What makes for good observation?

Meena Sriram

Working with children in classrooms, delivering content, ensuring they understand concepts and enabling them to apply the knowledge gained is a tough task! All this topped with numerous administrative exercises, convincing parents about the abilities or inabilities of their children, orienting them with the school culture and requesting their alliance as partners in the upbringing of the children, is just too exhausting. After observing many classrooms across the country, I can say that teachers can improve on their efforts if they have better feedback on their performance and are given suggestions on how to use their time smartly.

Department heads conduct observations in most schools. Teachers either “put up” the best show for this performance or become nervous and are unable to showcase their best practices. How can we perform freely when we know we are being evaluated? How honest will the feedback be? What will this observation impact? What does it mean to have classes observed? Don’t most schools have CC TV cameras? How can the presence of another adult impact the teaching methodology?

Observation is a significant skill that needs to be developed by every human being. A lot of learning happens through observation. When we observe an incident and have a friend observe the same incident, on discussing, we find that many times our perceptions differ. So, observations can help us comprehend perspectives. Observations must be conducted with an objective too. It is not merely seeing but being in the moment and absorbing what is happening without prejudices or preconceived notions.

Let us assume that constructive feedback will enable a teacher to strengthen her teaching skills. What comes before this is the attitude to listen to feedback positively. Most times, the listener and speaker are not aligned and feedback falls short of its purpose. Providing feedback is an essential and challenging task. Does the observer share all that is observed or does he/she share only the impact?

Keeping in mind the mindset of teachers and observers the following steps can be taken by both of them:

  • A short and effective discussion between the observer and teacher can be conducted deliberating and articulating the areas in which the observation must be made.
  • The objective of the observation should be mutually discussed and understood.
  • There should be an honest effort on the part of the teacher to make essential changes in the methodology.
  • A sincere effort on the part of the observer to provide appropriate and accurate feedback.

So how should feedback be provided? Most definitely in a healthy and constructive manner.

  • Feedback can always begin with the appreciation of tasks well delivered.
  • It should focus on the outcomes agreed upon. If the discussion was about engaging children, then the feedback cannot be about content.
  • All feedback must be backed by observations. For instance, if all children were not equally engaged then there must be some indication of how such a conclusion was made. The teacher could be asked how certain children were responding to the teaching methodology. This will help the teacher improve her own observation skills and provide an opportunity to reflect on the method used.
  • Feedback must be provided in such a way that the teacher is empowered. A few steps to achieve targets or avoid negligence could also be provided. The teacher could be asked for other possibilities of handling a certain situation. When an individual devises a plan herself/himself there is a sense of confidence and trust in the plan.

Many more ideas and suggestions could be added to this list to make it more viable and it can be tailored to the needs of the situation.

Who can be an observer?

In most schools, as mentioned earlier, it is the senior teacher who observes the new teacher. Possibilities to change this could be considered. When some teacher has an effective practice, the same can be observed and adopted by others. Observations pertaining to the content of the lesson could be restricted to domain centered observers and when the objective is about class engagement or delivery of the lesson, an interdisciplinary observation can be considered.

  • Subject teachers could observe other classes in the same department.
  • Teachers teaching the same class could observe and suggest methods on class management.
  • Inter-disciplinary teachers could observe each other to provide objective feedback.
  • Co-curricular subject teachers could observe other classes to suggest ideas for blending in their strengths.

Several such combinations can be worked out tailoring to the need of the children and upskilling levels of the teachers.

Peer evaluation or observation is a friendly way of conveying feedback when compared to a senior doing it. Schools may work out the need for each teacher to complete a predetermined set of observations to enhance the teaching-learning environment.

How would an observer behave while in a classroom?

Maria Montessori said, “The observer should maintain perfect immobility of the soul, so as not to take part in any manifestation of feelings in the actions of the children. There must be no manifestation of enthusiasm, pleasure, or joy, on the part of the observer.” She often mentioned that the observer must behave like a fly on the wall!!

  • The observer while in the classroom must avoid judging. The observer could continuously take notes and interpretation or drawing inferences could be done later after the observation. The observer must be cautious not to entertain thoughts that tend to provide suggestions, conclusions, or prejudices, as they can hamper the quality of observations. The observations must be as is seen and not as interpreted!
  • It must be remembered that during observation, only that part of the activity or session that was being observed needs to be focused upon. Most times, as part of observing class engagement, adults tend to scrutinize notebooks of children. Adults become part of groups and provide answers or suggest ideas for activities oblivious to the fact that they are not participants and are merely observers!
  • The most important fact that needs to be remembered is the objective charted before the session. The purpose of observation and only that needs to be observed. Complete respect must be provided to the teacher at work and all the children who are part of the ecosystem.

Observing classes is by far the most difficult task as there are too many components which can be distracting. While one must listen to the teacher delivering the content, there should also be focus on the children to estimate the levels of engagement. Hence observers must be skilled at multi-tasking and taking mental notes without drawing conclusions.

Listening to teachers and their instructions, are the instructions being interpreted as desired, are children able to meet the expectations of the teacher, the speed with which the children deliver their work, are there additional activities for those who finish fast, is there a special plan for those who need help, what about a backup plan in case of adversities…these are some areas of observations which need to be encapsulated.

All learning in a human being, most definitely, is through observation and it is the most subtle form of learning which even the learner is unaware of….so let us attempt to upskill our observational skills!

The author is the academic administrator with Chinmaya Education Cell and has about 28 years of teaching experience working with all age groups. She can be reached at meenasriram@gmail.com.

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