Mitosis & Meiosis Pictures

Meiosis 1 Meiosis 2Mitosis 1 Mitosis 2 Mitosis Card 1 Mitosis Card 2 Mitosis Card 3 Mitosis Card 4 Mitosis Card 5 Mitosis Card 6 Mitosis Card 7 Mitosis Card 8 Mitosis Card 9 Mitosis Card 10 Mitosis Card 11 Mitosis Card 12 Mitosis Card 13Mitosis Card 14

Mitosis Cards (pdf)

Mitosis Pictures (pdf)

Meiosis Pictures (pdf)

Posted in Biology, Teaching | Leave a comment

Electron Micrograph Print Set

1: Animal Cells – liver

2: Animal Cells – Intestinal Epithelium

3: Animal Cells – Salivary Gland

4: Animal Cells – Muscle

5: Animal Cells – Nerve

6: Animal Cells – Mitochondrion

7: Plant Cells – Root Tip Parenchyma

8: Plant Cells – Vascular Cambium

9: Plant Cells – Xylem Ray Cells

10: Plant Cells – Nucleus

11: Plant Cells – Dividing Nucleus

12: Plant Cells – Chloroplast

1 Animal Cells Liver 2 Animal Cells Intestinal Epithelium3 Animal Cells Salivary Gland 4 Animal Cells Muscle 5 Animal Cells Nerve 6 Animal Cells Mitochondrion 7 Plant Cells Root Tip Parenchyma 8 Plant Cells Vascular Cambium 9 Plant Cells Xylem Ray Cells 10 Plant Cells Nucleus 11 Plant Cells Dividing Nucleus 12 Plant Cells Chloroplast

Electron Micrograph Print Set Instructions (pdf)

Electron Micrograph Print Set (all pictures in a pdf)


Posted in ASE Chat, Biology, Teaching | Leave a comment

A Level Chemistry Comparisons

Direct from @TeacherChemist here is a comparison of the new A Level Chemistry Specifications

It is available as a google doc here:

Chem Spec Comparision

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Level Biology Comparisons

Update 30th June: Edexcel & WJEC Information added from draft specifcations

Update 26th June: Today AQA Released the specification for their AS and A2 Biology and OCR released the specification for AS and A2 of Biology A and Biology B (Advancing Biology).

New Specification Alert!

New Specification Alert!

Is there anything else that’s so exciting?

Anyway… OCR yesterday released a summary document for the Chemistry and Biology A Levels that will be taught from September 2015. The draft specifications are due to be released by the end of June and AQA have said that their science ones will be up on the 26th June. Edexcel have yet to say anything but I’m sure that they will be releasing things soon. And let’s not forget WJEC who will be producing A Levels for England too.

The big decision of what specification to do is of great importance especially if you are having a new students open day in the autumn term where you will have to tell Year 11’s what course they will be doing next September. So to help me I thought I’d try and summarise all the specs in one table so a quick comparison can be made.

This is what I have so far. I’ll add to it as more details are released.

Exam Board Comparisions


AQA AS Biology

AQA A Level Biology

OCR Biology A

OCR Biology B (Advancing Biology)

Edexcel Biology

WJEC Eduqas


Posted in ASE Chat, Biology, Teaching, Thoughts | 1 Comment

Should Intelligent Design be taught in Science Lessons?

Introduction: The Conflict Between Evolution and Religion

In January 2014, shortly after becoming the President of the Association for Science Education (ASE) (ASE, 2013) for the year, Professor Alice Roberts, a clinical anatomist, author, broadcaster and Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham, in an interview for the Times Educational Supplement (TES), stated that the teaching of creationism in science lessons should be “prevented in all schools, not just state schools” (Vaughn & Barker, 2014). This “ban” on the teaching of creationism is supported by the British Humanist Association (BHA), who coordinated the Teach Evolution, Not Creationism campaign (BHA, 2011). Both the BHA and Professor Roberts include the concept of Intelligent Design in their definition of creationism as another non-scientific theory that should not be in science lessons.

“On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection” as proposed by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace in a letter to the Linnaean Society in 1858 initially did not arouse much interest (Leith, 2009). However when Darwin published his seminal work “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” in 1859 it was an unexpected best seller and was soon being hotly debated as the implications for the dominant religious explanation of how species came into existence was being contested (Dixon, 2008). This is exemplified in the Oxford Evolution Debate of 1860 where Thomas Huxley, who would eventually refer to himself as “Darwin’s Bulldog” and Samuel Wilberforce the Bishop of Oxford, clashed in a war of words which focussed on the implication of Darwin’s theory that humans were descended from apes.

This conflict between religion and evolution has continued ever since and is demonstrated in the news story of March 2014 where it was discovered that a Jewish Girls School in Hackney was opening GCSE Science exams before the exam had started and redacting the questions on evolution so the students did not have to answer them. In September 2014 the newest version of the Primary National Curriculum will start to be taught in England (DfE, 2013) which will include for the first time the teaching of the theory of evolution for students in Year 6 (10 – 11 years old), this could extend this conflict and debate between evolution and religion in science lessons further as well as create greater chances of this topic being taught incorrectly and misconceptions being introduced as primary science has less importance in schools, many primary teachers do not feel supported in their delivery of science and the most common support teachers would like is more training (Wellcome Trust, 2011).

