The Lies of the Lesson Observation Process

1. “This is to help you become a better teacher”

While I don’t deny that a well-handled observation can help a teacher to improve, is this really the primary purpose of most observations? In my experience of being observed, most of the time the process ended with a grade or report which was briefly shown to me and then went up into the higher echelons of the institution. If that was genuinely supposed to be a way of improving my classroom skills (as opposed to measuring them) then it was a pretty rubbish one. The alternative explanation was that the institutions concerned lacked the courage to say outright ‘We don’t know for sure whether you’re any good, and we’d quite like to find out so that we can decide whether to offer you more work or edge you out the door’.

Just like with testing students, there’s a difference between summative and formative observations: summative ones basically measure aptitude at that moment in time, while formative ones are focused on figuring out where to go next in terms of skills improvement.

Let’s go into formative processes in a bit more detail, shall we?

Let’s say I’m the school’s resident expert, and you’re a novice teacher. I’ve got a couple of hours set aside to help you, personally, to improve your skills as much as possible. Which of these is likely to help you more?

  • For me to come in to watch you teach, and tell you things about how you could have improved.
  • For you to come in to watch me teach, followed by a discussion of why I did what I did in class.

It’s basically a choice between testing and modelling. Both are things we do with our students. I’d argue that while testing is very much necessary, it’s not actually the same as teaching. It might show students what they don’t know – but what if they are already aware of the gaps in their knowledge? It shows us what they don’t know, and by extension what we need to teach, but the teaching part happens only later. Likewise, if I come to watch your lesson I’m learning plenty about you, your strengths and weaknesses. You may learn something from the process too, especially as you’re a novice and may not be fully aware of your classroom practices, but we can’t rely on this happening.

Modelling, on the other hand, does teach something. We ask students to listen to the phrases that they’ll be using later, or show them how to do an activity in class. We might play a recorded dialogue and get students to analyse it. And in the upside-down observation above, the analysis is happening.

But I’m not satisfied with this either. One modelled activity doth not a lesson make, and one observation isn’t going to go very far in ‘training’ a teacher. If we recognise that our students’ learning is a process, then what excuse have we for not doing the same with our teachers’ learning?

So, back to our suggestions from above – let’s see if we can refine them to become more like, well, pedagogy. How about this? Could this be an improvement?

  • I watch you teach, followed by a discussion in which we both agree on several areas which you could benefit from developing. I plan a lesson, giving particular focus to these areas. You come in to watch me teach, followed by a discussion of why I did what I did in class. You now plan a lesson to cover these same improvement areas, not necessarily in way I did but tailored to your own teaching style and preferences. I supervise this process and make suggestions as necessary. I come in to watch you teach and we have a final discussion about what you’ve learned. At the end we set some aspirations for your next observation, whenever that will be.

Why don’t schools do this? Is it lack of time? If so, I’d argue that they’re mis-prioritising. It’s clear that this would take three times as long as a ‘normal’ observation. I reckon it would be many times more effective as a means to improve teaching skills.

2. “…..” (while in the classroom)

Okay, so this one’s not a lie, it’s a silence. A deceptive silence. The implication is this: the observer comes in, sits at the back unannounced and unobserved, and the laboratory conditions are preserved. The silent, ghostly presence at the back of the room will not alter the attitude of the students or the atmosphere within the classroom one bit, even when the teacher’s voice is tight with nerves and the first few minutes are full of fluffed instructions and the rather longer-than-usual lesson plan is clutched clammily throughout.

Well, you can forget that. Just as in physics, the observer affects the result just by being in the room. I’ve had a class of boisterous teenagers suddenly go quiet. I’ve seen an awkward class put on a particular display for their audience.

It may not be a huge effect in reality, but it’s noticed by the teacher – who may, in the midst of this stressful process, overestimate the influence that the sudden addition of a silent person actually had. And here’s the thing – the irrational part of the mind can use this in various ways. The lesson went badly? There’s an excuse for any prideful teacher:  the kids were unsettled today! The lesson wasn’t too bad but the teacher’s a born worrier? Oh, discipline really went to pot and I don’t know what happened and I really can’t cope and… panic sets in. At this point, any advice targeted at the teacher’s general skills is likely to go unheeded, because ‘that wasn’t a normal lesson’.

So the question is this: in order to preserve the illusion of laboratory conditions (which all of our teachers know is a lie, anyway), do we really want to risk having a teacher come out excusing or fretting and consequently taking on board nothing that we tell them at the post-observation meeting? Of course we don’t!

What do we do about it, then? I’d suggest the observer should take a lesson – or part of a lesson – with the same class beforehand, gets to know them a little and gets an idea of the students’ levels and personalities. This will have the bonus that the observer can then plan which students to watch most closely during the observed lesson itself.

Also – let’s abandon this silly pretence that there can be anything like laboratory conditions. Instead of silence, let’s have engagement, positivity. Let’s have observers join in with activities, ‘learn’ alongside the students and encourage the teacher as much as possible!

3. “My criticisms of you will be constructive”

Ah yes. It’s a big one, this. I’ve couched it as a statement, but more often than not it seems to be unspoken; just an assumption that saying ‘you did X and Y things quite well but there needed to be more Z’ is constructive and helpful.

