By now you will have been in a range of lessons, observing different teachers and pupils. Even with the structured tasks we have set you, I am guessing there will have been times when you are watching what is happening when you are not sure what you are supposed to be seeing and what you are supposed to gain from observing as oppose to just getting stuck in and teaching lessons straightaway.
Observation is important at any stage of a teacher’s career and we will be encouraging you to observe experienced practitioners (and each other where you can) throughout the year. Teachers’ lessons are so often observed now as part of a means of collecting evidence to judge teaching, and an individual teacher (Ofsted, performance management,…), yet, non-judgemental observation of lessons offers a rich means of making sense of teaching and learning and developing practice.
You may recall this quote which I showed you when the PGCE course started:
I think this emphasises the approach we take to learning to teach – the need to examine what is happening in a classroom and make sense of it in order to develop and not just keep repeating practices that may, or may not, support learning.
Drawing from international practices, it is interesting to consider the principles of lesson study in areas of Asia where large groups of teachers observe the same lesson scrutinizing the learning that is taking place. At points there can be hundreds of teachers observing, and then discussing, one lesson!
Lesson Study is a growing practice in the UK and as a university we are leading the way in this area with several projects that draw on the Japanese model. I have been lucky enough to be involved in some of this work and it is fascinating to really unpick a lesson and make sense of what is happening. The thing that I find most powerful is the idea that you are not looking at the teacher, or judging them, you are focusing solely on the pupils’ work (responses to questions, written answers) and the structuring of the knowledge in the lesson. Whilst, at your stage, I think it is important to observe the teacher as well as the pupils the key here is the lack of judgement of the teacher – instead it is about observing how their decisions and actions impact on learning.
So where does this leave you?
Well, lesson observation for professional development is a skill that can be developed and practised, here are two suggestions for you to try out in the coming weeks. Both could be done alongside an observation focus you may already have but the point is to really dig down into what you see, either by focusing on one particular ‘spot’ (a pupil or two) or one particular teacher attribute. Be very careful not to judge what you see, don’t think about what you would do or decide there is a ‘better way’, simply notice and pose questions. Have a go and see how you get on!
Concentrate on just the body language of the teacher and how they position themselves in the classroom:
Where do they position themselves at the start of the lesson? What impact does this have on how the lesson begins?
When pupils are working independently where is the teacher? When do they intervene? When do they observe? What impact does this have on the pupils?
What do they do with their hands when they are talking? When they are listening?
Watch a teacher that is good at getting the complete attention of the class. How do they get silence? Look at what they do with their eyes, body position, hands, …. When they ask for silence, count in your head or look on a watch and note down how long they stand and say nothing. Does it surprise you? After the lesson try standing still for the same amount of time. Notice how it goes beyond when you feel like you would like to say something and you feel very aware of the silence, it’s that awkward silence you want to spot.
Decide on some questions to ask the teacher about how they used their body language and position in the room during the lesson – when you talk to them you might frame your question along the lines of ‘I noticed you …, did you consciously choose to do this? Why?’
Focus on a group of one or two pupils. Throughout the lesson, look only at their work and think about what they might be learning:
What do they do when the teacher asks a question?
If they answer a question what happens? Examine the full sequence of questions and answers – can you see how learning has developed through this sequence?
When working independently what happens – can they do the work? What happens if they are stuck? What happens if they finish?
Look carefully at exactly what work the pupils do – can you spot the learning that is taking place? What makes you think there is learning happening?
Ask permission to take a copy or photo of their work – examine it and think about what it tells you about what they have learnt in the lesson.
Decide on some questions to ask the teacher. Focus your questions on what you think the pupils have learnt not on how they behaved.