28 November 2015

The delusional voodoo of grading lessons has got to stop.

Filed in Leadership

Last week I tweeted this message, along with a link to my Lesson Observations Unchained post from last year. I received several replies from people in schools across the country where grading lessons is still very much alive and kicking. One person suggested that their…

The delusional voodoo of grading lessons has got to stop.

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Last week I tweeted this message, along with a link to my Lesson Observations Unchained post from last year.

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I received several replies from people in schools across the country where grading lessons is still very much alive and kicking. One person suggested that their lessons are given sub-grades: 2.1, 2.2, 2.3 etc.  Think about the very special powers you would need to sustain that with any level of reliability!  It’s either delusional madness or a weird power game of some kind.

The de-bunking of lesson grading has been running for some time now. Most people (especially those who run schools) should have read or heard Professor Rob Coe and his report on the MET project study.  If not, here’s a link to a superb round-up by Prof Coe  Classroom observation: it’s harder than you think.  And here are the slides:

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Key slides form Prof. Rob Coe’s excellent presentation. Click to download from the CEM website

The conclusion is clear:  even well-trained observers can only agree 61% of the time and observations only agree with data 49% of the time.  More likely, with less well-trained observers, they can disagree 90% of the time with inadequate judgements.  Of course this is just one study but it highlights the fact that observation is complex and unreliable. To me, it is obvious that individuals and certainly groups of people are not capable of applying a consistent set of criteria to something as complex as a lesson, where the key outcome (learning) is invisible.  To think you can, is to kid yourself; it is a delusion.

To think you could reliably judge a French lesson (where 25 complicated people are all interacting with the teacher in a complex manner) to be Requires Improvement but not quite Good on one day and, several weeks later, judge a Maths lesson (where 25 complicated people are all interacting with the teacher in a complex manner) to be Good and not RI – is to believe you have special powers.

Ofsted has acknowledged this fully.  Ofsted inspectors do not grade lessons or expect or encourage schools to do so.

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From OfSTED’s mythbusting document.

Despite the changes to Ofsted and the strong research evidence that grading is dubious, it persists.  I would like to encourage all teachers in schools where grading remains to ask their Heads or Principals directly why this is the case.  It’s a legitimate question and the subsequent discussion would be fruitful.  Here are some reasons that might explain their position; some might be hard for them to accept!

They haven’t read the evidence:  Easily fixed; send a copy.

They haven’t caught up with the change to Ofsted framework.  This would be worrying on many levels so definitely worth making sure they have the latest guidance. 

They know about the two points above but ‘don’t trust Ofsted’ and, for that reason, will keep grading to show that they’re good at leadership and management.   Perhaps point out that, now, even Ofsted is likely to look unfavourably on Heads who grade lessons despite the evidence.  It suggests you can’t evaluate quality effectively in an intelligent triangulated manner. 

They struggle to imagine how they could reach an overall judgement of the quality of teaching for Ofsted purposes without counting up the grades. Suggest that this practice has always been dubious. The Ofsted criteria relate to an overview of all lessons and their link to outcomes. It’s not a hard science; it’s a rough picture best-fit process, nothing more. 

They are genuinely deluded about their special powers and say things like ‘any Head worth their salt can just tell’ or ‘I’m sorry, but some lessons just are better than others’ – as if that somehow backs up their ability to grade reliably. This is a tough nut to crack because you’re not dealing with a rational analysis.  Perhaps chip away by emailing the Rob Coe article to all staff and governors and by requesting a show-down debate so it can be thrashed out. 

They may suffer from Stockholm syndrome. They know they should stop grading but are scared of the change; worried about stepping into the unknown.  Send them blogs by all the various Heads who don’t grade lessons. It’s fine! It’s better! It works! 

They are control-freaks.  They know grading is edu-voodoo but want a neat way to hold teachers to account even if it’s all nonsense. Chasing ‘Outstanding’ keeps people on their toes – that kind of thing.  Again, a tough one because of the cynicism. Perhaps it’s worth appealing to their ego – do we want to be a school that is this far behind the times? This out of touch? 

Perhaps they are deeply conservative and perceive ending grading as a radical, maverick move despite the evidence. They may be scared, risk-averse and lack professional courage.  Maybe they have been defending grading for so long that they feel they can’t back down.  I would write a formal proposal, citing the evidence from multiple sources, and request that this is debated at a full staff meeting and governors’ meeting. Perhaps, through collective courage, the Head could find their way to take the right path. 

