Archimedean leadership (2): What are leverage observations?  Or, how would Yo-Yo Ma feed back?

Archimedean leadership (2): What are leverage observations? Or, how would Yo-Yo Ma feed back?

When he travels to perform, Yo-Yo Ma also teaches.  Introducing leverage observations, Paul Bambrick-Santoyo showed this example of Ma’s feedback:

My introductory post raised seven problems prevalent in observations: infrequency and judgment; overwhelming feedback or lack of guidance; insufficient support implementing and sustaining change and superficial solutions.  Conversely, feedback from Ma is in-the-moment, specifies how to change and brings about immediate improvement.  Leverage coaching aims to create something more like a Yo-Yo Ma masterclass than a conventional observation.*  Having introduced them at GFS this term, this post explains, step-by-step, how they work (from an observer’s perspective); future posts evaluate their effectiveness.

1) Schedule feedback meetings (surprisingly important)

Booking a regular time ensures prompt feedback and ; it should also nudge leaders to ensure observations take place weekly.

2) Observe a lesson

A weekly, unscheduled, twenty-minute observation, if possible with a different class each week.  The observer establishes:

  • How successfully has the teacher implemented their previous action step?
  • What’s the most powerful aspect of the lesson they could change?

3) Plan and script feedback

This begins during the observation; afterwards, the coach plans the feedback conversation.  I’ve explained each stage below, giving examples of scripts I’ve used in blue; this video shows the process at work.

4) Feedback

Following a brief catch up:

a) Praise – The observer focuses on a single, specific episode (ideally, the teacher’s success in introducing the last action step):

We set a target of scanning all students in the room; I was pleased to see you using that: what’s the impact been?

b) Probe – A discussion eliciting and identifying the focus and rationale for the next action step.  The leader begins by asking about the purpose of that phase of the lesson; with the teacher, she identifies how the teacher’s and students’ actions met that aim.  The leader provides models of possible ways to improve this:

What was the aim of the discussion of proofs of God’s existence?
What did you specifically hope to catalyse or crystallise from this?
To what extent was the discussion meeting that aim?
Why/why not?

My feeling was you were (also) aiming to build independent discussion, but I wasn’t convinced it was actually working…

I wondered about:
– asking two people who’ve definitely got it to frame the discussion by introducing it with for and against points/summarizing their ideas – either with advance warning or not
– preparation time
– directed questioning initially, then breaking out into less structure in time
– a system (tokens?) to limit the participation of those who are over-keen to contribute

c) Action step – Identifying and agreeing what the teacher will change.  This should be the most powerful ‘lever’ (clear instructions, for example, make many other things possible, such as checking students have understood and are following them).  It should also be small enough to introduce in a week; even if a leader wanted the teacher to rethink every aspect of their lessons, they would work towards this in a series of manageable steps (each time choosing the most powerful lever).  The action step is usually, although not always, framed in the language of Teach Like a Champion.

Pause between asking a question and nominating a respondent.

d) Practice – The coach then prepares the teacher to enact the action step in lessons by practising it.  If the change relates to planning, the leader and teacher examine and plan future lessons; if it concerns behaviour management, the leader helps the teacher practise the desired action.

Behavioural example – practising a routine for getting all students’ attention quickly and easily:

What will you say and do if you want all students’ attention?
What I’d like you to do is to go into role and tell me what you want me to do when you need my attention.

[Teacher practises]
OK, lovely, could you make it clearer what you want to see.

[Teacher practises]
OK, this time, I’m not going to do it, what would you do?
[Teacher practises]

OK, this time I’m going to ignore you twice.

Academic example – making activities more challenging

What do you want them to learn from this lesson?
What will they be thinking about?
How could you ensure they’ve thought it through before writing?

Can we have a look at another lesson?

e) Review – A brief recap, followed by discussion of any other concerns or details and a promise to look for the action step in the next observation.

5) Next observation (the next week): step forward or loop back

a) the observer sees the suggested change: they identify a new action step, or;
b) the observer doesn’t see the suggested change: they review the action step, establish why it didn’t happen and find ways to further support the teacher to implement it, or;
c) the observer doesn’t see the action step taken, because there was no opportunity to use it (for example, one would not see a teacher using ‘No Opt Out’ if no student seeks to avoid responding to a question): in this case I’ve discussed the target with the teacher and set a new action step.

Leverage observations address all seven problems:

  • frequency – weekly observations support the introduction, adaptation and embedding of changes
  • judgment – no evaluation is made: the sole purpose is improvement
  • too many targets – feedback focuses on one action step: the most powerful ‘lever’
  • insufficient guidance – the observer helps the teacher pinpoint problems and solutions; teachers are ‘given’ an answer if they struggle to reach it themselves
  • struggle implementing change – teachers practise the action step with their coach
  • lack of follow-up – the next week’s observation coaches look for evidence of the action step
  • superficiality/burden – one could claim superficiality, although I’d contend regular visits allow observers to familiarise themselves with teachers and classes; they add no planning or reporting burden.

This should lead to significant improvement.  But does it…?

Part III explains how each aspect of leverage observations works in practice.
Part IV looks at underlying effects of this model.
Part V considers the next steps for our school, and how these principles might be applied in other schools.

(Part I outlined the problems which leverage observations may solve).


These ideas influenced how I provide feedback to students this year, as I’ve explained here.

Paul Bambrick-Santoyo and Doug Lemov’s book Leverage Leadership: A Practical Guide to Building Exceptional Schools.

* (Terminology): in British Business English, a coach does not provide solutions.  In leverage coaching however, leaders (they may be senior leaders, heads of department or experienced teachers) are ‘observers’ and ‘coaches:’ they help guide (or may state) the action step teachers will take.

Image by World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons