This is the fifth and final post in a series that originally appear in English Teaching Professional and is reposted here with the permission of Pavilion Publishing.

The previous posts in this series about classroom observation have all been about why and how we can observe the classroom. So it seems fitting that this final post looks at how feedback after the observation is approached.

Watch what you say  

For many observations, feedback afterwards is not necessarily planned. For example, a trainee teacher may be asked to observe a lesson and have little or no further contact with the more experienced teacher. However, few observations occur where there is not some kind of feedback. Firstly, your body language during a lesson might indicate some kind of response to the lesson which can be interpreted (rightly or wrongly) by the teacher in a certain way. This is one reason why the best type of observer is the one you don’t notice! Then, after the lesson, the observer and the teacher will inevitably meet and the observer might say something like, ‘Thanks for letting me observe, I really enjoyed your lesson.’ This in itself is feedback. We can take this a step further with the observer then asking a question such as, ‘Can I ask you why you chose to end that activity early?’ A question like this, informally asked, can carry all sorts of meaning. From a trainee teacher, it means that they want to learn about the timing and pacing of an activity. From a teacher trainer to a less experienced teacher, it is asked to encourage the teacher to reflect on what happened in the lesson and perhaps look into how the lesson could be improved in some way. The point is that even a single comment or question at the end of a lesson constitutes feedback. If it is casually said as everyone is leaving, the teacher who was observed may be left with the feeling of things unsaid and this can be unsettling. For this reason, when observations are arranged, my advice is to make it 100 per cent clear whether any kind of feedback will take place or not and how it will be organised.

Measure the time scale 

Whether feedback follows on straight after the lesson or perhaps some time later will depend on a number of issues. It may be that the practicalities of timetabling may dictate when it happens. If a teacher is going to teach and be observed again the next day (for example on a training course), then feedback will need to happen immediately afterwards, and many teachers also prefer this: while the lesson is fresh in their minds. However, there is much to be said for allowing a little time between the lesson and the feedback. It is easy for the observer, who has been sitting still and making notes, to be ready to start feedback, but the teacher has been hard at work for the whole lesson and may need time for a break and then time to reflect and gather their thoughts. Even if the feedback has to start straight away, it’s worth allowing ten minutes for the teacher to take time out and think about the lesson. One way to facilitate this is for the teacher to consider and make notes on a form similar to one shown on page 61. (Note that this one was designed for inexperienced teachers on a pre-service training course, so you may want to adapt it accordingly.)

Watch how you say it  

We began this article by seeing how even the most basic comment on a lesson constitutes feedback. Between two peers or colleagues observing each other, the language will tend to be a discussion between equals. However, if you are an observer helping and developing the skills of a less experienced teacher, then you will need to consider carefully the language you use. Just as we pitch our language at different levels to students of English, so, too, an observer needs to pitch the language of feedback at a level appropriate to the observed teacher’s stage of development. Below are three things an observer might say in order to get a trainee to realise that there were problems with boardwork in the lesson and to find ways to improve it.

  1. There’s a problem with your boardwork. It’s very confusing for the students. Here’s a way to organise it …
  2. Let’s take a look at your boardwork. How could you improve it?
  3. Tell me what you think about the lesson. What would you change next time?

In comment 1, the observed teacher is inexperienced and possibly teaching for only the first or second time. The observer’s role at this stage is to inform and take a ‘one-way-works’ strategy; in other words, there may be different ways in which to approach the problem, but at this stage of the training the new teacher can often only cope with the idea that there is one solution to apply to a similar situation next time. In comment 2, the observer starts to draw on the trainee’s prior knowledge and experience in order to lead them to a solution. The observer still needs to make the teacher aware of a problem, but rather than give the ‘correct’ answer or solution, the aim is elicit a similar solution or strategy from the trainee. In 3, the comment is aimed at a much more experienced teacher. The observer assumes the teacher has greater selfawareness and is capable of reflecting on their own strengths and weaknesses.

Vary your routines

Finally, it’s worth considering how to alter the system of feedback if you are the observer and in charge of leading the feedback session, especially if there are a group of you involved in feedback. Here are some ways to vary the process. You may simply choose to use them to add variety, but you’ll also find that some work better than others according to the situation.

Chronological feedback  

One of the easiest ways to begin feedback is to talk through the lesson in the order things happened. This helps the teacher refer to the lesson plan and assess how well it worked.

Sandwich feedback

Quite simply, the idea of sandwich feedback is to begin with the strengths of the lesson, move on to talk about problem areas and possible solutions or points to focus on next time, and end with a summing up, which again should accentuate the positive. This suggests that the trainer may be doing much of the talking, but in fact much of the reflection and feedback can come through astute questioning.

Mini-presentations  

The observer begins the session by drawing two columns on the board, one with a plus and one a minus sign. The observee or observees are then asked to write things up that went well and things that didn’t. For example:

feedback grid

Writing on the board like this works well with more than one teacher as it brings together feedback for the whole lesson without singling out an individual. Then the teachers involved begin feedback with a short mini-presentation of the points, which leads into a discussion of any issues raised.

Read and think 

Observers often give written feedback – and possibly evaluative grades – after oral feedback, but it can be helpful for the observee to read and consider this feedback before opening it up for discussion.

Grade yourself  

If the observation has involved assessment criteria, it can be helpful to give the person observed the assessment criteria after the lesson and allow them some time to grade their own performance. Then compare their assessment with your own. This forms a useful basis for discussion and allows teachers to understand fully how they are being assessed.

How did my lesson go? 

One final task is to give the teacher who was observed a set of sentence starters. They spend some time after the lesson making notes and completing each sentence before the feedback discussion. It’s a useful way to allow some ‘decompression time’ after the teaching and makes the discussion  more focused. Examples of these are below:

Now that the lesson is over I feel …

I was surprised by … 

I feel pleased about … 

I don’t feel so pleased about … 

If I were approaching this lesson again, I would … 

One question I have about the lesson for the observer is

This is the last post in this series. For more on the topic of observation and teacher training, my new book on the subject will soon be available and can be ordered in advance now by clicking here.

A longer version of this post originally appeared in English Teaching Professional, issue 60, January 2009. It is reprinted here with the permission of Pavilion Publishing.

As observers, our tendency is to observe and then immediately try to put into words our interpretation of what is happening. Then, when we meet the teacher afterwards to give feedback, we report back on what we’ve written and probably add even more interpretation to the events. The advantage of simply drawing and sketching what you can see is that you are observing rather than interpreting. At different stages of the lesson, you can focus on one particular aspect, sketch it, and then afterwards with the teacher you can look at what happened and interpret it together. Below are some examples of what can usefully be drawn in a lesson.

Class layout

At different stages of the lesson you can draw the layout of the class to show the position of the teacher and students. So it might indicate if students are working pairs, groups, alone etc. You can choose to draw the layout every five minutes of a lesson or at every change of stage. By building a sequence of such images, you get a full picture of how the layout altered – this often indicates changes in pace and variety of tasks.

Interaction 

In the sketch below, the observer has noted the classroom layout, but she has also added lines to indicate interaction between the teacher and students. (This idea originally appears in Ruth Wajnryb’s book ‘Classroom Observation Tasks’ Cambridge, 1992.)

Interaction sketch

In this case, the teacher is focusing all her attention on the students near to the front of the class and to his right. An observer could describe such tendencies in feedback afterwards, but by being shown the diagram, the teacher will get a much clearer idea of what is happening, or not happening in this case! You could use a similar technique to monitor interaction between students.

Boardwork observations  

The board can tell us a great deal about our lesson, so having an observer copy down what is on it throughout the lesson is very useful. Again, you could agree to have them copy it every so often to show the development of the lesson. Some boardwork images can highlight the fact that the teacher needs to organise and plan the board more carefully or can also show how well a teacher manages board use alongside the stages of a lesson. Alternatively, if it isn’t too intrusive to the lesson, take photos of the boardwork at different stages of the lesson with your phone and use these study how the boardwork progressed (and might be improved upon)  throughout the lesson.

 

I originally wrote a version of this article for English Teaching Professional, Issue 59 in November 2008. It is reprinted here with permission from Pavilion Publishing.

Fulfilling criteria

Anyone who has taken a formal teaching qualification with assessed teaching practice will recall the stress of having an assessor at the back of the class, ticking and scoring a set of criteria. Alternatively, you might have had visits from your director of studies to check up on how your lessons are going. They will probably have had a form with a set of criteria that might have looked something like this:

checklist1

checklist2

The danger with such forms is that this kind of ‘observation by checklist’ presents teachers with a set of hoops through which to jump; you’re teaching to suit the score sheet rather than teaching the students. It’s even possible to be able to leave a training course or a classroom with the feeling that you can ‘do’ all these things on the checklist and yet you still have a long way to go – teaching is so much more complex than our assessment forms might suggest.

Observation for assessment and development  

Having said all that, observation for assessment can be beneficial when used alongside other criteria for measuring the success of a whole school. (For example, British Council validation includes many other forms of assessment when it assesses schools – not just teacher assessment.) Similarly, the teacher trainer or director of studies using a score sheet type form can also make the process developmental as well as an assessment.

Less is more

First of all, it’s important to consider how the form is designed and used. My personal tip is to keep this kind of observation form to a page if possible, and certainly not more than two pages. One reason is that an observer will find it hard to observe whilst at the same time trying to find the relevant criteria on pages 3, 4 or 5! Then, when you come to give feedback, the process will become bogged down in paperwork and a system of scoring which can often fail to reach the heart of what really mattered in the lesson.

Transparency 

There’s also the issue of whether teachers see the criteria by which they are measured. Even if they are allowed to see the form before teaching (which you would hope they would do), it might not be transparent. It is worth having a meeting with a teacher or group of teachers to study the form and discuss exactly what each criterion really means. This allows time for everyone to agree on what is meant by, for example, effective classroom management. This process of pre-observation discussion also helps to demystify observation for assessment and gives a sense of teacher and observer working together.

Developing a checklist together  

However, checklist observations don’t have to be purely evaluative. They can also be highly developmental. One approach is to have the observer and teacher meet before the lesson, and discuss what criteria should go on the form. If the observer is experienced or has observed the teacher before (e.g. in the situation where a DOS is observing a teacher), then some criteria should be at the prompting of the observer. However, the teacher should also think about areas they wish to work on or focus on with a particular class or type of lesson. Here is an example of five criteria developed by a teacher and observer before a lesson. The teacher wants to focus on presenting a new grammar item:

Agreed criteria on the form

  1. The teacher engages the students with an interesting lead-in.
  2. The teacher elicits the target language point from the lead-in task.
  3. The teacher uses concept questions effectively to check understanding.
  4. The teacher provides a variety of relevant practice activities after the clarification stage.
  5. The teacher uses clear instructions, which include demonstrating a task as well as explaining it.

This example shows how this kind of observation can work at a very detailed step-by-step level, as well as taking a broader, global view of the lesson. Criteria can also be very personal to the individual lesson. Imagine, for example, that a teacher wonders if they are responding fully to all the students. Perhaps there are two students who are always sidelined by more demanding members of the class. In this case one of the criteria could read, The teacher responds to individual needs with particular attention paid to Raul and Sonia.

Defining your scores

Once the criteria have been defined on the form, the system of scoring can also be defined. In the section entitled Definition of scores, the observer and teacher decide on what 1 to 4 mean and write this in. They might decide that a standard system such as 1 = excellent, 2 = good, 3 = satisfactory, 4 = not satisfactory is fine. However, you can also define scores with a description like this:

  1. = You did this really well and there’s nothing to worry about.
  2. = This was fairly good, but let’s keep working on it.
  3. = This was OK, but let’s keep this criterion for the next observation.
  4. = Let’s do some work on this outside of the lesson.

With the criteria and scoring system agreed and written on the form, the teacher and observer are ready for the class. The observer scores the criteria and also makes comments at the bottom of the page, which should give further details on the reasons for the scores.

After the observation

After the lesson, teacher and observer meet to discuss the criteria. (Teachers could also score themselves before such a meeting, based on what they thought of the lesson.) At the end of the feedback session, they draw up another set of criteria for the next observation using a similar form. If the teacher has scored 1 (high) then they can probably leave out this criterion and put in a new one. Any criteria that scored 3 or 4 (low) probably need to remain on the next form. In this way, the teacher sees a clear progression from one observation to the next and the checklist approach becomes a motivating developmental tool, instead of an ordeal by assessment.

This post is a version of an article I originally wrote for English Teaching professional magazine in Issue 58, September 2008 and is reprinted with permission of Pavilion Publishing.

We often assume that a classroom observation should involve watching and noting down comments on everything that happens. In fact, an observation is often more valuable when the focus is on only one aspect of the lesson. This means that any feedback you give to the teacher will be very precise and much clearer. It also means that you can observe for an area that you personally want to develop in your own teaching.

This post considers a number of areas of teaching which you can focus on individually and, unlike many observation forms which are written descriptions of the lesson, it makes use of a graph format which provides a very clear visual representation. You can sketch a graph when observing with the Y-axis representing the length of the lesson and the X-axis representing a number of different aspects of classroom teaching. For example, this graph shows the increase of speaking during a discussion activity in class. The observer has traced the increase in volume and then how the students interest falls away. The observer then indicates were the teacher should have stopped the activity much earlier.

Graph 4

Here are some more ideas for using graphs in this way.

Pace

Pace is important in any lesson and it is sometimes mistakenly assumed that lessons must always be fast. In fact, many lessons benefit from regular changes of pace (especially with younger learners) so observing for this can be helpful. You can monitor the pace of a lesson by using the X-axis to represent a faster or slower pace. The observer draws a line during the course of the lesson which shows when the pace becomes faster or slower. A lesson with regular changes of pace might look like this:

Graph 1

On the other hand, a lesson with few changes of pace or difference in activity type might look like this:

Graph 2

In addition to drawing the trend line along the graph, the observer can also make notes about what caused a change of pace. For example, maybe the pace quickened when students stood up to do a roleplay or it slowed when they completed a controlled practice exercise in their books.

One student

Sometimes we want to observe one student in particular, so we build a picture of how this individual is working within the whole class. This is also a useful exercise to remind us that a class is a group of different individuals, not a homogenous whole! Choose a student to monitor, or perhaps the teacher will ask you to concentrate on a particular student they are concerned about. The X-axis on the graph represents the student’s level of interest, motivation and involvement. As you draw the trend line, you can also make notes on the graph to comment on what they were doing that either displayed high interest in the lesson or low interest. Afterwards, in a feedback session, you can discuss what might have raised the student’s interest at all stages of the lesson. This activity is even more interesting if there is a group of observers all watching different students. By gathering the graphs together, you create a wider perspective on why some students are responding positively to a lesson and why perhaps some aren’t.

Authenticity

The graph also allows us to monitor how authentic a task is or how real the response of our students is. When you think students are giving very authentic responses, perhaps to classroom discussion, the trend line rises. If the exercise seems very controlled or inauthentic then the line drops. As with pace, you would hope to see plenty of fluctuations, with perhaps more authenticity towards the end of a lesson.

Learner-centred or teacher-centred?

You can also measure where the focus is at different stages of the lesson. For example, in the graph below, the high points show that the lesson was learner-centred with students working together. The low points show that the lesson was very focused on the teacher. The graph also shows us that the majority of the lesson seems to be very teacher-centred. This isn’t necessarily negative, but most lessons would normally aim to be more student-centred.

 Graph 3

Observing objectively

You can no doubt think of more ways to use this approach to observing. For example, you could also use it to measure the balance of teacher and student talking time. One important point to note about this graph, however, is that it is an example of an observation tool which reports back on the lesson rather than one which forces you into making judgements about a lesson. There is some level of subjectivity when using it and it certainly isn’t 100 per cent scientific. Nevertheless, it does provide a useful overview of an aspect of teaching. It offers a useful starting point for discussion after a lesson between teacher and observer. It can quickly highlight causes of difficulties or demonstrate why a lesson has been successful. Finally, with different observers in one lesson all focusing on different aspects of the lesson, a collection of graphs together builds into an accessible perspective of the lesson.

Between 2008-2009 I wrote a series of six articles for English Teaching Professional on the topic of classroom observations. It was called ‘Eye on the classroom’. So with permission of English Teaching Professional and Pavilion Publishing to reprint the articles here, I’ll post all six in the next few days. Note that in places they might not appear in their full entirety as the originals came with photocopiable pro-forma. However, if you are a subscriber to English Teaching Professional you can download the original as a pdf.

Eye on the classroom 1: Peer Observation

Many language schools and their teachers would welcome more time for development and support. Teachers want new ideas, new ways of doing something or to reassure themselves that the old ways also still work really well. Typically, the school can offer training sessions with talks and workshops, but these take time and involve everyone coming together at the same time on the same day. One form of training and development which bypasses these problems is peer observation. In its simplest form, two teachers team up and observe each other teaching. Their reasons for observing each other in the classroom will include:

  • Sharing ideas

One of the best ways to get new ideas is to observe another teacher. Usually this is because you see an activity being used that you’ve never done before. Observing another teacher at work can also help you to consider fresh alternatives and new ways of doing things.

  • Promoting team spirit

Many teachers feel isolated by working alone, but peer observation lets you work with others and helps you feel more like part of a team.

  • Developing skills

Being an observer affords you time to consider problem areas of your teaching and gives you the chance to see how others might handle similar difficulties in the classroom.

  • Seeing students differently

Observing lessons is as much about observing students as the teacher. Being freed up from the teaching role allows you to see students from another perspective.

Questions and answers

Peer observation takes very little organization and doesn’t require hours of teachers’ meetings. Surprisingly then, an amazing number of teachers don’t take the opportunity to tap into this resource. Perhaps this is because of a list of unanswered questions and concerns they have about observing other teachers. Here are some of those questions with, I hope, satisfactory answers.

  • What do I actually observe for?

In general, observing a lesson isn’t very helpful if the observer walks in with a pen and blank sheet of paper and takes notes on everything they notice. It’s better to have a clear focus. One way to do this is to have sentences to complete about the lesson on a page, like this:

The first thing that struck me about the lesson is..

One thing I noticed about the students is…

One thing I saw in this lesson which I’d like to try is…

One thing that this observation reminded me about when teaching is…

One question I’d like to ask the teacher afterwards is…

  • Do I talk to the teacher about the lesson beforehand?

Not necessarily. It’s helpful to know about the class and what the teacher has been doing with them in previous lessons, but it’s sometimes better to reduce the need for lots of meetings and planning and just go in and sit at the back.

  • Do I talk to the teacher about the lesson afterwards?

This is more likely than talking beforehand. How much you talk will depend on your situation, but keep it informal at first. Perhaps pick a time to go out for a coffee away from the school for your conversation. Even if you agree to have very little discussion after the lesson, you need to thank the teacher for letting you into the lesson and maybe photocopy your observation form for them to read.

  • What’s my relationship with the students in the lesson?

Even though you might be sitting quietly at the back of the classroom, it’s no good assuming that the students will pretend you aren’t there. You may even know some of the students, so say hello. The teacher needs to tell the students, preferably in the lesson beforehand, that there will be a visitor in the next lesson. They need to know that they are not being assessed (which is often a reaction) and that their teacher is not being assessed either (another common reaction).

  • Should I observe the whole lesson?

It may not be practical (or advisable) to observe the entire lesson. It’s useful to be able to see a whole cycle of work completed and often about 45 minutes to an hour is about right. If you are observing part of a lesson, discuss with the teacher the most unobtrusive moment to arrive and leave. For example, arriving during a boardwork presentation with all the students concentrating on the teacher is not a good moment. Leaving while students are all busy talking in pairs and groups is.

English Teaching Professional, 57, July 2008.