Shifting the focus: Learner-Centred Classroom Observations
Why do we focus on the behaviour of teachers during ‘official’ classroom observations? Is there an alternative way that is more in line with current thinking on learner-centred approaches?
So many institutions, including ones where I have worked, still cling to the idea that teachers need to be evaluated for quality assurance and that the best way to do this is with a formal observation, often compartmentalised and homogenised, taking the form of an hour-long observation by a senior member of staff. The observer uses a standardised feedback form with variables by which the teacher’s lesson is graded, and then leads feedback analysing what went well or badly. Oftentimes this observation takes place only infrequently, perhaps once a year, and there is often no follow-up to assess observation outcomes.
This style of evaluative observation is not only outdated but also ill-conceived. It assumes that the activity of teaching can be rated, and that this can be done with the kind of standardised grading to which we have grown accustomed. In order to have much value at all any assessment of teaching needs to be thought through carefully. It needs to be done over a longer period with more frequent observations to avoid a ‘snapshot’ view and therefore the danger of misguided evaluation. Feedback needs to be cyclical and iterative in nature and co-constructed with the teacher as part of a reflective process to ensure that the teacher is on board with continuing development.
But there is a much more important point to be made here, which is that to focus on what the teacher is or isn’t doing in a classroom (and to rate that) is surely at best irrelevant and at worst dangerous if this is without explicit reference to the world of the learner. My contention is that we still do this way out of pure habit, and that at least in part, this undoubtedly comes from vestiges of ingrained beliefs that still linger, even if as teachers we know these things to be untrue.
Firstly, the status quo derives from the mistaken belief that teaching equals learning. However in reality we know that the teaching is only part of the equation and that learners will learn in their own way and at their own rate. As Freeman reminds us “teachers are influential in classroom learning but that does not mean they cause it to happen.” (2006; 254). Indeed we can teach what we might consider to be the best lesson, only to note that in terms of the learning it did not have the impact that was desired. Or conversely we can teach a lesson, which at first sight did not go to plan or very ‘well’ in practice, but where there was nonetheless significant learning.
Secondly it comes from the implicit assumption that teaching behaviours can be classified and evaluated and that ‘more’ or ‘less’ of that thing is better. For example, typically ‘student talking time’ is inevitably valued within today’s language teaching, where a premium is placed on communication, and ‘teacher talking time’ should be reduced at all costs. In reality, purposeful teacher talk can be very useful as part of the learning process and in some lessons it may be vital.
Another example is the use of the English in the classroom versus the use of the student’s L1. The former has conventionally been highly valued (probably to encourage an element of immersion), whilst the latter i.e. the use of L1, has been subjugated to the fringes with infrequent activities such as ‘translate these sentences into your own language’, given for homework, but with little real acknowledgement that use of L1 in the learning process can be extremely useful.
Although such thinking has increasingly been challenged over recent years, it still tends to permeate into to the realm of teacher observations. We continue to focus on what the teacher should and should not do in the classroom (theories on this will likely come and go), and judge things by our own semi-conscious ideas of what is right and wrong. More importantly, by taking or eyes off the ball, we often miss the real action i.e. we neglect the impact (or lack of it) of the lesson on the learner. A typical example might be the types of praise given for a communicative speaking activity, which a teacher organised well and the learners dutifully performed with high levels of talking time, but which had little intrinsic value in terms of developing the learners or engaging them in meaningful expression.
By focusing on the behaviours of teachers in the classroom, we are also reinforcing a model that is teacher-centred and are thus potentially affecting teachers’ beliefs and behaviour. If we (learners, teachers, teacher trainers, managers etc.) desire lessons to be learner-centred then surely we need to promote that in everything we do, including the observations of teachers. Evidently, the main thing that is useful to focus on is learning and the learning process for the learner. In short, we need to rethink our observations of teachers to refocus on how teachers may best facilitate this learning.
So how do we do this? Assuming we still have to follow an institutionalised system of official observations, (which I still think can be reclaimed for the good), these can be redesigned with an onus on the learners with surprisingly minor structural adjustments, but with a fairly radical shift in our philosophy.
