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.

Five ‘dark horse’ topics to get students talking

a dark horse (n)

a candidate or competitor about whom little is known but who unexpectedly wins or succeeds

– Google

Not all interesting dinner-table discussions translate to the English classroom. Controversial subjects like politics and romance might work brilliantly with some students, but won’t with others. A lot of ‘safe’, worthy themes – the environment, healthy eating – are a bit overused in textbooks.

Are there any fresh, less utilised topics which will win every time? Probably not every time, but thinking back over my teaching years I can recall five which were pretty successful:

  • Getting students to teach me about their own culture or area. They particularly seem to enjoy making a foreign teacher say dialect words. Could we prepare a lesson to teach them, in turn, some little-known facts about their own country? I’ve never done it, but it could be interesting to try!
  • Binaries. Country versus city living, freedom of speech versus stopping hate speech, security versus freedom. The key is to find something which will genuinely divide students, and preferably not along predictable political lines. For instance, my students in Andorra a few years ago had generally taken up entrenched positions on one side or the other regarding Catalan independence – and this was before the situation escalated over the cancelled vote. Many of them were ready to debate, and would have done so intelligently, but nobody was likely to learn anything new or be forced to rethink their arguments. On the other hand, this post and these questions regarding the Paris atrocities led to many more nuanced discussions.
  • Life-hacks, philosophies, ways of life and living. This list of upcycled objects sparks interest, for example, and this forest-dweller could do so too. Or try sharing some life philosophies or time-saving hacks – students will be proud to share their own!
  • Money, house prices (okay, so this one is a classic dinner party topic), supermarket shopping and gadgets. Not all students will like all of these, but if you pick the right one then you can tap into a rich vein! I’ve had 14-year-olds doing a property-search on my behalf in the Sydney suburbs, in order to practise housing-related vocabulary. This hilarious shopping website has been useful in all sorts of ways.
  • Finally, try asking students for advice! Many people love to help others, and pulling the ‘little lost foreigner’ act sometimes gets the most taciturn students speaking fluently about how to open a bank account, fix your computer or navigate the local public transport system. Just be careful about asking for advice you don’t actually need – it’s fine if one student marches you over to the phone shop to get you set up with an account, but when the second student insists on doing the same, things can get a little awkward.

These have all worked for me. Are there any you’d add to the list?

Why should(n’t) we teach British culture?

I’ve recently been producing a series of lessons on various aspects of life and culture in the UK. While writing these, I’ve also been thinking about the teaching of British culture and I have to admit I don’t feel completely comfy with it.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s necessarily imperialistic; the lessons I’m writing are in response to students and particularly teachers in various European countries requesting a cultural focus and definitely not something that’s being imposed on them.

Yet I am aware that there’s a danger in teaching about Britain as though it’s uniquely interesting or worthy of study. With English being used worldwide, there’s a strong possibility that some of the students will visit China before they ever set foot in England, or that they’ll find themselves speaking English to more Russians than Brits over the course of a lifetime. Even in the Anglosphere, the influence of India and Nigeria is likely to increase, while Britain continues to wane. Shoehorning lessons on the Royal Family or dwile-flonking into English courses is increasingly going to look like an anachronism at best, or trivial and time-wasting insularity at worst.

But the schools go on asking for British culture! We have to consider why. And I think there are some good reasons to include cultural lessons:

  • First of all, it’s a great opportunity for students to practise their speaking. People naturally enjoy sharing aspects of their national culture, food, points of pride. If I talk a little about my culture, it’s not a big leap to get students talking about theirs, and this is an immensely fertile topic for getting them using comparatives, ‘used to’, ‘it is believed that…’ and a host of other language points.
  • With younger learners in particular, cultural lessons introduce the students to the notion that not everyone lives as they do. For example, school life in the UK may be a dry subject, but we can bring in the topic of school assemblies, uniforms and various other big areas in which things are different between countries.
  • Expanding their horizons in this way is worthy in itself, but we can also get students thinking critically: discussing ways that school and education might be done differently where they are, justifying their opinions on why a republican system is better than a monarchy (or not).

So far, so fine. But you might be asking ‘why do you need to prioritise British culture in order to do this’? And I’d agree – we don’t need to! All I’d say there is that I think it’s natural for us as teachers to tell students something about our own culture, whether that’s Northern Ireland or New Zealand. Almost all of the teachers working with my new materials will be Brits, so hopefully there’ll be no major disconnect there.

(Of course, if it’s a residential course in an English-speaking country then things will be different again. If students are travelling to London or Dublin or New York to study, then it’s natural to give them a certain amount of local information, regardless of the teacher’s origins.)

I have come up with a few notional guidelines for the teaching of culture, based on the lesson-writing I’ve been doing:

  • Learning about British culture shouldn’t itself be the lesson aim. More suitable aims could be to get them using the correct tense to talk about bands and musicians from past and present, to get them talking about their culture and differences with Britain, or to talk about which education system they’d prefer and justify their opinions.
  • On a related note, be careful about including things which are too specific or low-frequency. Students may enjoy learning about the ancient sport of shin kicking, but do they need to know that the referee is known as a stickler? Spotted dick may be a majestic name for a pudding, but is it really a necessary vocabulary item for students to retain after class?
  • Don’t exclude world cultures! TEFL teachers are a well-travelled lot, so why not use that? I’ve talked with students in Austria about my experiences in Japan; I’ve introduced Andorrans to the history of Kowloon Walled City. Even in my British culture lessons, I’ve included some descriptions of world food for students to match with pictures.
  • There is a time when Anglosphere can take centre stage, and that’s when the language itself has cultural connotations. A couple of examples: British English has a whole range of phrases for hedging and backpedalling: ‘-ish’, ‘rather’, ‘not wholly unnecessary’ and so on; I’d suggest there’s nothing wrong with talking about the cultural reasons behind this, and the way that we Brits tend to avoid stating anything too categorically. Similarly, in teaching students about taboo questions (‘Are you married? What’s your religion? How much do you earn?’) we may need to go into the cultural reasons behind what’s taboo and what’s not – but there’s no need to discuss the worldwide differences in order to get the point across!

What do you think of these guidelines? Have you any more to add? Have you ever had to teach British (or American) culture?

Why don’t my students know what they want to do in class, and what can I do about it?

I remember it well, as it was the opening of my first lesson as a CELTA-qualified teacher. The student was a manager in a public utility company. I walked in, introduced myself, started on the lesson the Director of Studies had suggested. The student’s words exploded on the desk between us: ‘I hate this topic’. A great start!

The rest of the lesson hasn’t stuck in my memory, but we did manage to retrieve the situation to some extent, no doubt partly because of guilty feelings on her part. And yet this student continued to elude my best attempts to give her a good lesson. Some days I’d come in with something great prepared, something to really wow her, and I’d get a ‘can’t we just talk?’ and the great thing would have to be abandoned. The following week I’d come in ready to ‘just talk’, empty handed but with a few topics in mind, and she would ask in her sweetest voice ‘So what are we going to learn today?’. And thus we alternated for almost the whole term.

Eventually I had had enough, and in an equally sweet tone of voice, asked what I could do differently, as it seemed she wasn’t satisfied with my lessons. ‘No, no, everything is fine’.

Moving on a year or two, I was teaching a class of 16-17 year olds on an intensive 5-day course, and they had made it very clear to me that they wanted to play lots of games and not do anything too serious. Days 1 – 3, we compromised pretty well; they worked hard enough to keep me satisfied and I threw in enough games to keep them motivated. On day 4, their productivity and ability to listen had dropped somewhat, but never mind – I had my magic ingredient: Taboo.

The ensuing revolt came as a shock. The three girls at the front started it, with a refusal to take part and a ‘no, we don’t play’ when I challenged them. The revolution spread to the opinionated boy of the group, the alpha male, who exclaimed with a flounce ‘This is stupid!’.

I’d have to admit that my reaction was more stroppy than stern. I huffed, puffed, told them to sort out among themselves what they actually wanted and to let me know once they had an answer, then sat down with a disgusted expression. This worked surprisingly well, for after a short argument in L1 the main perpetrators apologised honestly and graciously and asked to continue the game.

The atmosphere for the rest of the week was one of sweetness and light. And yet it didn’t feel like much of a victory: I couldn’t be sure whether the revolt was just a brief ‘blip’ by tired students, or if this was their real feeling and they were just humouring me the rest of the time! Or perhaps they just weren’t fans of Taboo – but then this was similar to all the other communicative games we’d played throughout the week. Did they secretly hate them all?

These two incidents stuck in my mind for various reasons, but they’re not the only times that something like this has happened with a class. I’ve had one-on-one students request ‘correct every mistake I make, please’ and then not listen to any corrections, ever. I’ve met classes that don’t want to do anything except talk and express themselves, yet sit in implacable silence when called to participate in any speaking tasks whatsoever.

So why do students mislead us like this?

I think part of the issue is how and when we ask them for feedback on what they want to do in class. Very often this is at the beginning of the course, before they really know what’s on offer.

