In his 2nd guest blog, Richard Whiteside (@nutrich) talks about the value of teacher observation.
Have you ever seen or heard yourself teach? Many of us cringe at the thought! It’s strange that people generally fear seeing themselves as others see them all the time. However, despite the initial pain and suffering it is potentially a very useful tool in teacher development.
Our school policy on teacher observation is that there is one round of them each term, which I think is fairly typical of language academies. This year we started with the DoS doing an observation in the first term, focussing mainly on the students and the class dynamic. In the second term we initiated a round of peer observations, which were well-received by the staff and seemed to be quite motivating. This term, we were wondering how to follow this up and decided to offer a choice: either a traditional observation, by the DoS or another member of senior staff, or a self-observation, with a follow up discussion for both choices. When this idea was put to the staff recently, ten out of the thirteen teachers opted for a self-observation.
As we all know, observation is a tricky beast. There is the obvious paradox of having an extra person in the room, as well as the nerves it generates in the teacher being observed. An interesting post I read recently compared the paradox to Schrodinger’s Cat and theories of quantum mechanics. For many reasons, teachers often have an extreme dislike of observations, though fortunately at our school there appears to be a positive attitude towards them.
Self-observations can be done either by making a video recording, an audio recording, or using a reflective questionnaire or a checklist – meaning that one wouldn’t have to endure seeing or hearing oneself. Of course, a questionnaire can be used in conjunction with any recording as well, and I think that is the better option. Hunt (1994) (click link to download doc) proposes the creation of checklists and describes a teacher using one to focus on language foci in his lessons and then engaging in discussion afterwards.
A large number of teachers appear to have taught for years and never seen or heard themselves in the classroom. I had a friend record me on my DELTA course, doing a slightly extreme experimental practice lesson using ‘Silent Way’ techniques. I didn’t get much chance to hear myself, but my miming and gesticulation were amusing! I could observe myself and the students, and noticed all the language that they would not perhaps have produced had my interaction not been governed by a self-imposed silence. It taught me the value of shutting up in the classroom.
In time, self-observation could perhaps lead teachers more towards being able to reflect ‘in-action’. When we are being observed, I think we all consciously self-monitor more than usual, but when another person is watching this can lead to nerves and panic. In a self-observation, this noticing can be done without worrying about things going wrong and being seen by someone else. Through consciously self-monitoring during a lesson maybe we can become more able to make the right decisions and also to recall incidents to reflection ‘on-action’ later, after the class.
Richards suggests that “teachers who explore their own teaching through critical reflection develop changes in attitudes and awareness which they believe can benefit their professional growth as teachers”. We all naturally think about classes after the event, but there is benefit in formalising the process, not all the time, but on chosen occasions. In this article, Richards also explores different ways in which this can be done.
In our school’s round of self-observation, the participants will engage in post-observation feedback, as in a regular observation, but will not be on the receiving end of feedback. Instead, they will choose the focus and use the opportunity to verbalise their reflections and hopefully the discoveries they have made through the process.
This process is also designed to raise teachers’ awareness of the fact that self-observation can be done at any time and needn’t only take place during a time which a school has identified as a formal observation period. I think that all types of teacher observation have their place, including those with an evaluative element. However, I think the common form observation, as being done by a superior and the feedback being evaluative, should form only a part of an observation cycle and that mixing up the forms of observation can be of great value.
So, if you have never seen or heard yourself teach, switch your webcam on, set up a video camera, record audio on your mobile phone or laptop, use a dictaphone or an old fashioned cassette player, or any other method you can think of. There are many options, so there’s no excuse for not giving it a go!