By Zhenya Polosatova
For the last 10 years I have been working as a teacher trainer on short-term intensive pre-service and in-service courses in various parts of the world. These courses vary in length (from two to six weeks) and in main focus (TESOL, TEFL, teaching Young Learners, etc.), but they all have a practical component where the course participants teach lessons to the learners of English, taking turns to lead a part of the lesson, observe each other doing it, and then sit down together for group feedback sessions. In this post I would like to share some beliefs and rationale for making choices and decisions during such sessions as a trainer.
First of all, in the life outside our classroom feedback can be defined as ‘information about the results of a process’. If we agree that a lesson is a process, then feedback is an appropriate professional development tool for us teachers to grow. Here are some reasons (the Why) for having feedback sessions on an intensive training course, listed in my subjective order of priority:
- helping the teachers develop their reflective competence as a skill that they can continue using after the course ends
- modeling a (possible) teacher development tool they will experience in the future career (giving and receiving feedback from peers)
- facilitating professional relationship (again, for the actual/potential workplace)
- inspiring positive attitude towards giving and receiving feedback from others
- helping the individual teachers meet the standards and receive the certificate
A typical feedback session on courses I run ‘covers’ these aspects (the What):
- discussing whether the lesson objective/aim was achieved, and the evidence for that;
- discussing the strengths of the lesson — the aspects, techniques, and tasks that helped student learning and facilitated their achievement of the lesson objective (in planning or delivering the lesson);
- discussing the areas that might be improved for better facilitating student learning (again, in planning or delivering the lesson).
Now, since we talk about group feedback session, we can think Who can be the source, or provider of the ‘information’ to the participant who was observed (I will call him/her ‘Teacher’ below). The options are obvious: the trainer and/or the peers from the group.
If we put together the Why, the What and the Who, we will see two main approaches to group feedback sessions, or the How:
individual (one by one, participant by participant): the trainer is asking questions (largely based on the What above), and the Teacher is answering; other participants might, or might not be involved in the conversation; the trainer might then give a brief summary of their own thoughts on the lesson.
interactive (in small groups): participants are working in groups, the Teacher works with the participants who observed it, and they discuss the questions; the trainer might give a brief summary of their own thoughts on the lesson — group by group, or to the whole group after everyone is finished.
I have experienced both of the approaches, as a trainer and as a course participant, so I can see advantages and disadvantages to either way. For example, discussing the lesson and sharing trainer comments in one large group means that everyone gets exactly the same ‘information’ about learning and teaching strategies, techniques and practices. A disadvantage, however, might be that there is much less ‘depth’ in such discussion as the time is limited and the trainer has to ‘go through’ all the teachers who taught on that day.
On the other hand, letting participants work in small(er) groups or pairs takes away some control from the trainer, allows them to be more independent and talk about the areas they feel are important for the lessons they taught or observed on that day. It does mean that each group might spend the time discussing various aspects, and not all group members are on the same page.
As you might have already guessed, I personally prefer running feedback sessions in small groups. To solve the problem of not having the trainer next to each participant during the whole session, I monitor closely moving from group to group and leave some ‘trainer time’ at the end of feedback. I also vary tasks, or specific questions to guide the discussion, if needed, and use interactive techniques to keep the conversation going. Some examples of such techniques include the following:
- the teachers who observed the lesson (let’s call them Observers) become ‘trainers’ and ask guiding questions to the Teacher;
- everyone writes down ‘memorable moments’ of the lesson (taught or observed), after which the Teacher picks the ones s/he would like to focus on. Depending on the available resources, the ‘moments’ can be written on small cards, posters, or boards;
- the Observers create a poster for the Teacher which displays metaphors, learnings, questions, concerns. The Teacher then decides what s/he would like to have feedback on, and the conversation begins;
- the trainer records and collects teaching beliefs brought up during the conversations in pairs, participants then decide if they agree or disagree with them.
[Note: as a trainer, I observe the lesson closely taking a lot of written notes, both on the lesson plan and on the lesson ‘flow’ as it is happening, so each Teacher receives a detailed written feedback after the feedback session finishes.]
You might have noticed that the techniques above are largely ‘borrowed’ from interactive speaking or writing lessons/input sessions, and they don’t feel like feedback to the Teachers receiving it. Feedback session on a course is a process, not just the fact of obtaining information, and oftentimes the conversation brings new depths and insights to the trainer. This could be part of the reason why I prefer to refer to such sessions as Guided Reflection Sessions as opposed to Feedback in my training courses.
Finally, by letting the participants be in charge of the depth and quality of feedback for each other we trainers model how learner autonomy can be encouraged, and how the principle of ‘meeting learners where they are’ works in action. In a way, that helps to make a bridge between teacher autonomy and student autonomy, and lead to more independent and productive learning. Do you share the same belief?