We assume this even though teachers know that they’d still be given a target for improvement after teaching the perfect lesson, because that’s just what we do.

We assume it even though the observee is likely to be walking into the post-obs meeting thinking ‘so what will they say I did wrong?’ and walking out thinking of the negative feedback they’ve received. Even though it’s commonly stated that criticism has a disproportionately large effect on self-image, compared to praise, we still go through with this charade.

Even though we’re aware that many teachers bring a large part of themselves, their personalities into the classroom, we take the risk of damning not just their professional performance, but this very core of their personhood.

And yes, damning it is. As far as I can see, any criticism or call for improvement which might happen in observation feedback can be translated into an analogous playground insult:

Kindly comment from Director of Studies What the teacher might be hearing…
You need to work on your behaviour management You’re a wimp!
Some of your instructions could have been clearer You can’t communicate well.
You could have cut down on teacher talking time Nobody wants to listen to you!
Sometimes the transitions between activities felt a little disorganised Sort yourself out; you’re a disaster!
While you displayed obvious passion for the subject of William Heath Robinson’s work, I didn’t feel it was really relevant to the students’ interests. (yes, I received this one at a school which shall remain nameless). OMG! GEEK!

I exaggerate! Or do I? Well, I’m not so sure. Bear in mind that some teachers may have been subjected to these types of comments while they were growing up, from peers or indeed from authority figures. Asking for them to put aside any negative experiences they’ve had in the past and accept our criticisms calmly as helpful and constructive may be asking quite a lot!

So how to avoid doing this?

First of all, I think it’s clear that in some cases we can’t avoid it. If a teacher is consistently terrible, there will come a time when a hard conversation needs to be had, for the sake of their students, colleagues and indeed further career. But it doesn’t normally come to that!

If we’ve seen just one lesson by the observee and it’s bad, well, never mind, we all have bad lessons. Good or bad, the feedback from any one observed lesson can really only be about the lesson anyhow. It’s not an overall reflection of the teacher, and we’d do well to be honest about this! Of course, it’s also reasonable to say ‘I’d like to give you the chance to have another observation because I am convinced you normally perform a lot better than this’.

If the lesson wasn’t bad at all but there were things to improve, then that’s fine again – we all have things to improve. And if there was nothing that could unarguably have been done better, say so!

The tone should be less ‘expert talking to novice’ but ‘equals having a discussion’. After all, if the observer no longer teaches (or hasn’t been observed by the observee) then there’s not really any proof of their expert status, other than the fact that they’ve hung around long enough to get promoted!

I’d suggest that the scheme I suggested earlier (way back under Lie Number 1) would dispel this inequality by making the process higher-stakes for the observer (who now gets observed) and at the same time gentler and more formative for the observee. This also gives the observer the chance to evaluate not just the classroom practice of the teacher, but also their professional attributes such as self-reflectiveness, ability to work together, their motivation for self-improvement – and to get to know a member of the team a whole lot better!

4. “So how do you feel your lesson went?”

Another one that’s technically not a lie. It’s a classic, though! The nice, fluffy opening to the post-observation meeting – with a sting in the tail. What this one purports to be saying is ‘I care for you and am ready to respect your opinion’. Yet we all know, or at least suspect, that the real question here is ‘Are you alert/ self-reflective enough to guess what I’m about to say about your lesson?’. The teacher blethers something, after which the observer gives the ‘official’ run-down of what happened during the lesson, followed by a verdict on what was good and bad.

Again, though, this is something we advise teachers not to do with students. It’s the old ‘guess what I’m thinking’ game, and it’s dangerous. You ask a question, you get an answer, and that answer could be anything! It’s a perfect recipe for derailing a discussion, taking things off at a tangent and ensuring that as many wrong answers may be heard (and remembered) as right ones.

Jo Gakonga has described a lovely example of an observed teacher answering this question in a way that derails the conversation: while the observee worries blindly about her over-emphatic hand gestures during the lesson, the observer didn’t notice these gestures and tries to move the discussion onwards. But the damage has already been done. The observee is – metaphorically – in a bit of a flap, and possibly not able to take in anything more!

I think there are three productive approaches to take here. One is simply to leave the question out. As I’ve stated, many observations are done in a very summative way, without any attention given at any other time to the teacher’s own self-reflections. The beginning of the feedback session is hardly the most opportune time to introduce a token bit of democracy into proceedings.

Another way would be to make the meeting more conversational. The observer talks about various points, and makes time for the observee to respond to each, preferably referring back to the points previously raised at the pre-observation meeting.

Alternatively, hold the feedback session back a bit, in order to give the teacher some time to self-reflect. Both teacher and observer write down their reflections, and the meeting starts with these being swapped and read. Allowing the teacher to write has the benefit too that their self-evaluation can be retained along with the observer’s feedback.


 

In conclusion, I’d say that more honesty can be brought into the process of observing and monitoring teachers, more humility and encouragement too, and if we can achieve this then at the same time we could end up with a much more effective way of motivating and equipping our teachers to improve their classroom skills.

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