None of the reasons for retaining grades are built on sound educational principles. None. There are no good reasons. If you are a grading Head, you are either deluded (which sounds rude but is meant in a literal sense), cynical, out of touch, autocratic, unjustifiably scared or dogmatic to an extreme.  Take your pick. It pains me to think of all the teachers whose annual review process hangs on getting ‘at least Good in two or more observations’ and other such nonsense. Never mind all of their other lessons – or the absence of meaningful assessment of long-term learning within an observation.

Come on people, let’s end this nonsense.  It demeans the whole profession that we allow a practice that has been so soundly debunked to persist.  Wake up! Wise up! Release your staff from the edu-voodoo.

No Comments
  • Leah K Stewart
    Posted at 09:21h, 29 November Reply

    Thanks for this. Interesting comments about Ofsted (and Politics) came out of the recent Politics in Education Summit – summaries are here; http://leahkstewart.com/politicsineducation/ Blog posts like this on grading and backing up Ofsted myth-busting are important. Once we’ve got our head around not grading lessons, will we also stop grading student work?

    • Tom Sherrington
      Posted at 10:12h, 29 November Reply

      Thanks. I think links to grading student work are misplaced. Student work can be seen and lined up against some criteria; standards can be moderated quite tightly. That doesn’t apply to lesson grading at all. Really, it’s entirely different.

  • Greenshoots
    Posted at 09:57h, 29 November Reply

    I make no excuses for the pursuit of consistently Good teaching as the goal for all teachers and the right for all students . We do not grade teaching and learning ‘for Ofsted ‘nor is it an SLT pursuit’, our staff at all levels are involved in the continuous dialogue about what Good learning looks like ,how it is evidenced and the impact of learning ( of which lesson observations /learning walks /work scrutiny /student and parent feedback as well as the progress data for the students) all form a part .
    Our expectations for Good teaching and Learning are ‘in house defined ‘by a range of staff and I see no harm in regularly celebrating both individuals and teams who meet expectations . Paired observations and learning walks are part of everyday life and feedback is a two way process which is appreciated by staff. Mentoring and support is also collegiate and focussed . We have an open door policy and Good teaching and learning a shared goal . I look forward to reading your ideas each week-which are usually so positive and inspirational, so found this unusually defensive and patronising . I think the issue is how grading is done not whether you do it .

    • Tom Sherrington
      Posted at 10:10h, 29 November Reply

      The problem is that you think you can evaluate Good teaching consistently. You’ll think your staff are being consistent when saying lesson A is slightly better than lesson B but, in truth, they’ll be wrong quite a lot of the time. You are perpetuating a practice that is like homeopathy; lots of people use it, it might seem to be ‘doing the trick’ but it has no basis in science. Honestly, your school would be just as good, and probably better, if you give the feedback without the grades. Why not give it a go? I’m not being defensive; I’m on the offensive with this. Grading lessons needs to stop.

      • Greenshoots
        Posted at 10:36h, 29 November Reply

        I’m agreeing that ‘a lesson ‘alone is not what were grading but disagreeing that what Good learning looks like shouldn’t be discussed and observed. Does it matter where it looks different in different year groups /different subjects -it’s the discussion about the common denominators that is interesting and developmental . Are there no teachers that find that feedback and discussion useful ?

        • Tom Sherrington
          Posted at 10:39h, 29 November Reply

          We can all discuss effective teaching. Of course. I’m now confused: do you grade lessons? Do you have a theshold for saying any particular lesson is Good/RI? If not, no problem. We all discuss effective teaching – all the more in the absence of grades.

  • DAW58
    Posted at 16:51h, 29 November Reply

    My school is continuing with grading on the basis of a possible Ofsted inspection. I have tried to counter the arguments with the fact that teaching staff only become concerned with a number and not the areas to improve practice. This seems madness to me, as we are trying to enable teachers to reflect on what tweaks they need to make to improve.

  • Asher Levin
    Posted at 17:23h, 29 November Reply

    Have seen many outstanding teachers who perform outstanding lessons (everything we want to see), yet perform poorly in terms of examination results.

  • Gareth Lewis
    Posted at 10:19h, 30 November Reply

    Helpful article as always. I hope some school leaders make the changes after reading this blog. Thanks.

  • J Pilgrim
    Posted at 14:08h, 30 November Reply

    I have been pushing this idea at my school for some time now, and people are keen to explore it further. To me, it makes a lot sense, and we have made some tentative steps. However, the stumbling block we come up against is the evidence that is required to ‘pass’ appraisal. If I can counter this argument I think we will be in business. I have argued that it should be a triangulation of data, lesson observation and student feedback to provide an overall picture as this can be collated over time, rather than as a snapshot of two or three standalone lessons. I wonder what other leaders have used to explain this element of the process and discussion?

  • teachingbattleground
    Posted at 11:28h, 01 December Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  • Olga
    Posted at 22:21h, 01 December Reply

    I was thrilled when grading was removed!! I really used to hate how judgements were made about the quality of my teaching based on a 30-60min snapshot that was supposed to tick a huge variety of boxes! But I have a question… Don’t Ofsted still make a judgment about the quality of teaching and learning and decide whether it is ‘outstanding’, ‘good’ etc… And as part of that decision they observe lessons… So surely that means they are judging lessons even if they don’t put a number to their judgment…??

    • Tom Sherrington
      Posted at 23:11h, 01 December Reply

      The criteria refer to an overview of all the teaching they see and to the link to outcomes. I’m dubious about this too but it’s not an average of secret lesson grades or anything like that.

  • Steve
    Posted at 11:29h, 06 December Reply

    My furst decision – when taking on the role of leading T&L in the school was to speak to our new Head and argue the case against grading lessons. That was 2 years ago and it has been a joy to share and hear the conversations people now have after observed lessons compared to previously.

    One area I disagree with you though, Tom, is using OFSTEDs decision to stop grading as (at least part) of a a reason for an individual school to stop grading. A very wise man once said “imagine what you’d do if OFSTED didn’t exist. Well do that anyway!” – we shouldn’t stop grading lessons because Ofsted stop – we should consider the arguments irrespective of Ofsted and make our decision based on those alone!

    • Tom Sherrington
      Posted at 11:32h, 06 December Reply

      I agree entirely. Ideally. But OfSTED fear remains a key reason for schools to retain grades – perversely. Go figure!

    • ccp111
      Posted at 16:09h, 21 May Reply

      SLTchallenge.wordpress.com is not longer available????

  • My 2015 Blogging Scrapbook. | headguruteacher
    Posted at 20:10h, 29 December Reply

    […] It frustrates me that lesson grading is still so prevalent.  This post helped to raise the issue and contribute to the campaign to bring the profession to its senses. : The delusional voodoo of grading lessons has got to stop […]

  • Monkey business | barrycarneyblog
    Posted at 13:32h, 08 January Reply

    […] It is hard to believe that there are schools in which the practice of lesson grading is still deployed; worse, it is linked to performance management. I made the decision to abandon lesson grading two years ago when the arguments were being forcefully presented through social media. The reasons why I did are eloquently and succinctly explained in Tom Sherrington’s post in which he exclaims that “The delusional voodoo of grading lessons has got to stop.” […]

  • Snappy Sara
    Posted at 08:51h, 14 January Reply

    Sensible, sensible, sensible! Can I please come and work for you.

  • rebeccajohnson85
    Posted at 11:20h, 26 January Reply

    Reblogged this on rebeccaj85 and commented:
    A brilliant attack on the folly of grading lessons.

  • 10 Provocations. An interactive session with me and @PeterHyman21 at #ASCL2016 | headguruteacher
    Posted at 13:59h, 06 March Reply

    […] If you are grading lessons, you don’t know what you’re doing. We only come to this towards the end; it seemed to provoke some quite defensive responses from people who are now grading. It seems that some people working in academy chains are required to report on the quality of teaching to their overlords using lesson grades; that’s their excuse.  It’s a control device; nothing more.  In my view, grading lessons demeans our profession – because it is based on such a misguided idea of what can be observed in a one-off lesson with any accuracy. Graders are deluded.  It’s a battle that needs to be won if we are going to move forward as a profession. (See Delusional Voodoo.) […]

  • ccp111
    Posted at 16:02h, 21 May Reply

    In my school, SLT and DoTL do the learning walks. Not numbers are used to grade lessons but colours (red, orange and green) and these ‘quite often’ learning walks are based on the new Ofsted criteria. 🙁

    • Tom Sherrington
      Posted at 17:40h, 21 May Reply

      It’s the same as using OfSTED grades by the sound of it. Orange vs Green? Basically a guess I should think.

      • ccp111
        Posted at 18:48h, 21 May Reply

        I believe it is the same or even worst as ‘red’ equal a failed lesson, ‘orange’ is the equivalent of RI and ‘green’ is good 😉

  • Research Evidence that has shaped what we do. #rEdYork | headguruteacher
    Posted at 08:58h, 10 July Reply

    […] by evidence, WE DO NOT GRADE LESSONS – and anyone who still does is deluding themselves.  I’ve gone on about that elsewhere.   This is a simple and very obvious response to the […]

  • Micheal A
    Posted at 10:39h, 11 September Reply

    How I wished other school’s management will read this article and make changes to their grading lesson. Thanks

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