USING UNSEEN OBSERVATIONS FOR
AN IN-SERVICE TEACHER DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMME
by Phil Quirke
This article was first published in The Teacher Trainer, Vol.10, No.1 Spring 1996 and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the journal.
Many in-service teacher development programmes use observation by trainers of teachers' classes. The frequent negative reactions of teachers to such observations "all seem to stem from the observer's failure, either intentionally or not, to recognise and to affirm the teacher's experience." (Freeman 1982:28) And it is all too often that the traditional observation approach is viewed with hostility and even fear. Five teachers who were involved in a course of 'unseen observations' I ran in Abu Dhabi had similarly negative feelings about being observed:
"A hard won relationship can be lost with outsiders in the classroom."
"Big brother is watching you."
"I have always felt that observations had the cart before the horse. Shouldn't less experienced teachers be observing their seniors rather than vice-versa?"
"I feel very self-conscious and there is always a fear of embarrassment if things go wrong."
"Observations are really a bit of a charade as both teacher and pupils are usually on their best behaviour."
Negative reactions such as these result in an atmosphere which is not conducive to staff development. An additional disadvantage of observations is that "an observer may never be able to observe a natural, undisturbed lesson, because the teacher may well conduct his lessons differently and this in turn will effect how the learners react." (van Lier 1988:39) A visited class can never be a true representation of the teacher's usual practice because the classroom dynamics and interactions will always be affected by the presence of another person.
The answer to these problems seems to be not to visit the class. The trainer does not go into the lesson but listens to the teachers' version of it after the event. S/he sees the class through the eyes of the teacher and relies on the teacher as a professional. This type of observation is known as 'unseen observation' (Rinvolucri 1988 & 1989). Rinvolucri takes the idea of unseen observation from Moreno's psychodrama and the caring professions as the idea is exactly parallel to the normal way a therapy supervision operates. A supervisor in the caring professions does not 'sit-in' on a real-life event but listens to the practitioner's account of it afterwards.
My Experience Using Unseen Observations
After trying a few isolated 'unseen observation' lessons with teachers in Venezuela in 1992, I set up a course of 'unseen observations' in Abu Dhabi working with up to nine teachers over periods of five months from January to May 1993. The reason for deciding on a whole course was that the questions raised during isolated observations were seldom followed up. By structuring the number of 'unseen observations' over a period of time it allowed teachers to focus on their teaching as a form of continuous and supported development.
Our course of 'unseen observations' contained 5 main phases; pre-course discussion, pre-lesson discussion, the lesson unseen, feedback and post-course discussion.
Step 1: Pre-course discussion.
The trainer discusses the teacher's approach to their teaching and the methodological principles which underpin this approach. Even inexperienced teachers can explain why they do what they do even though they may be unaware of how this ties into theoretical principles or may lack the vocabulary to express this. The purpose is to find out what the teacher's philosophy of teaching is, what strategies they employ, what learning tasks and activities they make use of, and how they use them. "The teacher's experience and perceptions of the teaching situation form the basis for the collaborator's work in development." (Freeman 1989:41)
It is accepted that teachers have their own theories of language and learning and it is made clear to them that the course of 'unseen observations' aims to make those theories explicit. The central issue is not only to observe "How do I teach?", but to decide "Why do I teach what I teach?" and "Why do I teach the way I do?".
The trainer can help the teacher focus on specific points and decide how they will recall those points. The points to focus on could include areas such as interactive roles in the classroom, boardwork, teacher language, etc. The strategies for aiding recall can include diaries, recordings, transcripts or self reports (see Richards 1990:125-37). However, it is probably most useful to allow teachers to adapt and develop their own strategies.
Here are four points of focus taken from teachers I worked with in Abu Dhabi at a military technical school for young Arab cadets:
1. To develop presentation techniques which cover the material in a more culturally appropriate way and which involve more student participation.
2. To use more communicative activities based on oral work with slow, unmotivated students unused to a learner based classroom.
3. To more closely integrate the teaching of English with the technical subjects being taught at the institute.
4. To decrease the students' dependence on the teacher and develop their learning strategies.
The pre-course discussion stresses the importance of allowing the teachers to work on areas they are interested in, in a supportive and unthreatening atmosphere and over a series of lessons and discussions.
Step 2: Pre-lesson discussion.
The teacher talks the trainer through the planned lesson and the reasoning behind each stage. The trainer's role is to listen, not to judge. If the teacher is struggling to find appropriate activities, it is possible to give them a set of alternatives, some of which may have worked for you.
