Look and learn

Make the most of watching other teachers, Tom Bennett advises PGCE students

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Observing others is a fact of life for new teachers; you may be required by a PGCE provider to spend time in primary and secondary schools to dispel myths you may have built up about teaching and to give you a better idea about what the job is.

Your PGCE will involve cumulative weeks of watching how pupils and practitioners make teaching and learning happen. This is because teaching is an art and a craft, often best learnt by watching it happen.

Alas, when you finally go solo, opportunities to observe vanish like snow in summer. So just at the point where observing others starts to become meaningful, you find yourself marooned, isolated from other teachers in your classroom island. It makes sense then to look at ways to make the most of your time in other people's classes.

Have a focus

This is essential, particularly earlier in your career. A lot is happening below and on the surface of any lesson, and it can be hard to appreciate exactly what without perspective. Eventually you will be able to focus on several areas in any observation, but at the beginning make sure that you pick one thing to watch carefully in any session.

This could be something general at the start, such as noting the structure of a lesson; observing how pupils behave with different teachers; finding out if seating plans work. Later on you can start to explore topics in depth. For instance, behaviour: take notes on what happens and when. Crucially, make a note about what the teacher does and how the pupils react. What tactics work and which strategies spell a lesson's doom?

Keeping a focus like this ensures that you will come away from the observation with useful reflections on one area, as opposed to a fistful of trite observations that won't make sense and, crucially, probably won't affect your teaching.

Write it down

Some people undoubtedly possess photographic memories they can access like supercomputers. If you do not have such a faculty, I recommend that you take notes as the observation is proceeding. Then later on you need to invest the time to process the data you've collected by looking over your notes and turning them into some kind of considered response.

This is your chance to make sense of the information and see what it means. Perhaps you were watching how a particular teacher timed their lessons.

When you review your observation data you should be asking simple questions such as: Did the teacher allocate enough time to each task? Were the pupils challenged enough or did some finish early? Was time wasted at the start or beginning?

If this sounds like a lot of work, then you are right; after all, you've done the observation and probably don't relish taking it home with you. Tough. If you don't reflect and write up what you observed, you may as well not have been there in the first place. Memories fade. You need to get this stuff down on paper, and preferably on the same day, while the observation is still fresh.

Stick to observation agendas

Often PGCE students will be issued with topics that need to be observed by a certain point in their timetables. Follow these; the focus you are given will closely match the things you need to know, funnily enough.

These guidelines have been drawn up by people who understand what teaching actually entails, rather than what you think it might be about. You will need to develop skills that you might not have expected, such as crowd control or negotiating, so keep to the programme, even when you think that you know it already.

Be unobtrusive

Like Schrodinger's famous cat experiment, every investigation is skewed by the presence of an observer. Some classes will react positively to your presence, others will be scratching themselves in excited curiosity.

Sit at the back and don't draw attention to yourself - so this means be there before they are all settled, otherwise you become a big fat distraction to them. It also means not laughing out loud or rolling your eyes. And don't talk when the teacher's talking, for God's sake.

Collect meaningful information

That doesn't mean that you need to hide in your seat. If the class is working in groups, it would be crazy not to take the opportunity to talk to a few pupils and ask them what they're doing - what they think the task is, for instance. Don't ask them what they think of the teacher. You might even be able to look at some of their books, as long as you ask first. Pupils' exercise books, like murder victims, are data heavy, so remember to keep focused. Ask yourself: what do I want to find out by looking at this book? Then stick to it and don't become distracted.

Discuss your findings

You should have a mentor, trainer, or tutor - someone in a position of experience with whom to discuss the meaning of what you have observed. Do so. They will assist you in your absorption of the skills and information to be gained from the experience.

You will make the conclusions for yourself, but they should be able to give you context and perspective on what you have just seen and heard. If possible, do this before you review your notes.

Go deeper

Once you have observed a range of classes, teachers and subjects, and made sure you have focused on the topics that you need to cover, it's time to start to dive into understanding. Watch the same class at different times of the day and re-observe them for topics that you have already covered; see if the reflections you have made are still valid, or do your findings need to be updated?

For instance, you might have concluded that behaviour management is dependant on utilising a range of activities; but is it? If you then saw a teacher with superb control but mind-numbingly dull lessons, what could you conclude from this? What could you take away?

Remember the point of lessons

Observations aren't for you to slavishly copy your peers. Rather, the point is for you to absorb ideas about what does and doesn't work - for you. And then one day someone will be observing you and wondering exactly how you do it.

Tom Bennett is head of religious studies and philosophy at Raine's Foundation School in Bethnal Green, east London

Things to watch out for

1. Timing. What happens when? Does the lesson seem rushed, lazy or poorly planned?

2. Range of activities. What are the pupils expected to do and how successful are the different types of activity?

3. Behaviour. Who acts up, when do they do it and how does the teacher react to or pre-empt the behaviour? What relationship does the teacher have with the class?

4. Learning. How does the teacher assess whether or not pupils have reached the lesson aims?

5. What went well - or wrong. Remember that you can learn just as much from an unsuccessful lesson as an exemplary one, if you can spot what it was that inspired or destroyed a lesson.

6. Pace and challenge. Is the work too easy, too hard, or in the manner of Goldilocks, just right? Is there enough of it? Are the special needs and gifted and talented pupils' needs addressed?

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