What is Intelligent Design?

Intelligent Design (ID) is the claim that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection” (Discovery Institute, 2014). ID claims to be a scientific theory that demonstrates that even though the process of evolution has taken place there are certain features of organisms that cannot be explained without some form of intervention from an outside agent. Though the supporters of ID claim that this designer is not the Christian God and ID is not creationism (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 2005), many of the proponents are associated with the Discovery Institute in the United States where one of the senior fellows has stated that “The Designer of intelligent design is, ultimately, the Christian God.” (Williams, 2007). There is also a clear link between ID and the Creation Science movement that originated in the 1960s as a way to provide scientific evidence for creationism so that it could be taught in science lessons in the United States where any form of religious instruction in state schools is banned due to the separation of church and state as outlined in the first amendment of the constitution. (Shermer, 2002 and Dixon, 2008)

Irreducible Complexity

The central thesis in ID is the concept of irreducible complexity; this was coined by Michael Behe who explains that if you start to remove the working parts of a machine then you would eventually get to a point where if a key part is removed then the machine would be unable to function. Since living organisms are complex biological machines then they are also made up of component parts such as proteins in biological processes and so there must be a point where if a key protein is removed then the biological process won’t work anymore, therefore “An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution” (Behe, 2006, p39). This key part to an organism is so important then there is no way that it could have developed due to natural selection and therefore an external designer with a plan for the organism must be the explanation for the development of the part. This idea is a re-hash of the watchmaker argument proposed by William Paley, that biological organisms, much like watches, are too complex for nature alone to create and develop them therefore there must be an “artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.” (Paley, 1802, p3). Both these ideas are teleological arguments for the existence of a divine creator, and use scientific and technological concepts in order to provide evidence for the existence of god. Dawkins (2000) takes on this argument by explaining that it is natural selection that is the watchmaker, but a blind watchmaker that is unconscious and automatic with no plan. Where Behe’s argument expands on Paley’s is that he uses real biological examples to explain his ideas rather than the analogy of a watch as a complex organism. Behe uses scientific concepts and language to explain why ID is the explanation for the complexity of life on the planet using the flagellum of E. coli  bacteria, the cascade of chemical reactions that takes place when blood clots, cilia and the adaptive nature of the immune system as examples of irreducibly complex systems. Through these ideas the proponents of ID claim that it is a scientific theory and therefore deserves to be taught in schools as an alternative to evolution by natural selection.

Is Intelligence Design Science?

The Scientific Method

To decide if intelligent design is really a scientific theory and therefore acceptable to teach in science lessons then then an explanation of what science actually is will be required. Science is not just the subjects that are studied at school under the timetabled title of science e.g. biology, physics and chemistry and that would exclude many other scientific areas such as psychology. Neither is science just a way of explaining the way the world works as then History, Religious Studies and Astrology could be considered a science. It is accepted that is the methods that science uses that distinguish what is and isn’t science (Okasha, 2002 Chalmers, 1982 & Rosenberg, 2012). The Discovery Institute’s Centre for Science and Culture (CSC) is the best know advocate of ID through its campaign ‘Teach the Controversy’ and having many notable ID proponents such as Behe as members. The CSC’s Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) part of their website explains that ID is a science as it “employs the methods commonly used by other historical sciences.” (Discovery Institute, 2014). The fuller explanation that links from the website explains that as ID follows the scientific method then it is a science.

The scientific method is a system of techniques used to investigate a question and can be summarised in the following steps:

  1. Formulation of a Question: an answer to a question based on an observation or something that is trying to be achieved.
  2. Hypothesis: a conjecture based on the observation that is a proposed explanation for the answer to the questions.
  3. Prediction: a description of the consequences of the hypothesis that should be seen if the hypothesis is correct.
  4. Testing: an experiment that is carried out to test the hypothesis and see if the prediction is correct.
  5. Analysis: determining the results and seeing of a conclusion can be arrived at.

It is usually thought that the scientific method comes from the Renaissance writings of Francis Bacon and Descartes but Al-Khalili (2012) argues that the Arabic scientist Ibn al-Haytham who should be considered the father of the scientific method through his work on optics. The steps of the scientific method are seen as linear however the analysis can lead on to further questions and hypotheses so the cycle continues, continually refining the conclusions of the experiment. The concept of experiment must also be given a wide definition as there are many aspects of science where experimentation may not be possible such as theoretical physics, astrobiology, stellar astronomy and evolution.

It is this version of the scientific method that is used to show the ID is a science Luskin (2014) stated that ID uses observation to hypothesis to experiment to conclusion. While the prediction element isn’t clearly identified, the nature of the prediction, that irreducibly complex systems will be found is easily assumed.