They’re meeting us for the first time – this person who’s going to be in charge of their English learning life for the foreseeable future. They might be meeting their classmates for the first time. This is the point of social flux, the time in which students are jockeying for roles in the class, trying to impress or dominate or become invisible, trying to define their relation to the teacher and the lessons. This is the point where enthusiastic students want to show how good they are, ‘alpha’ students want to assert their authority, difficult students want to raise their first objection of the term, defiant students just want to raise hell…

And this is the point at which we put them on the spot. The point at which we ask them to give an honest assessment of what they ‘want’. Is it possible that what comes out is coloured by the roles the students want to assume? I suspect it is.

There’s something else at play, too. The students are bound to answer based on their conceptions of what is possible in an English lesson. If they’re not aware that something exists, then they won’t ask for it. And their conceptions are likely to be based – though not exclusively – on previous learning experiences they’ve had. That’s true as much of students who tell us what they don’t want as those who tell us what they want. A student who says ‘I don’t want to use a workbook’ could be reacting to past experiences with a teacher who went through the book page by page, or by an experience with an uninspiring workbook; it may not be that they will hate all workbook-derived lessons. A student who says ‘I want to listen to English songs’ may be thinking back to a teacher who unexpectedly let the class listen to music one day as a treat; this student may not in fact appreciate listening to songs every week.

Working with students who have been learning English for some time, there could also be some element of indoctrination. How much students pick up on theories and trends within the teaching industry is an interesting question. I haven’t noticed teenagers having much awareness of this, but adult students have come out with things like ‘the best way to learn is just to talk and practice communication’ and I’ve wondered if this is personal preference talking or if there’s some element of being ‘sold’ this as an opinion. Of course it may be both – the communicative approach is naturally more attractive than a heavy-duty grammar translation method, for example, and appears like a lot less hard work!

I’m not sure it’s always categorically wrong to indoctrinate our students about the best way of learning, anyway – but then this doesn’t really go together well with eliciting opinions on what they want to do in class! If it’s a case of ‘teacher knows best’, why ask?

This brings us to the teacher’s role in all of this. We ask students what they want, so then we’re duty bound to try and fit in with it! But are we truly listening to their needs? What types of games did my class want to play? I don’t remember asking them for details; I just assumed Taboo would work. Did the manager give me some clues about topics she liked, and did I just not pick up on them? How do we get beyond the scraps of information our students give us to find out more about what they need, what motivates them and what’ll be most effective at getting them to learn?

Here are some thoughts:

– One way might be give students a list of things they might want to do in class and get them to tick the ones they want. This avoids putting them too much on the spot.

– Refining that, what about getting students to rank different activities, e.g. games versus writing assignments versus free conversation. This shows them that they might be asked to do all of these things, but lets them influence the frequency of each. For example, if nobody in the class wants to play games, we can mostly leave them out – but where there’s a game that really fits what they’re learning, we can be shameless about including it! A ranking system would also work for the skills the students want to acquire and things they feel they’re better/ worse at doing.

– A further refinement would be to make this dynamic: the teacher keeps a copy and distributes these to the students at various points in the term, so that they can change their minds and revise bits as necessary.

– If a class are particularly difficult to satisfy, how about making a pot or ‘cauldron’ (even if it’s just an envelope) and asking the students to add ingredients on slips of paper. We control when and how we do them, but take out the slips as we do an activity. The cauldron stays in the classroom, so if the students later want to do more speaking activities they just add these in. If they’re getting bored of games and don’t want any more, they stop adding them.

– With more mature learners, we could ‘demand high’ – ask them to think for a week, then write a paragraph about what they like and dislike in lessons, what they need and what they have no use for. If they’re flaky about homework, this can be done in class time.

– Going the opposite way, we could do a bare-bones needs analysis, asking the question ‘why are you in my class?’, then deciding on the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ ourselves and simply telling the students. I baulk slightly at this notion of the teacher as somewhere between resident expert and dictator, but some students may appreciate having the onus taken off them completely!

What do you think? Any other suggestions?

English in 3 dimensions: a concept

The rest of this post is something I’ve been mulling for some time but this will be my first time putting it into words. Whether it passes the test of being transmitted from whirling synapses to lexical squiggles on a flat, rational surface we shall have to see. You have my insincerest apologies and profoundest excuses for anything here which doesn’t make sense.


I wonder if you’ve ever noticed – I’m sure you have – how most of the textbooks and syllabi that English teacher use in class have a way of taking a particular topic as a theme, and arranging assorted nuggets of grammar, vocabulary and often pronunciation and skills work around the chosen topic. For example, let’s look at a familiar lesson from New English File Intermediate. Continue reading →