There has been plenty of debate in English Language Teaching about the value of observations. Some of the key questions that have come out of the discussion so far have been:
- Is the purpose of an observation to develop teachers or check standards?
- Does a good observer need a plan to understand what is going on in the lesson?
- Why do schools require written formal plans when this doesn’t happen on a day-to-day basis?
In this episode of The TEFL Show Marek Kiczkowiak and myself got into an extended debate on the subject of preparation, planning and formal observations. In the show, I emphasised how I had always had observations which were focussed entirely on Professional Development and resulted in professional development goals. I also pointed out that I saw the value of formal written lesson plans mainly because this gave the observer a greater deal of insight into the planned intentions of the teacher, which can later be compared with what actually happened during the lesson.
However, this week I had the opportunity to be observed by the Assistant Programme Manager who was quite happy to see a real lesson i.e. no formal written plan, no pre-meeting going over the stages, aims and intended outcomes, just simply watch and observe the lesson.
It has been quite an experience and has made me question how observations are currently executed. Keep reading to find out more…
Before coming into the classroom, most observers will usually want three things from the teacher:
- Aims of the lesson and any Professional Development goals
- Lesson plan or at least a run-through of the stages
- Overview of the learners
As to be expected, during this Pre-Observation meeting I was asked for my aims and goals as well as a plan, albeit a basic one, but not much was asked about in terms of the learners. However, I hadn’t had the chance to prepare, as I had been busy with other things. As a result, I didn’t really have any aims, though I had an idea of what I wanted to do, and I certainly didn’t have any lesson plan.
Rather than this being a problem, as I technically hadn’t done my paperwork, so to speak, I just simply asked the observer if they’d like to see a show or a real lesson.
A real lesson
So often you hear observers, Teacher Trainers and Directors of Studies say that they want to see what really happens in the classroom. However, given that they always ask for formal lesson plans a day or sometimes several days in advance, how could they ever see what really happens in the classroom? I don’t know about you, but I rarely write out a sequence of stages, let alone a plan. And I certainly don’t plan two or three days in advance.
Instead, what I prefer to do is to focus on the exercises the learners will be doing, as this gives me better greater insight into the steps they will go through when completing the tasks. By doing the exercises myself, I have a more informed expectation of the lesson procedure and outcomes.
As you can probably imagine, the observer relished in the delight of the possibility of seeing a real lesson and not some pre-planned show. So, they naturally agreed and as part of this they accepted they had to forgo the lesson plan.
Although the observer had an idea of what I wanted to do in the lesson, when they entered the room at the given time, the lesson had gone in a totally different direction to what had been briefly discussed the day before. Expecting a language systems focused lesson, they got a skills lesson, specifically reading skills.
While that may sound somewhat disorganized, it stemmed from the fact that at the beginning of the lesson the learners had several language-related questions, which naturally led on to us doing the language first and then moving onto the skills later.
Situations like this, where the learners set the scene or focus of the lesson, are not uncommon. In fact, I believe this happens in the vast majority of language classrooms. Why would a teacher snub the learners’ genuine interest in a topic for the sake of sticking to the lesson plan?
This, however, is something observers don’t get to see often, but this observation was a rare opportunity for the observer to see such deviation in action.
After the lesson, we had a feedback session. The observer identified areas they liked about the lesson and my teaching, but overall they found more areas to work on. These included things such as:
- Adapting materials
- Lesson focus
What really surprised me about the feedback session was that I didn’t feel hard done by or irritated by the remarks. In fact, I was really impressed by what was being said and I could really relate to the suggestions being made. So much so, that once the meeting was over, I immediately began work on the action points.
Why was that? Why was it I walked away from this observation feeling highly motivated and inspired to work on my teaching, even though this had been a fairly unimpressive lesson?
I think the reason is because the observer had seen what I’m really like in the classroom. Their comments therefore related directly to what I really do – not only in that lesson but in most of my lessons.
Unlike in other observations, where the observer comments on the pre-planned show, full of materials, stages and activities which I would never normally do in a lesson, this time the observer got to comment on the real me, the real teacher, in a real lesson.