Peer Review

The inclusion of re-testing and re-hypothesising can increase the number of steps in the scientific method but it is still ostensibly the same as the basic method outlined above. Just following this scientific method though is not sufficient enough to claim that what is being done is science. Anyone can design and carry out an experiment with questionable methodology to provide evidence for any possible question or phenomena so therefore make any claims that they want for example astrology, dousing and homeopathy. So additional steps are required in order to independently verify that what has been done is of a good enough quality in order for an idea to be considered to have been tested scientifically. These steps require that a written up explanation and analysis of the experiment need to be peer reviewed and published, ideally in a journal. Peer review is a process where a scientific journal will only publish a manuscript if it has been read, reviewed and accepted for publication by usually one to three fellow scientists working in the same field who are usually anonymous. This way the methods and conclusions have been vetted and accepted by other scientists and so can be considered to be error free and less likely to be pseudoscience. Luskin (2014) does not mention the peer review process in the explanation as to why ID is a science however the CSC in another part of their FAQ. In this section it is stated that as of 2011 there have been 50 peer-reviewed papers published in a wide variety of publications, the majority of these publications have occurred after 2005 when in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District federal court case in the United States stated that after hearing the expert testimony of ID proponents, including Behe that there is a “complete absence of peer-reviewed publications supporting the theory.” (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 2005, p87). Many of the peer-reviewed papers that are in the list are from journals that have been set up by ID proponents to promote ID such as Bio-Complexity and other journals which do not have any credibility in the wider scientific community. Some references are from proceedings of conferences, books, editor reviewed articles which are not peer-reviewed in the same way and some are from journals which are based in the subject area of philosophy and so do not require any data. Of the articles that remain they can all be discounted as providing evidence for ID as they are lacking in one way or another in their methods, data or conclusions. A blog, Skeptical Science (Gamble, 2012), has gone through each reference on the CSC site to confirm these findings, however as this website is not peer reviewed itself then the conclusions would need to be examined more thoroughly in order for them to be accepted. The CSC also have a link on their peer-review section that explains why peer-review is not necessarily a requirement for good science (Luskin, 2012), this is confusing as it seems that the CSC wants to use the scientific process but also refutes it at the same time, playing both sides of the discussion so that they can be correct no matter what they say.


In 1934 Karl Popper published “Logik der Forschung” which was translated into English in 1959 as “The Logic of Scientific Discovery”. He undermined the current view of science, that accumulated experience by logical positivism for example verification by experimentation wasn’t enough to accept a hypothesis. Many experiments can provide evidence for a hypothesis but only one piece of evidence against it is required to prove a theory false therefore “These considerations suggest that not the verifiability but the falsifiability of a system is to be taken as a criterion of demarcation [between science and non-science]” (Popper, 2002, p18). The concept of falsifiability has been used to show that Evolution is science through the possibility of discovering fossil rabbits in the Precambrian (Greener, 2007). The designer in ID is not falsifiable as its existence cannot be studied in an experiment that allows falsification to take place. An intelligent designer is beyond measurement so it cannot be confirmed or refuted. Sober (2007) states that ID cannot be falsifiable as its defenders can always find a way out and Behe has stated that “You can’t prove intelligent design by an experiment.” (Wallis, 2005).

Is ID Science?

The Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District Federal Court Case (2005) concluded that ID was not a science as it does not meet three key areas that would consider it to be a science: it breaks the rules of science by using a supernatural cause, the concept of irreducible complexity is flawed and illogical and the concept has been refuted by the scientific community through the lack of peer review articles and examples of irreducible complexity outlined in Behe (2006) have been shown to be not irreducibly complex. I find it hard to find any overwhelming evidence that would allow ID to be considered scientific, any designer must also have an element of irreducible complexity to it and so a perpetual rabbit hole of intelligent designers could be hypothesised over and over again. ID proponents use different definitions of what it considers scientific to ensure that they are always correct and will continue to use ideas that have been falsified by the scientific community.

Implications for Education

As ID can be considered not a science then how it is addressed in the science classroom must be carefully thought out. The purpose of science education is not just to teach students the facts about principles that make up the current scientific literature but also to give students an understanding in how science works, so ID could be used as a way to discuss with students the nature of what science is. The potential that ID could be taught in science lessons in the UK was considered to be so important that in the summer of 2007 the Department of Children, Schools and Families (DSCF) produced Guidance on Creationism and Intelligent Design which was approved by the Ministry of Education and published (DSCF, 2007). This guidance is clear in stating that ID and Creationism are not scientific in nature and should not be taught as such for schools that follow the National Curriculum of Study. The guidance distinguishes between the teaching of ID and teaching about ID. Students come to science lessons already with some preconceptions of the ideas and principles being taught and ideas such as ID may be brought up by students who are curious due to family background or media coverage. Science teachers can use this as a positive experience to explore the theories of what science is and how the consensus and evidence points to evolution by natural selection. This way of including ID in the science classroom is also recommended by Reiss (2011) and Poole (2008) but the National Academy of Science and Institute of Medicine (2008) and Hermann (2008) do not advocate the discussion of ID in science classes as it is not a scientific concept and any discussion in the science classroom could be seen as selling out to the creationists.

Final Thoughts

The publication of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection did not just have implications in the scientific community as an example of what Kuhn called revolutionary science, it also had philosophical implications as the nature of what it is to be human and the possibility of a divine creator were also discussed. Evolution is an area of science that pushes into some of the areas that would considered usually out of what Medawar (1986) called the limits of science. In my opinion Intelligent Design is not a scientific concept, it is clear that it does not meet the required characteristics to be a science therefore its place in science lessons must be considered carefully. I find it interesting that the acceptance of ID as a useful discussion point in science lessons seems to come from a UK perspective while those based in the United States are much less likely to consider discussing it in the classroom. ID may be considered an American controversy (Dixon,2008) but with the global reach of the internet, a more multicultural society and the free school and academy movement in England allowing for specialist interest groups to run state schools then it will have greater impact in the coming years as creationists become more active in Europe, therefore teachers need to be prepared for how to deal with the issues (Blancke et al., 2011).

