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Feedback: Why we need to think carefully about this process
If you are a supervisor who has risen through the ranks of second language teachers to your current position, the chances are that if you have experienced regular evaluative observations, you will have a distinct memory of at least some the feedback you were given about your classroom teaching. As with observation, post-lesson feedback can be viewed by those who receive it with suspicion and distrust.
Think back to your own experiences of receiving feedback from an observer when you were a teacher.
Did it make you feel positive or negative? What were the reasons for this?
If you are now the person responsible for providing evaluative feedback and positions have changed, the thought of reporting back to the teacher with your opinions of the lesson that they have just taught can be very daunting. As Willems writes:
Language institute in Southern Arabia. An observation today. Oh God. It’s really a stressful time in a classroom. And to make it worse, the feedback session that follows is the most nerve-wracking part of the process. It doesn’t matter if the observation is for an appraisal or professional development – the feeling is that there is judgment. ‘You did something well, but you also did something badly.’ No one likes to hear the second part. No one. So, there is tension in the air during feedback sessions. Sometimes they are cordial enough so that both parties leave amicably. Other times tension rises to the point that the two are squaring off as though it’s a duel. One or both may go on the attack, go on the defensive or tip-toe around each other with nothing to say but polite words with a look in their eyes as though their weapons can be drawn at any given moment.
This is bad enough for me as the observer. I bet the teacher is feeling even worse. (2018:1)
Research (Howard, 2010) agrees that Willems has identified a common problem for supervisors in the Observation/Feedback Cycle. For many experienced teachers, the feedback conference is often much harder than the observation process itself, and frequently anticipated with dismay. However, the anticipation of the observer who will be providing that feedback can be even less positive.
As an observer, how do you feel before teacher evaluation?
Which part of the experience do you prefer – the observation or the feedback?
What are the reasons for this?
During plenaries and presentations carried out internationally over past years on the topic of observation and feedback, I have divided workshop audiences into observers (supervisors) and observees (teachers) to discuss the teacher evaluation process. When asked how much they do not look forward to a forthcoming observation in terms of marks out of 10, teachers have provided an average figure of 6 or 7. However, supervisors (with a few exceptions!) tend to rate their negative feelings rather higher, with scores of 8 or 9, which suggests that they are aware that this experience is going to have implications if it is not addressed appropriately.
When looking at research into the way in which feedback is given and received (Kurtoglu Hooton, 2008), it seems that supervisors are right to be concerned. As discussed in the two previous papers, teachers will adopt a number of strategies to ensure that the feedback they are given is as positive as possible, including ‘horse and pony shows’ and tried and tested model lessons (Howard, 2008). They will also find out background information about the observer and teach to their perceived preferences. However, if all does not go well then supervisors can anticipate that the observed teacher will become defensive during the feedback session (Willems, 2018), which can be problematic for the parties involved. His research suggests that supervisors can favour the direct approach when giving feedback, telling the observed teacher what they could have done better and why, although personal experience from both sides of the evaluation cycle suggests that a strong relationship between participants is needed in order for this to succeed!
Think of your own experiences of providing feedback to teachers.
How do they react to the feedback you provide?
What strategies do you use to ensure that the feedback is effective?
It seems that there is no ‘one size fits all’ in terms of providing feedback to practicing teachers. However, feedback inappropriately given or received can have a permanently damaging effect on a working relationship, so allowing time for reflection is a key part of the process. Most important of all, as Willems (2018) is the latest in a long stream of practitioners to identify, is supervisor training in observation and feedback, which is still a rarity rather than a recognised feature of organisational preparation to become an effective manager.
Would you agree that training in observation and feedback is important?
What are your reasons for this?
In reality, it seems that many of those tasked with teacher evaluation in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) do not have the necessary training in order to do this, and rely on their own classroom experience for guidance, focussing on what worked for them and what did not. This is not uncommon, but contexts are rarely the same, and what is effective for one teacher in the classroom may not necessarily be appropriate for another. However, at base level it is important for supervisors/observers to have a clear rationale for the actions they take and the decisions they make in order to evaluate teachers and their classroom teaching effectively.
Some of the literature about post-observation feedback relates to initial teacher training (Copland et al, 2009) , but is equally valid when referring to experienced teachers. However, feedback’s status as an activity cannot be undervalued: Pollock (2012), in the title of her book about this, describes it as the hinge that joins teaching and learning, which stresses its overall importance!
Therefore, in order to provide effective feedback the following key points need to be considered:
1. Timing of feedback.
This is very important. For supervisors, there are benefits in providing evaluative feedback immediately after the lesson, as it means that they can provide a gut response to the teaching, the task can be signed off and the boxes ticked. However, the teacher may be rushing to another lesson or stressed after the observation, without the capacity to reflect on classroom events. Therefore there are advantages to arranging a meeting for the next day, while the lesson is still fresh in everyone’s minds, but the meeting context may perhaps be more relaxed. Too much delay between lesson and meeting can suggest that there were issues with the lesson and invoke mistrust, but it is important that it is taken seriously by both parties.
