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International Journal of Educational Development 26 (2006) 246–260

Lesson observation and quality in primary education as

contextual teaching and learning processes
Margo O’Sullivan
Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, South Circular Road, Limerick, Ireland


Quality in primary education is currently high on the education agenda in developing countries. What is quality?
How can we effectively measure it? How can we achieve it? How can we improve it? The author considers two
suggestions to be critical to answering these above questions and engages with them in this article:

 place what is happening in the school and classroom, specifically teaching and learning processes, at the top of the
quality agenda; and
 use lesson observation to answer the questions.

The engagement in the article with the term ‘‘quality’’ highlights that six conceptualisations are used in the literature.
However, the author argues that only two subsections of one of the conceptualisations are influencing policy, i.e. the
input and output definitions of quality. An exploration of the common indicators of quality supports this and the
author uses a political economy perspective to consider the reasons for it. This leads to the main section of the paper
which seeks to explore the two suggestions bulleted above.
r 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Quality; Primary education; Lesson observation

1. Introduction However, efforts to engage with quality are

fraught with difficulties, not least of which is a
Quality in primary education is high on the consideration of what quality is. Also problematic
education agenda in developing countries. The are efforts to effectively achieve, improve and
provision of a good-quality education to children measure quality. Numerous reform programmes
in developing countries is critical to their future. and projects, many of them donor supported have
been introduced since the early 1990s. Yet, quality
is still poor in many countries. Engaging with the
E-mail address: reasons for this highlights the complexity of the

0738-0593/$ - see front matter r 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

M. O’Sullivan / International Journal of Educational Development 26 (2006) 246–260 247

problem. In this paper, the author explores one 2. Quality of education in developing countries
perspective on the reasons for the continuing poor
quality of Education in developing countries. This In the 1970s, research on primary education in
perspective, albeit somewhat simplified, is high- developing countries was concerned with studying
lighted in these anecdotes: When one visits a the justifications for investment in primary educa-
doctor, two basic steps are involved—at first one is tion (Motola, 1995). In the 1980s the concern
asked what the problem is and then one is shifted to exploring ways of expanding and
examined to enable the doctor to address it. reducing unit costs, i.e. efficiency. This was
Similarly, when a road needs to be built in an accompanied by a major thrust on quality
area to ease traffic congestion, engineers will visit improvements, which continues to the present
the area and assess the viability of building the day. For example, since the 1990s, there have
road on a specific route. Yet, when primary been many declarations and conferences held
education in developing countries has problems around the globe associated with the development
with quality, the literature indicates that profes- and improvement of quality in education. It was
sionals involved in addressing them too often do the theme at the conference of the Ministers of
not begin the process by examining the location of Education of the Commonwealth held in Barba-
the illness, the classroom, specifically what is dos in 1990. It was also highlighted as a significant
happening in the classroom, the teaching and concern at the Jomtien conference in the same year
learning that takes place in it, in an effort to make and at the follow-up Dakar conference 10 years
a diagnosis and recommend a cure that will work. later. It is one of the six goals of Education for All
Effectively, what is happening in the school and (EFA, 2005). Currently, the World Bank, bilateral
classroom, specifically teaching and learning pro- agencies, NGOs, and developing country Minis-
cesses, must be placed at the top of the quality tries of Education, all now consider quality issues
agenda. In this article, the author engages with this as critical. However, the rhetoric has not yet been
and explores the potential of lesson observation as translated into practice. The quality of education
one approach to support the improvement of in many developing countries remains poor. Sam-
quality. off (1999) laments the fact that ‘‘there has been
The paper begins with an examination of the progress and, in some countries, very substantial
term ‘‘quality’’ and will explore various definitions achievements. Still, in much of Africa, many
and conceptualisations of it. This leads to an children get little or no schooling, illiteracy rates
exploration of the indicators of quality (within a have ceased to decline (or begun to rise), school
political economy perspective), and an examina- libraries have few books, laboratories have out-
tion of the extent to which they indicate it. The dated or malfunctioning equipment and insuffi-
next section argues that quality is ultimately about cient supplies, and learners lack chairs, exercise
teaching and learning processes, and highlights the books, even pencils’’. The literature highlights that
critical role of context in this notion of quality. poor quality is not confined to African countries;
The article then considers the usefulness of lesson for example, Duraisamy et al.’s (1998) study in
observation within this notion of quality and the Tamil Nadu found that teachers had to work in
extent to which lesson observation is used in the difficult conditions, such as teaching large classes
research and the literature concerning quality. under trees. Numerous research studies use exam-
This section also raises questions about the ination statistics to highlight poor-quality educa-
international glorification of specific pedagogical tion, for example, in Ghana, 10 years of
practices as being more effective than others. It ‘‘successful’’ education reform is seen in a new
will briefly explore indicators for lesson observa- light when 85% of sixth-grade students scored less
tion and consider how one would construct than 40% in English on a national test of language
indicators from lesson observations. Finally, the proficiency and 500 million dollars had been
paper concludes with an overview of the main spent’’ (Improving Educational Quality Project,
arguments. 1999, p. 6). Similarly, in South Africa, only 53%

248 M. O’Sullivan / International Journal of Educational Development 26 (2006) 246–260

passed the matriculation examination in 1995 and hamper quality. This is not suggesting that we no
only 15% passed the university entrance exam in longer strive to improve and provide various
1996 (Department of Education, 1997, cited in factors, such as reducing the pupil–teacher ratio.
Motola, 2001). The laudable efforts of ministries of education in
various developing countries to put these in place,
often supported by donors, should continue.
3. What is education quality? However, this process takes time and in the
meantime a generation of children are the losers
A lot has been written about quality. However, as they are not receiving a good-quality education.
a reading of the literature can be confusing as Are we to sacrifice these children at the altar of
numerous and conflicting definitions of quality are quality factors, as we wait for the conditions
presented, depending on how the term is con- deemed necessary for quality to be made available?
ceptualised. The normative nature of the concept This paper explores an approach which may untie
provides an explanation for this. Motola (2001, the noose. It also considers why specific conditions
p. 66) points out that ‘‘debates in the international are currently considered critical to improving
literature noted the difficulty in finding a definition quality.
of quality that would apply to all situations’’. In Secondly, there are educators whose conceptua-
an effort to make sense of the various definitions in lisation of quality is grounded in a competency
the literature, the author has divided them into six approach—quality is the effectiveness of the
broad conceptualisations: degree to which objectives are met or described
levels of competence are achieved (Adams, 1993).
– the deficit notion; This definition is useful, but what is crucial to its
– the competency approach; effectiveness are the actual competencies that are
– the value-added and fitness for purpose view; used and how their achievement is measured.
– Bergman’s (1996) four types of quality—value, This leads to the third definition—Webbstock’s
input, process and output; (1994, p. 7, in Motola) conception that a workable
– quality as teaching and learning processes; and notion should include ‘‘fitness for purpose’’ and
– the contextual understanding of quality. ‘‘value-added’’ approaches. Tymms (1999) work
with the latter provides a useful understanding of
Firstly, the studies noted in the previous section it. Value-added takes the starting and end points
highlight a common notion of quality in the of children’s learning in school into account.
developing country literature—the deficit notion. Baseline assessments provide the latter data—they
This focuses on what poor quality is. For example, are used to measure children’s learning when
the literature refers to a variety of factors such as they begin school. The notion of progress is
overcrowding and lack of resources, which in- central to it. Value-added uses national data to
dicate poor quality and also hamper the delivery of provide an expectation of what level the average
high quality. Riddell’s (1999) complex hierarchy of child should be at various stages, particularly upon
factors that hinder quality also include non-school entry and exit from school. It uses these data to
factors, for example, the health and well-being of highlight what inputs tend to lead to specific
the child, the culture of the community, and outputs. It then looks within a school in order to
parental involvement. However, the paucity of compare pupils’ attainment with other pupils in
various factors and conditions should not be used their school and class with the same starting
to completely excuse poor quality. The deficit points. This approach highlights the critical role of
definition has for too long acted as a noose around the teacher in quality as it essentially looks at the
the neck of those making efforts to improve it. We impact that a teacher is having on children’s
need to move away from the deficit explanation learning. Harvey and Green (1993) also support
and focus on what can be achieved within the the value-added notion and suggest that quality is
available contexts that are currently considered to something exceptional, something that provides

M. O’Sullivan / International Journal of Educational Development 26 (2006) 246–260 249

value for money, something that is transformative 4. Indicators of quality

or empowering.
A fourth definition of quality evident in the The numerous conceptualisations of quality
literature is proposed by Bergman (1996) and presented above highlight the extent to which
subscribed to by Chapman and Adams (2002), quality is engaged with in the literature. However,
who argue that there are different types of quality. to what extent do the debates in the literature
Bergman (1996) used three studies to show how impact upon policy, specifically, which of the
parents use different types of quality when conceptualisations underpin the decisions concern-
demanding education or when children drop out. ing quality taken by policy-makers? In an effort to
Four types of inter-related educational quality are answer these questions, it is useful to examine the
postulated—value quality, input quality, process considerable number of quality indicators that are
quality and output quality. He suggests that value currently used and which tend to have implications
quality is about how values shape what is for policy. The author draws from three sources to
considered as quality, for example, when a highlight the common indicators used. Firstly,
Classical Education is more valued than a Science there are the internationally recognised indicators
Education or when parents choose religious of quality that are highlighted in the substantial
schools; input quality includes resources, the body of literature which attempts to determine the
curriculum, and the stage of development of the appropriate school quality inputs required to
child upon entry to a class; ‘‘process quality is the boost student achievement. Torres (2003, p. 303)
quality of the teacher–pupil interaction in the highlights the World Bank’s reliance on nine
teaching–learning process’’ (p. 587); and output indicators of quality in primary education, and
quality is the quality of student achievement—‘‘A highlights that ‘‘in the WB perspective, quality
minimum level of [output] quality is full functional education results from the presence of specific
literacy and a fair mastery of basic mathematical ‘inputs’’’. Her review prioritises the indicators in
operations’’ (p. 587). the following order: (1) libraries; (2) instructional
The final definition is that quality is contextual. time; (3) homework; (4) textbooks; (5) teacher
A contextual definition/conceptualisation of qual- subject knowledge; (6) teacher experience; (7)
ity education can address the problems associated laboratories; (8) teacher salaries; (9) class size.
with the normative nature of the concept. Quality Other commonly used indicators are: pupil–tea-
is grounded in cultural traditions, social relations, cher ratios; teacher qualifications; grade repetition;
and economic and political life, and is therefore literacy rates; enrolment data; dropout rate;
unique to each nation and culture. Angula (2000, student and public attitudes about education;
cited in Ipinge, undated, p. 2), the notable Minister and examination achievement data. The latter
of Higher Education, Training, and Employment leads into the second set of indicators—those used
Creation in Namibia, aptly describes this notion: in national examinations and international league
‘‘quality and standards should be measured in tables, which use standardised tests in reading,
relation to the context and environment in which mathematics and other subjects. N’tchougan-
education is located’’. Critical to a contextual Sonou (2001, p. 161) provides an example:
definition is the type of teaching and learning ‘‘Ghanaian education is currently confronted with
that is feasible within the micro-contexts of the massive problem of poor quality, as attested by
education, i.e. the realities at school level within abysmal national criterion referenced test scores
which teachers work, such as available resources, from 1992 through to 1996’’. Similarly, the results
professional capacity of the teachers, and so on. of the Ugandan 1999 National Assessment of
One cannot effectively judge the quality of Progress in Education (NAPE, 1999) study in-
education in a school without reference to dicated that only 14% of pupils performed above
contextual factors. Contextual factors, macro-, minimum standards in English literacy. In South
meso-, and micro, should guide the articulation of Africa, Motola (2001) laments the fact that the
quality. only performance indicator is the matriculation

250 M. O’Sullivan / International Journal of Educational Development 26 (2006) 246–260

examination. Torres’ (2003, p. 303) review of the to processes, as well as rather narrowly defined
strategies of the World Bank in improving the outputs, such as years of education or examination
quality of Basic Education suggests that it equates passes, have generally been utilised’’. The three
educational quality with ‘‘learning outcomes mea- sets of indicators discussed above, subscribing to
sured by achievement tests vis-a-via the goals and the input and output conceptualisations of quality,
objectives set by the school system (learning what are considered to be economically effective. Also,
is taught, being promoted to the next grade, they can be relatively easily accessed and pub-
completing the primary school cycle, etc.).’’ The licised.
third set of indicators are those espoused by There have been some challenges to the extent to
international donors. Currently, for example, the which input indicators actually indicate quality.
following are high on their agendas and are Over a decade ago, Harbison and Hanushek
considered critical to improving education in (1992) concluded that there is little evidence that
developing countries: net enrolment ratio (EFA, specific inputs have an impact on student achieve-
2005); female enrolment; private sector involve- ment. It needs to be pointed out that Hedges et al.
ment in education provision; and community (1994a, b) re-analysed Hanushek’s data using more
involvement. sophisticated methods and challenged some of the
The three sets of indicators above subscribe to findings. Other evidence subsequently emerged,
only two subsections of one of the six definitions which further supports Harbison and Hanushek
of quality which emerge in the literature and (1992) input argument. Hanushek’S (1997) review
which were discussed in the previous section, i.e. of 400 studies of student achievement found no
Bergman’s (1996) type of education definition strong or consistent relationship between student
(value, input, process and output). The first set performance and school resources. He notes, ‘‘the
of indicators subscribes to the input conceptuali- clearest message of existing research is that
sation of quality and the other two subscribe to uniform resource policies will not work as
both the input and output definitions. It seems that intended y simply providing more funding or a
the other definitions/conceptualisations of quality different distribution of funding is unlikely to
described in the previous section are not influen- improve student achievement’’. Similarly, Chapman
cing quality policy decisions. A political economic and Adams (2002) use research conducted by
perspective on educational reform and aid pro- the World Bank on teacher characteristics (1997,
vides a theoretical framework within which to cited in Chapman and Adams, 2002, p. 19) to
usefully analyse and explain the reliance on this support this: ‘‘Indian experience confirms that
input/output conceptualisation of quality. Cur- proxies for teacher quality—such as type of
rently, the economic aspects of globalisation lead certification, pre-service education, or salary—
to an emphasis on efficiency in education, on typically are not related to student learning
proper resource allocation, on competencies, and achievement’’. Similarly, Heyneman’s (1997) study
on measurable inputs and outputs and ‘‘drives on the quality of education in the Middle East and
education into a closer relationship with markets’’ North Africa indicated that 13 year olds in Jordan
(McGrath, 2001, p. 392; Motola, 2001). Indicator had acquired less information in Mathematics and
information is considered to enable the achieve- Science than in other countries which allocate
ment of higher quality education at lower cost and similar levels of expenditure per student.
can allow for greater accountability. Riddell (1998, A closer examination of all the input oriented
p. 284) highlights the relationship between this and indicators used to measure quality provides an
the considerable influence of donors on developing explanation for the failure of inputs in improving
countries: ‘‘However, due to the relative depen- quality. It suggests that most of the input
dence on international donors for financing indicators, with their underlying efficiency ratio-
educational reform, economists’ notions of quality nale, are more quantitative than qualitative in
have been more evident than in industrialised nature; for example, numbers of trained teachers
countries, and thus, quality as inputs in preference does not provide any indication of the quality of

