Observation: how important is this skill?
‘Observation plays a fundamental role in the improvement of teaching and learning. It is the most exciting and dynamic engine for whole school renewal and change, and it’s a powerful way to inspire and motivate. Unfortunately, for many teachers […] observation is about as welcome as a poke in the eye with a sharp stick’ (Watson-Davies, 2009:5)
Several years ago I attended an IATEFL Conference, where a very well-known TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages) scholar stated that observation of teachers in the classroom was a key part of his work, as he had carried out many over the years. He then went on to say that as time progressed he had noticed that TESOL teachers were much less willing to take risks than they had been in the past, as many of the activities used by those he was watching were predictable.
- Why do you think he made this comment?
- Do you believe teachers are predictable in their teaching methods?
- What reason do you think there could be for this type of teacher behaviour during observations?
For the vast majority of those involved, classroom observation of teachers for evaluation purposes is a process which generally takes a lot of time, although there are certainly teachers who will deal with it by using tried and tested methodology. However, it does not have to be the case that observation is expensive or stressful: if it is carried out well, then its impact on the participants can be formative, strengthening their mutual relationship. However, if problems arise, whether or not they are related to the actions of those involved, the impact can be significant and far-reaching, damaging relationships that were possibly already strained.
This article will explore classroom observation in relation to the three main parties involved: the observer, the teacher and the learners.
A. The Observer
One of the key research findings about classroom observation (Howard, 2010; Willems 2019) is that observer training is often missing. This probably happens because, in many contexts, supervisors responsible for evaluation have been recruited from the ranks of teachers and have received little or no formal instruction in this area. However, it does suggest that organisations and individuals should be more proactive in their provision of necessary training.
Think of your own experiences of classroom observation as a teacher.
- Did you feel that your observers had been appropriately trained?
- Does this have an impact on the way that you observe teachers?
For many supervisor observers, their own experience as both learners and teachers forms part of their long-term memory, provided by an apprenticeship of observation. Borg introduces it in this way:
The apprenticeship of observation describes the phenomenon whereby student teachers arrive for their training courses having spent thousands of hours as schoolchildren observing and evaluating professionals in action. (2004: 274)
This argues that the observers’ previous learning experience (PLE) of many thousands of hours in educational contexts has left them with clear ideas in terms of what works in a second language classroom and what does not. Research also suggests that, once they are in a position of judgment, the vast majority of observers will refer back to their own PLE when commenting on the behaviour of observed teachers in the classroom. However, it is important for observers to carefully consider how relevant their classroom experiences actually are to the teacher being observed. For example, there may be major differences in terms of nationality and educational practice in a teacher’s home country, which could have a significant impact on the way the lesson appears to a classroom outsider. This could take the form of language used or particular pedagogic strategies and observers need to be aware that a conflict of approaches may occur by developing strategies to deal with this.
- When you observe teachers in the classroom, do you consciously base your judgments on your own PLE? How important is this?
- What can you do to increase your knowledge of the teacher’s PLE?
If an observer has not received relevant training then there is not always a great deal that she/he can do about it, other than request this during an annual appraisal process. However, an alternative approach might be to raise awareness of the need for observer training by asking others if you can watch them teach to gain experience. Additionally, even with no previous training or lessons to watch, there are classroom videos on YouTube that can be used to provide a basis for discussion with colleagues!
B. The teacher
- How important do you think the relationship is between the observer and the observee?
- Thinking of the classroom observations that you carry out as part of your professional practice, how do you think the teachers feel about this aspect of the evaluation process?
Teachers have a very important role to play and their relationships with those they work with in their institution (other teachers, stakeholders, administrators, supervisors, learners and parents) often has a fundamental impact on the way in which both they, and their organisation, are perceived and understood. Therefore the power relationships between the teacher being observed and the person carrying out the evaluation are very important. By participating in an observation-based evaluation system, teachers demonstrate that they have bought into this process, but they often do not feel that they have power to make decisions of their own about the way in which this should proceed. However, this position is reversible, as Peterson writes:
[Psychologists] have demonstrated the benefits of changing a worker from a ‘pawn’ (one to whom evaluation is done) to an ‘author’ (one who assumes responsibility in evaluation). Teacher relationships are enhanced by increased role responsibility in evaluation. (2000: 73)
For a teacher, being an author during an observation could be seen as being an ideal situation, as they have made the decisions in terms of content. However, in reality, observers often want to have a say in the evaluation process, and many teachers do find that the process bewildering and demotivating in terms of the way it is carried out. Possible observation outcomes, as described by Wang and Day (2002) in their research about classroom observations, have been classified as follows:
i) The ‘nerve-wracking’ experience.