2. Collaborative or direct feedback?
There seems to be a tendency for supervisors to start by asking teachers how they feel the lesson went, which could be an introduction to a collaborative discussion (Copland et al, 2009). However, the observee can often respond in a very self-critical manner, so it is important that the observer is able to develop the conversation into a developmental discussion, rather than an ongoing request for validation. Alternatively, if the feedback is direct, the teacher may not engage at all in the discussion, as they are not an active part of the discussion. The other side of this coin is that if a great deal of praise is provided by the observer, the teacher does not hear as he/she is awaiting instead the eventual ‘but’!
There has not been enough space here to include everything and there are many other important considerations when providing observation feedback, so below are some useful books, articles and papers which can be used to explore this practice. They will help practitioners to move through the observation and feedback process in a way that is more effective for teacher, supervisor and learners.
For many supervisors (and teachers) the problem of providing observation and feedback tends to be one of a lack of knowledge of particular practices and their implications, so it is hoped that this series of articles has been helpful in raising awareness of the factors involved.
Copland, F., Ma, G., & Mann, S. (2009). Reflecting in and on post-observation feedback in initial teacher training on certificate courses. English Language Teacher Education and Development, 12(Winter), 14-23.
Darling-Hammond, L. (2013) Getting Teacher Evaluation Right: What really matters for effectiveness and improvement. New York: Teacher’s College Press
Howard, A. (2008) Teachers being observed: coming to terms with classroom appraisal. In: Garton, S. and Richards, K. eds. Professional Encounters in TESOL. London: Palgrave: 87-104
Howard, A.J. (2010) Teacher appraisal: the impact of observation on teachers' classroom behaviour. PhD thesis, University of Warwick.
Kurtoglu Hooton, N. (2008) The Design of Post-Observational Feedback and Its Impact on Student Teachers. In Garton, S. and Richards, K. eds. Professional Encounters in TESOL. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan: 24-41
Pollock, J.E. (2012) Feedback: The Hinge that Joins Teaching and Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin
Willems, P. (2018) Exploring experienced teachers’ and supervisors’ perspectives on post-observation feedback sessions. MA TESOL Dissertation, University of Leeds. Winner of the British Council Masters Dissertation Award, 2019.
Borg, M. (2004) The apprenticeship of observation. ELT Journal 58:3. 274-276
Copland, F. (2009) Causes of tension in post-observation feedback in pre-service teacher training: An alternative view. Teaching and Teacher Education 26(3): 466-472
Copland, F. (2008) Deconstructing the Discourse: Understanding the Feedback Event. In: Garton, S. and Richards, K. eds. Professional Encounters in TESOL. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan: 5-23
Copland, F., & Mann, S. (2010). Dialogic talk in the post-observation conference; an investment for reflection. In: Park. G. Observation of Teaching: Bridging Theory and Practice through Research on Teaching. Munchen, Germany: Lincom Europa Publishing.
Farrell, T.S.C ((2008) Critical incidents in ELT initial teacher training. ELT Journal 62:1, 3-10
Handal, G. and Lauvas, P. (1987) Promoting reflective teaching: supervision in practice. Milton Keynes: Open University Press
Howard, A.J. (2010) Teacher appraisal : the impact of observation on teachers' classroom behaviour. PhD thesis, University of Warwick.Howard, A. (2010) Is there such a thing as a typical language lesson? Classroom Discourse 1(1): 82-100
Iyer-O’Sullivan, R. (2015) From bit to whole: Reframing feedback dialogue through critical incidents. In Howard, A., & Donaghue, H. Teacher evaluation in second language education, London: Bloomsbury, 69-84.
Peterson, K.D. (2000) Teacher Evaluation: A Comprehensive Guide to New Directions and Practices (2nd edn). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press Inc.
Wang, W. and Day, C. (2002) Issues and Concerns about Classroom Observation: Teachers’ Perspectives. Paper presented at TESOL Conference in St Louis, USA, 27th March 2001
Watson-Davies, R. (2009) Lesson Observation Pocketbook. Alresford, Hampshire: Teachers’ Pocketbooks.
About the author
Amanda Howard has a PhD in English Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics from the University of Warwick and an MEd TESOL from the University of Leeds. She has been an English language teacher, manager, teacher trainer and subsequently a university lecturer for many years and has a wealth of experience in both TESOL and Education. She was based in the Arabian Gulf for thirty years, but also spent some of that time working for UK universities, predominantly Russell Group, which she continues to do for Leeds and Birmingham on a freelance basis.
Read Amanda's other articles in this series: