Kevin Stein

Learning to See – Kevin

Seeing Through The Cracks

How we can see our class more clearly in real time   —  Kevin Stein 

In general, people are pretty miserable at seeing what is going on around them. Just check out this video of Joshua Bell, one of the best violinists in the world, playing in a DC metro stop.


If you’re interested in why this happens, I highly recommend Daniel Simons The Invisible Gorilla web site and his work on inattentional blindness.  But do teachers in their classroom suffer from the same kind of blind spot?  In general, I would have to say no.  Part of the reason is teachers develop lesson plans. That means we are usually comparing what is happening in class to those simulated lessons in our brains, and things that don’t happen as we expect stand out rather clearly.

Ironically, this habit of focusing on what seems to be going wrong—or even what seems to be going right—can also keep us from seeing what is really happening in our classes. Just the other week, I had told students that they were not to use their electronic dictionaries in class.  When I noticed a student with a dictionary on his desk, the only thing I could think to say to the student was a snappish, “Put that away.”  I felt like a jerk when the student explained he was using the dictionary’s voice recorder function.  Aside from my assumption that a physical dictionary on a table equals looking up words, I was also running up against the constraining effects of the activity’s original conceptualization.  The dictionary on the table becomes a problem because it does not fit in with the original idea of how the activity should work.  In this situation we miss what might be creative solutions (students can record a class to look up words later) or opportunities to further expand and enrich the classroom experience for our students.

Fortunately, there are some simple things we can do to allow us to get a fuller picture of what is happening in our classes.

Change perspective: If you are standing next to a group of students who are working and something seems off, walk across the room and view what is going on within the larger context of the class.  What seems strange or off-task from close up might suddenly feel a little more acceptable within a bigger picture.

Take a personal time out: as teachers, we want to fix perceived problems as soon as possible.  But perceived problems might not be actual problems. People in stressful situations—such as an activity, which seems to be falling apart—tend to make decisions with only partial information and rarely think about alternatives in systematic ways.  Giving yourself an extra minute or two to just watch what is happening can lead to better outcomes if you do decide to intervene.

Keep a real-time journal detailing what you see, not how you feel: by focusing on what your students are actually doing, you increase the chances of noticing potentially useful tweaks to an activity you would have never come up with on your own.

Ask non-confrontational questions: If you want to know what students are doing, just ask.  Students, who seem to chatting in L1 when they should be practicing a dialogue, might actually be divvying up roles.

Use dictation as a class observation tool: just because students start an activity by doing what you expect, does not mean they understood what you said.  Take a moment to have students put down on paper what they think you said or what they think they should do.  While it is disheartening to find out students hear “Choose a book,” as “Juice a book,” it also gives you an opportunity to get things back on track before they completely fall apart.

While there are things we can do to be better observers of what’s happening in our classrooms, we can’t completely overcome our limitations as humans.  This is why inviting a co-worker in for supportive peer observations and video or audio taping and transcribing your classes can also be very useful.  We have to try various ways to see what is happening in a lesson in real time because it is in the often hectic and bumpy minute-to-minute of classroom life that our students are waiting, right there in front of us, hoping to be seen.

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Published by

Kevin Stein

Kevin Stein is a teacher and a program manager. He works at Clark Memorial International High School. His areas of professional interest include how to use standardized tests to help students develop autonomous learning skills and the effective use of literature in language teaching. Kevin's Blog:The Other Things Matter Twitter: @kevchanwow

16 thoughts on “Learning to See – Kevin”

  1. Hey Kevin,

    This is a fantastic post, and it deals with something that has been on my mind for as long as I can remember.

    I believe personal description of real time events is one of the most difficult tasks we can engage in. To constrain our inner voice and objectively describe events as they happen requires the ability find space in real time. This allows us to step away from the emotion of the moment and view the classroom with fresh eyes.

    Thank you for providing some techniques that can help us accomplish such a task. I think they will prove invaluable to any reader.


    1. Hi John,

      Thanks for leaving a comment. I really appreciate that you took the time to add to the conversation. To tell the truth, taking a step back while teaching is not one of my strengths. As you said it really requires us to find space in real time and I’m kind of a take-things-peronsonally kind of guy. So when things start heading in an unanticipated direction in class, it sometimes leaves me feeling a little sensitive.

