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Placing the subject at the heart of initial teacher education: How do mentors focus on subject specifics within lesson observation feedback?

Grace Healy, UCL, Institute of Education Nicola Walshe, Professor of Education at IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society

Despite written lesson observation feedback being valued by beginning teachers (Hobson, Ashby, Malderez, & Tomlinson, 2009) and perceived as a mechanism to link theory and practice (Puttick, 2019), its subject-specific dimension appears to be neglected in research and practice. At the same time, the complexity of the Initial Teacher Education (ITE) landscape means there is concern over the lack of subject focus for beginning teachers within some ITE programmes (Tapsfield, 2016). In response to this, our recent research aimed to illuminate the extent to which mentors develop beginning teachers’ subject knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge through exploring how the subject of geography was incorporated into written lesson observation feedback (Healy, Walshe, & Dunphy, 2020). The project involved a lesson observation activity and whole-group discussion with two groups of geography teacher educators, including those leading school- and HE-led ITE programmes and school-based mentors.

Three main themes emerged when considering how mentors incorporated a focus on the subject within lesson observation feedback: subject-specific feedback being used as a stimulus for dialogue; feedback engaging with subject in lesson plans and across lesson sequences; and exploration of the rationale for teaching (its subject significance).

The first theme highlights the relationship we found between individual written lesson observation feedback and the wider support that the mentor would then provide through their subsequent dialogue; this was often planned for through the use of questions in the written feedback. Questions were posed for different purposes, such as to gain an understanding of their trainees’ thinking or to probe trainees to take greater ownership over reflecting on their practice. These broader mentor-trainee discussions have the potential to provoke wider curricular thinking that takes account of the ‘what and why’ of teaching (Young & Muller, 2016), as well as to provide space for consideration of the symbiotic link between theory and practice. Within the wider context of research-informed ITE, we suggest that it is this latter space where the role of universities in ITE partnerships can be particularly significant (Brooks & McIntyre, 2020).

Our work also found that lesson plans appeared to play a role in rendering visible teachers’ geography curricular thinking, which supported the development of feedback. This highlights a need for greater consideration as to whether the value of lesson plans within ITE outweighs the burden they may cause in terms of workload, as well as how any such burden might be best mitigated.

Finally, we found that a significant number of mentors incorporated curriculum-orientated questions into their feedback, which encouraged the trainee to engage with thinking about the importance of their subject and rationale for teaching.

‘There is a need for greater consideration as to whether the value of lesson plans within ITE outweighs the burden they may cause in terms of workload, as well as how any such burden might be best mitigated.’

In our article, we drew attention to the neglect of the importance of subject-specific support within the Early Career Framework (DfE, 2019; Rowe, 2019). We now welcome the stronger emphasis on subject in Ofsted’s (2020) draft ITE inspection framework, and believe that assuring that ITE partnerships involve and invest in mentors as part of this subject dimension is significant. However, there seems to be further for us to go to ensure that there is a culture within teaching that supports reflection and learning across a teacher’s career that sustains and nourishes their subject expertise (Brooks, 2016).

This blog is based on the article ‘How is geography rendered visible as an object of concern in written lesson observation feedback?’ by Grace Healy, Nicola Walshe and Alison Dunphy, published in the Curriculum Journal. Free access to it is provided by our publishing partner, Wiley, for a limited period.


Brooks, C. (2016). Teacher subject identity in professional practice: Teaching with a professional compass. Abingdon: Routledge.

Brooks, C., & McInytre, J. (2020). Better together: Why teacher education needs universities as well as schools. Retrieved from

Department for Education [DfE]. (2019). Early Career Framework. London.

Healy, G., Walshe, N., & Dunphy, A., (2020). How is geography rendered visible as an object of concern in written lesson observation feedback? Curriculum Journal, 31(1), 7–26.

Hobson, A., Ashby, P., Malderez, A. & Tomlinson, P. (2009). Mentoring beginning teachers: What we know and what we don’t. Teaching and Teacher Education, 25(1), 207–216.

Office for Standards in Education [Ofsted]. (2020). Initial teacher education inspection framework and handbook. London: Department for Education.

Puttick, S. (2019, January). Constructions of ‘good teaching’ in written lesson observation feedback. Paper presented at Geography Teacher Educators’ Conference, Bristol.

Rowe, J. (2019, May 8). 5 reasons why plans for NQTs might make things worse. Times Education Supplement. Retrieved from

Tapsfield, A. (2016). Teacher education and the supply of geography teachers in England. Geography, 101(2), 105–109.

Young, M., & Muller, J. (2016). Curriculum and the specialization of knowledge: Studies in the sociology of education. London: Routledge.


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