23 February 2017
Reader Submission

New ways of thinking about classroom observation and feedback

Late last year, Principal Christine Cawsey AM and Dr Tony Loughland of UNSW wrote an article that discussed five key questions around observing a class and giving instructive feedback. They argued that there is a growing professional and academic understanding of the use of classroom observation and feedback as key tools for improving the quality of teaching and learning practice for individual teachers, teams and schools. In today’s second instalment, they return to the questions to share their responses on the last three.

The five key questions on classroom observation

  1. What professional learning do supervisors and school teams need to improve practice in student, self, peer and supervisor observation in the school?
  2. How do observers address their own biases and build the consistency of observer judgement across the school?
  3. How do we encourage teachers to leave the script and be more adaptive while at the same time building their capacity in learning/lesson design?
  4. How does each school create adaptive protocols based on a shared understanding of the culture and learning context of classroom practice in the school?
  5. How does teacher performance assessment measure the impact of teachers and teams on the whole teaching/learning cycle including lesson design?

In our first article, we posited answers to the first two questions based on our professional and academic study. Here are our observations on the last three questions.

Question 3: How do we encourage teachers to leave the script and be more adaptive while at the same time building their capacity in learning/lesson design?

The assessment for learning turn in contemporary pedagogical theory and practice has created a demand for assessment-centric teachers who are willing and able to depart from their lesson plan to adapt to immediate student learning needs (Loughland & Vlies, 2016). This has been described in the research literature as teaching by design rather than teaching to the script (Crick, Goldspink, & Foster, 2012).

Preliminary findings in this research have revealed that only a minority of teachers are in the design camp (Crick et al., 2012). This contemporary pedagogical turn provides a challenge for the authors as we do not wish to encourage a teaching/learning cycle that does not have some sort of script. So our emphasis is now on the type of lesson design that we introduce early career teachers to. This design needs to incorporate scope for the type of ‘check-in and change tack’ practices that are at the foundation of assessment-centric teaching practices.

In order to change tack, our teachers need to be able to have several teaching options that they can deploy as a result of assessing where the students are at, at any time during the lesson. Tony and his colleagues have built some of these options, such as dynamic grouping and assessment, thinking routines and literacy scaffolds into the nascent Teacher Adaptive Practices observation guide (Loughland & Vlies, 2016). These options become improvement measures as we demonstrate and coach teachers to adopt these options when required.

Question 4: How does each school create adaptive protocols based on a shared understanding of the culture and learning context of classroom practice in the school?

As we outlined in our first article, the reliability and validity of classroom observation instruments depends on standardised protocols. That is why research-based instruments such as the Class-S (Stuhlman, Hamre, Downer, & Pianta, 2014) focus strongly on the training of the end-user in the standardised protocols necessary to replicate the validity and reliability they achieve in their research studies.

The Danielson Group are not as prescriptive as Class-S on mandatory training of their observers and this has been a cause of regret for Charlotte Danielson as she has commented on the misuse of the framework by untrained administrators (Danielson, 2016). School principals such as Chris, however, understand that the professional learning culture, budget and current trajectory of their school are big factors in the choice of protocols for classroom observation. In this respect, evidence-based practice gives us the observation instruments and recommended protocols but the practice-based evidence of school principals provides the know-how (Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, & LeMahieu, 2015).

As an academic researching in the area of teacher professional learning, Tony heeds the advice of his learned colleagues researching in learning science at the Carnegie foundation: ‘… it means we also have to study how to adaptively integrate interventions into different contexts if we are to attain improved outcomes reliably’ (Bryk et al., 2015). These researchers also have salutary advice for practitioners who are looking to implement a classroom observation system in their school: ‘implement fast, learn slow, burn good will as you go’(Bryk et al., 2015).

The focus in learning improvement science is on learning from the professional learning interventions rather than a large, high-stakes investment in the intervention itself. In this respect, they offer three guiding principles: wherever possible, learn quickly and cheaply; be minimally intrusive – some changes will fail, and we want to limit negative consequences on individuals' time and personal lives; and develop empirical evidence at every step to guide subsequent improvement cycles (Bryk et al., 2015).

Question 5: How does teacher performance assessment measure the impact of teachers and teams on the whole teaching/learning cycle including lesson design?

The accreditation regimes that we assist teacher education students and practising teachers to negotiate require evidence of teacher performance assessment. We both believe that classroom observation can be a useful method of generating these data, especially when it is deployed as an improvement as well as an evaluation measure.

In teacher education, Tony is developing protocols for a graduate teacher performance assessment that is a requirement of program accreditation for initial teacher education. AITSL Program Standard 1.2 for initial teacher education requires that all graduates from accredited programs have demonstrated that they meet the Graduate Teacher Standards in a classroom setting (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2016). AITSL require that this assessment be valid, reliable and moderated. Tony also needs to make the assessment feasible so that it can be completed by the Teacher Education student (TES) within the context of a nine-week professional experience/internship where they are on a 50 per cent workload.

In our prototype graduate teacher performance assessment we envisage that the TES themselves would compile an evidence set of their developing classroom practice. This evidence set would need to meet the criterion of AITSL’s program standard 1.2: ‘Does the assessment adequately address the practices of teaching including planning, teaching, reflecting and assessing student learning across a sequence of lessons (construct validity)?’. Therefore, a minimum requirement for the evidence set would be planning documents that indicate where the lesson plan or daybook fits within the overall class program, a lesson observation form, annotated student work samples and TES reflection. This evidence set would need to be gathered over a sequence of lessons to demonstrate several cycles of assessing, planning, teaching and reflecting. 

New ways of thinking about observation

As educators who have spent over 20 years researching, observing and studying classroom practice, we are even more convinced that many of the past practices in classroom observation relied on snapshot observations made by supervisors with little professional or academic learning. Many of these observations were probably reliable because they were underpinned by strong professional cultures within and between schools in Australia.

In the 21st Century the profession itself has higher expectations. Teachers themselves want to better understand how changes they make to learning design and adaptive delivery can improve their own work and the majority of our students are much more sophisticated judges of effective classroom practice than ever before.

There is a growing community and political consensus about the ‘importance of the teacher’ and there are many products available that purport to tell teachers what to do. There are many checklists, tool kits and programs available to schools – some of them well researched, others not. We have reached a time where teachers want to stop doing what doesn’t work and where they want to use their professional expertise on what does.

Increasing each teacher’s capacity to redesign and assess their own practice demands new ways of thinking, opportunities for deep collaboration and the willingness of school leaders to engage with academic and professional partners who will challenge, reflect and provide evidence for each school to create its own evidence-informed practices and protocols.

In 2014 Christine, Tony and Peter Langfield designed and in 2015-2016 delivered a NSW NESA registered professional learning program at the Lead Level of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers – Leading and Improving Classroom Observation: Classroom Observation as Professional Learning.


Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. (2016). Guidance for the accreditation of initial teacher education in Australia. Melbourne: AITSL.

Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M., Grunow, A., & LeMahieu, P. G. (2015). Learning to improve: How America's schools can get better at getting better. Harvard Graduate Education School: Harvard Education Press.

Crick, R., Goldspink, C., & Foster, M. (2012). Telling Identities: learning as Script or Design  Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281235988_Telling_Identities_learning_as_Script_or_Design

Danielson, C. (2016). Charlotte Danielson on Rethinking Teacher Evaluation. Retrieved from Bethseda, MD: Charlotte Danielson on Rethinking Teacher Evaluation

Loughland, T., & Vlies, P. (2016). The Validation of a Classroom Observation Instrument Based on the Construct of Teacher Adaptive Practice. The Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 33(2), 163-177. doi:10.1017/edp.2016.18

Stuhlman, M., Hamre, B., Downer, J., & Pianta, R. C. (2014). How Classroom Observations Can Support Systematic Improvement in Teacher Effectiveness. Retrieved from http://curry.virginia.edu/uploads/resourceLibrary/CASTL_practioner_Part5_single.pdf

As an educator, how willing are you to depart from your lesson plan to adapt to immediate student learning needs?

The authors note that ‘…professional learning culture, budget and current trajectory of their school are big factors in the choice of protocols for classroom observation.’ As a school leader, how do you provide your staff with practice-based evidence and protocols for observation?

Christine Cawsey

Christine Cawsey AM is Principal of Rooty Hill High School and the co-author of Leading for Learning – Building a School of Professional Practice (ACER, 2009).

Tony Loughland

Tony Loughland is the Director of Teacher Professional Learning in the School of Education at UNSW. He says the best part of his role is working with skilled classroom practitioners from their practice to theory and back again.


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