Tags: Continuing Professional Development | CPD Coordinator | Deputy Head | Headteacher | School Leadership & Management

Do you subscribe to the notion that: ‘There is no such thing as failure – only feedback’, so that whatever mistakes we make, we’re left with the new learning that has emerged?

The feedback process is often understood to be a linear, one-way process – e.g. ‘ I am giving and you are receiving feedback’. We would argue that this is a limiting belief and prefer the model of feedback as a non-linear, two-way process in which nothing is ever influenced in solely one direction.  

For our part we have experienced the huge power of in-time and appropriate feedback and would like to share the generic process as applied in a very specific context: that of middle managers giving feedback arising from a lesson observation, to a member of their team.

Lesson observation is much more common place since it has become a requirement for good practice in schools. Teachers and pupils are much more used to having a third party in the classroom. Yet in our experience this has not made the process universally acceptable or totally anxiety free for either the observer or the observed. It can still cause reactions ranging from mild concern to inability to perform. So, given that it is required, how can it come to be felt as not only acceptable but as positively desirable?

We asked each other that question and came up with the following stream of consciousness answers:

  • There’s got to be a point to it.
  • I’d want to be able to talk about what I feel if I don’t do so well, without labelling myself as incompetent before I start.
  • It would be nice to have some acknowledgement for what I do well.
  • I’d like the observer to be another pair of eyes and ears – for me.
  • I’d like to be clear about what it’s all for and it’s not just going to be about change for the sake of it.

These led us to consider purpose in general and the prerequisite for any activity including more than one person, to be a conversation to agree joint outcomes.

The process

Proposed change can bring with it a range of fears, reluctance and resistance to what is being proposed. If lesson observation is to increase learning and the feedback process is to be productive, the changes need to be seen as necessary by the observed as well as the observer.

We also believe that there would need to be a compelling and internally recognised reason for the person observed to change their behaviour. If not, change may be cosmetic and temporary. So, it is evident that a one-way process where the desired change is prescriptive: ‘downloaded’ from the observer to the observed, is unlikely to work.

The purpose of observation and feedback

Nancy Kline (1999) puts it very well when she speaks of supervising a team member:

‘Supervision (consisting broadly speaking of observation + feedback), is an opportunity to bring someone home to their own mind, to show them how good they can be, to demonstrate how problems can be solved and dignity gained.’

And this raises questions:

  • What are the roles and responsibilities of the two people involved in such a feedback process?
  • How can we implement the powerful tool represented by the two-way feedback process?
  • What are some of the skills to be used and relevant questions to be asked?

The role of the observer

This role is about empowering the person being observed so that they can do their best work, whilst minimising their natural anxiety at being observed.

It is crucially about being of service to the member of staff being observed.

What could that mean?

In our opinion, it must mean truth-telling: an acknowledgment of strengths and qualities as well as a recognition of areas to be developed. The emphasis is on the ‘how’ of delivering the message in the most effective way so that both parts are believed and recognised by the observed themselves. For the observer to be effective, it is vital that they check any assumptions they might have about the person being observed and leave any judgements at the door! Ideally, the observer wants the best not only for the observed but from the observed, holding them capable of hearing whatever truly needs to be said in the ultimate interests of the pupils.

The role of the observed

The person being observed takes equal responsibility in setting the agenda for the observation, being honest about what they would like to get out of the process.

There may well be genuine discomfort at being observed, depending on the context, yet letting go of any possible resentment about this fact opens the door to learning and possibility. For the observed, welcoming the opportunity of another perspective with the choice of how they want to implement any changes is very empowering.

Coming together in the feedback dance: how to put two-way feedback into practice

For both parties, risking telling the truth and taking the time to reflect on what each person wants from the feedback are necessary ingredients of the process.

A: Preparing the ground: the pre-conversation

Before the observation, observer and observed need to agree ground rules and the purpose of the observation. The observer can put the observed in the driving seat by helping the observed to articulate their agenda, in order to work towards a shared outcome.

Establishing rapport, being non-judgemental and using humour to gain trust, not minimising but not exaggerating that there may be risk in telling the truth – but that the rewards are worth the risk.

Here are some suggested questions for the observer to ask in the pre-observation conversation: Eg: Given that this observation is part of our school self review of literacy:

  • What is the most useful way for you that we can do this?
  • What would you like to get out of the observation?
  • Where would you like me to sit?
  • Do you want me to take part in the lesson?
  • Is there anything specific you would like me to be your eyes and ears for?
  • Do you have any other concerns?

B: The lesson observation using the two-way observation and feedback model: COIN

  • C Context
  • O Specific observation – what I saw, heard
  • I Impact of what happened
  • N Next steps

During the observation:

Here is an example of this model in use: The observer notes specific points that he/she wants to feedback to the team member using COIN. The observer notices that the teacher is drawn several times to spend time with a pupil who is annoying others on his table.

  • C (puts the observation in a timeframe so that it can be remembered) e.g. The children had just gone back to their tables and started the activity.
  • O (Observer notes exact action/behaviour that happened) e.g. I saw you go over to child x and tell him to stop pushing his neighbour.
  • I (Observer notes their personal interpretation of the impact of this action on the lesson) e.g. when you went over to child x, the attention of the class was interrupted and the thread of learning was lost.
  • N (Observer notes their personal ideas for ways this situation could be handled differently next time) e.g. you could set up a behaviour contract with child x before the next lesson and agree what is acceptable and any reward he will get when he behaves appropriately.

Active listening and a huge sense of curiosity are essential skills for the observer during the lesson observation.

C: Post-Observation Feedback Conversation

Note that the observer is fully aware that any ideas and suggestions that they have noted are personal and are only a contribution to the post-observation discussion! The two-way feedback process honours the contribution of the observer and the observed EQUALLY.

During the feedback conversation the observer’s role is to create space in which enquiry – not inquisition – about what happened in the lesson can take place.

The observer checks any personal interpretation of events and suggestions that they may have for improvement with that of the observed. This offers the observed great opportunity to reflect on the lesson and offer their own ideas as to what can be celebrated and what needs to be changed.

To give you a flavour of questions that the observer can ask, we have adapted some suggested ones from a book that is really worth reading: Time to Think by Nancy Kline (1999)

  • what do you think you accomplished in this lesson?
  • What went particularly well?
  • What are you proud of?
  • What have you discovered about yourself?
  • What is the key thing that you want to improve?
  • If you assumed something more freeing, what would your first step be?
  • What sort of support do you need from me in order to do it?
  • What do you think your goals and targets for this next period should be?
  • What other issues do you want to raise with me?
  • If it were entirely up to you, what would you like to see improve in our working relationship?

The observer must listen to their answers fully and not even think about interrupting, before they respond.

D: Partnership to go forward

At the end of the session, observer and observed need to contract a joint outcome based on the observation, with agreed action and accountability on both parts.

For the future:

As Peter Senge says of great leadership in The Fifth Discipline (1999): ‘It is about fostering learning for everyone. Such leaders help people throughout the organisation develop systemic understandings… (they) learn how to listen and to appreciate others and others’ ideas.’

With this thought in mind, we would ask you to reflect on the best way to ensure that steps are put in place so information is not lost and promises are kept. Wishing you success with using the two-way feedback model!


Senge, P. M (1999) The Fifth Discipline, Random House, London

Kline, N (1999) Time to think, Ward Lock, London

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, April 2005.

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