Lesson observations as a mentor

medieval-teachingSo far I have not written much on this blog about mentoring. This is an oversight on my part, as mentoring trainee teachers was one of the most satisfying parts of my job. I was a mentor for the Cambridge PGCE from 2008 to 2013, typically taking one trainee a term. The calibre of trainees with whom I worked was typically exceptional, and, in both of the schools where I worked, they brought as much to the department as they took from it. Officially, trainees are entitled to an hour of one-to-one mentoring per week, though, as any mentor knows, we inevitably dedicate far more time. Occasionally my trainees caught me at a bad moment, but usually this was time that I was more than willing to give. After a difficult day (and in all seriousness) there are few things I would rather be doing than sitting down with another historian and planning a sequence of lessons.

I plan to put a few posts up about my mentoring experience, and, given the current hot topic, I’ve decided to focus on lesson observations. In what follows, I have made everything anonymous. My usual approach to observation is to sit at the back of the class with my laptop: I can type far more quickly than I can write by hand, and trainees would actually be able to read it! On the Cambridge History PGCE (and I think we are quite unusual in this) we never give an Ofsted-style grade to a lesson. Ever. Instead, our observations are purely formative and form part of a package of training activities that are decided in advance with a trainee each week in their mentor meeting. Informally, I would give feedback to a trainee after every lesson. I would, however, type an observation for as many lessons as possible, perhaps aiming to do three or four a week; trainees would then receive written observations from other members of the department as well.

We do a great deal of work at mentor training on observations: above all else, we want to prioritise the historical learning taking place in the lesson. Are the pupils in this lesson learning any decent history? What is the trainee doing which makes this happen? What signs of this are there? Where does the focus of the lesson slip? Were does this lesson not fit smoothly into what went before and after? Although I do comment in observations on more generic matters (behaviour management, use of praise, voice projection and so on) I tended to give most of my advice on these things informally at the end of the lesson. The overriding emphasis of the observation was the history.

To illustrate this, I’ve copied below a couple of examples. One of the benefits of typing observations is that I have a big bank of these stretching back over the years. Both of these observations are of Key Stage 3 lessons, though I think they are quite typical of the kinds of observation I give as a mentor. If you would like to comment on the approach taken here, I would be happy to receive your comments at the bottom and I promise to circulate your views around the Cambridge mentors at the next opportunity.

Example 1 – a Year 8 lesson on the British Empire


  •  The main activity in this lesson was well designed. I think you gave students plenty of information to go on and the twelve boxes had plenty of detail that students could draw upon for the purpose of the graph task. The graph itself was a nice technique to get students comparing the changing power of the East India Company and the British Government – this type of activity is usually very good for developing understandings of change over time, particularly the rate of change.
  •  This form always seem excitable first thing on a Monday morning. You do exactly the right thing and insist on the basics first – coats off, bags on the floor, listening in silence. The form quickly settles allowing you to jump in with an interesting image. It is clear that you are now building a set of expectations which students seem to recognise – stick to them, and this will pre-empt 80% of behavioural problems.

Points to consider

  •  There are a number of comments from students which suggest that they are speculating from a base of quite weak knowledge. Questions such as ‘How powerful do you think Victoria was as Empress?’ elicit responses such as ‘Very’ – it is worth thinking about where this is coming from? Do students really understand this question of power, or are they just guessing? The silence of the majority of students is perhaps indicative of this – there are a number of students who might normally be involved who are not in this lesson, and it is worth asking why this is.
  •  The graph activity is good (see above) but I think this fell down somewhat on the way in which you set it up. You were doing the right thing and trying to model it for students so that they could see what they had to do. I wonder, however, whether they had a sufficient understanding and knowledge of terms such as ‘control’ and whether they could see the subtleties of ‘East India Company’ and ‘British Government’. I wonder if you might have incorporated this a little further into your lesson plan. For example, although it was good to link back to the previous lesson in the introduction, I wonder what might have been achieved by using the examples of Clive and Victoria (and the century between them which I think students missed) to represent the EIC and government, and to use your introduction to raise what might be meant as control. This might well have made it easier for you to run the main activity.
  • On behaviour management – avoid using phrases such as ‘there’s too much talking at the same time’. This merely describes a situation and only implies the expectation. Be specific – ‘You all need to be silent as otherwise we can’t hear what x has to say.’ Don’t be afraid to tell students what you expect. Remember that if you insist on silence then you must enforce it.


The main task in this lesson was good, but I think its potential was missed due to the way you set up the lesson at the beginning, particularly in terms of ensuring that students have sufficient knowledge and understanding of the terms needs to complete the main task. You may have found that a stronger focus on the conceptual demands of the lesson (which was really a change lesson) might well have been helpful.

Example 2 – a Year 9 lesson on the Holocaust


  •  I like the way that you use the images at the start of the lesson to create a sense of mystery in the lesson. Obviously pupils do not at this stage know very much about the individuals and so their guesses are very vague, so I think it is right that you did not spend a large amount of time on this – the point, I suppose, is to create a mystery which pupils want to solve. There are sufficient clues in the pictures to think about what they might have in common – the number on the arm, the man with Down’s Syndrome, the prisoner of war. XXXX unsurprisingly hits the nail on the head – and you do a particularly good job of pushing him to go further than ‘they’re Jews’.
  •  Your movement around the class is much improved – you’re rotating yourself around the central table, and your body language is very good. Use of hands in particular helps to stress important points.
  •  Your confidence comes across in bounds. I think best of all is that you’re being very clear about why it is that you want students to do something – phrases such as “I wanted you to look at this because…” really help to string the lesson together and create a sense of flow. Phrases such as that give pupils the sense of ‘this lesson is going somewhere’.
  •  I think the range of sources that you give students is quite impressive – there’s certainly enough there for students to be able to add new things to their spider diagrams and, given the rather gruesome nature of some of the images, it is perhaps unsurprising that they find the images fascinating.

 Points to consider

  • Don’t be afraid to challenge errors in what students say – XXXXX was trying to give lots of detail about the Battle of Britain and said that ‘majority of pilots were not British’ which of course is not true – this might have been a good opportunity to correct this error that he picked up from a previous lesson.
  • With a topic such as the Holocaust, you might want to think about how you frame it. Pupils might want warning that some of the issues they’re about to consider are upsetting, controversial and challenging on a number of emotional and intellectual levels. Alternatively, you might want to raise the fact that everyone has heard about the Holocaust and that you want to treat it historically in these lessons – whatever tone you’re going to set, you might want to discuss this with students.
  • You reach the question of ‘responsibility’ at a natural and appropriate point in the lesson. A discussion emerges about whether it was Himmler or Hitler, and I think you could have made more of this. Perhaps this was a moment to refer to one of the sources where one of the killers talks about what he was doing. This would have been a good point to make the distinction between ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’ and to make the term ‘perpetrator’ more problematical.


A good introduction that was well-resourced and forced students to reflect on what they already know. Your delivery and style in the lesson is so much more confident and fluid – really very good. There were some moments in the lesson where you might have pushed the enquiry question a little more clearly and thoroughly, particularly when the question came back to perpetrator responsibility.

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