From 2014 students will be taught about evolution at primary school, and while that may mean the possibility for greater understanding there is also a greater chance of misconceptions being engrained. ID is a concept that can also be covered in other subject areas such as religious students and citizenship which could mean that within a school, students can be given conflicting information as to what ID actually is. I do not think that ID should be taught in science lessons and everything should be done to explain to students how the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection is currently the best explanation as to the rich biodiversity that is seen on the planet. Though ignoring the ideas of creationism and ID may cause more problems than solve as student questions will go unanswered and misconceptions may fester, students may also think that a teacher by not answering their questions is tacitly approving of ID. Countering the arguments of ID does require considerable thought and time and not every teacher may have the confidence and ability to facilitate such a lesson. It may be that the best thing is to leave non-science outside of the science classroom rather than open the door a little bit and let all sorts of nonsense in.


Association of Science Education. (2013). Alice Roberts to become ASE President. Retrieved April 25 from

Al-Khalili, J. (2012). Pathfinders The Golden Age of Arabic Science. Milton Keynes: Penguin Books

BBC News Online. (2014). Jewish school redacts exam to remove evolution questions. Retrieved 25 April from

Behe, M.J. (2006). Darwin’s black box.(2nd Ed)New York: Free Press/Simon and Schuster

Blancke , S., Boudry , M., Braeckman , J., De Smedt, J. & De Cruz, H. (2011). Dealing with creationist challenges. What European biology teachers might expect in the classroom. Journal of Biological Education. 45(4): 176-182, DOI: 10.1080/00219266.2010.546677

British Humanist Association. (2011). Teach Evolution, Not Creationism. Retrieved April 35 from

Chalmers, A.F. (1982). What is this thing called Science? (2nd Ed) Bristol: Open University Press

Dawkins, R. (2000). The Blind Watchmaker (Reissue) St Ives: Penguin Books

DSCF. (2007). Guidance on Creationism and Intelligent Design. Retrieved 25 April from

Department for Education. (2013). National curriculum in England: primary curriculum. Retrieved 25 April from

Discovery Institute. (2014). Top Questions. Retrieved 25 April from

Dixon, T. (2008). Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction. DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780199295517.001.0001: Oxford University Press

Gamble, D. (2012). Claims of Peer Review for Intelligent Design examined … and debunked Retrieved 25 April from

Greener, M. (2007). Taking on Creationism. European Molecular Biology Organisation: EMBO reports, 8(12): 1107 – 1109 DOI: doi:10.1038/sj.embor.7401131

Hermann, R.S. (2008). Evolution as a Controversial Issue: A Review of Instructional Approaches. Science & Education 17: 1011 – 1032. DOI: 10.1007/s11191-007-9074-x

Leith, B. (Executive Producer). (2009). Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life, United Kingdom: BBC Natural History Unit, Open University.

Luskin, C. (2014). FAQ: Does intelligent design theory implement the scientific method? Retrieved 25 April from

National Academy of Science and Institute of Medicine. (2008). Science, Evolution and Creationism. Washington DC: National Academies Press.

Medawar, P. (1986). The Limits of Science. Suffolk: Oxford University Press.

Okasha, S. (2002). Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction. Gosport: Oxford University Press

Paley, W. (1802). Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. Retrieved April 25 from

Poole, M. (2008). Creationism, intelligent design and science education. School Science Review. 90(330): 123 – 129

Popper, K. (2002).  The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London: Routledge Classics

Reiss, M. J. (2011). How Should Creationism and Intelligent Design be Dealt with in the Classroom?. Journal of Philosophy of Education. 45(3): 399–415. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9752.2011.00790.x

Rosenberg, R. (2012). Philosophy of Science (3rd Ed) Oxon: Routledge

Shermer, M. (2002). Why Do People Believe Weird Things. Chippenham: Souvenir Press Ltd.

Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, et al. (2005). Case No. 04cv2688 (USA)

Vaughn, R & Barker, I. (2014). Science – Creationism: a ‘very real threat’ in schools. TES Connect. Retrived April 25 from

Wallis, C. (7th August 2005). The Evolution Wars. Time New York: Time Inc.

Wellcome Trust. (2011). Primary science survey. Retrieved 25 April from

Williams, D. (2007). Friday Five: William A. Dembski. Retrieved April 25 from

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Practical Skills In Biology: The 12 Practicals

So I’m not going to go into too much detail as to why I think the new practical arrangements could actually be a good thing for Sciences at A Level as @hrogerson ( and @alomshaha ( have already got there. I am going to have a think about what the 12 Core Practicals might look like.

12 Practicals in two years could actually be much more than any A Level class does now, as for OCR you could only do 2 (a Qualitative and Quantitative) and for AQA you could only do 1 (The EMPA or ISA). It would be hard not to prepare students for this by doing some sort of practice practical but it’s possible to prepare students through a paper exercise. If you do the ISA route for AQA then there are 6 marks for students doing practicals in lessons but that is just a sheet that the teacher signs which isn’t checked at all so open to abuse. Edexcel has a version of the Core Practical concept that the DfE have announced; particular practicals are learning objectives and there are questions on them in the exams. There is only a tick sheet to confirm that the students have done these practicals, which is just as open to abuse as the AQA one however in the A2 year students have a project to complete, an independent piece of practical work. The AS Core Practicals are designed to build up the students’ practical skills so they can do the project. If a teacher did not do these practicals with their students then they would find the final project incredibly hard as it does require a lot of time. I usually had a month of teaching dedicated to the project when I taught Edexcel.

