Observation and feedback: why is it so important that we get them right?
‘One serious shortcoming of teacher evaluation reforms is that they have often focussed on designing instruments for observing teachers, without developing the structural elements of a sound evaluation system’ (Darling-Hammond, 2013:ix)
Observation and feedback is a process that is vitally important to the educational environment, whether in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages) or mainstream education, and it is essential that there is a symbiotic relationship between the two. Teachers observe their students on an ongoing basis and provide feedback according to the success, or otherwise, of learning activities in the classroom. Students observe their teachers on an ongoing basis, while feedback is provided in terms of their response to instructions and effective completion of tasks. Teachers, in turn, are observed by organisational stakeholders, whose job it is to evaluate their effectiveness, both for reasons of accountability, and provide recorded feedback on pedagogic practice in the classroom for either summative or formative purposes. If applied well, observation and feedback can encourage continuing professional development (CPD) and provide support and training, however, if the reverse is true they can lead to careers lost and significant issues with self-belief.
Think of your own role as a supervisor/observer.
- What proportion of your time is spent observing and/or providing feedback to your teachers? How do you do this?
- Is any of your time spent being observed by others? Do they provide you with feedback, and, if so, what form does this take?
The focus of these articles is the observation of, and feedback to, teachers as part of their professional evaluation process. As the need for English teachers worldwide increases, the profession grows exponentially and maintaining the quality of language teaching provision becomes increasingly important for stakeholders. For these headteachers, inspectors and supervisors, it certainly makes sense that, because what teachers do is teach, the obvious way to establish their effectiveness in the classroom is to observe them doing this (Wragg, 1999), subsequently providing feedback as to the success, or otherwise, of the lesson that has taken place. For many teachers, regular appraisal observations are a common component of their working lives, as is the subsequent feedback. Research suggests that they are viewed by many as a necessary evil, but by some as an opportunity to spend quality time with their supervisor, which sounds much more positive!
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of an appraisal observation process that relies on a ‘snapshot’ of teaching?
- Do you feel that there are ways that this process could be made more user-friendly? How?
However, for many teachers who have an evaluation that does not go well, the outcome can be catastrophic, resulting, in a best case scenario, in a repeat of the observation, and in the worse cases, loss of employment and/or references. This makes such teacher evaluation a very ‘high stakes’ process, but, interestingly, there is a shortage of research into the impact of observation and feedback for teacher appraisal.
Although not all teachers are observed in the classroom, it does seem to be common practice in places where there is an active teacher evaluation procedure taking place, and research suggests that the observation instrument of choice is often an organisationally created checklist. The parties involved (observer and observe) tend to agree, whether consciously or unconsciously, that the observation itself is a typical representation of the normal pedagogic practice of the teacher, so the evaluation proceeds on this basis.
However, there are several flaws in this belief, as outlined below:
1) The Observer’s Paradox
This is attributed to William Labov (1972), a Russian, whose main interest was sociocultural relationships. While researching these he noted that although observers wanted to see what happened in normal situations, their presence had a considerable impact on the behaviour of those involved in an interaction, which meant that the situation became atypical. This is something that most teachers seem to be aware of on an ongoing basis, but is not publicly acknowledged as often as might be anticipated.
Result: When people who are not normally in a classroom spend time with the teacher and learners observing a lesson, their presence will have an impact on the behaviour of both teachers and learners.
2) Observer and Teacher Behaviour
Research suggests (Howard, 2008) that observers tend to focus on methodology in the classroom that is similar to their own practice, favouring teaching that is effective in terms of their experience. Research also suggests that many teachers who are about to be observed in the classroom anticipate observer requirements by contacting previous observees and establishing what type of pedagogic practice a particular observer is likely to focus on.
Result: The teacher teaches to the observer’s perceived preferences and the observer is able to review familiar practice.