M. O’Sullivan / International Journal of Educational Development 26 (2006) 246–260 251

teaching and learning that those teachers ulti- be questioned and as Riddell (1998) points out,
mately provide for their pupils. Similarly, pupil: narrower input notions of quality have expanded
textbook ratio and enrolment data do not indicate to include what goes on in schools and classrooms,
the extent to which they lead to an improvement in i.e. processes, and one of the definitions of quality
the teaching and learning taking place in a highlighted earlier in the ‘‘What is quality’’
particular context. They do not indicate the use section. This conceptualisation of teaching and
of the inputs, which is the key to their bringing learning processes as quality is currently gaining
about an improvement in quality. They do not increasing attention (Alexander, 1997 [quality in a
provide any understanding of what happens to the British context]; Riddell, 1999; Motola, 2001;
inputs, to how they are used, in other words, to the EFA, 2005). Chapman and Adams (2002, p. 9)
teaching and learning processes they can facilitate argue that ‘‘improvements in the quality and, to
if used effectively. The extent to which inputs can some extent, the efficiency and equity of education
improve quality is directly related to the extent to depend on the nexus of teaching and learning’’.
which teachers effectively use them to improve the More recently, Clarke (2003, p. 27) points out ‘‘As
teaching and learning process. The reliance on the quality of education reflected in classrooms
input indicators has led to the ignoring of this becomes more important in influencing student
critical aspect of inputs. ‘‘This paradigm presup- performance many countries are embarking on
poses that social systems, such as education, can large-scale reforms in teaching and learning’’.
be engineered as can a product such as a house or It is not, however, a new concern. Lockheed and
a bridge’’ (DeStefano et al., 1999, p. 1). A focus on Verspoor’s (1991) review of in-school strategies for
outputs and on the donor influenced international improving the quality of primary education in
trends also ignores this. In developing countries, a developing countries identifies five major subsec-
focus on examination results can be detrimental to tors: improving curriculum; increasing learning
the quality of teaching and learning as teachers materials; increasing instructional time; improving
tend to rely on rote teaching and learning to teaching; and increasing the learning capacity of
prepare children for the tests. Children are only students. Even Jomtien called for the focus of
developing one skill, that of memorisation. The basic education to be on ‘‘actual learning acquisi-
indicators of quality used by donors are also not tion and outcome rather than exclusively on
concerned with processes. For example, a study of enrolment’’ (Chesterfield, undated, p. 2). Similarly,
the District Primary Education Programme a number of research studies in the early 1990s also
(DPEP) in India raises questions about the argued for a stronger school and classroom focus
effectiveness of the community participation para- and for research into process factors such as
digm and the extent to which it will lead to an teaching, learning, school leadership and commu-
improvement in quality (James, 2002). James nity involvement (Grisay and Mahlck, 1991; Levin
(2002, p. 10) found examples of how village and Lockheed, 1993; Heneveld, 1994). However,
officials had an effect on teacher attendance but the literature indicates that the latter two have
‘‘found no evidence that their actions had had any received more attention from donors and policy-
effect on classroom learning’’. The main message makers, though donors are beginning to focus on
here is that it is time to move forward and begin to teaching and learning (see paragraph below). This
use indicators which are more qualitative in nature is the key, the translation of the attention in the
and which reflect what is happening in the class- literature to policy, a key that one notable project
rooms, i.e. how the inputs are being used. had some success in opening.
The project is the USAID funded 10-year
Improving Education Quality (IEQ) project,
5. Quality as teaching and learning processes which began in 1991. The project supported
research initiatives in a number of countries,
The literature suggests that the reliance on an including Ghana, Mali, Uganda, South Africa
input conceptualisation of quality is beginning to and Guatemala, which sought ‘‘to strengthen

