All teachers go through observation at some point in their careers and many only know it as an assessment tool. However, there are ways to make classroom observation a highly beneficial experience. In this issue, Chris Mares, Alexandra Chistyakova, and our new blogger John Pfordresher discuss the guidelines to a successful observation experience, as well as offer some insights into peer and self observation.
The thought of “being observed” has struck fear into the hearts of many a teacher, including myself. It is often associated with being assessed for some purpose or other, whether it be for a qualification or a performance review. Naturally, when this happens, teachers are more likely to find themselves focused more on the act of being observed than the act of teaching. This is unfortunate and counter-productive. I know, I’ve been there. Initially then, and like many of my peers, I didn’t like being observed and I was unable to teach in a way that was natural for me, at least in my very early years.
I am now in a different place and my experiences as a teacher, mentor, trainer, peer teacher, mentee, and on-going learner have lead me to believe that there are many benefits to be gleaned from observing and being observed. More than that, I believe in an open door policy by which interested peers, trainees, or those simply interested in teaching and learning can pop in. Under certain conditions, of course.
Teaching is both an art and a skill and as such teachers need to see the act of teaching being carried out in order to fully learn how to do it. When we observe others teach, we not only get ideas for classroom activities and learn new techniques, we also develop a sense of what we do ourselves and where our strengths and weaknesses lie. Thus, in one sense, we observe in order to learn and to hone our craft. However, we can also observe peers in order to offer support and feedback. This, when done constructively, not only provides useful information for the observed teacher, it also helps strengthen professional ties and creates an atmosphere of trust and support.
I believe teachers should be observed primarily to get constructive feedback on what they do in the classroom. However, this is not the only reason. Sometimes fellow teachers who are taking over a class or substituting for a class will benefit from observing a class they will teach in the future. This is also something that students notice and appreciate.
Who should you observe?
The greater the variety of teachers you observe, the more you learn. If you only observe teachers you like or who are similar to you in some way, then your learning will be limited. If you observe teachers who you know to be different from you, then you may see things done differently and in a way you didn’t previously consider but might find useful. If you are easy-going in the classroom, then it would be interesting to observe someone with firm classroom management skills. We learn not only from what we see but also from reflecting on how we teach ourselves as a reaction to observing others. Try to observe both new teachers and seasoned veterans.
By the same token, the more you are observed by different types of teachers or personality types, the more varied and potentially useful feedback you will get.
What to observe
There are many ways to observe, from the holistic and impressionistic to the very specific. You can observe simply to get a sense of a particular class or to see how a teacher deals with error correction, or classroom management. That said, it is crucial to remember that there is a lot that you cannot observe, for example, what happened in the previous class, or what will happen subsequently. A lot of the art of teaching is not observable as a snapshot, but occurs over time, such as the feeling of trust that can develop between a teacher and student.
How to observe
There are different ways to observe and it is worth experimenting with them. One way is to simply sit and watch the class without taking notes. Another way is to use a rubric that focuses on a particular aspect of teaching such as “teacher action”, “student action”, i.e. what the teacher does and says and what the students do. If a rubric is too complex, however, it becomes difficult to both observe and to make notes.
The bottom line
For me, being observed is more a norm than an exception. It is something I am used to and something my students are used to. I feel a classroom should be a welcoming place and one in which anyone should feel comfortable. The people who observe my classes include potential students, potential teachers, fellow teachers, peer committee members, and interested community members. I have welcomed them all but I do insist on meeting them to discuss their intentions and to offer some explanation of what I do in class and why. This is important. Teaching is an ongoing and complex business, involving the establishing of protocols and relationships. This takes time. A one off observation cannot possibly capture this and a single snapshot can be misleading. This is something that both teachers and those observing need to understand.
An end note
I will repeat the fact that I didn’t initially like being observed because, as a novice teacher, I felt vulnerable and insecure. I wasn’t sure of what I was doing and I didn’t relish the idea of being judged or criticized. At the same time, I had no experience of observing so I was unaware of the tremendous benefits of observation.
I am sure the feelings I had are common and not ones to be ashamed of. However, I now value the act of observing and being observed. I have learnt a great deal from observing others and have also benefited from the feedback I have received from being observed.
Many years ago, when I did my Cambridge Diploma in TEFLA at International House in London, I remember being observed by the excellent Ruth Gairns. The first time she observed me she had a yellow legal pad on her lap. I glanced down at it before I was about to begin my class and saw that she had written, “Good Points.”
