What makes for valid classroom observations?
Posted March 10, 2017on:
I wanted to tweet a response to this question, but realised that a short form reply would not do justice. So here is my ramble.
There are many reasons for observing classroom teaching. I consider just three of of them:
- A preservice teacher being assessed during initial teacher preparation.
- Any teacher or educator being appraised for job performance.
- An educator participating in an open classroom initiative.
A novice teacher would probably be used to being observed by his/her colleagues or a supervisor. I experienced this as a student teacher many years ago and I supervised many student teachers when I was a professor at NIE.
Formal observations of authentic classroom teaching by student teachers are evaluations of growing competencies and opportunities for critical reflection. This is also probably the only stage in a teacher’s life where observations are the norm and their mindsets are pliable enough to mould.
Are observations of classroom-based instruction by preservice teachers valid?
Yes, if these such observations are combined with a mentoring programme designed to shape a novice’s knowledge, skills, and attitudes (KSAs), and an evaluation system that is aligned to the KSAs.
After a teacher joins the profession, classroom observations serve two more functions:
- Job appraisal (more common).
- To enable peer-based learning that is open, reflective, and career-long (less common).
Are observations of classroom-based instruction by inservice teachers valid?
Many institutions have observations for appraisal. If they are the standalone method or single-instance observations, they are not valid because they are not necessarily representative of anyone’s ability to teach.
Driven by the administrative needs, the teacher appraisal system here is like the rest of the civil service: Teachers are ranked to follow a normal distribution even if this does not make sense [some references].
Since there is often little administrative bandwidth to spare, such observations tend to be sparse and scheduled. If administrators and teachers are brutally honest, classroom observations can seem to be a bother and an afterthought.
Observations are more meaningful only if they are part of more comprehensive system. Such a system might be based on teacher-owned e-portfolios, teaching philosophies, student feedback, peer testimonials, teacher reflections, etc. This system is in always-on and regular-use mode to balance the once or twice a year formal observation.
Classroom observations for professional development are rarer. These are based less on the need to appraise or otherwise summatively judge a teacher. These observations are a result of open mindsets or culture.
A teacher with an open mindset might invite colleagues to sit in on a lesson and have clear expectations of of the what, how, and why feedback.
- The WHAT could focus on questioning strategies, the HOW could involve a method of recording constructive comments, and the WHY could be for critical reflection.
- Another WHAT could be to code the type of learning interactions, the HOW might be enabled with an observation template, and the WHY could be for research to inform practice.
Very few schools have a culture that promotes such constant listening and learning by teachers for teachers. These efforts are driven by openness, humility, and the hunger to learn about learners and learning.
So are classroom observations that are part of a larger learning system valid for professional development? Yes.
Are similar observations valid for appraisal and ranking? It depends.
My answer is no if the ability and value of the teacher is artificially constrained to a normal distribution. The problem is not the validity of observations, it is the use of the data to play the wrong numbers game (for more insights, read my reflection on investing in individuals).
If an appraisal system uses classroom observations as one of several methods for triangulation, the observations could be valid. This is despite the common perception that teachers, when informed in advance, take disproportionate effort to represent (or misrepresent) themselves.
This response is a product of human nature. You want to show off your best when observed. The fundamental issue is authenticity. Was the amount of preparation and the methods used typical of that teacher?
If a teacher can barely spend an hour planning for a whole week of lessons, how fair a measure is a forewarned teacher’s effort of a 30-hour planning for a single 30-minute observation?
That same teacher could normally not use any current technology and student-centred methods. However, for the observation the teacher could plan for mobile devices to be brought into the classroom for a jigsaw strategy. How representative is that lesson of the teacher? How valid is such an instance of classroom observation?
That is the likely crux of the tweeted question. Classroom observations are not valid if teachers are gaming single-instance or standalone observations. If an organisation has that many teachers manipulating the system, it has a bigger problem than observation methods.
All that said, classroom observations (single-instance and standalone, or part of a larger learning initiative) can be valid in the hands of a skilled observer and evaluator. Such a person would use protocols that are based on open but critical questions instead of a closed checklist, and rely on deep knowledge of teachers and teaching.
For example, a skilled and experienced evaluator will expect the lesson plans to likely be the best effort. However, the evaluator can also examine other lesson plans, records, and artefacts for comparison.
The evaluator will also realise that any plan is only as good as its implementation. Pretenders might be able to put pen to paper, but they are likely to struggle when trying to go beyond that. Even the best laid plans will vary with ability, and if sorting teachers is important, the quality of lesson planning alone will likely reflect the mindset and skills of a teacher.
A professional evaluator will not rely on the observation alone. Other than examining previous work, there should be pre and post-lesson discussions. These sessions are not just designed to be a rigorous evaluation of the teacher, they are also to put the teacher at ease, establish context, scope expectations, etc.
Finally, a well-designed lesson observation should provide for opportunities to observe teacher reflexion and to process teacher reflection. The former involves thinking on the spot and adapting; the latter is self-evaluating in hindsight.
So, is classroom observation a valid measure of teaching ability? It depends.
If it is based on purely administrative needs, not linked to teacher development, or otherwise poorly conducted, then it is easy to see how such observation is neither valid nor valuable.
However, if the observations are driven by teachers and fuelled by a culture of professional learning, and if there is comprehensive portfolio system complemented by rigorous evaluation methods, then classroom observations are more likely to be valid and valuable.