252 M. O’Sullivan / International Journal of Educational Development 26 (2006) 246–260

countries’ capacities to systematically access the particularly to Heneveld’s (2002) views on con-
local conditions for teaching and learning—and to tent—that schooling should develop literacy,
use the knowledge as a basis for reforming numeracy and essential life skills. These are the
national policy and local practice’’ (Schubert, foundation stones upon which other skills can be
2001, p. 5). It sought to bring the classroom built. Developing countries must strive at least to
experience of teachers and learners to the policy- ensure that teaching and learning processes are
makers and others: ‘‘If policy makers were able to effectively enabling students to acquire these
enter the classroom and have the experience of building blocks.
learners and teachers, how might their debates
and decisions about quality be transformed’’
6. Lesson observation and indicators of quality
(Schubert, 2001, p. 6). The project was based on
a working definition of quality as being relative,
Currently, students’ achievements on paper and
not absolute, and of it being rooted in teaching
pencil tests seem to be the main measure of the
and learning processes. The project involved a
quality of teaching and learning (Bedi, 1997). This
number of successful initiatives and some, though
provides some indication of the learning taking
the author would argue, limited, success in respect
place, but does not highlight the quality of the
to its impact on policy. For example, in Ghana,
teaching and only offers some insight into the
IEQ worked with a project funded by USAID to
quality of the learning. Neither do tests illuminate
develop textbooks. When IEQ researchers visited
suggestions for improving quality. If teaching and
classrooms they found that pupils were not using
learning is considered critical to improving quality,
the books and this led to policy-makers to monitor
we must consider how it can be measured. The
and encourage textbook use (Chesterfield, un-
author feels that classroom-based methods, in-
dated, p. 3). This project’s influence on policy is
cluding lesson observations, learner interviews,
exceptional. A contextual and teaching and learn-
and teacher interviews, are critical methods in the
ing process conceptualisation of quality does not
effective measurement of quality in teaching and
generally influence policy-makers. One explana-
learning. They provide insights critical to assessing
tion for this is the extent to which teaching and
and improving quality, which are otherwise
learning processes are not among the many
inaccessible. She finds the use of lesson observa-
indicators of quality highlighted in the literature
tion particularly useful, and this will be explored in
and in international league tables. Why is this?
this section. It is beyond the scope of the article to
One reason may be that identifying and measuring
explore the use of the other methods cited above,
teaching and learning indicators requires time to
i.e. interviewing, that can enable an understanding
be spent in classrooms and is seen to be expensive.
of classroom processes that can ultimately improve
In comparison, input indicators are considered to
quality. At first, let us consider descriptions of two
be relatively easy to measure and make digestible
for policy-makers and others. They are considered
The following observations are taken from field
efficiency friendly.
notes of lesson observations in grade III (8–9 year
Critical to a pedagogically oriented conceptua-
olds) Namibian classrooms.
lisation of quality is the ‘‘what’’ that is to be
learned, and the author feels that it is appropriate
at this stage to summarise briefly her views on the Teacher A
‘‘what’’. An exploration of this merits its own The classroom was a newly built brick
paper. However, the scope of this paper only built classroom and the desks were ar-
allows a brief illumination of the author’s views. If ranged in six groups, each seating ap-
we define quality as involving learning, one must proximately six children in mixed gender
define learning—it is more than being able to groups. The classroom walls displayed a
memorise and produce for tests. It must also create few commercially made posters. It was
capacity for further learning. She subscribes an English reading lesson. The teacher

M. O’Sullivan / International Journal of Educational Development 26 (2006) 246–260 253

asked the children to open their English individually. Then she asked individual
textbooks; each child had his/her own children to read the text. She asked a lot
textbook. Then she spent the lesson very of questions on the text, again using both
slowly writing sentences from the text- lower order and higher order questions.
book on the board while the children She concluded the lesson by asking the
watched. When she had written each children to copy any new words from the
sentence, she read it and asked the text into their exercise books. The lesson
children to repeat it in unison numerous lasted 40 min.
times. She repeated this procedure for 10
sentences. Then she asked the children
to repeat the whole text approximately 10 The observation notes above illustrate how
times. She asked individual children to lesson observations can illuminate teaching and
repeat it. The lesson lasted 50 min. learning processes and indicate the quality of
education taking place at the chalk face. They can
also highlight the realities within which teachers
work and which practices can be effective in these
Teacher B realities. Even though it is unlikely that all readers
The class was observed under a tree. will agree on the quality of each lesson, the author
The children were seated on wooden assumes that most will agree that the second lesson
benches, with approximately eight chil- is of higher quality, in the light of contextual
dren on each bench. There were five factors. It is likely, the author boldly assumes, that
benches. Three children shared one text- if faced with a choice of teacher for your own
book. The teacher began the lesson by child, readers would choose teacher B. Teacher B
playing ‘I spy’, using the picture of the makes an effort to ensure that the children are
text in the textbook. She then asked the learning (though not all aspects bring about
children a lot of questions on the picture, effective learning), whereas teacher A makes no
including some higher order questions, effort to do this. The observation also supports the
for example, ‘where do you think she will author’s earlier argument about the failure of
go next?’ Children raised their hands and input indicators to improve quality. Teacher A
she asked individuals to answer and had more resources and better working conditions
praised their efforts. She had a very than teacher B, which according to the input
encouraging style. She then asked them conceptualisation of quality should lead to im-
to point out various words in the text. proved quality. However, the lesson observation
Then she wrote each of the new words questions this. It highlights the potentially critical
on the blackboard and encouraged the role of lesson observation in the quality arena, one
children’s use of phonics to decipher that is beginning to gain some, though as of yet,
them. She explained the meaning of each limited, attention.
word, using the picture in the text, mime The use of lesson observation is not an
or verbal explanations. She used choral innovative approach, yet, the literature suggests
and individual repetition to allow the that it is rarely used in research and evaluation
children to practise saying the new studies which seek to improve and assess quality in
words. She put them into sentences and developing countries, and even more rarely, as
asked the children to try to do this. Only a highlighted in the previous section, to inform
few volunteered to do this. Then she policy or in implementation efforts. For example,
asked the children to find the new words a trawl through the five main journals in the field
in the text. Then she read the text and of Comparative Education and other journals for
asked the children to repeat the lines the previous 10 years (1993–2005) highlights the
after her, as a class, in groups and dearth of studies which use lesson observation to

254 M. O’Sullivan / International Journal of Educational Development 26 (2006) 246–260

access data in developing countries.1 There are where it is transferred en bloc and memorisedy.
some notable exceptions and the author finds that During instruction, though transformed with
these studies are particularly illuminating and activity and demonstration, teachers remain pri-
provide some indication of the way forward in mary players in the classroom’’ (Clarke, 2003,
bringing about improvements in quality (for p. 38). These data were only accessible through the
example, Bergman, 1996; Kanu, 1996; Harley use of lesson observation.
et al., 2000; Ven der Werf et al., 2000; Clarke,
2003; Pontefract and Hardman, 2005). Develop-
ment Co-operation Ireland (DCI, formerly known 6.1. Why use lesson observation to improve quality?
as Ireland Aid), USAID and other bilateral donors
are using lesson observation data more often now. Lesson observation can answer the ‘‘what’’
However, these uses of it do not tend to be questions and illuminates the ‘‘how’’ questions,
published in journals or books. They can be found i.e. what is the current state of educational quality
in donor reports, for example, Schubert (2001) and in schools and how can it be realistically improved
Ministry of Education documents. These docu- with the available resources. It can also provide
ments can usefully inform the quality debate and, some insights into the ‘‘why’’ questions—why is
in particular, policy decisions, and ought to be the quality of education poor? The ‘‘why’’ ques-
made more easily accessible. Currently, it is tions have to be supported with other data, most
difficult to access Ministry of Education reports notably teacher interview data, in order to more
from various countries, unless they are online, as fully understand the teaching and learning pro-
some are, or unless one has access to a library, cesses currently being used and the extent to which
such as the IDS (Institute of Development Studies) particular processes are likely to be implemented.
library at Sussex University, which houses many This leads to the area of teacher thinking, which is
country specific reports. also critical to improving quality.2
The use of lesson observation data in the few There are a number of reasons to justify the use
studies published in journals was critical to of lesson observation studies. These are explored
understanding the quality aspects. For example, here. Such studies take context into account, they
Clarke’s (2003) recent evaluative study of the address transfer, they raise questions about
DPEP (District Primary Education Project) which accepted ‘‘good’’ pedagogical practices, and they
covers almost half of the districts in India, access effective indigeneous practices. Let us begin
involved the observation of 243 teachers in order with an exploration of context. Lesson observation
to understand the extent to which the project was enables the contextual nature of quality to emerge
successful. The programme attempted to ‘‘trans- and be used in efforts to improve it (O’Sullivan,
form instructional practices in primary school 2003). The author’s work on an in-service teacher
classrooms integrally through a holistic pro- training project in Namibia found that lesson
gramme of pedagogical reform’’ (Clarke, 2003, observations highlighted the realities within which
p. 27). Lesson observation data indicated that even teachers worked and indicated the potential or
though teachers increased their use of instructional otherwise of specific teaching and learning
aids, activities and demonstrations during instruc- approaches. For example, lesson observations
tion, it had not ‘‘integrally transformed their 2
It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss this. Teacher
teaching and learning in the classroom. They have thinking explores how teachers structure their actions in the
skillfully integrated ‘activity and joyful learning’ classrooms and the related frameworks and worldviews that
into their traditional rote method of instruction underlie these actions. Barrett (2002) highlights the wealth of
research on teacher thinking in the West and points out that
‘‘while research in the West was gaining insight into teachers as
The journals include: Compare, Comparative Education, thinking, feeling, doing, believing human beings (e.g. Nias,
Comparative Education Review, International Journal of 1989; Broadfoot et al., 1993; Hargreaves, 1994), in developing
Educational Development, Journal of Education for Teaching, country literature this view was often obscured by the
Prospects, and Teaching and Teacher Education. immediacy and magnitude of financial difficulties’’ (p. 5).

M. O’Sullivan / International Journal of Educational Development 26 (2006) 246–260 255

indicated that teachers in the Namibian context were perspective of quality and the use lesson observa-
having considerable problems implementing com- tion enables this to happen.
municative approaches to teaching English, which Taking context into account also enables one to
were introduced in the early 1990s (O’Sullivan, address transfer issues. Educational reform models
2001). The communicative approach is complex— tend to be explored en mass, and they often
it is dependent on teachers being effectively trained include decontextualised ‘‘best practice’’ ap-
and on the availability of adequate resources, both proaches. These approaches, considered effective
of which were absent at the time of the study practices in Western contexts (generally), tend to
[1995–1997]. The lesson observations indicated be exported to developing countries. They include:
that the in-service training programme’s capacity group and pair work; learner-centred approaches;
would only enable teachers to implement a communicative approaches; and continuous as-
simplified version of communicative approaches sessment. These have been found to be inappropri-
and one dependent on adequate resources, for ate in some developing country contexts.
example, textbooks.3 Tabulawa (2003) and O’Sullivan (2004) raises
The strength of using lesson observations is that questions in the literature about the effectiveness
it enables a focus on what can be done with of learner-centred education in developing coun-
available resources and professional capacity at a tries: learner-centred approaches presuppose avail-
particular time. Lesson observations take into ability of a specially designed environment with
account the micro-context, the realities in which space, resources and small classes, which are often
teachers work, thus drawing from a contextual absent in developing countries; students and
conceptualisation of quality. Such observations teachers may have considerable difficulty in
place the teacher centre-stage, which is too often making the leap from learning within traditional
neglected (O’Sullivan, 2002). Ultimately, reforms approaches to learner-centred approaches, which
are implemented by teachers and must be within require the acquisition of great skill and under-
their capacity to implement. Otherwise, teachers lying assumptions, that may be beyond the
become overwhelmed by reforms, fail to imple- professional capacity of teachers in the light of
ment them, and become disillusioned, as illu- their training; and learner-centred approaches are
strated aptly by a comment from a multi-grade not culturally appropriate in some developing
(grade I–III) teacher in Southern Africa: ‘‘Some- countries. Findings from Alexander’s (2000) no-
times I think we are being asked to perform table study, which involved extensive lesson
miracles. Well, I am not a miracle worker so observations, also raises questions about learner-
perhaps I should not teach any more’’ (Prouty, centred approaches. He argues that learner-
2000, p. 1). Other aspects critical to the imple- centred approaches are not adequately supported
mentation of reforms are teachers’ salaries and the by research, demonstrating the extent to which
motivation of the teacher: lesson observation at they effectively bring about learning in classrooms.
least can highlight the extent to which reforms are This also leads him to question the tendency to
likely to be implemented within various contexts, dismiss other approaches, such as whole class
including contexts in which teachers are poorly direct instruction approaches and rote learning.
paid. Quality is complex, and the extent to which it He found examples of lessons in Russia and
involves human action, particularly on the part of France, which used direct instruction approaches
teachers, needs to be borne in mind. A contextual and whole class teaching to effectively bring about
learning. Stevenson and Lee’s (1997) research
study, involving the observation of 480 mathe-
matics lessons in primary schools in the US, China
This leads onto a consideration of how one would construct and Japan, supports this. Their study highlights
indicators of quality teaching and learning processes. In light of
the current pervading influence of political economics, this has many positive aspects of whole class teaching
to take place. A consideration of this is, however, beyond the methods, which they found were used much more
scope of this article. effectively in the Japanese schools. Similarly,

