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A developmental view of classroom observations

Marion Williams

Classroom observations often cause problems for teachers and trainers. They tend to be judgemental, relying on a trainer’s subjective judgements, rather than developmental, developing the teacher’s ability to assess his or her own practices, This article describes a scheme of developmental classroom visits currently in use in an in-service teacher-training programme for primary teachers in Singapore. The reasons for dissatisfaction with traditional observations are listed, and the principles behind the new format are discussed. A set of questionnaires with focus questions for the teacher to answer before and after the lesson is used, and the procedure for using the questionnaires is described. The purpose of these is to develop the teacher’s own critical thinking ability. The trainer’s role is positive and helpful, and becomes one of clarifier and helper. The visits were considered successful by teachers and trainers. 1

Introduction

Classroom observations generally form a part of any teacher training programme, whether initial training or in-service training. These observations are generally based on the assumption that teachers should put into practice what they have learnt on their course, and the trainer’s role is to judge whether what has been taught has in fact been carried out properly. Classroom observations have, however, always presented problems for teachers and trainers, and generally cause considerable stress and upset on the part of the teacher. Implicit in the approach are various other assumptions: that we can actually define what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ teaching behaviour; that teaching pedagogy is something that can be both taught and learnt; that observers can tell what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in a classroom according to some prescribed checklist; and that telling teachers what they are doing, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, will in fact lead to better classroom teaching. Even if one believes that doing this will lead to better teaching, one must ask whether this is in fact the best way of achieving better teaching, and whether individual teachers can and should teach in different ways, in different classroom situations. I would argue that classroom visits should instead provide an opportunity for teachers to develop their own judgements of what goes on in their own classrooms, should sharpen their awareness of what their pupils are doing and the interactions that take place in their classes, and heighten their ability to evaluate their own teaching practices. In other words, these visits should as far as possible be developmental rather than judgemental. This article describes a scheme currently in use in the Primary Project at The British Council, Singapore, with primary teachers undergoing
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in-service training. We would not claim that we have found the whole answer to the problems of classroom visits. Nor would we claim that the ideas and principles are new. What follows is a description of our thoughtprocesses, and the way in which we have attempted to make classroom visits into a learning experience where teachers learn to evaluate their own lessons. The focus is on the development of the trainee’s own judgements. The aim of the visits is for teacher and trainer to work together to solve classroom problems, so that the teacher can continue to learn after the course has finished. Background The Primary Project is an in-service teacher-training programme designed to up-grade the standard of English teaching throughout all Singapore primary schools. Approximately 480 teachers undergo training each year at The British Council. Training is in small groups, 12 to 16 in a class. A taskbased methodology is used, where the teachers examine existing practices and consider the application of new ideas to their own classrooms. The answers are not pre-determined, and teachers as far as possible make their own choices as to what is most suitable for their own teaching situations, and what they feel able to handle. In addition, every teacher is visited three times in the classroom during the course of the training. The methodology for classroom visits therefore attempts to reflect the methodology used in the training, in that it is participant-centred, and allows for the teacher’s own decisions and choices. Classroom observations have traditionally entailed the familiar scenario of nervous teacher, trying to perform correctly, while the trainer sits at the back ticking items on a checklist and making decisions as to what is ‘good teaching’ and ‘bad teaching’. The teacher reads a report on his or her performance, and tries harder to get it right next time. We began by initially using a fairly traditional type of observation, but found this method unsatisfactory for various reasons. -The teachers didn’t like it. It was threatening, frightening, and regarded as an ordeal. -The teacher had no responsibility for the assessment. It is trainercentred. Meanwhile, we were promoting child-centred teaching. -It was prescriptive. -The checklist focused on too much at once. -There was no continuity from the first to the third visit, and the visits were therefore not linked to the course. -There was no provision for individual pace or wishes. We then embodied attempted to list the principles in a classroom visit. We came that we would up with seven. ideally like to see

Traditional observations

Principles behind the new observations

1 Development:
ments
2 Limited

about

The visit should aim to develop the teachers’ what is going on in their own classrooms.

own judge-

rather

and focused content: We should not tackle too much in one visit, but focus on one or two items, depending on the teacher’s needs.

3 Course-link: We should try to link the visits to the course, so that the teacher’s attention in the classroom is focused on items being discussed on the course.
4 86 Teacher-centredness:

We should

try to allow the teacher

to take much

of the

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responsibility for the observations. The purpose of the visits should also be discussed with the teachers, so that they are involved in the rationale behind them.
5 Future development:

for self-development
6 Positiveness:

We should try to leave the teacher after the course.

with an instrument

the positive
7 Flexibility:

The visit should be helpful, not destructive. We should stress aspects of the lesson, what went well, and build on these. be able to be flexible discussion. and respond to the

teacher

The tutor should in the post-observation

One way to achieve these principles seemed to be to use a questionnaire with guiding questions for the teacher to think over before and after the lesson. We decided to try out this method, and wrote a sequence of questionnaires (illustrated overleaf). The purpose of the questions before the lesson is to provide a checklist of things to remember when planning the lesson. The teacher then knows what the observer will be looking for during the lesson. The questions also focus the teacher’s mind on certain key factors to look for during the lesson. The questions after the lesson serve to guide the teacher through a selfevaluation which he or she talks over with the tutor. The teacher has the security during the observation of knowing what the questions will be afterwards, and of knowing what the observer is focusing on. However, the trainer maintains the flexibility to respond to items the teacher discusses in the post-visit conference. The teacher knows that the visit is not a test, but a mutual problemsolving experience. The questions are, as far as possible, data-based, and designed to stimulate thought. For example, the question ‘What evidence was there that your activity was successful?’ is preferable to ‘Was your activity successful?’ A third box was added for the teacher’s own thoughts. Here we resisted the temptation to add ‘tutor’s comments’ and decided to allow the teachers to extract what was relevant to them from their own thoughts and from the tutor’s comments. The questionnaires developed are closely linked to the course. All the topics covered in the observation are discussed in class. An important factor is that the visits are not assessed, except for the final visit, and the records between teacher and trainer are private. Obviously the very existence of a set of questions makes the visits less flexible. Tutors have to exercise discretion and use them flexibly. One teacher might follow the whole questionnaire, another focus on one or two questions only, while another might select a different questionnaire altogether. First classroom visit The first visit occurs fairly early in the course. It is important to understand the aim of this visit in order to understand what goes on. The first visit has five main functions. 1 It is supportive. Part of its function is to show the teacher that observations can be positive and that teacher and tutor can work co-operatively. The teachers may have had different experiences in the past. To this end, the tutor discusses with the teachers the purpose and nature of the visit. 2 It is for the trainer
Developmental

Function

to see the stage

that the teachers

are at and how they 87

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can develop stage.

i.e. to understand

what

is going

on in the classroom

at this

3 It is a chance for the teachers to try something, different or new, and to assess it themselves.

however

small,

that

is

4 It is for the teacher to begin to look at, become aware is going on in the class in terms of: what the pupils are doing how he or she is interacting with the class the nature of the language used in the class. 5 In the first visit, we expect to see an covered in the first part of the course into an attempt to use language for a real some ability to organize the class in an

of and

analyse

what

attempt to put the main ideas practice, namely: purpose appropriate way for the activity. as the

For the first visit we developed one questionnaire only, particularly teachers are using this format for the first time (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: First classoom visit: teachers’ self-evaluation form Before the lesson, look at your plan and ask yourself: 1 Have you chosen an activity that is interesting and will generate
2 3 What classroom arrangement will you use? What materials

meaningful

language

use?

do you need? know the ‘rules’ of

Is your organization smooth? Are the instructions your class (who they can talk to, when, etc.)? At what point in your lesson will the pupils

clear? Do the pupils

4 5

use language

for a real purpose? rather than a correct

Write down answer.

a question

you will ask to encourage

a thoughtful answer

During the lesson and after the lesson, ask yourself these questions and write the answers: 1 Write down something(s) that a pupil said in the lesson where language was used for a
purpose. 2 Write badly Who Which down any evidence that your activity organized, was interesting/boring. was not involved? question provided Why? a thoughtful answer? Write down your question was successful/unsuccessful, was smoothly/

3 4

My thoughts:
What would you like to improve/have done better in the lesson? What have you learnt? Write down your thoughts about how you would like to improve/change/develop your teaching in the future.

Procedures

When the teachers prepare their lesson plan before the visit, they complete the first box of the questionnaire. This also serves as a checklist of points to remember when preparing the lesson, and focuses the teachers’ minds on certain aspects of their teaching. During the pre-observation conference the teacher talks through his or her lesson. Here, the trainer’s role is one of listener and clarifier, asking questions if necessary to clarify meanings that the teacher is trying to express. At this point the important trainer-teacher relationship is beginMarion William5

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ning to be established. It is essential that teachers trust that they and the trainer are looking at the same points, and that they will not be criticized or pulled to pieces after the lesson. During the lesson the trainer sits among the pupils and joins in where appropriate. He or she records observations or data rather than judgements, writing down, for example, word for word, utterances of the pupils and teacher, to present to the teacher to assess afterwards. The tutor then notes down the most positive aspects of the lesson, and which item the teacher should focus on next. After the lesson the teacher completes the second and third boxes of the questionnaire, before the post-observation conference a day or two later. During the conference the teacher talks through his or her thoughts, while the trainer asks questions to clarify if necessary, and helps the teacher to develop these thoughts. The trainer offers the data collected during the lesson for the teacher to assess. Most importantly, the tutor is supportive throughout the conference, pointing out and congratulating the teacher on the positive aspects of the lesson. The teacher and trainer then jointly decide which aspects the teacher will focus on next. The second classroom visit

By the second visit, the teacher is expected to be execute a meaningful classroom activity where purpose, and also to see the place of the activity work. The teachers will of course be at different similar process is followed as in the first visit (see

able to select, plan, and language is used for a as a part of a scheme of stages and abilities. A Figure 2).

Figure 2: Second classroom visit: self-evaluation form Before the lesson ask yourself:
Is your activity at an appropriate intellectual level to stretch and challenge children of this age? Is it too easy/difficult? Is it interesting, motivating? Is there enough opportunity for the pupils to talk? What Where What meaningful will there language will it promote? for pupils in your scheme to give their own ideas? preceded it? What will follow it?

be opportunities

is the place of the activity

of work?

What

Show this on your lesson plan.
Show how it might involve/lead learn? into reading, Write writing, grammar, and etc. the language aims on your

What might lesson plan. What provision

the pupils

the aim of the activity

have you made

for pupils

who finish

quickly/slowly?

During
What Who Write What Which

and after the lesson,
was there that Why?

ask yourself:
the pupils were interested/not interested?

evidence

was not involved? down on paper

some language

that the pupils

used. Was it meaningful

or meaningless?

will you do next to follow of your aims

up this lesson? Were other things achieved instead? Did they have a fair share of

were achieved?

When did pupils give their own ideas? Did you accept their ideas? time to talk or did you dominate the discussion?

What have you learnt? Write down how you would like to develop future.

your teaching

in the

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The se/f-assessment forms

After the second visit, the teachers are asked to choose one or more of the self-assessment forms to work through, on their own or with a partner. Many of the classes on the last course decided to have a ‘self-assessment week’, where everyone tried out a questionnaire, and discussed what they had learnt in their next training session. The trainers can join in, and pair up to observe and record each other conducting training sessions. (See Figure 3 for an example.)

Figure 3: Sample of a questionnairefor

furtherself-evaluation
your questioning

Do you ask meaningful and thought-provoking questions? Can you improve techniques? Why not try to analyse your questions yourself?

Before the lesson:
Write down a question that you will ask for each or some of these categories: * one that * one that * one that * one that * one that * one that you don’t know the answer to is about the children themselves encourages a lengthy rather than gets the children to think asks for their opinion starts a discussion. to their answers?

one-word

answer

How will you respond

During

the lesson:
to write down some of your questions and the

Tape-record a part of your lesson, ask a colleague responses, or try to write them down yourself.

After the lesson:
Look at your questions. Decide whether they were meaningful or meaningless. Which of the above categories did they fall into? Which questions did you think were the best? Why? Ask your colleague which question enough he/she liked best and why?

Did you give the pupils Did you try to involve Did you need to repeat

time to think

of a reply? few?

all the pupils or rephrase

or only the chosen any questions? Why?

Look at your response to the children’s Which were simply judgemental (‘good’, your own?

replies. Which showed real interest in the replies? or impose ‘no’, etc.)? Did you accept their thoughts

What have you learnt?

The third visit

The third visit is assessed. This is a requirement imposed on the programme. The teacher can choose what he or she would like to focus on. If there is a questionnaire available, it is used. Otherwise teacher and trainer work together to think up suitable questions. A similar procedure is followed. In addition the trainer writes up his or her thoughts for the teacher under two headings: 1 General 2 Points This comments/strengths. to ponder for your own self-development. ‘letter’ between trainer and teacher.

is in the form of a private

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Evaluation

One hundred and ten teachers who had undergone these observations were asked to complete a questionnaire. The evaluation of the classroom visits by the teachers was positive. On a five-point scale, they rated the visits on average as about four, representing ‘useful’ or ‘helpful’. Most of them felt there were the right number of observations (78 out of 110). It was significant that almost all felt that they could continue with self-assessment after the course (101 out of 106). When asked which aspects they liked best about this type of observation, the most frequent responses were: the conference (pre- and post-visit conference) the constructive, positive comments and suggestions the informal, relaxed atmosphere friendliness of the tutors tutors helping in class.

The most significant aspect that they did not like was their feelings of nervousness before the observation. This factor appears to be a natural feature of any type of visit, and we have obviously not entirely eliminated it. Conclusion So far the observations have been voted successful by teachers and tutors. However, we are still in the initial stages of developing this method, which is still far from perfect. I would not claim that we have ‘the answer’. We have an idea, which we are still in the process of developing. The principles could be used in many different ways. But we are pleased that our teachers at least assess our method of observation positively, and that surely must be the most important criterion.2 •
Received April 1988

Notes
1 This article paper in competition. 2 Readers is a revised the 1987 version of the prize-winning English Speaking Union

who are interested

in receiving

a complete

version

of the Teachers’

Self-Evaluation

Booklet

used in the project are invited c/o The School of Education, Devon, UK.

to write to the author, University of Exeter,

The author Marion Williams was until recently Director of the Primary Project at The British Council, Singapore. She has been involved in teacher training, ESL, and primary teaching for seventeen years in the UK, Nigeria, Hong Kong and Singapore. She has an M.Ed. in TEFL, and has published several articles and coursebooks on teaching English to primary children. She now works at the School of Education in the University of Exeter.

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