In my case, the peer observation I went through early in my teaching career became a turning point in my professional development. In fact, most of what I know about and can do in the classroom in terms of teaching a foreign language I owe to peer observation. It’s through observing a highly professional teacher that I learnt how to teach.
However, the way I did my peer observation was somewhat non-standard: I wasn’t just sitting at the back of the class observing another teacher and her class. I was exceptionally lucky to be both the observer and the recipient of teaching – I was a peer observer disguised as a regular student. No, that wasn’t my plan to fool my teacher in order to spy on her in secret, that would have been the meanest thing to do. As a matter of fact, I was a student in the English Conversation and Pronunciation course at Oxford House College in London. I went there simply to improve my English skills and in no way could I imagine I would be improving my teaching skills as well.
By that time I had already been teaching English for two years. But as I hadn’t been trained to be a teacher, all I was doing in my classroom was to diligently copy my own university teachers. I should admit here that in many respects it was some kind of grammar-translation method with bits of communicative approach. Actually, I didn’t even think that it was possible to teach languages in any other way since it was the only way I had experienced and observed (talk about the importance of observation!) as a language learner.
Now you can imagine my utter surprise when after the first week of my English course in Oxford House College I realized that without any homework and drills I could effortlessly use the vocabulary and expressions we studied in class. It felt like pure magic! I decided to meticulously record everything my teacher did in class in order to unravel the magic. That was the start of my two-month peer observation and the beginning of my transformation as a teacher: I would carefully write down what activities we were doing and in what order, I would number the corresponding worksheets and handouts, I would note down some bits of instructions and my own comments to the activities. By the end of the course, I had a detailed outline of each and every lesson we had. Thus, I could look back at my notes to analyze and reflect on the classroom procedures and teaching techniques and to learn from them.
When I came back to my classroom at the start of a new academic year, I felt motivated to teach like I had never done before because now I knew how the magic worked and I knew how to work this magic! I had a much clearer understanding of what should be done in the classroom and why this should be done.
All in all, it seems to me there are two types of peer observation: when you observe what is happening in the classroom without taking part in the classroom activities, and when you actively participate in the process and evaluate the learning and teaching processes from the inside. I believe both ways are worth trying. The first type allows you to see the broader picture and also notice some subtle developments that you may overlook while being engaged in the process. However, doing the classroom activities yourself can give you an invaluable opportunity to look at things from a learner’s perspective. Moreover, the second way of observing your peers largely prevents you from being too judgmental and jumping to conclusions too quickly. It’s necessary to note here that the latter two tendencies (being judgmental and jumping to conclusions) should be avoided as much as possible because they are the biggest obstacles to effective peer observation as they make you biased in what you see in class.
So, how important is peer observation for teachers? From my perspective, it’s highly important because non-judgmentally observing others may help you find out new teaching techniques, may make you reconsider your own practices, and undoubtedly will help you develop professionally and extend your arsenal of teaching tools and tricks. In addition to this, peer observation may lead to a constructive dialogue between teachers and has the potential to help teachers build a collaborative and supportive community.
This was my story of peer observation. What’s yours?
Opening a classroom to observation can be unnerving. Anxiety, resentment, and frustration are all commonly linked to teachers’ thoughts and discussions of the subject. Adding to that toxic milieu, most teachers only know of observation through the stressful prism of what is probably more accurately described as a performance review. These come along infrequently and are typically specially prepared for, which greatly diminishes the beneficial effects that quality observation can provide.
This post will argue for an entirely different perspective with regards to observation. Observation, rather than being scheduled and anxiety-ridden, can and should be a daily task teachers perform for themselves; an activity that will greatly benefit one’s teaching practice, one’s understanding of self and one’s ability to adjust to the needs of learners. I will begin with a discussion of a few successful methods of collecting observation data, after which we’ll further investigate the process of self-observation and look at what can be done with the data that’s been collected.
Self-observation Data-gathering Activities
To start, I’d like to share and explain a few activities that have proved useful in collecting objective and actionable data from my classroom. At this point it would be prudent for me to underline the fact that there is no “correct way” or “best time” to do any of the following, because two main outcomes will result regardless of when, how, or why you choose an activity. Tangible observation data will be the concrete product, while meta-awareness, engendered through the act of self-observation itself, will be the abstract outcome.
Mental Snapshots: Take a mental snapshot of the classroom and record as many of the descriptive details as possible from that moment. I find this exercise useful for pulling my train of thought into the present moment. One of the most difficult aspects of self-observation is maintaining an unbiased perspective of what is happening in your own classroom. Snapshots require actively honing our observational skills. This simple action takes less than a minute, grounds perceptions in objective realities, and provides a detailed account of a moment of the class, providing me with ample discrete data points on which to evaluate and assess at a later point in time.