First of all, the usual observation template can be changed to make all criteria more learner-centred. Criteria such as ‘relevant learner outcomes established in conjunction with the learners’ and ‘lesson managed in a way that promoted achievement of lesson outcomes’ can be included to promote learner-centredness. The emphasis of wording is all-important; thus a criterion such as ‘use of English in the classroom’ can be amended to ‘English/L1 used appropriately for learner needs’ and ‘teacher talking time’ can be amended to ‘learner talking time suitable for learner needs’. These changes may seem somewhat pedantic, but in my experience such small adjustments can promote a major shift in the thinking of both the observer and the observed teacher alike. For instance, the phrasing of the latter criterion on learner talking time intrinsically leads both parties to ask themselves questions such as: ‘What was witnessed in terms of learner talking time?’ ‘Was the learner talking time appropriate in amount, form and quality at various stages of the lesson, as well as overall in the lesson? If not, why not?’ ‘Did the amount, form and quality of learner talking time mean the aims of the lesson were achieved for the learner? If not, why not?’ Clearly this change of emphasis might necessitate some ongoing training for both teachers and observers of lessons, but is nonetheless quite possible.
Secondly, the observer needs to truly focus on the learner – on their reactions, behaviour and likely learning - during the observed lesson. Often the observer sits at the back of the classroom to watch the teacher but cannot see the students’ faces or reactions. What the teacher does in terms of facilitation is important, but how the learner responds and whether they demonstrate that they are learning is of ultimate importance. Therefore the observer should try to ‘climb into the learners’ skin’ and see it from their perspective. The simplest act of the observer positioning their chair to the side of the classroom, to see the learners’ faces, how they react, and what they are doing, can make a huge difference to the observer’s understanding of the effects of the lesson on the learners and their learning.
Thirdly, the information gathered by the observer should ideally be backed up with further evidence to reduce subjectivity, preferably in the form of a video recording. Silvana Richardson (2014) has done some interesting work in this area, which she calls ‘evidence-based observation’. Software is also available which allows the observer to annotate the recorded video with questions and comments for the teacher, thereby facilitating a feedback process focusing on the learner.
Finally, however much the observer and the observed teacher try to adopt the mindset of the learner, and back it up with evidence, they can never claim to know the thoughts of the learner. The learners’ voice therefore needs to be included within observation feedback for any lesson or series of lessons. Thus the observation process should seek to include feedback from the learners, for example, their assessment of how engaging the lesson has been and how successful they think the lesson has been in terms of their learning. This can be factored into evaluative feedback as long as the process is handled sensitively.
Any additional comments learners have on the lesson(s) are also vitally important to inform the feedback process and can change the evaluation of a lesson significantly if they happen to disagree with what the observer and/or the teacher believe. When experimenting with this approach, I observed a lesson where I thought the learner might have been overloaded with the amount of topics that she was asked to speak about. However, in her feedback the learner maintained that that the amount of topics was at about the optimum level for her. This first-hand vantage point significantly changed my perception of the lesson.
In most institutions, how often does the observer of a lesson really solicit the opinions of the learners as part of the observation process? I would suggest very seldom. By contrast, including the learners’ voice in the observation feedback implicitly encourages the teacher to engage with learner feedback in the same way. Reframing the observation in terms of the learners not only allows a more relevant learner-centred perspective but also models good practice for the teacher as part of wider classroom culture.
Can this focus on the learner be equally beneficial as a basis for peer observations? Absolutely, yes! In fact gathering information on the learners provides an excellent focus and helps to avoid any evaluative critique of teaching, which many teachers may have come to habitually expect as the ‘default model’. So whilst evaluative observations look set to stay, let’s at least focus on what matters, namely the learners.
About the author
Christian Tiplady has been a teacher trainer for over 25 years, teaching, teacher training and managing in private language schools, NGOs and government organisations. Mostly recently he served as Pedagogy Manager at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office organising CPD for tutors teaching diplomatic staff. Christian also produces the IATEFL TDSiG's bi-monthly podcast on teacher development: Developod.
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