It is a mantra worth observing for ourselves

13th June 2008 at 01:00
Recently, I have been examining the notion of classroom observation
Recently, I have been examining the notion of classroom observation. Surely, we need to be moving towards a climate of support. Of course, there needs to be some judgment if we are to maintain the high standard of teachers in Scotland. And we do need some opportunity for the student, or class teacher, to receive the wisdom and advice from another professional. However, there is something more that we can offer.

It is well proven that we remember best the lessons we learn for ourselves. Rather than be told by another what we did badly, or what we should have done, we respond and remember best the understanding we gain ourselves. If "self-evaluation, reflection, self-improvement" is the mantra of this decade, we should be working towards a climate of peer support. Instead of following the lesson with the conversation led by the observer, even shared by the observer, we need to shift the balance and allow a more enabling role.

Teachers are well practised with "fat questions" in their classrooms. They are adept at eliciting thoughtful responses from their pupils. What I am advocating is an approach where a peer supporter asks the searching questions which enable the teachers to "work it out for themselves".

Regardless of the relationship between teacher and "the observed", it is impossible to be perfectly neutral. When discussing the lesson you never saw, you are immediately in the role of clarifier. How did you manage the resources for this lesson? What kind of thinking did you encourage? What formative assessment strategies worked best? What did you want the pupils to remember? What do you think they did remember?

Such questions enable the teacher to reflect, to narrate, to do most of the talking. While they are talking, they are thinking more deeply. They are beginning to be analytical. Self-reflection and self-evaluation - free from the feeling of being judged. You can't judge them, because you weren't there.

I am not suggesting we abandon the formal monitoring of students and staff. I am saying that staff who are reluctant to engage with the process of being observed can still gain enormous benefit from having the coaching conversation after one of their lessons. They can be free from the nerves of having someone in the classroom. The presence of another person always affects the dynamic.

The same is true of students on placement. Free from the presence of the teacher, they can be brave, they can experiment with their professional approach. Afterwards, they can tell you about it in a way which enables you to have a coaching professional conversation.

There will still need to be some evaluation of their competence, but how much better will the profession be with teachers who are able to debate on a regular basis about what they do daily in their classrooms?

If it is "self-evaluation, reflection, self-improvement" that we want, let us do it for ourselves.

Peter Tarrant is a teaching fellow at Moray House, Edinburgh University.

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