Hot Notes: Hot notes are notes taken in the heat of the action. Quickly jotting down a thought, student comment, reaction or feeling provides useful tidbits of data. This activity is useful for keeping track of the “blips” within a lesson. By blips, I mean the informative, unintended or unforeseen happenings and/or comments that occur between the numerous actors within a classroom that can easily get lost in the turmoil of the experience of the lesson as a whole. I have found that hot notes help reacquaint me with decision points I deal with when teaching. Further, they serve to reconnect me with whatever I was feeling or thinking in that moment.
Objective/Subjective: This activity serves a dual purpose. It is a conduit through which I collect lots of useful data, but it also acts as an explicit check on my self-observations. Objectivity is not easily acquired or retained. Due to this, I find the purposeful act of recording notes in columns explicitly labeled as objective and subjective gives me the mental practice necessary to keep my perceptions as objective as possible. Furthermore, I have found that subjectively observing my classroom provides data useful in highlighting any unseen prejudice or favoritism.
Feedback: Utilize both informal and formal student feedback. Feedback is critical to successful learning, for both a student and a teacher. Tune student feedback to include questions that will provide additional data for you to utilize in reflection. Students experience your teaching practice frequently and are well placed to provide useful insight via their observations of your teaching.
Point and Click: I take a lot of photos of my classroom. Typically, I record the notes I write on the blackboard, classroom set-up, as well as student-produced work. A lot of observable information can be gleaned from a photo. The first time I took a picture of my whiteboard and came back to look at it later I was horrified to see how disorganized it all looked. I began to self-observe my board work. Doing so has led to countless outcomes. By focusing on my board work, I have been forced to make lesson objectives and goals more explicit, which has led to more forethought with regards to possible learner hurdles and/or questions that might arise. This, in turn, has led to adjustments in my planned activity on the board. Additionally, photos can act as a sort of proof or counter-point to observations noted during a lesson.
ANYTHING really: These are only a few options that I have had success with. Anything one can do to increase and improve the quality of observation data will be beneficial to the self-observation process.
The Process of Self-Observation
The process of observation does not begin with collecting data from a classroom. Prior to beginning observation, it is critical to identify specific aspects of our teaching practice we aim to study. I usually choose one primary aspect for observation and one or two secondary foci for attention during the lesson.
What do we focus on? This question can be daunting, as there are so many moving parts of a classroom. The following is an extremely abbreviated list of a few areas of focus I consider prior to self-observation:
* Student-to-student interactions
* Student-to-teacher interactions
* Student reactions/responses to methods, activities, tasks, etc
* Student reactions/responses to teacher requests
* Teacher positioning (where you are when you are doing what)
* Board work
* Giving directions/instructions
* Lesson structure
* Décor/location alterations/changes
Having explicit, concrete ideas of what I will focus my observation on helps keep me on track when confronted with the melee that is a classroom. Staying focused in this way provides data that are more relevant and useful in evaluation. Unfocused observation tends to produce a deluge of uncorrelated data that will drown out worthwhile insights or trends.
Making Use of all that Data
I’ve got all sorts of data, now what?
This is perhaps the trickiest part of self-observation. When being observed by a supervisor or peer there is (usually) a pre- and post-lesson discussion. When doing it on your own, it is quite easy to finish class and drop the observation ball. By this, I mean the prep work and in-class observational work is all done, but the data ends up sitting on a desktop (real or virtual) unanalyzed.
Data is helpful, but without appropriate classification it can easily turn into a mountain of anxiety. Being a complex organism, every classroom and every day will present unique data points that do not lend themselves to a one-size-fits-all organizational structure. Determining your own best practices in data organization will take some time and effort. Indeed, most critical to successful management of your observation data is whichever method you choose makes sense to you and your context.
Beware of the Encroachment of Certainty
Self-observation is anathema to certainty. Readers may wonder at this statement. Isn’t self-observation supposed to bring our understanding out of opaqueness and into the light of clarity? Yes, and no. Self-observation provides those ‘ah-ha!’ moments, however complex systems (that classrooms are) are ever-changing organisms. The clarity of today reverts to opacity tomorrow. Self-observation disabuses us of holding onto a notion of certainty around our practice. It provides the necessary data to expand our pedagogical knowledge and our understanding of self. It delivers insight and offers the navigational clues as to a positive course for future action. However, it also constantly calls our assumptions into question. It is one of the most important tools I have in my teaching toolbox, and I hope (if it isn’t already) that it will become a useful tool in yours as well.