Professional development series (2) – How to make the most out of lesson observations

Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’.

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1. Introduction – The why of lesson observations

Lesson observations serve a range of purposes. Whatever the intended outcome, in my experience, very few people truly look forward to them and even fewer find the process to significantly impact their teaching practice, not in the long-term anyway. The reasons? Firstly, the fact that more than often the people involved – both observers and observes – carry out lesson observations more because they have to than because they actually attach any significant learning value to them – “Time is tight and there are more important issues to attend to!”. Secondly, because of the way the process is structured. Thirdly, because of the frequently inadequate follow-up. Fourthly, the lack of training in coaching skills essential in some of the scenarios I will discuss below. Finally, other factors undermine the effectiveness of the process, ranging from the culture and micro-cultures of a specific school or Department to affective issues involving the relationships between the people involved.

From personal experience I do believe that lesson observations, especially peer-observations, can indeed enhance one’s teaching craft, provided that a number of important cognitive and affective variables are controlled for and that the protagonists of the process – observer(s) and observee –  engage in a long-term collaborative effort characterised by (1) mutual trust and respect, (2) intellectual honesty and (3) openness to change.

One major factor in the success of the process is its orientation, i.e. the final goal (Performance management? Learning from a colleague? Both?) as it will inevitably shape the whole process, from beginning to end. In this regard, let me note that by and large I am against using lesson observations to assign a score to teacher performance, not in the way it is commonly done in this day and age, anyways. Why? It is short-sighted; it is carried out using evaluative tools (the observation checklists) and procedures (e.g. there is usually one rater only) which lend themselves to strong subjective bias; their impact on teaching and learning does not justify the anxiety, stress and time investment they cause in many observees and often the observer-evaluator does not know enough about language acquisition to be able to pontificate on what constitutes effective language teaching and learning. Not to mention the fact that many teachers often put on a one-off show to impress the observers,  performing in the observed lesson way beyond the level of organization, creativity, commitment and zeal of a typical lesson of theirs. We all know that.

After all, if the culture of a department is one of transparency, openness, mutual trust and practice-sharing every Head should be aware of what their colleagues’ strengths, areas for improvements and teaching styles are, anyway. Hence, besides the fact that associating numbers to performances through measurement scales of ludicrous invalidity is futile, one should not need to have to sit through a lesson to know how ‘well’ their colleagues teach.

In conclusion, I believe lesson observations should be used solely to enhance teaching and learning. However, even if  they were indeed to be used to evaluate teaching, they should still have a positive wash-back effect on teaching and learning. Moreover, unless they are carried out as part of a principled, carefully-structured and positive process with plenty of support from the course administrators they are absolutely useless exercises which do little for teacher well-being, self-efficacy and professional development. An open-door policy as well as regular collaborative lesson-planning, team-teaching and  conversations with peers on teaching and learning are much more likely to impact professional development that a one-off observation per term followed by feedback.

2. The aim of the present post

In this post I make a few suggestions on how to enhance the positive impact of lesson observations, based on the teacher development literature I have reviewed, on my own experience of what has worked well for me and my colleagues in the past, on social cognitive theory principles and, last but not least, common sense. Below, I envisage the following three lesson-observation scenarios:

  1. The observer as a coach
  2. The observer as a learner
  3. The observer as an assessor

The suggestions below presume that the working  environment one is operating in is not a highly dysfunctional one but rather one with a reasonable degree of mutual trust and professional respect. Establishing trust, transparency, and a caring and non-judgmental atmosphere is pivotal. Moreover, it is presumed that the team share fairly homogenous views on language teaching methodology.

  1. General principles

3.1. Teachers should be provided with a reference framework which clearly details what constitutes effective Modern Language teaching and learning . As I often reiterate in my posts, a Department should agree on a common set of guiding pedagogic principles which would underpin its teaching and learning practices; ideally, they would also develop a common language to refer to those practices. This will warrant cohesion and coherence across the Department both in terms of teaching practices and of evaluation procedures.

3.2 The evaluation of a lesson cannot limit itself to the assessment of the producti.e. the lesson as it unfolds before our eyes.  The lesson one observes  is but the end-result of a process. Hence, effective coaching on and/or valid assessment of a lesson should start before the to-be-observed lesson actually occurs! This entails that the observer and the observee should actually meet to discuss the to-be-observed lesson at least  a day or two before it is actually implemented.

In an observer-as-an-evaluator scenario, the observer may want to limit  their  intervention to asking questions about the  observee’s lesson plan to elicit the why of his / her choices as they may want to stay as neutral and objective as possible.

In an observer-as-a-coach scenario the observee’s input may be more interventionist in nature and invite the observee to reconsider aspects of their lesson plan by asking more or less open questions; in this case, the observer will attempt to bring potential issues with the observee’s  lesson to their conscious awareness and collaboratively come to solutions. S/he may also want to restructure the observee’s cognition vis-a-vis teaching methodology issues which emerge from the discussion

In an observer-as-a learner scenario, the roles are reversed; the observee becomes the coach, but the questions will be more or less the same as the ones asked in the previous scenario. Ideally, the observee will plan the lesson in the form of a think-aloud protocol, verbalising his thoughts as the observer listens and occasionally interrupts to seek clarification or expansion.