      The other day, John Fanselow suggested that if I find myself getting lost in a class, I can take a time out. He actually said, if I needed to, I could just have the students put their heads down on their desks until I had worked things out. It was a really amazing concept to me. I said “But, is that OK?” And he said, “Sports coaches take time-outs, and so can teachers!”

      Like you said, the inner voice, the one Chuck writes about in his post, has a way of getting in the way of viewing things with fresh eyes. I would appreciate any other ideas or tips teachers have for seeing what is happening in our classrooms in real time.


  2. Dear Kevin,

    I’ve been wanting to reply to this post and am finally doing so. I completely relate to you about how much of a “jerk” I have sometimes been with my students just because I focussed on the what’s going wrong in the classroom! I’d say that this is because of the set of preconceived notions that each one of us carry into the classroom, isn’t it? When something does not fit into what we believe to be “right”, we tend to disregard it, or perhaps even ‘retaliate’ in our own way…

    It’s a very human thing to do after all……but as you’ve mentioned, there are loads of ways on how we can around this and make the most of what we’ve faced with. The tips you’ve given are definitely very very useful, and they make me think about how I can grow in the future…..It’s been such a pleasure knowing educators like you, because you drive me to move forward…

    1. Hello Ratna,

      Thank you for leaving a comment here. I don’t want to say too much about your post, as I will be leaving a comment soon, but I did want to say how moving and inspiring I found your classroom stories to be.

      I think your choice of the word “retaliate” is very very perceptive. When I snap at a student, no matter how big a jerk I feel like after, I should remember that this kind of snap reaction is a kind of retaliation. Interacting with students in a classroom isn’t a battle. And when I look at my classes in that kind of way, everyone is ends up losing.

      It’s great to have you in the iTDi commuity. You are an inspiration.


  3. Hi Kevin,

    What a useful post, as usual you have given us some great, practical tips for the classroom. I recently recorded two of my classes and was really surprised to see what my class looked like from the back row – pretty different to what I’d imagined!

    I really like the idea of a real-time journal, especially as I repeat the same lesson 6 times a week this would help me with the in-between class tweaks.



    1. Hi Gemma,

      Thanks for the tweet and the comment. It is a shock to see your class. I resisted taking video for a long time. Nearly a year, actually. But I found that transcribing what I was watching was a great way to keep my critical-self in check. I was too busy listening and trying to write down what my students and I were saying to get hyper-critical. That’s probably why an in-class, descriptive journal works as well, you’re just too busy to do anything but get down on paper what’s actually happening.

      I didn’t write about it here, but I also give my students open ended questions/statements during lessons as well. Simple things like, “What I learned from this activity is…” or more specific ones like, “When I summarize a story I…,” and have them write their answers in their notebooks. I think my blog posts have a smattering of student answers to these types of questions, and they really help me when I’m reflecting on a class. But I also use them during class as well and sometimes they can lead the lesson in a whole new direction. This is actually a trick I learned from John in training as well as watching him work with students directly. I find students will put a lot of thought into their answers and often write reasons and reactions that are much more thoughtful than the ones I had come up with myself when planning a lesson.

      Thanks again for the kind words. And also for the fortune telling origami idea I grabbed from the Learners Output Library John Pfordresher has put together:



      1. Hi,

        Glad you liked the origami fortune teller idea.

        Today I tried the real-time journal and as I was doing this also a personal-time out. I noticed that as I was busy writing notes students helped each other and worked things out themselves a lot more than when I am wandering around the room; so this could also be a good tool for increasing learner autonomy. It also stopped me from jumping in and giving Ss the answers b4 they had time to really think for themselves. The journal was really useful for this particular class as it was the 1st of 6 classes where I teach the same lesson so it has added useful info to my normal reflections/tweaks.

        Open ended questions/statements would be a great idea, I think most of my students are too low to complete these but then again they could do it in groups.

        Thanks for the great ideas,


        1. Hi Gemma,

          Super geeked to hear you gave real time journaling a try. As I mentioned on twitter, I did a bunch of it the past two days as well. I noticed, like you, that many problems took care of themselves as I was just taking notes. I also got a much better look at some class dynamics I had missed (who seems to get along with who and stuff like that) which is going to be very useful for general classroom management in the future (seating charts, group formation, etc.)