256 M. O’Sullivan / International Journal of Educational Development 26 (2006) 246–260

Alexander’s (2000) study of Indian classrooms they overstated the objections to skill apprentice-
involved the observation of teachers, who, within ship and the acquisition of prepositional knowl-
the constraints of small and overcrowded class- edge?’’ (Alexander, 2000, p. 561). Alexander
rooms, were able to secure dialogue and scaffold argues for the virtue of Bruner’s framework in
understanding, using what in the US and Britain, that it allows ‘‘for the possibility that all [four
would be considered rote learning and conse- models—contrasting stances on learning and
quently, frowned upon. In Indian classrooms, knowledge] may have some part to play’’ (p.
Alexander (2000) also found that an apprentice- 561). This is ‘‘an unfashionable standpoint’’ (p.
ship approach to teaching [Bruner’s first model] 561), however, worth considering.
successfully brought about learning in some music The glorification of specific practices has had
and dance lessons in India. He termed this the true vast implications for educational reform in devel-
alternative to rote. His study also raised questions oping countries. It is time to question the wisdom
about the effectiveness of group work and of all universally accepted ‘‘best’’ practices. What
independent research. This led him to question matters ultimately is whatever methods best bring
the accepted wisdom that certain pedagogical about teaching and learning in specific contexts.
practices are more effective than others. Lesson observation can help to highlight and
When and how did specific approaches, for access these. It can also enable the accessing of
example, learner-centred, group work, and so on, indigenous ‘‘best practices’’, i.e. approaches that
become immortalised as the best practices? The work well within local contexts that can be
World Bank attempt to get economies of scale in identified and passed on to other teachers within
educational reform across different countries these contexts. Some work is beginning to be done
undoubtedly has some part to play in the in this area (see: O’Sullivan, 2003).
emergence of universally accepted good practices. Ministries of Education in developing countries
Alexander (2000) uses Bruner’s four dominant are serious about their commitment to improve the
models of learners’ minds to provide another quality of education—they want to provide the
explanation. The models are: (1) seeing children best possible education for their country’s chil-
as imitative learners [basis of apprenticeship]; (2) dren. If they accept that ultimately, quality is
seeing children as learning from didactic exposure about the teaching and learning that takes place in
[informs transmission model of teaching]; (3) classrooms, it might be time to look more closely
seeing children as thinkers; (4) seeing children as at practices that are effective and feasible in their
knowledgeable (Bruner, 1996). Alexander argues context and that bring about learning. For
that there is value in all four types of learning, but example, in the Indian context, Alexander (2000)
that the first two have tended to be rejected. He asks the question: Why does India make so little
suggests that this came about as an unintended use of the culture’s other indigenous pedagogic
result of efforts to move teachers away from a tradition, which he found to be so effective? The
reliance on the first two models of teaching. For Ministries of Education need to start asking
example, Watkins and Mortimore (1999) refer questions about various practices—for example,
only to the third and fourth models ‘‘for a good in Clarke’s (2003) study described earlier, one of
reason—to encourage teachers to abandon mere the reasons for the failure of the project, according
didactism—but in doing so, overstate, I think, the to Clarke, was that teachers still remained
hierarchy implied by Bruner, seeing apprenticeship ‘‘primary players’’ in the classroom, rather than
as ‘primitive’, transmission as ‘traditional’ and on taking on other roles, such as the role of
the third and fourth models as appropriate to facilitator. However, the study did not explore
Western schooling in the twenty-first century’’ the extent to which their ‘‘primary player’’ role
(Alexander, 2000, p. 560). They use Bruner’s could contribute to bringing about learning. What
conclusion that achieving skill and accumulating is wrong with teachers being the key players,
knowledge are not enough (his first and second perhaps the focus should be on how to make the
model) to reject these models, ‘‘But again, have ‘‘primary player’’ role more effective in bringing

