Feedback: Making the almost obvious, obvious

Kevin SteinBy Kevin Stein

Last year I was lucky enough to facilitate a workshop with a group of iTDi members at the annual JALT conference in Japan. As a group, we wanted to talk about how listening to our students helps to make us better teachers. I shared a bit about my experience of using videos to help garner student feedback about my teaching and class in general.

I started using videos in my classroom about four years ago. My friend and mentor John Fanselow challenged me and the rest of the teachers in my school to video tape a lesson and, at random, transcribe one minute of that lesson. Then we all got together, read the transcripts, watched the videos, and said what we had seen and read. There were no judgments, no ‘that was a great activity’ or ‘you had a lot of positive energy.’ We simply said what we had seen, which led to statements like, ‘When the student is speaking, he is reading directly from his notebook,’ or ‘When you tell the students to stop writing, many of them keep writing for twenty or thirty seconds while you are explaining the next activity.’ These simple statements of fact often led to suggestions which resulted in more productive classes. Suggestions such as having students turn over their notebooks while talking, or writing directions on the board for students to read so that they can move on to the next activity at their own pace.

As useful as it was to hear what teachers noticed when they looked at my class through short videos and the window of a 1-minute transcription, I felt like something was missing, that there was more I could be getting out of these snapshots of my classroom. Then one day, my co-worker Scott brought in a video. In it he clearly asked the students in the class to work together to complete a storyboard ordering activity, one of those cut-up-pictures of a story which have to be put on the correct sequence after reading a text (there’s an example of a storyboard based lesson). In the video, a pair of students happily get down to work and interact with each other a total of zero times. Scott wanders into the frame at one point, reminds them to work together, and wanders out of the frame. For one moment, the students look at each other warily before going back to writing on their own papers. We all watched the video and tried to come up with small tweaks to have the students collaborate more on the activity (give them only one copy of the worksheet; give each student a specific job such as vocabulary master or scribe; turn the activity into a jigsaw puzzle so half the pictures go to one student and half go to the other and they have to describe the pictures in order to put them in order). But after we had piled up this jumbled hill of suggestions, John said, “Why don’t you show the students the video and ask them why they aren’t working together.”

So that is exactly what Scott did. He took the video back to the students — during their lunch break, no less — showed it to them, and asked them why they had decided not to work together. They both said that they just felt that there had been no real reason, aside from the teacher’s instructions, to work together. As they watched the video, the two students described how they decided to put the pictures of the story in order. They both said that they were enjoying the activity and learning something. One of the students mentioned that if they had worked together, they might not have been able to finish the activity in time. What Scott, as well as the rest of us, had thought was a problem with the activity, was in fact no problem at all. Instead of finding ways to force the students to work together, it became apparent that letting the students work individually, or at the very least giving them enough time to work collaboratively (which, as the student pointed out, does often take more time than working alone) was the only tweak needed.

Over the past three years I have shown small clips of classroom activities to students, asked them to tell me what they are doing in the video and why, and walked away with both some first class lesson modifications as well as a deeper respect for students’ ability to understand and modulate their own learning. Having student groups set their own time limits before engaging in a task; instituting a 2-minute ‘note-taking-break’ in the middle of activities; creating two ‘solo-corners’ in the room for students who want to work individually; all of these ideas came from students who watched a video of themselves in class and told me what they were doing and why. All of these ideas have helped to make my classroom a better and more comfortable place for learning to happen.

Sometimes I think that becoming a more effective teacher is simply a process of becoming aware of the nearly obvious. At one time in my teaching career, I didn’t realize that oral and written instructions only have meaning if students can understand them or try to do so. I didn’t know that students often want time to correct and rewrite errors in their written work. I had no idea that simply asking a student what another student had just said in class (the old “What does Keisuke think about that” trick) leads to better output and higher rates of attention in class. All of these things seem so obvious to me now, but at one time they were hidden in the blind spot between what I knew about teaching and what I could see happening in my classroom. Taking short videos of my classroom and sitting down with my students helps me shrink that blind spot. It makes the almost obvious, obvious. But just as important, by sharing these videos with my students over the past few years and hearing what they have to say about them, I’ve come to realize that my students care deeply about the quality of their lessons and my development as a teacher. I’ve come to understand that listening to my students helps to make me a better teacher because listening to them and respecting their ideas and experiences is at the very heart of learning itself.

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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

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