3) The Learners
The behaviour of the learners in the classroom during an observation is usually atypical, as also suggested by research into classroom interaction during the appraisal process (Howard, 2010). Whether or not an observation has been pre-announced by the teacher, learners will tend to think that the observer is there to evaluate them and their abilities, rather than the teacher and the classroom interaction taking place. This is a factor that seems to increase in significance with the age of the learners, but does have a demonstrated impact on their willingness to speak during an observed lesson.
Result: The learners tend to behave in a circumspect manner, with much-reduced background noise in comparison to a normal lesson. Additionally, their need for guidance and positive affirmation during lesson tasks seems to be more evident.
4) Post-Observation Feedback
So far the focus of this discussion has been the observation itself, but the post-observation feedback is equally important.
Think of the feedback that you have provided after a classroom observation.
- Did it make the teachers you had observed feel that they had achieved their goals and were good teachers?
- If so, why was this? If not, how did they feel? Did this have an impact on their future practice?
This is a key part of the process and research suggests (Willems, 2018) that there are significant challenges for the observer when providing feedback to the teacher: whether to be direct, collaborative, or a combination of the two. This process operates on a cline: at one end the person providing the feedback can be very encouraging, expressing the view that everything they saw was wonderful, but with questionable sincerity, while at the other the observer can take an authoritarian approach, insisting that activities should be carried out in a prescribed manner in order to demonstrate success. Not surprisingly, both observers and teachers can find this situation stressful, so there is a need for careful understanding of the interaction process to ensure that it enhances professional development, rather than providing a critical and summative evaluation of a single lesson.
Result: This is often the part of the process that both observers and teachers least look forward to!
Overall, there is a tendency for teacher evaluation to be seen as the ‘elephant in the room’: a frequently unpleasant experience for all those involved which neither teachers, or observers, are willing to talk about in a critical way. This could be because, generally speaking, few observers or teachers receive training in the observation and feedback process, so feel that they are not qualified to debate the topic, despite their extensive experience. One of the major elements missing, as suggested by the research, is structured observation and feedback training for participants, because the task of evaluating fellow teachers is often given to more senior colleagues, who use their own experience in the classroom as a basis for the judgments made.
However, the situation is improving for beleaguered teachers and observers, as some of the key research in observation and feedback is currently being carried out by TESOL teachers and academics, who have effectively engaged with the topic and are researching teaching and learning environments on an ongoing basis. This is therefore an excellent time to engage in debate about the way that this process is carried out, in order to ensure that future teacher evaluations are viewed by all participants in a much more positive light!
Darling-Hammond, L. (2013) Getting Teacher Evaluation Right: What really matters for effectiveness and improvement. New York: Teacher’s College Press
Howard, A. (2008) Teachers being observed: coming to terms with classroom appraisal. In Garton, S. and Richards, K. eds. Professional Encounters in TESOL. London: Palgrave: 87-104
Howard, A.J. (2010) Teacher appraisal: the impact of observation on teachers' classroom behaviour. PhD thesis, University of Warwick.
Labov, W. (1972) Sociolinguistic Patterns. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press
Willems, P. (2018) Exploring experienced teachers’ and supervisors’ perspectives on post-observation feedback sessions. MA TESOL Dissertation, University of Leeds. Winner of the British Council Masters Dissertation Award, 2019.
Wragg, E.C. (1999) An introduction to classroom observation. 2nd edn. London: Routledge
About the author
Amanda Howard has a PhD in English Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics from the University of Warwick and an MEd TESOL from the University of Leeds. She has been an English language teacher, manager, teacher trainer and subsequently a university lecturer for many years and has a wealth of experience in both TESOL and Education. She was based in the Arabian Gulf for thirty years, but also spent some of that time working for UK universities, predominantly Russell Group, which she continues to do for Leeds and Birmingham on a freelance basis.
Read Amanda's other articles in this series:
- Observation: how important is this skill?
- Feedback: why we need to think carefully about this process
Join a webinar with Amanda on observation and feedback.