Whatever the approach, it must be clear at every single moment of the interaction between observer and observee that the focus is as much on the process of teaching (the lesson planning) as it is on the product (the lesson teaching), as (1) many issues undermining the effectiveness of a lesson have to do more with the planning and sequencing of activities than with the classroom implementation and (2) because, over-emphasizing the product and suggesting a few things here and there that a teacher could have done differently in a specific lesson may give the observee the impression that merely ‘tinkering’ with their existing performance may be enough; whilst this may be sufficient in certain cases, in others the changes needed may entail deeper cognitive restructuring (e.g. addressing misconceptions about language acquisition; filling gaps in their competence;  reconsider the approach to short-term and/or medium-planning or to material design; etc.).

It is noteworthy that I have rarely come across in a post-observation discussion and/or evaluation document an item that focuses on this very important aspect of a lesson: the how and why of its conception. The focus is always solely on the product, thereby potentially failing to identify some of the root-causes of ineffective teaching and limiting itself to the observable.

3.3. Whatever the context, any observed lesson must be considered as part of a teaching and learning curricular sequence. One cannot consider a lesson in a vacuum, as disjointed from what happened before and after. Hence, in the pre-observation meeting, a substantial part of the discussion should centre on the curricular context both in terms of what came before and of the follow-up. An effective teacher is also an effective curriculum planner; I have come across  many teachers who had a greater impact on their students’ learning than others who were more effective than them in terms of classroom delivery, purely by virtue of their superior medium- and long-term planning.

Long-term planning requires greater attentional capacity and a more organic approach to teaching ; lesson observations that focus on the product and on the here-and-now always fail to spot this and a great teacher attribute goes often neglected in the lesson evaluation.

In this case, too, it is interesting to note that lesson-evaluation documents regularly fail to include this crucial aspect of lesson planning.  What they do always include, on the other hand, is the item: ‘Evidence of learning’, despite the fact that 40 % of whatever is taught in a given lesson will be forgotten one hour later and that 80 % is forgotten a week later without reinforcement of the distributed (rather than massed) kind. Whilst I do agree that by the end of the lesson there will be some tangible evidence of learning, lesson observers and course auditors should concern themselves much more on long-term retention than they do on the here-and-now (as argued here). In coaching/modelling scenarios, this important skill is often neglected, too.

3.4 The lesson observation must be part of a LONG-TERM process aiming at enhancing the professional developments of all parties involved.

Lesson observations are usually followed by a feedback session at end of which targets for improvement are set for the observee. These targets are at best revisited at the end of the academic year or performance-management cycle. However, several decades of research in teacher development have shown that this practice is highly ineffective as a way to enhance teacher competence.

As Cognitive psychology posits, skills are acquired through masses of practice, highly scaffolded at the beginning of the process and increasingly less structured until autonomy has been attained. Frequent formative feedback from an expert plays an important role, too. This implies that the observer or other expert associated with  the process must commit themselves to a long-term coaching of the observee for any area of development to be effectively addressed. This, in my experience, rarely happens, usually because course administrators do not provide busy classroom practitioners with the time and resources that such a process requires in order to bring about transformational change. Other reasons refer to the lack of training in effective coaching skills, lack of peer-support and self-complacency.

Any follow-up ought to focus only on one major area of development at time, in order to pre-empt divided attention.The follow-up process may include:

  • Teacher-led research on the to-be addressed issue(s)
  • Some sort of coursework which encapsulates the finding of such research and envisages/documents the application of those findings in the teacher’s classroom practice;
  • Collaborative planning and/or teaching with an expert;
  • Subsequent observations focused on the target area of competence;
  • Learning discussions with peers.

3.5 (In the lesson-evaluation scenario) Use subject-specific lesson-evaluation documents:  Many secondary  schools use the same lesson-discussion / evaluation documents across all subjects. This fails to consider the unique nature of language learning. Departments ought to come up with a documents which integrates the evaluation of generic skills with that of more subject-specific ones. This is one of the most common and most serious shortcomings of lesson evaluations in English secondary schools.

3.6. (In the lesson-evaluation scenario) Ensure that lesson observations are conducted by two subject-experts : Any evaluative process of a teacher’s performance, especially when it is related to their professional appraisal and/or a pay-rise, should control for subjective bias as much as possible. The reliability of the process can be  enhanced by having two experts ; from an affective point of view, it would be better if the observee could pick one of the observers.

Evidently, having two  observers poses a number of logistical challenges; in my view, however, this makes the process much more accountable and objective and, from a learning point of view, the observee will be more likely to learn more from two experts than from one.

Conclusion

Commonly, in many schools the run-up and follow-up to lesson observations are not carried out in a way which is conducive to significantly enhancing teacher professional development. One reason is the inadequate focus on the observee’s actual lesson-planning process and on the why of their instructional choices (e.g. sequencing of activities). Secondly, much of the lesson observation focus is on the here-and-now, which does not capture the long-term intentions, implications and effects of teacher performance on student learning. Thirdly, lesson observations are rarely  followed-up with a serious and systematic attempt to address the identified area(s) of development through a long-term plan, mainly for lack of support and effective coaching. Finally, lesson-evaluators often use inadequate assessment procedures  whose main shortcomings are the short-term focus, the use of whole-school  multi-traits scales and no inter-rater reliability procedures.

For more on my views on teacher development please read the following post: “Why teachers teach the way they do”.

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