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Observation: overcoming the fear, finding the benefit

Andy WilliamsAndy Williams distinguishes three uses of observation and shows how digital video can exploit the benefits while minimising the distractions…

There are few things that can truly strike terror into the heart of teachers. After all, the issues they deal with day in and day out are immeasurable.

We all know as teachers we are peace envoys, nannies, mediators, politicians, lawyers, accountants, nurses, social workers, in fact we sometimes wear so many hats over the course of a day, it can be hard to remember which one it is right now!

We can describe a teacher’s role then as multi-faceted, dealing with a huge range of challenges with our learners, not least of which is how we inspire and engage so they make the progress we know they are capable of.

So why then can a simple phrase such as “I will observe you teaching next Tuesday… ” strike terror into our heart?

Is it imposter syndrome? Will management finally discover you are not as great as they think you are?

Is it sheer nervousness? ‘I become a robot when observed!’

Or is it the learners? ‘Sir, we were really good for you, we didn’t talk at all!’ (never answering any of your carefully crafted open questions).

Actually, it could be a combination of all of these and more.

What do you use observation for?

In the Teacher Effectiveness Enhancement Programme (TEEP) coaching training, we encourage teachers to consider three uses of observation;

  • Observation as development
  • Observation for development
  • Observation of development.

In schools, a failing we can often have is not being clear about which of these is our reason for observation.

Additionally, the sheer act of observation has its own curiosities. As a physics teacher, I would demonstrate the action of particles and waves.

electrons cropped

A curious thing happens when we look at electrons as particles though – sometimes they act like waves and at other times like particles. When scientists set up an observation of this duality, the electrons acted like particles.

As soon as the observation was removed they reverted to acting like waves and particles simultaneously – it is as if they know they are being observed. Which is downright weird.

This helpful film explains the science behind it.

The observation itself affects the outcome

It would seem therefore, that if we want to use observation as, for and of development, we need to carefully consider how to achieve this. Enter video observation.

In a recent publication, The Best Foot Forward Project: Substituting Teacher-Collected Video for In-Person Classroom Observations, the Centre for Education Policy Research at Harvard University concluded that digital video can improve classroom observations.

It does this by providing more detailed, objective feedback to teachers, and enabling a wider group of observers to be involved in the observation process.

Digital video can be used by the individual teacher to self-evaluate, reflecting on their practice, and define a focus for development with their peers or managers. Using non-obtrusive capture tools such as iPads or web cameras also helps to ensure the observation does not affect the outcome from the learner perspective.

Indeed the more that video collection in classrooms becomes a ubiquitous sight, the fewer changes in behaviour we would observe.


The effective learner

SSAT and Iris Connect, who supply observation systems and an online platform that enables self and peer evaluation of digital video, have co-constructed ‘The Effective Learner’ module.

This uses examples of good practice from genuine classroom footage and supplementary resources to help improve teaching and learning, with the emphasis on changing learner behaviours.

Of course, there are more things to consider other than setting an iPad in the corner of your classroom and hitting Record. As the report points out, ‘in order to enjoy the advantages of video, school systems must build trust among teachers and overcome teacher anxiety related to video recording.’

But the report observes how teachers using this approach were more self-critical, and more likely to identify a specific change in their practice. And, for the observer, it enabled observations at more appropriate times in the school day.

Making sure judgements are valid

As Professor Rob Coe of Durham University points out in his blog, classroom observation is harder than you think. Coe recommends we should:

  • Stop assuming that untrained observers can either make valid judgements or provide feedback that improves anything
  • Apply a critical research standard and the best existing knowledge to the process of developing, implementing and validating observation protocols
  • Ensure that good evidence supports any uses or interpretations we make for observations. It follows that appropriate caveats around the limits of such uses should be clearly stated and the use should not go beyond what is justified
  • Undertake robustly evaluated research to investigate how feedback from lesson observation is being, and might be, used to improve teaching quality.

So maybe the time is right to put our best foot forward and take control of observation as, of and for development of our teaching.

Download Harvard University’s first year report on The Best Foot Forward Project.

Watch ‘Dr Quantum – Double Slit Experiment‘.

Read Robert Coe’s blog on classroom observation.

Follow Robert Coe on Twitter: @ProfCoe

Follow Andy on Twitter: @Faber_2013

Follow SSAT on Twitter: @SSAT

Like SSAT on Facebook.

Find out more about TEEP.

Find out more about ‘The Effective Learner’ module.

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