M. O’Sullivan / International Journal of Educational Development 26 (2006) 246–260 257

about quality learning? Ministries need to start developing countries. What is important is to
using local contexts to devise effective practices ensure that this attention to quality is not only
that will work in the reality of their schools. rhetorical, but that it ensures that all children not
Lesson observation will facilitate this. only attend school, but benefit from their atten-
It is important at this stage to flag aspects of dance, i.e. that they leave school at least having
lesson observation necessary to its effective use, as achieved basic literacy, numeracy and life skills.
it is beyond the scope of this article to explore Currently, this is not happening. The evidence is
them. Firstly, lesson observation should be rooted overwhelming that a considerable number of
in a contextual understanding of quality. For children are failing to learn in school. Thus, their
example, in the UK, lesson observation is cur- future and the future development of their
rently used extensively by the inspectorate. The countries continue to be deprived of their full
inspectors have tended to use it rigidly (Shaw human resource. This article considered how to
et al., 2003). They use specific indicators to guide address this by engaging with the term quality and
their observations and to indicate the extent to exploring how to achieve, improve, and measure it.
which lessons are effective. These indicators tend Four main findings emerged from this.
to be grounded in the ‘‘performativity culture’’ Firstly, the article considered the complex
(Crossley and Watson, 2003, p. 72). Consequently, nature of the concept of quality and the various
the observation of lessons is assessment and definitions of it and highlighted that policy-makers
performance management driven, and teaching rely on only two subsections of the six definitions
and learning becomes instrumental, rather than presented, i.e. an input and output conceptualisa-
the focus. Teaching and learning processes which tion of quality. It considered the reasons for this,
do not appear in the indicator checklist are not one of which used a political economic perspective
considered. Context is not adequately taken into of education to explain it. However, the article
account when making judgements of quality argued that this input/output conceptualisation is
teaching and learning. There is a valuable lesson not working—quality remains poor. This led to
to be learnt here—it is important that in an effort the second main message—a context-focused
to highlight the useful role of lesson observation teaching and learning processes conceptualisation
that context remain high on the agenda. Secondly, of quality is critical to improving educational
the cost implications of adopting a system in which quality in developing countries. This conceptuali-
lesson observation is used to support the develop- sation takes into account the normative nature of
ment of quality may be a deterrent. However, if the concept and the extent to which it involves
the finance needed to place teaching and learning human action. It also focuses on how inputs are
processes at the top of the quality agenda leads to being used, which is critical to improvements in
an improvement in quality its cost-effectiveness quality. Effectively, what is happening in the
could be validated. Consider the savings, for school and classroom, specifically teaching and
example, of fewer dropouts and repeating students learning processes, must be placed at the top of the
in education systems. The critical question is how quality agenda. The doctor and civil engineer
to make policy-makers, stakeholders, and govern- anecdotes in the paper’s opening paragraph
ments consider this. Currently, they view educa- illustrate the rationale for this. Ultimately, educa-
tion reform as ultimately being about improving tion is about bringing about learning and quality
children’s achievements, and it is assessment and has to focus on how to achieve this. The inputs are
performance management driven. important, but the considerable efforts expended
on putting them in place are not improving
quality. What is particularly important here, is
7. Conclusion achieving quality within the contextual realities of
schools, often closely related to available inputs.
The paper began on a positive note, highlighting The author suggests a definition of quality—the
that quality is at the top of education agendas in effective use of teaching and learning processes by

258 M. O’Sullivan / International Journal of Educational Development 26 (2006) 246–260

teachers, which can be implemented within the ultimately brings about an improvement in
realities in which they work, and which lead to quality, it is likely that it will be seen to be
children acquiring basic numeracy, literacy and life cost-effective and efficient, even if only in the
skills. Expecting teachers to implement teaching long-term. An acceptance of this will require a
strategies that are not context-friendly is a waste of change of understanding and attitude of many
time and resources, as is the reliance on the use of stakeholders. This is a difficult task, but not
indicators that only seek to measure inputs. impossible. In conclusion, it is necessary to high-
A context-focused teaching and learning processes light to policy-makers, governments and stake-
conceptualisation of quality also enables a move holders, the link between a contextual teaching
away from the deficit explanations for poor and learning processes conceptualisation of qual-
quality, which tend to excuse it in the light of ity, lesson observation, and efficiency. Teaching
inadequate inputs, such as large numbers of and learning need to be seen as the focus, rather
unqualified teachers, lack of resources, and so than the instrument of quality. Context-focused
on. It enables a focus on what realistically can be teaching and learning processes must move to the
achieved within available inputs, specifically the top of the quality agenda. Convincing policy-
viable teaching and learning processes. The lesson makers is critical to and will institute a major
vignettes highlight a difference in the teaching and challenge, but a challenge well worth accepting if
learning taking place in classrooms A and B. we are to move away from the discourse of quality
Teacher B was more effective, yet she did not have to action—action that could have a considerable
as many resources. impact on all our futures.
Thirdly, if it is accepted that teaching and
learning is critical to improving quality, we must
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