Observation as a Development Choice
01st August 2017
By Fiona Malcolm
Quality Control or Development?
How many teachers reading this will smile and claim to enjoy their lessons being observed? For many institutions, the observation of teachers in classes is viewed as a form of assessing the work of these teachers to ensure the required pedagogical standards are met. However, this does not always create an effective or cooperative working relationship between teaching peers and supervisors. There are reasons for this, and there are ways to overcome them, which we shall explore below. We shall also look at how choosing to be observed, through self-reflection, peer observation and journal writing can increase your teaching skills.
Many teachers I have worked with express deep fear around being observed. There is an inherent sense that they will be found lacking and therefore embarrassed in front of their learners as well as lose face in front of their professional peers. The panic arises from not knowing what is to be observed and can result in rehearsed lessons being presented whereby the learners are trained in advance to give the correct answers as if their mimicry demonstrates learning. It does not. It merely serves to show that the teacher and observer relationship is flawed if there is a belief that a ‘perfect’ lesson should be presented for observation.
Dove vs. Hawk
Part of the challenge depends upon the observer’s style. The ‘Hawk’ attends with a view to only picking up faults. Their keen ears and eyes pick up every nuance in the lesson and note down all the areas for development. The notes presented during feedback are often greatly detailed and overwhelming in volume. Yet, rarely is a solution offered to areas they have picked up on. This is demotivating, unrewarding and does not lead to development.
By way of contrast, the ‘Dove’ sees only the good things. Which sounds like a nicer experience, doesn’t it? Yet, the Dove often generalises with all-encompassing statements like ‘It was a lovely lesson; the learners seemed to enjoy it; it was a fun class’. Where is the growth potential for the teacher? Specific feedback is needed, for praise and development. For example, ‘It was a lovely lesson, you moved from the oral practice into writing with scaffolded steps that supported the learners’. This feedback holds meaning. It is specific and focuses on what happened and the result.
Observations and feedback
Observations and feedback should be clearly scaffolded, and observers may themselves need to develop their skills in these areas.
Pre-observation: teacher and observer should meet for a short discussion. This may include areas such as the learning preferences of the learners, interaction patterns to be used, challenges anticipated, the language focus and purpose of the lesson. Observation instruments should be agreed upon and shared so that the teacher knows what the observer is focusing on. A scheduled session is then agreed for the observation to take place.
Observation: the observer attends, takes notes using the observation form as agreed.
Post-observation: The two colleagues should meet as soon as possible after the lesson. The observer would report on the information that had been collected and discuss it with the teacher (Richards and Lockhart, 1991).
Stage three is where the challenges for the observer and the observee may begin.
One approach I have used, very successfully, is to elicit from the teacher their feedback from the lesson first as this then becomes a dialogue and exchange of ideas rather than a dictatorial proclamation of events. This process needs to be clearly structured as when left open, for example ‘Tell me how your lesson went?’, teachers are incredibly self-critical and focus only on things they feel went not as they would have liked. It helps to be explicit. Ask teachers for three things they feel went well in their lesson. Drill down for specifics. If teachers answer as the Dove observer from above, then they are not analysing their lesson. Guide them. Lead them to understand what worked well and why. Then, after a full discussion of what worked well, had they planned it that way and would it be possible to mirror again, then ask for one thing they would change if they were to teach the same lesson again. Remember, we learn from what we do well, as well as learn from what we can do differently.
The methods of self-reflection and narrative inquiry in the study of language teaching have been shown to be useful and viable tools for teacher professional development (Cheng, 2003; Johnson & Golombek, 2002). Self-reflection itself refers to a process where an experience is recalled, analysed and evaluated. The key to using this as a development tool relies upon the use of ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions.
Asking “what and why” questions gives us a certain power over our teaching. We could claim that the degree of autonomy and responsibility we have in our work as teachers is determined by the level of control we can exercise over our actions. In reflecting on the above kind of questions, we begin to exercise control and open up the possibility of transforming our everyday classroom life. Bartlett, 1990. 267
So, how can we do this?
Self-reflective skills develop quickly the more we practice them. As mentioned above for observations, the process for self-refection is similar. Perhaps there is an area of your teaching that you want to focus on specifically? For example, interaction patterns, teacher talking time or developing freer practice oral activities? Choose one area to focus on. It makes it easier to recall in detail. Then, in Stage 1, think about what you want to achieve. Plan how you will do this. During stage 2 you may find a moment to take a note if you need to in class, but most teachers will easily recall their own behaviour after a lesson. During Stage 3 you return to the event, review what happened and ask yourself questions about the experience. What worked well? What didn’t work so well? How can I change this for next time? The more you reflect on your own teaching, the stronger you become and the more open you may find yourself to external observation.
This style of collaborative professional development can reap benefits for both teachers involved. However, teachers can be Hawks and Doves too, so clear parameters for the observation must be agreed by both parties in the pre-observation meeting. The observation tool should be agreed as should the focus. It is useful to be specific here to ensure you receive appropriate feedback. Choose one area to begin with as the focus of the observation, and agree upon the feedback style. For example, if your focus is Teacher Talking Time, then the observer may just note down the minutes you speak. If you want to have your monitoring skills observed, this may involve more verbal feedback rather than just data. Be kind and supportive with each other. We can learn and grow together.
Learning journals are powerful tools that allow learners to reflect on their learning and progress. This can also be useful for teaching. Keeping a journal allows teachers to reflect on their development areas, plan and review where needed and see how their skills have progressed over a period of time. Moreover, because this is deeply personal the teacher can be as expressive and dynamic in their observations as they choose. I like to think of it as a self-written user’s manual, when I come to deliver a session again that I found challenging before, I can look back through my notes, check what I planned to do differently and review if that still applies. If it does, then I can put it into practice and then reflect on how it went. With each step forward the skills and confidence of the teacher grows as does their rapport with their learners, as the more genuinely confident, not ego driven, a teacher becomes the more the learners relax into the experience and open to the blossoming flower of learning.
Observations may come in many forms. When structured well they hold meaning and value for the observer and the observee and professional development flows easily. Using the self-reflection, or, self-observation tools detailed will allow teachers to become more cognisant with the observational cycle and confidently explore their own skillset thereby taking control of their professional development.
Bartlett, Leo. 1990. Teacher development through reflective teaching. In J.C. Richards and D. Nunan (Eds), Second Language Teacher Education (pp. 2002-214). New York: Cambridge University Press
Breen, M. P., Hird, B., Milton, M., Oliver, R., & Thwaite, A. 2001. Making sense of language teaching: Teachers’ principles and classroom practices. Applied Linguistics, 22, 470–501.
Cheng, A. (2003). [Review of the book Teachers’ narrative inquiry as professional development]. TESOL Quarterly, 37, 181–182
Powell, J.P. 1985. Autobiographical learning. In Boud, et al. (pp. 41-51).
Richards, Jack. C. and Farrell, Thomas S. C. 2011. Practice Teaching A Reflective Approach, Cambridge University Press.
Richards, Jack C. and Lockhart, Charles. 1991. Teacher development through peer observation. In press. TESOL Journal.
Richards, J. C., & Nunan, D. (Eds.). 1990. Second language teacher education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press