a student teacher’s shoes if we recall any time that we’ve had to prepare a lesson for a job interview at a new school. This was a difficult lesson to plan because we didn’t know the class. What would that experience have been like if their usual class teacher had been sat with us during the planning of that lesson? 

Another participant in the same trial explained the change in her thinking that co-planning had brought about:

If I would have a blank [lesson plan] I would think “Okay, what skill do I want to [teach]?” I will break it down for myself first. Whereas before [co-planning] I would just get the PowerPoint out and then just put some activities in there.

Prior to trialling co-planning, this student teacher saw lesson plans as rigid scripts of material to deliver and, as such, the key indicator of a successful lesson for her was simply whether she got through everything on the plan or not; this is akin to what Twiselton et al. (2018) refer to as the ‘task manager’ mindset of a beginning teacher. However, the participant explained that the experience of co-planning had given her the opportunity to understand her mentor’s thought process when planning lessons. She had been able to talk through her ideas, use her mentor as a sounding board and listen to her mentor think out loud as she planned. As a result, she began to structure her lesson plans by focusing on the learning that she wanted the pupils to achieve, rather than what content she was going to deliver. Importantly, co-planning also seems to have a lasting impact, as a study by Pylman et al. (2016) found that co-planning enabled student teachers to internalise new ways of thinking, which positively impacted their planning in other lessons (Cajkler and Wood, 2016).

We are concerned that co-planning might sound like a good idea in theory but that there simply isn’t the time to do it; however, using the one-hour weekly mentor meeting helped to resolve this. We suggested that all or some of the weekly mentor meeting could be used for co-planning, and it was not an expectation for a full lesson to be planned. We think that co-planning is a more efficient use of time because by receiving support to write high-quality lesson plans, the student teacher wastes less of their time (Grady et al., 2018). Furthermore, the vagueness of post-lesson observation feedback is avoided because the conversation is focused on the specific objectives and context of the co-planning exercise. This was demonstrated by Van Velzen et al.’s (2012) work on co-planning, which found that difficulties that student teachers were having with their teaching due to their inexperience were identified earlier in the training year as a result of the conversations had during co-planning sessions.

An example of a benefit of co-planning is when the teacher mentor is able to share their knowledge of a challenging concept with which pupils often struggle, like the pattern of contour lines that show a V-shaped valley. The student teacher and mentor can work together to structure a high-quality explanation while also developing the student teacher’s own subject knowledge. The alternative scenario is a trainee who plans a lesson on contour line patterns without any input from an experienced colleague, and who then may end up teaching a lesson that is met by a lot of confused-looking faces. They are then told afterwards that Year 7 pupils often struggle with this topic and that it might need reteaching.

It is very difficult for lesson observation and feedback to be the sum of their parts. More formative approaches like co-planning lead to a fundamental change in how the student teacher approaches their lessons, as planning alongside an expert shifts their thinking from focusing on what they want to deliver to the pupils towards what they want pupils to learn. Planning alongside their mentor and talking about all the previously ‘invisible’ decisions and considerations that their mentor thought about when planning a lesson mean that the student teacher comes to understand the why of teaching as opposed to just the what.

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    Mo Graham

    Excellent thought provoking article that sets out a common sense, effective approach.

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