Using the other 40 eyes in the classroom
Suzanne Mizon and Phil Quirke
Having worked on Unseen Observations in some form or other for over a decade (Quirke 1996) I remain convinced of their benefit in focusing the teacher on their professional development (Quirke 1996, Catto 1997, Powell 1999) and in helping the observer better understand the beliefs and values that drive a teacher's classroom approach.
In my previous position I ran a department of 22 teachers many of whom I had taught with and observed frequently. Knowing one another so well allowed me, as Supervisor, to probe the reflective practice promoted by Unseen Observations and gain insights neither I nor the teachers had expected.
This article reports on a new approach to unseen Observations that excites me tremendously as it takes advantage of the other twenty pairs of eyes in the classroom and gives the, often silent, majority a voice in the observation process.
Suzanne picked up on work we had been doing in the department on using student feedback to enhance our classroom performance and suggested we could combine this with our Unseen Observations. This appealed to me immediately as it takes Rinvolucri's original idea from Moreno's psychodrama (Rinvolucri 1988 & 1989) a step further since it allows all the participants in the supervision to recount their version of what really happened. This also addresses Powell (1999) and McDonald & Walker's (1975) concerns that what teachers think and say they are doing may not accurately reflect what they are actually doing. The student feedback would, we hoped, give us a more accurate account of not only what had happened in the class but also of how the students had benefited from the class and whether or not this matched the teacher's perceptions.
Therefore, in the pre-observation meeting we discussed in detail the teacher's approach to the 'observed' lesson as we would in a typical Unseen Observation and, based on this, we drew up a feedback form which the students would be asked to complete anonymously. As this was the first time either of us had combined observation and student feedback in this way, we decided to attempt two different kinds of feedback. In the first 'observed' lesson we drew up a very detailed feedback form (see Appendix 1) which asked the students to think about the lesson in depth, looking at the different stages and focusing both on what they had done and the perceived outcomes from their point of view. In the second lesson, we drew up a one-page very general feedback form (see Appendix 2) which we hoped would allow the students to write down the focus points they recalled rather than being guided to them.
Both of us felt that the more open type of evaluation form evoked more responses from the students, so we will continue to use that format in future.
The 'observed' lesson
Suzanne started both classes by telling the students she would be asking them to complete an 'evaluation' form of the lesson which would help her improve it for future classes. After the first lesson she gave the form to the students as a homework task and collected it afterwards. In the second lesson, she gave the students the last ten minutes of class time to complete the form. Meanwhile, the 'observer' went through the feedback forms and, as I knew both classes well, attempted to predict how the students would respond to the different questions and drew up a series of questions which Suzanne could answer and thereby lead the feedback session.
After the lesson Suzanne reflected on the lesson and wrote down a few points for the feedback as she would do in a standard Unseen Observation. She then collected the feedback forms from the students, and we decided that a day was needed to collate the student feedback and reflect upon what it meant for the teacher.
Suzanne led the feedback session by first reviewing the lesson from her eyes using the questions posed as prompts. After that though, we were able to look at the added dimension of student input and compare them with the perceptions of both the teacher and the 'observer'. The insights this gave were powerful, and I'll hand over now to Suzanne as her voice and perception as the teacher are the strengths behind the "Unseen Observation".
"Teachers will often know, although they might not like to admit, which areas they are least confident or least effective in" (Bowen and Marks 1994) . These are the interesting areas to explore, so we chose two quite different lessons, which as the teacher, I felt needed to be improved. The first lesson was based on a unit in a student textbook and introduced a grammar point.
Some of the student responses were quite different from our predictions. For example, the majority of students would have preferred more teacher-talk, which Phil predicted, but which surprised me. Although the students all realized that the main focus of the lesson was a grammar point, we didn't expect some of the other learning outcomes. Students reported that they'd learned a variety of things, ranging from "I learned more about my friends" to "I learned about more vocabulary and spelling" Some, but not all, the students also differentiated between the part of the lesson which they enjoyed most, and the part of the lesson they learned most from.
In our discussion prior to this observed lesson, Phil and I predicted that students would need more time to work on this grammar point. However, the students' evaluation showed that only two students felt that they had not understood the grammar point and needed more time to work on it.
In the next lesson I followed up with a short grammar exercise, and it was clear that one of the students had really not understood the structure. She chose to work on her own, using a grammar book and some grammar exercises in the computer lab until she was sure she had understood. In a later discussion with the class, a second student commented that although she could do the grammar exercise, she didn't believe that she understood the grammar point, as she wasn't confident that she could use the grammar accurately in writing. I also feel the same concern when I work with students on grammar at only a sentence level.
