"Nice board work." This was a killer phrase back in the days before the invention of the interactive whiteboard. It normally sat, all alone, in the left hand column of a page divided by a vertical line, under the label "Good".

The right hand column was labelled "To Think About". And, even though you were just starting to learn how to teach,  you couldn't help noticing that the number of entries that your Teacher Trainer had made in the "To Think About" section had overflowed into the bottom of the "Good" half, and sometimes even on to the back of the page.

It meant your lesson had been rubbish. Or rather, it meant that your lesson had been judged as rubbish. Because this phrase was, essentially, a code. To a novice teacher, it meant that you had written on the board in straight lines and not made any really bad spelling mistakes. But to the more experienced observer, the code was clear: the lesson was a stinker.

This may be an extreme example, but it does show how the notes from lesson observations do not necessarily mean what they say. Indeed, they will say one thing to one person (or set of people) and something quite different to another.

Why is this? And why does it matter?
Well, partly it is an example of groupthink. Trainers train trainers and those trainers become trainer trainers and so on: unless your organisation has seen a significant influx of new staff there will be a line of continuity. And unfortunately all those trainers will have the same belief: that they are describing the lesson they are observing.

They are not. They are, rather, demonstrating what they have been conditioned to see. To see this phenomenon in a different area of activity, let us look at the examples of football referees. Supporters criticise referees during games because the refs are discriminating against their club. And yet both sets of supporters feel this discrimination. Obviously, they can't both be right. In fact, I would suggest that they are both wrong. The referee is observing the game carefully. But he or she can only see half the action (even with the help of assistant referees). And, even then, they too have been subjected to groupthink. After every international match, football experts on TV complain that the referee comes from a country with different tolerances of physicality or dissent.

In football, as in teaching, people want to remove the subjectivity. They want objectivity. In teaching recently, there has been more of a move to write descriptive observation notes rather than subjective ones. The notes should state what the teacher did - their behaviours - and not add commentary. But as we have seen with referees, what you (manage to) see is already a commentary in itself.

Can we make observation notes more useful?
I think we can. But to do that, we need to change their role. We need to make observations into a conversation. In teacher development, pointing out behaviours and asking questions should have the same effect as we hope it does in language teaching. If we ask noticing-type questions, we would hope that this leads to the learner/trainee asking themselves similar questions. So instead of writing "students do not seem engaged", we could ask "Why did Tina spend five minutes talking to John during the matching activity?"

Notice a couple of things here:

  1. it's a real question, not a pseudo-question (a pseudo-question is when you already know the answer, which makes it a test, not an enquiry), and
  2. you need to listen to the answer. This means sitting and talking to the person afterwards and talking as an equal. Of course, they may have less experience (of teaching) than you, and they may not have the professional terminology, but that, surprisingly is a good thing, as it means you can hear their ideas being formed, before they've learned to put a label on all their classroom behaviours.


Experienced teachers
So much, perhaps, for pre-service training. But what about experienced teachers? Here, too, we need to move towards conversations.

For example, we could decide to observe a lesson jointly prepared by observer and observee. How would this alter the observer's comments? How much responsibility for the successful and unsuccessful outcomes do they take? Perhaps we could add another observer, and discuss how having an investment in the lesson alters observational judgement?

And what if the observation is of a lesson prepared by the observer, but delivered by the observee, what useful insights can be gained? What needs to be changed? Are the problems caused by the content, or the delivery, or the lesson structure, or even the fact it is being observed?

Or we could create an action-research aim, like why a particular piece of content doesn't seem to work in your school. Ask two or three teachers to observe each other teaching it, and work out why it doesn't work, or how it needs to be altered, or create some substitute content.

With this investment in the observation, observation notes become useful. Yes, they can feed into the action-research process. But they have another role.

Many people ask "What is the point of observing teachers who've been in the classroom for years and years?" Are such observations simply part of the bureaucratic process? Something to put in their bulging personal files or shiny new Teacher Portfolio?

I would ask, when an observer gives an observee advice or suggestions, what does that advice say about their philosophy of teaching, of their attitude to learning by both learners and observee? Which half of the class do they see? What do they choose to comment on? What do they take as a given – what is "normal" for them?

Observations can tell us a lot – but they tell us a lot about the observer, rather than the class, or even the observee. In my view, the best – and only – place that an observation report should be kept is in the portfolio of the observer.

Author: 
Andy Baxter
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Comments

Good article, but I have one quiibble (and it's potentially a big one). What exactly is the relationship between the observer and the observed? Your article seems to hint at a more experienced, more senior, dare I say it more powerful observer. This may be why observations are so unpopular: teachers who are being observed feel there is a controlling, judgmental presence in the classroom. In many cases,it is the observer that is the recipient and the observed teacher has the role of a demonstrator or instructor (especially since they are often highly experienced - quite plausibly more experienced and knowledgable than the observer).
My feeling is that observation is under-used in most schools and that it can (and should) be part of our professional discourse and a way to inform each other.
What do you think?
PS My board work is always shocking, even when the rest of the lesson is OK.

 I THINK IT'S USEFUL ARTICLE FOR EACH READER WHO DON'T KNOW   TO MAKE OBSERVATION PROPERLY.To make observation with our partner or friends more comfortable and convinient  to us than teacher,becouse most students shy or afride to be punished. In some secondary school's teacher give feedback negetively,so that that student next time doesn't want to participate the class or can give up to learn .I read and got useful idea from this article. You compared it with football,it 's more persuasive.   But i partly agree with you because while observing some professional teachers   can give right direct  to student to improve his or her learning skills according to his or her  learning style and aptitude,intelegants.Don't you think professional teacher can direct the student to find his or her way in the future according this teachers observation? Almost all teachers knew more about their students aptidude and abilities than others.

In our middle school all teachers are observed by the principal at least once a week. He has developed a form for what he calls a "snapshot" of our teaching. These go into our file and are compared with the "formal" observations that are done twice a year. Unfortunately, much of the checklist comprises things like whether the date, objective, page numbers etc. are written on the board. He also keeps track of our active engagement with the children (walking around the room to keep students on track, correcting errors we see, etc). If he notices problems, he will call us in for a conference.
This all sounds great. However, when observations are positive and students still are not "getting it", how does a teacher decide what is wrong? Helpful suggestions may be incorporated into teaching modes, but often that does NOT improve student learning. I usually receive positive observation reports, but I never feel that the observation really helps to make me a "better" teacher.
I agree with the author that "observation" should be replaced with dialogue between not only teacher and administrator, but perhaps even teacher/student/ and administrator. Most of our parents could care less about what their students learn - they send kids to school so they don't have to go to court. They can't read, so they can't help their kids.
A common complaint I have had this year is that the material is "too hard" for the students. Sure, I can dumb it down, but we have a state test coming at the end of the year and our school is "at risk of failing". The state (and school) curriculum is supposed to be rigorous - last time I looked, that meant challenging/difficult. I like a comment I saw elsewhere - "New material. You must study!" Few do.
 
 

In our middle school all teachers are observed by the principal at least once a week. He has developed a form for what he calls a "snapshot" of our teaching. These go into our file and are compared with the "formal" observations that are done twice a year. Unfortunately, much of the checklist comprises things like whether the date, objective, page numbers etc. are written on the board. He also keeps track of our active engagement with the children (walking around the room to keep students on track, correcting errors we see, etc). If he notices problems, he will call us in for a conference.
This all sounds great. However, when observations are positive and students still are not "getting it", how does a teacher decide what is wrong? Helpful suggestions may be incorporated into teaching modes, but often that does NOT improve student learning. I usually receive positive observation reports, but I never feel that the observation really helps to make me a "better" teacher or that they have elped the studentsw learn "better".
I agree with the author that "observation" should be replaced with dialogue between not only teacher and administrator, but perhaps even teacher/student/ and administrator. Most of our parents could care less about what their students learn - they send kids to school so they don't have to go to court. They can't read, so they can't help their kids.
A common complaint I have had this year is that the material is "too hard" for the students. Sure, I could dumb it down, but we have a state test coming at the end of the year and our school is "at risk of failing" already. The state (and school) curriculum is supposed to be rigorous - last time I looked, that meant challenging/difficult. I like a comment I saw elsewhere - "New material. You must study!" Few do.
 
 

My first reaction to this article was one of intrigue. I myself regularly observe teachers and deliver feedback and have frequently felt that, in the feedback sessions, more is being said about how I like to teach rather than the observee's actual teaching. I have modified my feedback sessions accordingly and they are now far more dialogic, though this does take more time. I do not prescribe a method or approach, but try to focus on specifics (both good and bad) and help the teacher see why I think so. Of course, they can disagree...I have also instigated a new type of observation for our school, one that I call a "developmental observation". This involves the teacher selecting areas of their teaching (from past observations or wherever) that they want to focus on in a class. However, it is not restricted to only points to work on. A teacher could experiment with TBL, try to develop something they think they are really good at or simply ask the observer to focus on how they give instructions. The feedback is then built around this, with an action plan discussed. These have so far proved very popular. Importantly, and I stress this, these obs are NOT assessments, but part of the developmental process.While the article made me think of the above, I do have one quibble. As an observer, you do sometimes sit in a class and see something which is simply not very good. It could be instructions delivered at 100mph to elementary students who then don't know what to do; it could be poorly presented grammar, due to the teacher's poor language awareness; or it could simply be that 3 of the learners can't see the board. In my opinion, it is your duty as an observer to point such things out. The teacher has to learn somehow and I have had my teaching observed many times and things pointed out to me that I would never have noticed otherwise, and which proved very useful. Of course, good things need to be stressed too and it is up to the observer how to do this.If the observer has a positive attitude towards helping teachers develop, then I think that it doesn't matter how they do feedback, as long as it is conducted in a friendly, open, dialogic manner, but that aspects of, say, classroom management that were patently lacking are highlighted somehow and helpful suggestions (not decrees) given. This would be all I would ask of an observer and it would help me and make me feel like I was making some sort of progress.

I have always thought the observation process is completely backwards. The powerful senior teacher should be observed by the newer less powerful teacher. The senior teacher shows the new teacher how it is done and inspires their subordinates. If they can't do that why should the subordinate listen except for raw power. If I'm observed by someone I don't think is a good teacher or someone I have never seen teach what is the value of their observations? They need to establish their credibility with the observed first. 

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