At the recent Language Live Show in London I gave a presentation on the topic of observing lessons. The session attracted a whole range of teachers with different levels of experience; from new teachers fresh off their initial training courses to seasoned teacher trainers who have observed many lessons. And from the feedback it was clear that the topic attracts a lot of interest and diverse views.
Perhaps it’s because observing a lesson and being observed by someone else is something that affects so many teachers.
1. Why observe other lessons?
There are plenty of good reasons why we observe other teachers and their classes. We can learn by watching them for one thing; and I don’t mean just observing more experienced teachers. I’ve often observed lessons by new inexperienced teachers and they do something which reminds me of a skill I’ve neglected in my own teaching. Of course, if you are observing another you can also give them help and support by making suggestions. And remember that observing doesn’t have to be about finding things to do differently. It can also be about reassurance and knowing that what is happening in a classroom is effective for the students’ learning.
2. Making observations the norm rather than the exception
Teachers (and their students) can get very nervous when they are going to be observed either by their boss or a colleague. It can feel like you are being judged, spied on intruded upon. In general, these kinds of feelings depend upon the culture of the school but it’s quite often the case that in schools where classroom observations are commonplace and there is a culture of sharing ideas, the experience of being observed doesn’t have to be nerve-wracking. Make it a norm rather than an exception.
Following on from the point above, observations are also easier to carry out when everyone is clear about why the observations are taking place. If the purpose is to assess a teacher, then be transparent and let everyone know. If, on the other hand, the aim is to help and learn from the experience, then that needs to be clear. You can argue that assessment and support can work together but I still think that the primary purpose of an observation needs to be self-evident to avoid unnecessary anxiety.
4. Chronological observations
There are different ways to observe lessons. One way is to observe the whole lesson generally and make notes about it in the order of events. This might mean writing down times in the lesson and adding a few notes on what you saw with some questions or points to raise with the teacher afterwards.
5. Specific aims for observing
Unlike a more general chronological observation (above), it’s often worth deciding what you intend to focus on during the lesson. For example if you are interested in how a teacher handles student errors, then only make notes on that area.
6. Sketching what you see
When people observe lessons, they often write down sentences and notes about what they see. But sketching what you see if often a better alternative. In this example (see figure one), based on an idea in Ruth Wajnryb’s excellent book ‘Classroom Observation Tasks’ (Cambridge, 1992), the observer has drawn the layout of the classroom and marked which students the teacher has addressed during the lesson. You can see from this that the students in the rows at the back are being ignored. The message to take away is often made clearer from a sketch like this that it is from writing it in words.
7. Graph observations
Like sketching what you see, you can also use graphs to reflect an observation. In this example (see figure two), the horizontal axis represents the length of time in a lesson. The vertical represent the students’ interest in the activity and the amount of speaking. The teacher has given the students a discussion task and you can see that their level of interest has increased. However, instead of ending the speaking task at the point where they have been fully engaged but about to lose interest (which is always wise to do), the teacher lets the task continue until every student has stopped talking. The observer marks this conclusion onto the graph. It’s a useful way to show what was happening in a visual way.
8. Managing an observation
When you observe other teachers it’s courtesy to talk to them beforehand. Maybe discuss the reasons for the observation and what you plan to observe for. It might also be that the teacher has a particular issue with a class so would like you to look out for something during the lesson - getting a second opinion may help. Also agree whether you will meet to discuss the lesson afterwards. When will you do it? How will you approach the feedback? All these arrangements can help to improve the observation process and make it a positive experience.
9. The ‘selfie’ observation
Not all teachers work in situations where they can be observed by others on a regular basis, but it’s fairly straight-forward to observe your own lesson using a video camera or the camera and voice record on your mobile phone. For example, you can put a video camera at the back of the classroom, let it record while you are teaching, and then watch parts of it to see how you or the students handled parts of the lesson. Alternatively, use the camera in your phone to take images at certain points of the lesson. For example, if you wanted to reflect on your board work, you could take a picture of the board at regular intervals during the lesson and then afterwards reflect on your use of it.
10. Recording what you say
You could also record your speech during the lesson and then study what you said at certain stages of the lesson; for example, if you are working on improving your instruction-giving it can be helpful to study your instructions and think about how you could improve them next time.
For more information on observing lessons check out the chapter in John’s new book A Practical Introduction to Teacher Training in ELT