We had a class discussion based on our different perceptions of the observed lesson and came up with the following guidelines for future lessons
· From eighteen contact hours a week, three of these should be grammar based
· One of these hours should be in the computer-lab
· In the remaining two hours, the teacher should explain the grammar points, and give handouts for practice.
If I may interject here, this follow up class discussion and the shared awareness
that resulted for both teacher and students was one of the unexpected strengths
we found in this approach to Unseen Observations. It is a point which Suzanne
clearly makes in the conclusion, but I thought it warranted a mention here.
Now, back to her.
The second lesson was a weekly reading session involving a couple of different reading activities, where students alternated reading a series of short texts with comprehension questions and reading a graded reader of their own choice. It was difficult for us to predict student responses because reading is such an "unseen" learning activity but I felt there was a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the lesson. The students' responses were varied, and just as one student loved the class because it was so quiet, another student hated it for the same reason. Interestingly enough, although most of the students found the readings with comprehension questions helpful, they really disliked this activity. They found the topics of the texts and the questions boring. On the other hand, they enjoyed reading the graded reading books that they had selected themselves, and they also found this kind of reading helpful for their language. The students felt it improved their vocabulary, their grammar and also their writing. Neither Phil nor I had predicted this high level of student interest in and enjoyment of the graded readers.
In the follow up sessions it was clear the students no longer wanted to read the short texts with comprehension questions. From their perspective, they had enough reading comprehension practice in other lessons when they used reading in the computer lab or from a reading textbook. So, we came up with the following decisions for the next few weeks of class:
· We would not use the texts with questions in class.
· We would continue to use graded readers and most students would extend the time spent reading them
· A few students who did not want to read graded readers for the longer period of time, would spend some of the time reading graded readers, and then work on writing, grammar or vocabulary activities of their own choice related to their reading.
Although "the map is not the territory", by sharing the perceptions of the observer, the teacher and the students we felt we had come a little closer to understanding what was happening in these specific learning contexts. More importantly, this approach to Unseen Observation provides an opportunity for teachers and students to negotiate changes in the classroom.
Although this article only reports on two isolated 'observations' and from this sample it would be rash to draw any sweeping conclusions, both the teacher and the observer felt strongly that we had succeeded in adding a new dimension to Unseen Observations that produced some exciting outcomes. At the very least it gave us a new angle to reflect upon and allowed the teacher to reflect openly with the students. We would encourage everyone out there to attempt this approach and let us know how it goes.
I'd like you to please give me some feedback on the lesson by completing this form Please do not put your name on the paper, as what you write is confidential. Thank you for your time and help.
What did you practice most in this lesson? Please number the following from
1 (the most) to 7 (the least)
Did you practice anything else? If so, what?
How did you work most of the time in this lesson? Number the following from
1 (the most) to 4 (the least)
On your own
As a class
In pairs or threes
Which did you prefer doing?
Which grammar activity did you spend the most time working on?
Which listening activity did you spend the most time doing? Please number the
following from 1 (the most) to 3 (the least)
Listening to the teacher
Listening to the tapes
Listening to one another
Which do you prefer?
List 3 new things you learned today
What grammar structure/s did you practice?
Do you understand the grammar structure better now?
Circle: Yes or No
Did you have enough time to practice this grammar?
Circle: Yes or No
If No, how would you like to practice it next lesson?
(E.g. grammar exercises from the Headway Workbook, or from Murphy (the purple book) the grammar CD., or grammar games in class)
Which part of the lesson did you enjoy most?
Which part of the lesson did you enjoy least?
Which part of the lesson did you learn most from?
Which part of the lesson did you learn least from
Please write any other comments here
Please answer the following questions honestly. What you say will help us prepare future reading classes. Thanks a million for all your help JJJ
What did you read in today's lesson?
Why did you choose to read this?
What did you know at the end of the lesson that you did NOT know at the beginning?
How has the SRA reading box helped your reading?
How does the other reading work help you?
What do you like best about this reading lesson?
What do you like least about this reading lesson?
How could we make this lesson more useful?
How could we make this lesson more enjoyable?
Bowen, T. & Marks, J. (1994) Inside teaching. Heinemann, Oxford.
Catto, B. (1997) The unseen observation. Paper presented at TESOLArabia conference, Al-Ain, UAE
McDonald, B. & Walker, R. (1975) Case study and the social philosophy of educational research. Cambridge Journal of Education, 5/1
Powell, G. (1999) How to avoid being the fly on the wall. The Teacher Trainer, 13/1
Quirke, P. (1996) Using unseen observations for an IST development programme. The Teacher Trainer, 10/1
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.