          It would be great to think that some of all the greatness in your new blog can in part from real time journaling.


  4. You should give a webinar on this! This is practical advice to discuss and internalize. Only one item puzzles me – can you explain what you mean about “real time Journal?” Surely such a thing can’t be done during a class.
    Thanks for this!

    1. Hi Naomi,

      Thanks for the comment. I’m a fan of your blog and always find your posts helpful and insightful. By “real time journal” I’m basically suggesting teachers who journal keep their journal in class to make time to jot down observations as the class is going on. I used to do it often when I started blogging, but have fallen out of the habit, although I do jot down notes here and there. It might seem impractical, but I guess I see it as another form of taking time out during a lesson to make sure I’m trying to take things in in a more objective fashion. After I wrote this post, I realized that I wasn’t using my full teachers tool kit and the other day I did a bit of journaling at the start of a lesson. The students were kind fo worked up and instead of quieting them down I wrote:

      S-chan is singing a song. J-pop. M and R have joined in. R is smiling and nodding along. The boys are laughing. The song lyrics: I miss you. I miss you. I just want to hear your voice. K is clapping.

      There is a bit more, but as I was writing, I decided that this energy was something I needed to borrow from the students to fuel the class. Instead of using the pre-selected scene from a play we were supposed to be working on (this was a drama class), I wrote the first two lines of the song on the board. The students were insterested and started singing those lines in English. Then we worked as a class to translate the rest of the song. The lesson took off from there (and will be a blog post, I think).

      I think taking the time to write down what was going on help free up a bit of psychological space and let me take the class in a different direction. I realize that it can seem kind of odd to just stop teaching and watch and write in a journal as a class seems to be veering out of control. But I think standing back and watching is important part of observing our classes and is very difficult to do without some kind of formal or semi-formal tool (observation instruments, questionnaires, etc.) to make the time and space for it in a busy classroom.

      Anyway, thanks for asking for clarification. As I was writing, I could easily imagine a number of classroom situations where this kind of journaling is totaly impractical. So I’m definitely not suggesting it a something that can be done in willy-nilly or in all classrooms. Probably, in some situations, a well thought out check-list could be just as, or perhaps more, useful.

      And I like the idea of a webinar on how to see your class in real time. Although I have a feeling that teachers taking John’s “Breaking Rules” course are going to get quite a bit of this type of information. I know many of my ideas on how to see in class have been influenced by John. But I certainly would be inetrested in a webinar dedicated to the topic. Anyone else want to join in?


    1. Naomi,

      Just wanted to say you have made my week (maybe month). Would love to know how any of these suggestions ended up playing out in the adult classes. It might be fun to set up a forum here on iTDi and see how other teachers “see” their classroom in real time.

      Thanks again and looking forward to your next blog post.


  5. So many favorites here Kevin! Thank you so much for putting them up for all to see.

    This past weekend, John P. and other members of our Reflective Practice SIG were discussing different ways to help us get back to the moment without neglecting the perhaps conflicting feelings that are involved in that moment. I thought that the “change perspective”, “Take a personal time out” and the “real-time journal” would be excellent strategies for this situation. By doing either of these, you give yourself space to acknowledge your feelings, and come back to your students with a different frame of mind.

    I think these are skills that are so important for teachers to learn. They can be the difference between continuing a lesson as a frustrated teacher, or as a teacher with a little more lightness. These are definitely going to be added to the skills I try to teach our participants.

    Thank you!

    1. Hello Josette,

      Leave it to you to help me bring a fuller understanding to ideas I’ve been playing with for a while. I always thought of these tips as a way to avoid quick and perhaps emotionally unhelpful reactions to situations. But I think the way you’ve changed it around and framed these devices as a way to acknowledge feelings before stepping back into the teaching moment, “with a different frame of mind,” is just fantastic. As teachers and humans, we are always going to have an emotional reaction to a situation. Many times, I would guess, it is that human connection which drew us to teaching in the first place. So taking a moment to bring that human reaction to the foreground and honor it before changing the perspective seems like a very healthy way to see and deal with challenging situation in a class room in real time.

      Very grooving on your comment,


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