Archimedean leadership (1): What problems could leverage observation solve?

Archimedean leadership (1): What problems could leverage observation solve?

Give me but one firm spot on which to stand, and I will move the earth.”
Archimedes, on the action of a lever


More modestly, introducing leverage observations, Paul Bambrick-Santoyo quoted Abraham Lincoln:

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” (citation issues)

Many aspects of lesson observations inhibit their usefulness and prevent them from sharpening our metaphorical axes.  For example:

They are usually infrequent.  In my former school, after my NQT year, I received one, annual Performance Management observation.  A collegial department, planning with colleagues and peer observations have huge merits, but only a critical observer will identify how well students are actually learning – and what I’ve missed.  Annual, or even termly observations make this unlikely to be a major influence on me.

Many observations remain judgmental.  At my current school, determined to do staff development better, we held six Performance Management observations a year.  Then (in our first year) we rendered them useless from a developmental point of view, by grading them (grades directly affected pay progression).  As Dylan Wiliam notes “Once you give a grade, the learning stops.”  Not only that, once I’d been told PM observations should represent the best of my practice, I ensured I was seen with my best classes and performances: this is not developmental.

Teachers often receive too much feedback.  This is partly a function of infrequency: if observations are rare, observers feel pressure to cover everything they have noticed.  A wealth of feedback (even well-chosen and couched) can overwhelm teachers: it’s hard changing one aspect of our teaching; three or four suggestions can end up causing no change at all.

Alternatively, teachers may receive too little useful feedback.  I’m thinking particularly of coaching models like those used by Leadership Development Officers from Teach First, designed to help teachers identify solutions themselves: sometimes, a teacher, particularly a less experienced one, may need to be alerted to a technique or problem of which they are unaware.

Observations rarely support teachers to implement change.  Teachers walk away with a target, but may not be clear exactly what that looks like, or be unsure how to apply it in their next lesson (on a different topic, for example).

Effective follow-up is very rare.  (See frequency, again).  An organised observer, visiting regularly, may return looking for evidence of adoption of the last feedback.  Even if they do, the original conversation and target is likely to be lost, buried in all the other pressures of teachers’ and leaders’ lives.

Solutions to problems of frequency are often superficial or unhelpful.  Learning walks tend to imply a check for compliance with school policy/basic order in the classroom, rather than identifying exactly who’s learning what in a particular lesson.  Sending lesson plans to a senior leader a week in advance is hugely burdensome and unlikely to reflect reality in the classroom.

I’m painting a gloomy picture deliberately to set the stage for a proposed solution.  The list above collects problems; most schools have, I suspect, solved most of them.  However, a cocktail of no more than a couple seems likely to make observations fairly ineffective.  We know school leadership is most effective when it focuses on increasing learning; as John Tomsett asked recently “What else should Headteachers be doing but supporting the improvement of teaching and learning?”  I would contend that the list above suggests we are often unclear how to do so.

At GFS, we introduced leverage observations this term, an approach developed at Uncommon Schools in the USA.  It may just be the earth-moving, saw-sharpening technique which allows leaders to help all their teachers improve; while it may sound intimidating in places, I’ve become convinced of its merits.  Leverage coaching involves short, weekly lesson observations; feedback focuses on changing one key ‘lever’ of teachers’ practice.  A series of posts, over the next few days, will examine how leadership observations work in principle and in practice.

Part II describes the (unusual) structure of leverage coaching.
Part III explains how each aspect of the structure works in practice.
Part IV looks at some underlying strengths of the model.
Part V considers the next steps for our school, how this could work in other schools and shares resources about leverage coaching.