The minimum of 12 practicals have to address particular techniques outlined in the DfE document, so here are some ideas about what practicals the students might have to do.

  1. use appropriate apparatus to record a range of quantitative measurements (to include mass, time, volume, temperature, length and pH): This could be any quantitative practical including enzyme reactions, diffusion, osmosis, photosynthesis, respiration and field work.
  2. use appropriate instrumentation to record quantitative measurements, such as a colorimeter (membrane permeability with temperature or ethanol e.g. beetroot or quantitative Benedict’s)  or potometer (measuring transpiration)
  3. use laboratory glassware apparatus for a variety of experimental techniques to include serial dilutions (enzyme or substrate concentration, osmosis, diffusion)
  4. use of light microscope at high power and low power, including use of a graticule (root tip squash for mitosis, measuring size of cells e.g. cheek, blood, onion epiermis)
  5. produce scientific drawing from observation with annotations (microscopy and dissection)
  6. use qualitative reagents to identify biological molecules (Benedict’s, Biuret, Iodine, Emulsion tests)
  7. separate biological compounds using thin layer/paper chromatography (amino acids or chlorophyll) or electrophoresis (DNA fragments or protein analysis)
  8. safely and ethically use organisms to measure:
    1. plant or animal responses (tropism in plants, turning behaviour in woodlice, eye stalk retraction in snails)
    2. physiological functions (measuring heart rate of daphina with caffeine, measuring breathing in humans)
  9. use microbiological aseptic techniques, including the use of agar plates and broth (antibiotic properties of plant compounds, use of antibiotic multidiscs, Gram staining)
  10. safely use instruments for dissection of an animal organ, or plant organ (heart, eye, kidney, flower)
  11. use sampling techniques in fieldwork (random sampling and systematic sampling for plants and animals
  12. use ICT such as computer modelling, or data logger to collect data, or use software to process data (data loggers can be used for many plant and respiration experiments)

This therefore has the potential to have excellent opportunities practical work throughout the AS and A2 year. What’s interesting in the Ofqual document is this: “There will not be any non-exam assessment of practical skills for AS qualifications. However, the requirement for practical work to be undertaken and for the conceptual knowledge and understanding of practical skills to be assessed in the exams remains.” (page 12)

This could mean that an A2 Project that is internally assessed is still possible.

Of course one of the things that worries teachers is that these Core Practicals will not be done as in class practicals and any tick sheet will just be filled out with no checks from the exam board. Today I read on the Biotutor Chat forum a comment from someone in Edexcel that even though the details are still to be finalised it looks like that evidence will be required that the core practicals are carried out e.g.  a tick list and written evidence of student work (lab book) to a standard of competency. This evidence can all then be moderated; so it’s likely there will be visiting moderators going to centres to check that practical work is being carried out.

So personally I think these changes could be very good for A Level Practical Work in Biology.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Use of Graded Lesson Observations to Assess and Develop Teaching (The Rest)

Assessing Teaching & Learning

The quality of teaching and learning that takes place in the classroom is one of the highest priorities of any teacher. A student in a highly effective teacher’s classroom has almost a year’s advantage over a student in a lower effective teacher’s class (Slater et al. 2009). Once a member of staff is in a management position then the teaching and learning of the subject area, department, faculty and institution becomes a priority too as they progress up the ladder from middle to senior management. To gain an accurate picture of what is happening in lessons then as much data as possible should be gathered and OTL of those in the team should therefore form part of that data. The question of how reliable that data is and if the process of grading lessons needs to be examined and understood so that this data, like all other student data can be placed in the correct context.

The first issue with OTL is the fact that there is an observer in the room, a change to the normal classroom environment, an extra adult in the room who is usually known to the students as a senior member of staff. The teacher and the students know that the lesson is being observed and therefore the Hawthorn Effect comes into play; people react differently in situations when they are being observed. The teacher’s and students’ behaviour is then different which can have positive or negative connotations. Teachers may deliver lessons that are very different to how they usually practice; Samph (1976) with the use of microphones showed that teachers made better use of questions and gave more praise when they were being observed. O’Leary (2014) quotes a teacher from his studies that reacts badly to lesson observations, bringing out the worst in them, losing confidence and then makes silly mistakes in the lesson, though teachers may take the opportunity of an observed lesson to show off their skills. Wragg (1999) gives advice to observers as to minimise their impact though their behaviour, attitude and dress and now with the effective use of video lessons can be observed remotely.

Classrooms are busy environments and lessons can be fast paced with many ideas, concepts, misconceptions and explanations covered. An observer needs to be alert, but there is little chance they can pick up on everything that takes place in the every part of the lesson and how that might have an effect on the students. However even though someone is observing an event, they can miss important things that may be relevant. In an often cited and reproduced experiment, Simons & Chabris (1999) demonstrated this inattentional blindness, that when an individual was observing an event intently e.g. counting the number of passes of a basketball between certain individuals on a video, then they missed an unexpected and unusual event e.g. someone in a gorilla suit walking into the frame. An observer in the lesson cannot expect and shouldn’t be expected to notice everything and that could mean that the judgement as to the grade of lesson could be inaccurate. This is where the feedback given to the person being observed must be a two way process and the observer must be willing to accept that there are things they may not have seen that are relevant.

The next issue with OTL is the subjectivity of the observer. There are many different opinions as to what makes good teacher and therefore a good lesson. The Ofsted criteria, though not being used in its entirety to judge a lesson, provides a framework and the new Teachers’ Standards that were simplified in 2012 by the DfE and revised in 2013 deal directly with teaching (DfE, 2013). These standards are more concise than the previous ones and so rely more on the professional judgement of managers as to how they are to be interpreted and what evidence will be used to demonstrate that a teacher is meeting them. People according to Fawcett (1996: 3) have a habit of “seeing what we are looking for and to look for only what we know about”. How an observer judges a lesson is therefore subject to the problems of subjectivity and bias. Wragg (1999) explains how not everything in a lesson can be observable and quantifiable for example how do you measure the extent that students have been inspired by the lesson. This leads to the simple question of: Can someone recognise a successful teacher when they see one?

This question was examined by Strong et al. (2011) where they showed video clips of lessons effective and ineffective teachers, based upon value-added (how well a student does compared to their prior achievement) scores. The video clips were shown to school principals/school administrators, teachers and members of the public. Their conclusions were that while there was a strong agreement between the judges, they were unable to reliably predict teacher effectiveness, no matter what their experience. There is no difference between an education expert’s ability to rate an effective teacher as effective, than a member of the public. While watching short video clips may not be the best way to judge a teacher’s ability and the videos were of different classes to the ones that the value-added scores were for, it would be assumed that someone working in education would be more accurate that a lay person. One of the experiments involved the use of The Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), developed at the University of Virginia to measure the effectiveness,  which did show a slight improvement of being able to accurately identify an effective teacher. Another study by Sammons et al. (2006) examining observer reliability and validity in lesson observations showed that the best reliability of two observers agreeing with each other after 12 days of training. The best case from Sammons et al. (2006) and worse case from Strong et al. (2011) were translated into Ofsted criteria by Coe (2014) and a summary of this can be seen in Table 1.


Probability that 2nd observer disagrees

1st observer grade


Best case

Worst case









Requires Improvement








Table 1: Reliability: Probability that a 2nd observer agrees with the 1st (adapted from Coe (2014))

 Looking at observer validity, does the grade given reflect the other measures of teacher effectiveness e.g. value added scores Coe’s (2014) summary can be seen in Table 2.


Probability value-added
data disagrees

1st observer gives


Best case

Worst case









Requires Improvement








Table 2: Validity: Probability that a grade reflects the value-added data (adapted from Coe (2014))

Considering the significance of getting a grade 3 or 4 in a lesson observation in my institution with the consequences of having a re-observation, which if there isn’t an improvement can lead to capability procedures, the evidence that another observer is just as likely if not more than likely to disagree and their grade might not reflect other measures of teacher effectiveness does suggest that not only are the grades from OTLs unreliable but their use in capability procedures is unfair.

An observer can see the teaching that takes place in a lesson, for example: by counting the number of questions asked, analysing the types of question asked, counting the number of different students who were spoken to and judging the quality of a teacher’s communication and explanation of the material covered. However the learning that takes place in the students’ minds is invisible.  Learning is the acquisition or modification of knowledge or skills that usually has a permanent change on the student. It is this permanent change that brings up the first problem with measuring learning in a lesson. As learning takes place over time and an OTL takes place over approximately an hour, can anyone really say if the students have learnt the material covered. The students may be able to recite back knowledge at the end of the lesson and maybe they can retain that information for the start of the next lesson but does that mean they have truly learnt it? Nuthall (2005, 2007) says that much of the learning that takes place in a lesson can be unexpectedly unrelated to what the teachers intend, assume or do. So as learning cannot be seen and any learning that does take place may be independent of the teacher, proxies for learning are needed in order to make an assessment as to the effectiveness of the lesson.

The easiest proxy for learning that an observer can see is the activity of the students, their performance in the lesson, for example are they: on task, writing things down, paying attention and taking part in the lesson. While this seems to be a good measure Nuthall (2005: 922) argues that learning “cannot be seen in the activity of the teacher or student.” The work of Soderstrom & Bjork (2013: 13) states that “learning can occur with no discernible changes in performance” and “performance gains during training can impede post-training learning compared to those conditions that induce more errors during performance”.  It would seem that student performance is not a good proxy for learning. Coe (2012: xii) outlines other poor proxies for learning, things that are easy to observe but not necessarily about learning:

  1. Students are busy: lots of work is done (especially written work)
  2. Students are engaged, interested, motivated
  3. Students are getting attention: feedback, explanations
  4. Classroom is ordered, calm, under control
  5. Curriculum has been ‘covered’ (i.e. presented to students in some form)
  6. (At least some) students have supplied correct answers (whether or not they really understood them or could reproduce them independently)

So if an observer wants to focus on the learning that is taking place in the lesson they need to be aware that what good evidence might look like and understand the limitations of what they can see. Coe (2014, xii) states “Learning happens when people have to think hard” which is similar to the principles of cognitive science as described by Willingham (2009:54) “Memory is the residue of thought”. It would seem that OTL is limited in what it can tell about if students are learning or not.

