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Observations - why bother?

Average: 4.5 (49 votes)

"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".

Andy Baxter

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.