Judgment in the classroom is a two-way street

26th October 2007 at 01:00

We judge them. From the moment they walk in the door, our antennae are out. First we notice how they look, how they behave, how they interact with others. Soon we start to see their work, and judge that too.

This gets serious once formal assessments begin. References for university and employment mean further judgments must be made - ones that can have a profound effect on the future course of our students' lives. And all the while this is going on we are unloading in the staffroom, swapping judgments with our colleagues - and because we are such consummate professionals, these never include words such as "buggers" or "little".

Given our own preoccupations, we sometimes forget that something else is happening on the judgment front: they are judging us. This too starts from the moment they first clap eyes on us. They also are interested in how we look (don't go there), how we behave and how we interact with others - particularly them.

While much of the time they don't have a lot they can do with the conclusions they reach, they are given a chance to put it down on paper once those learner surveys come round. Most areas of college life are covered, with particular emphasis on what goes on in the classroom.

When these were introduced some years ago, not every lecturer was to be found high-fiving round the workroom to a chorus of "yes, yes, yes!" There were dark mutterings about Big Brother, spies in the classroom and thin ends of wedges.

But are our shells really that thin? Our egos so fragile? Surely we can bear to hear just twice a year the opinions of those on whom we opine so often? All right, there will always be the odd malcontent using the process to settle old scores, real or imagined. But if 18 out of 20 students are telling you that what you're doing is right, or wrong, surely you'd be a mug not to listen? If they like what you're doing, you can sit back and glory in it. If they don't, you get a chance to change it.

What should we make, though, of the latest development on this front: active student involvement in lesson observations? Chichester College - as featured recently in these pages - is running a trial in which student union members get to sit alongside trained observers and feed back their views to lecturers.

Given what I say above, you might think that I'd go for this one too. But the problem here is that the whole lesson observations process is already fraught with difficulties. Lecturers complain of ignorant observers, unfair grades and negative and destructive outcomes. So why double the trouble by putting a second pair of judgmental eyes into the classroom?

In the Chichester trial, students receive only a brief training and are not allowed to observe in the subjects they are studying - those subjects you might think they at least know something about.

As with the move to get student involvement in self-assessment reports, this has a distinct whiff of tokenism about it and it's hard to see much of value resulting. Except, perhaps, for a few laudatory lines in the college prospectus!

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