Developing Teacher Performance

The latest standards for teachers (DfE, 2013:9) state that a teacher must “take responsibility for improving teaching through appropriate professional development, responding to advice and feedback from colleagues” Schools provide opportunities for CPD though the use of In-Service Training Days (INSET) which can take place during the academic year in the day or as twilight, after school hours, sessions. OTL feedback is clearly an excellent opportunity for areas for development to be highlighted as well as areas of good practice that could be shared with colleagues.

However the research of O’Leary (2012) highlighted that the use of graded OTL has led to a system that just judges teacher performance and is not focussed on teacher development. Teachers under pressure to perform for senior management produce normalised lessons based on methods that senior management have promoted as best practice so there is an inauthenticity, as described by Ball (2003), of teacher behaviour and classroom performance in graded OTL. This is exemplified by the delivery of rehearsed showcase lessons designed to play the game, tick the boxes and jump though the hoops in order to succeed. This means that any feedback from the observation will not be relevant to the teacher as the observer didn’t see the usual way the teacher delivers a lesson and the teacher will not be interested in the feedback as they know they created an artificial situation. The use of Learning Walks where observers drop-in to a lesson for a short period of time to informally see what is taking place in lessons (usually with a particular pedagogical theme) or no-notice observations could be used to deal with this issue. However teachers should be given the professional courtesy of being notified that someone might be observing their class and they should be given an opportunity to showcase their skills in the classroom though the notion of a showcase lesson is one to be avoided if an observation is going to accurate. The idea that anyone could arrive in the lesson to observe what is happening leads to creativity being stifled and teachers adopting an orthodox style for delivering lessons. In a well-known piece of research on the importance of feedback to students, Butler (1988) demonstrated that when given only comments to a test students improved on their next test results on average 30% higher compared to students who were just given their scores who on average did not improve. Students who were given a grade and comments did not do any better than those who were just given the scores. When given a grade and feedback students look at the grade and do not remember the feedback. While teachers are adults, the mixture of grading and feedback given by a graded OTL could lead to the teacher focussing on the grade and ignoring the feedback. Teachers are more worried about if they’ve passed rather than how they could develop.

Management Implications

If, therefore the data gained from graded lesson observations is inaccurate then other data needs to be used to meet the requirements of PM and PD which can be more objective and give a real impression of what takes place in lessons. When assessing the teaching and learning in an institution it is more than just OTL grades that Ofsted uses, therefore these data should be looked at too by management and potentially given more weighting than graded OTLs. In a talk by an Ofsted Lead Inspector (Myatt, 2014) some of this data is outlined. A work scrutiny where there is an examination of the students’ work over the course of many lessons e.g. exercise books or written notes can give an impression of what is taking place in lessons and give an indication of teacher feedback. Students are spoken to see if they are aware of what progress they are making and what their impression of lessons are. Are there high expectations of the students where support and challenge is offered to those who need it? External exam results and their associated value added scores is an accurate measure of the students’ success in a particular class however the context of these needs to be taken into account. Achievement and progress has to be looked at over time, at least a KeyStage (2-3 years). These data cannot just been seen in OTL but need to be triangulated by an institution so that they accurate and reliable.

When dealing with PD, then the evidence would seem to suggest that it is through collaboration with peers that allow teachers to develop (Hattie, 2012 & Robinson, 2007). When a bottom up process of allowing teachers to develop teaching though inquiry, collaboration and peer observation is used the results are twice as effective. A OTL model that would support this process best is the Lesson Study Model outlined in Lewis et al. (2006), where in small groups teachers critically discuss and evaluate their teaching to produce a lesson or series of lessons which are then taught by one member and observed by other members of the team and afterwards an open reflection of the lessons is discussed and critiques with ideas and evaluations are feedback into the next lesson study and openly shared with other colleagues. The focus is on the lesson and the students’ progress and learning and not the teacher. Figure 1 provides an outline of each part of the process.


Lesson Study

Figure 1 Outline of the lesson study cycle (taken from Lewis et al. 2006: 4).

This model, according to O’Leary (2014) adopts a systematic approach to that concentrates on collecting data on the learning that takes place in lesson. Teachers are less likely to crease showcase lessons and therefore focus on the development of teaching and learning without the high stakes scrutiny that stifles teacher creativity. This model is being used by the National Teacher Enquiry Network (NTEN) for teachers to refine and explore ideas focussing on the detail of the needs of the students for lessons. A peer observation approach that uses mentoring and coaching concepts as recommended by Bush & Middlewood (2005) and Bush & Bell (2002) at the beginning of the observation process rather than at the end as used in the observation policy where I work.