Each teacher is given a list of questions to concentrate on during the lesson. These questions lead up to a focus on 'why' and aim to aid the teacher's objective recall. They are worked out with the teacher and differ for each case. For example three questions which ran through the course of the teacher dealing with point 4 above were:
"Which student shows the most dependence on you?"
"How is this dependence expressed?"
"Why do you think this student is so dependent upon you as his teacher?"
The first two questions act as a lead up to the third question which was the main focus of the teacher's work during this course.
The trainer's role is one of listener and clarifier. They encourage the teacher to voice their teaching ideas and put them into practice, thereby hopefully promoting the teacher's decision making skills and allowing the teacher to gain new insights into the behaviour of the class.
These questions and the active role of the teacher mean that they know how the feedback session will run before they teach the lesson.
Step 3: The lesson unseen.
The teacher teaches the lesson. Several of the teachers in Abu Dhabi said that they felt as though they were being observed but without the worry if something should go wrong. All of them said that the first two stages enabled them to look at what they were doing during the lesson much more objectively. Teachers are given the opportunity to look at and become aware of what is actually happening in the class.
Step 4: Feedback.
The teacher recalls the lesson, trying to arrive at a realistic picture of what happened. The trainer guides the teacher to describe the lesson and not judge it. Often this simple process of description provides the teacher with several insights to their attitudes and beliefs of language and learning. As Wallace has noted (1991:53) reflective discussion is a difficult concept and parameters should be set in order to keep the discussion focused. These parameters are, in practice, the points set by the teacher in the pre-course discussion, even though we need to realise that these are flexible. All of the teachers in Abu Dhabi said that they found the recall phase difficult but agreed that it got easier during the course.
The teacher suggests possible areas for development and future focus on areas of continuing research. If necessary the trainer can guide the teacher back to previously raised questions but ultimately the teacher must feel that they have generated the impetus to continue.
The trainer can help the teacher put the suggestions in a wider perspective in a number of different ways. I feel it is important to list all of those that have come up in the courses I have run to date:
1. Advice on reading.
2. Any number of different observational procedures in the teacher's or a colleague's classroom either alone or with a peer observing and possibly using the teacher's own observation system and/or video and audio recordings of lessons (see for example: Allwright 1988, Richards & Nunan 1990).
3. Experimenting with other classroom methods and techniques. e.g. Silent Way, CLL, etc.
4. Both student and teacher diaries.
5. Workshops run by teachers.
6. Group discussions among teachers with similar interests.
7. Articles for an in-house newsletter or TEFL journals.
In practice these feedback sessions melded with the pre-discussion phase for the next lesson. When the two did not meld, the teacher always suggested a time for the pre-lesson discussion to be held. Too often feedback sessions tend to halt after the trainer's review of the lesson, and no positive arrangements are made for the future (Sheal 1989:101). I have found that the structure of the course of 'unseen observations' ensures that the teacher and trainer work together towards future objectives.
Step 5: Post-course discussion.
At the end of the course of 'unseen observations' it is equally important that there is a final meeting where the teacher can give feedback on the course and where the trainer can suggest ways in which the teacher's development can progress. From those teachers who participated on the first course in Abu Dhabi, four started another course of 'unseen observations' the following semester, four began a Diploma in TEFLA and the final teacher went to England to take an MA in TEFL.
Teacher development can only be assured if backed by a continuous programme of in-service support, the foundation of which could be an 'unseen observation' scheme. The starting point for any such support must be those issues, both theoretical and practical, which the teacher finds problematic. This approach gives the trainer a novel view of a teacher's professional attitudes and beliefs, and gives the necessary overview to mould a group of teachers into a cohesive team of researching professionals.
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Freeman.D. (1982) Observing Teachers: Three approaches to in-service training and development.(TESOL Quarterly 16/21-8. pp21-8.)
Freeman.D. (1989) Teacher training, Development, and Decision Making: A model of teaching and related strategies for language teacher education. (TESOL Quarterly Vol. 23, No 1 pp27-45.)
Richards.J.C. (1990) The language teaching matrix. Cambridge University Press.
Richards.J.C. & Nunan.D. (1990) Second Language Teacher Education Cambridge University Press.
Rinvolucri.M. (1988) A role-switching exercise in teacher training. (Modern English Teacher, Spring 1988.)
Rinvolucri.M. (1989) A missing bit in Italian Teacher Training: "Observed" Teaching Practice. Workshop given at The British Council Sorrento Conference Paper edited by S.Holden.
Sheal.P. (1989) Classroom observation: training the observers. (ELT Journal Vol. 43/2 pp92-104)
van Lier.L. (1988) The classroom and the language learner. Longman. London.
Wallace.M.J. (1991) Training Foreign Language Teachers: a reflective approach. Cambridge University Press.