- An alternative way to look at education, an alternative way to educate



Education articles by Gary John Ilines about lesson observations


I started as a teacher in 1987. I began as a high school Maths teacher in Jamaica, then worked as an EFL instructor to teenagers and adults in Poland, South Korea and Thailand. I trained as a primary class teacher in the UK and France, taught primary from Year 4-6 in the UK, France, Thailand and China, and then home-schooled my own children through IGCSEs and A-Levels.

Gary John Ilines
BA Honours, CTEFLA, PGCE Modern Languages, MA International Education




As I am now working as a home-schooler and independent tutor, I don't have anyone telling me how I should be teaching and I don't have the possibility of pop-ins or observations when a school manager can pass judgement on my effectiveness as a teacher based on what they observe during the time they are in my classroom. However, the effectiveness of my teaching is sacred to me. It's my income and the education of my children at stake, so I want to be as effective as I possibly can.

As a reflective practitioner looking to maximize the learning outcomes of my students, these are the things which have struck me as most important - I will then consider these in the context of regular schools and teacher evaluation.

  1. Individualized learning and small group
  2. Immediate feedback on work
  3. Flexibility of timing
  4. Preparation and planning
  5. Breadth and flexibility of learning

Any school manager will acknowledge the importance of individualising learning and will expect to see some form of 'differentiation' or whatever the term being used might be. This means that, within the confines of the topic or learning objective, the teacher should provide individualised differences in task or support or outcome for different children. It is obviously the case that the degree of individualisation in a class becomes less as the class becomes larger, and yet schools organise children in large groups. Even expensive private schools have class sizes of over twenty students. In addition, these children are grouped in the most uncreative of ways - not according to strengths, personality, prior experience, learning styles or in other way which could be related to learning, but according to age.

Feedback is enormously important to learning. A child should ideally receive feedback on every piece of work which is detailed, immediate and which contains praise of strengths as well as carefully considered suggestions for improvement. In the UK this is called 'close-the-gap' marking. I would go as far as far as to say that, in terms of meaningful learning, a piece of work not marked may as well not have been done at all. Moreover, a piece of worked which is marked is only of value if the child is interested in the feedback, and a child's interest - I have found - is significant higher if the work is fresh in his or her memory. The next day, let alone the next week, is of very little practical use. School managers observing a lesson will spot-check the students' books to see if they have been marked, but there is no interest, in my experience, or how quickly they were marked. Also, with a class of twenty plus, it is impossible to give the kind of required detailed feedback immediately to every child. I have even heard school managers criticise teachers for marking during class time. Ideally, all work should be marked there and then in front of the child, but this is not possible in a regular school.

Lesson timings will also be part of the school manager's judgement on the success of the lesson. Did the class start promptly? Was the pace good? Was everything contained in a nicely timed and self-contained lesson with the different parts of the lesson taking up acceptable proportions of the time? Was enough time left at the end for a 'plenary' and to pack way equipment?

One of the huge advantages I have in my current circumstance is the flexibility of timing. Timing for a teacher can be tricky, and any lesson that achieves perfect timing is probably quite contrived. How often does a teacher wish he or she had an extra ten minutes to prepare the lesson? Then do it. Have the children read quietly until you are ready to start. How many lessons naturally finish, objectives achieved, discussion come to an end, with ten or fifteen minutes left before the bell? Then end it there, don't drag it out. The trouble is, in a school context it's hard to do. You can't just send the kids off as I can, and within a formal observation it would be frowned upon as a sign of a poor teacher. But why? Why is flexibility a bad thing? It's the school manager who has created this imperative for the 45 or 50 minute lesson. Maybe that's too long, maybe not long enough. I say, start when you're ready and finish when you've had enough. In the long-run there will be benefits to this approach. Some of the best learning events I have watched over as a teacher have been very short. Others may spill over.

Preparation and planning is another area where a teacher will be judged but every experienced teacher will know that this is a charade. A really effective, specifically tailored and individualised, fresh, original, creative and imaginative one-hour lesson takes two or three hours to plan and prepare. How many teachers spend two or three hours preparing each lesson? None, because it's impossible. Maybe teacher trainees do this, but for full-time teachers there is not enough time. If the school managers are designating a teacher with five contact plus hours a day, highly effective planning and preparation is not possible. Most teachers will spend two or three or more hours preparing their yearly observation lesson, but it's a charade. In my situation, I can afford to spend that much time preparing materials and preparing myself in order to teach a topic, and the learning as a result is much more effective.

The final area which I think is important is the breadth and flexibility of learning. Students should be allowed - in fact encouraged - to go off on tangents and let the learning evolve naturally. If something comes up or an interesting question is asked, stop the lesson, I say, and investigate that. However, this is generally frowned upon by school managers observing teachers. They want to see teachers sticking to the subject, sticking to the curriculum, and not getting distracted by natural curiosity.

So, school managers, you are walking into classes which are products of a learning environment which you have created. This is an environment which makes it impossible for the teacher to provide individualised learning experiences because the groups are too big and unintelligently devised. Immediate feedback on work is extremely hard to achieve and even frowned upon (You should be doing your marking in non-contact time!). Lesson timings are expected to be rigidly adhered to, even if it makes no sense, preparation and planning is - with a nod and wink - accepted to be a complete charade, and learning is expected to be narrow and inflexible, while individual curiosity is discouraged. And all this is systematically created by school managers who then think they are the ones who should be judging good teaching from bad!

© Copyright Gary John Ilines.