Teachers can find classroom observations very stressful, regardless of their years’ of experience. In fact, experienced teachers can often find them more stressful than novices, as they understand that the success of an observation is reflected by both the preparation beforehand and the response of the students, which is rarely totally predictable.
ii) The ‘wonder-why’ experience.
This classification relates to the fact that the teachers involved have lost confidence because they do not feel that they have a voice in the evaluation of their teaching and have not received feedback that allows them to create a clearer understanding of classroom events.
iii) The ‘put-on-the-best-show’ experience.
Also described by research participants as model lessons, the ‘horse and pony show’ and ‘getting out the best china’ (Howard, 2010). Wang and Day (2004:9)) claim that this is the ‘perhaps the most natural reaction to classroom observations’ citing a research participant who taught to the observer’s perceived preferences (also Howard, 2008). This is known as a chameleon strategy (Handal and Lauvas, 1987) and is not unfamiliar in the observed classroom.
iv) The ‘embarrassing’ experience.
If, during an observation, the observer interferes in the teacher’s lesson this can be both traumatic and embarrassing, as the relationship between teachers and learners has been broken. Such an interruption can have a major impact on a teacher’s beliefs, making the situation very difficult to discuss in the feedback session.
v) The ‘get-used-to-it’ experience.
The presence of an observer can have an invasive impact on classroom dynamics, so it is in the teacher’s interest to learn to continue with the planned lesson rather than responding directly to the presence of a ‘classroom outsider’. For example, research demonstrates (Howard, 2010) that teachers tend to increase their talking time during an observation in order to maintain control, which does not always encourage a positive response in the observer!
C. The Learners
- How much value does the opinion of the learners have in the teacher evaluation process in your organisation?
- Do you think they should provide feedback about the lesson that has taken place?
It is important to remember that the learners are a fundamental part of the teacher evaluation process, although they often have low status in this. The response of the learners to an observed lesson taking place is much less predictable than that of the teacher, depending on the way that she or he interacts with the students on a regular basis. However, learners tend to think that an observer in the classroom is focusing on them (Howard, 2010), which can have a repressive influence on their willingness to answer questions as they do not want to draw attention to themselves. Both observers and teachers need to be aware of the impact of an observed lesson on normal classroom practice and to understand that the Observer’s Paradox is likely to have a significant effect on the interaction taking place, i.e. it is unlikely to be a typical lesson in that context.
A key challenge for those involved in evaluative observations is that there might be an unexpected event during the lesson (Farrell, 2008; O’Sullivan, 2015) for which they are unprepared, which is termed a critical incident. Such an event could take many forms, including a technological breakdown, the arrival of late students, or an activity that has an unexpected result. Research evidence suggests that teachers have strategies to avoid this, which include maintaining control by increasing teacher talking time throughout the lesson, or using a model lesson, i.e. one which has been tried, tested and positively assessed in the past. However, for observers it is important to be aware that a number of fire-fighting strategies may (or may not!) be being used, which all form part of a competent teacher’s ability to teach a pedagogically effective lesson!
As we have seen above, there are many different perspectives to an observed lesson, as well as many things that can happen to change the situation before, during and after the event. Research suggests that some of the happiest teachers during this process are those who are able to develop a relationship with the observer from the outset by having a pre-meeting where they can talk about the class, discuss the aims of the lesson and agree a focus. This means that during the observation itself both observer and teacher have a similar aim, and, during the post-observation feedback, there should not be too many unexpected surprises! This observer approach also blends well with the continuing professional development aspect of the evaluation, where the participants can feel that they are building on existing foundations.
Borg, M. (2004) The apprenticeship of observation. ELT Journal 58:3. 274-276
Farrell, T.S.C ((2008) Critical incidents in ELT initial teacher training. ELT Journal 62:1, 3-10
Handal, G. and Lauvas, P. (1987) Promoting reflective teaching: supervision in practice. Milton Keynes: Open University Press
Howard, A.J. (2010) Teacher appraisal: the impact of observation on teachers' classroom behaviour. PhD thesis, University of Warwick.
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
Iyer-O’Sullivan, R. (2015) From bit to whole: Reframing feedback dialogue through critical incidents. In Howard, A., & Donaghue, H. Teacher evaluation in second language education. London: Bloomsbury, 69-84.
Peterson, K.D. (2000) Teacher Evaluation: A Comprehensive Guide to New Directions and Practices (2nd edn). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press Inc.
Wang, W. and Day, C. (2002) Issues and Concerns about Classroom Observation: Teachers’ Perspectives. Paper presented at TESOL Conference in St Louis, USA, 27th March 2001
Watson-Davies, R. (2009) Lesson Observation Pocketbook. Alresford, Hampshire: Teachers’ Pocketbooks.
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.
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: