I have worked people who claim to be able to tell if progress is being made in a lesson within minutes of being in it.
One told me they could “smell” learning. Another told me they could just “feel” it.
Such superpowers elude me.
In a short lesson visit it is simply not possible to tell with any certainty if anything has been learned.
Life is much too complicated.
Certainly outside of our subject specialisms we do not know if the work children are doing is appropriate even if they are trying hard at it. Even within a subject we know well we can’t be sure what a teacher sets is worthwhile or not because we lack context and nuance.
We cannot know if every child in the room is listening properly to what the teacher is explaining. We do not know if what children are being exposed to will be remembered or if it will be forgotten.
As has been said by many people many times before, learning is invisible. It happens within our pupils and it takes place over weeks, months and years.
It can’t be seen in the ten minutes a member of SLT is in a French lesson on a Tuesday afternoon.
If the purpose of lesson visits were to work out if learning was taking place in them then they would not be worth the bother.
But they are worth the bother because this is not their purpose.
Lesson visits are temperature checks in which what we are really looking for is things are orderly and calm. When I drop in all I’m really looking for is whether pupils are clear on what they should be doing and that they are doing it. It’s wrapped up in the language I use “Hello! Good morning! What should we all be doing? Are we all doing it?”
If the answer to both questions is ‘yes’ I’m usually happy to go on my way. If pupils aren’t doing what they’re being asked to do I’ll stay and support the teacher until they are. If it isn’t clear what pupils should be doing I may ask questions to clarify things – for example ‘Sir, are we doing this in silence or are we allowed to talk about it? Do we answer in full sentences?’
This might seem unambitious but it is not.
So much has to go right.
Teacher explanation of tasks have to be clear. Pupils must know exactly what to do and then do exactly what they have been told to do. It means clear exposition and economy of language. It needs the teacher to check for understanding and follow up on pupils who choose to opt out.
All of this working well results in lovely classrooms.
Safe, calm and orderly with neat clear ways of doing things and everyone knowing exactly where they are.
None of this – of course – means learning. But without pupils being clear what they’re supposed to be doing and then doing it, it is really unlikely learning will happen.
It is a proxy but it is not a bad proxy.
Necessary but not sufficient, but very necessary.