If the evidence outlined above is to be accepted, and I believe that it should be, it would seem that the use of graded OTL does not allow the major goals of the lesson observation policy where I work to be achieved. Having an observer in the lesson means that the classroom environment is not an accurate reflection of what usually happens due to the Hawthorn effect and the fact that teachers prepare lessons that are tailored to meet the requirements of the grading criteria rather than show their normal teaching.  The observer’s opinion of the lesson is too subjective and even though independent observation may corroborate the grade, the accuracy of the grade may not reflect the performance of the teacher. The observer may miss key elements of the lesson as they are subject to inattentional blindness and an often used measure for what makes good learning in a lesson, looking at the students’ performance, may bare no relation to the learning that is taking place. As teachers often prepare showcase lessons for observations any feedback for areas for development may fall on deaf ears as they know that it is not related to how they teach and the focus to just get the grade may result in the feedback being forgotten and any development plan be incomplete.

The data gained from the process of graded OTLs is clearly demonstrated by the evidence as being flawed. I do not think the process of lesson observation should be done away with, only through actually being in the lesson can an understanding of what takes place and what its effect on the students is can be seen, so they should be used by management and colleagues as a tool for staff development. Lesson observations are important but their importance in assessing teaching and learning should be considered much less in the light of other more reliable data. O’Leary (2013: 694) argues that it is time for a “moratorium” on the use of OTL and teachers need to be “given greater professional autonomy with regard to OTL”. A more formative and discursive model which allows for greater collaboration between teachers would be a more appropriate way to develop teachers. The Lesson Study Model allows this to take place as well as provide data for management to add to all the other data that is gathered to provide an accurate picture of the teaching and learning that takes place in an institution and place teachers in charge if their professional learning and development.


Amazon (2013). Perfect Lesson (search). [ONLINE] Available at: [Last Accessed 25th January 2014].

Ball, S. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy. 18(2) pp.215 – 228.

Bush, T. & Bell, L. (2002). The Principles and Practice of Educational Management. London: Paul Chapman.

Bush, T. & Middlewood, D. (2005). Leading and Managing People in Education. London: Sage

Coe, R. (2013). Improving Education: A triumph of hope over experience. [ONLINE] Available at: [Last Accessed 21st January 2014].

Coe, R. (2014). Classroom observation: it’s harder than you think. [ONLINE] Available at: [Last Accessed 21st January 2014].

Covey, S.R., (2013). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. 3rd ed. [Kindle Version] Rosetta Books LLC.

Department for Education. (2012). Teacher appraisal and capability. [ONLINE] Available at: [Last Accessed 20th January 2014].

Department for Education. (2012a). Teacher appraisal and capability – frequently asked questions. [ONLINE] Available at: [Last Accessed 20th January 2014].

Department for Education. (2013). Teachers’ Standards – Revised June 2013. [ONLINE] Available at: [Last Accessed 25th January 2015]

Everard, K.B., Morris, G. & Wilson, I. (2004). Effective School Management. 4th ed. London: Paul Chapman.

Fawcett, M. (1996). Learning Though Child Observation. London: Jessica Kingsley

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers, Maximising Impact on Learning. 1st ed. Abingdon: Routledge

6th Form College. (2013). Observation of Learning, Teaching and Assessment Policy. [Unpublished Document]

Lawson, T. (2011). Sustained classroom observation: what does it reveal about changing teaching practices? Journal of Further and Higher Education. 35 (3), pp.317 – 337.

Lewis, C., Perry, R. & Murata, A. (2006). How Should Research Contribute to Instructional Improvement? The Case of Lesson Study. Educational Researcher. 35(3), pp.3-14.

Myatt, M. (2014). What is the future of lesson observation in our schools? [Video File] Retrieved from: Last Accessed: 27th January 2014

Nuthall, G. (2005). The cultural myths and realities of classroom teaching and learning: A personal journey. The Teachers College Record. 107(5), pp.895 – 934

Nuthall, G. (2007). The Hidden Lives of Learners. Wellington: NZCER Press

Ofsted. (2012). A good education for all. [ONLINE] Available at: [Last Accessed 20th January 2014].

Ofsted. (2013). School inspection handbook. [ONLINE] Available at: [Last Accessed 21st January 2014]

O’Leary, M. (2012). Time to turn worthless lesson observation into a powerful tool for improving teaching and learning. InTuition/CPD Matters – IfL. 9(4) pp.16 – 18

O’Leary, M. (2013). Surveillance, performativity and normalised practice: the use and impact of graded lesson observations in Further Education colleges. Journal of Further and Higher Educatio. 37(5) pp.694  714.

O’Leary, M. (2014). Classroom observation: a guide to the effective observation of teaching and learning. London: Routledge

Robinson, V.M.J. (2007). School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying What Works and Why. ACEL Monograph Series. 41 Available at: Last Accessed: 27th January 2014

Samph, T. (1976). Observer effects on teacher verbal classroom behaviour.  Journal of Educational Psychology. 68 (6), pp.736 – 741

Simons, D. J. & Chabris, C. F. (1999). Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. Perception. 28, pp.1059 – 1074.

Slater, H., Davies, N. M. & Burgess, S. (2012). Do Teachers Matter? Measuring the Variation in Teacher Effectiveness in England. The Centre for Market and Public Organisation Working Series No. 09/212. Available at:

Soderstrom, N. C. & Bjork, R. A. (2013). Learning versus performance. In D. S. Dunn (Ed.), Oxford bibliographies online: Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press. Available at: [Last Accessed 25th January 2014]

Willingham, D.T. (2009). Why Don’t Students Like School?  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Wragg, E.C. (1999). An introduction to classroom observation. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment