Letter from the Chair – July 2018
Dear members, colleagues, and friends, I enjoy watching teachers working with their students and find the challenge of offering generative, supportive feedback a very worthwhile endeavour; I observe classes every year at a large and successful UK summer school and make it my primary objective to offer something useful rather than something destructive. Observation and feedback has universally gained a fearsome reputation over the years with teachers suffering various pre-observation nerves ranging from mild anxiety to actual physical illness and emotional breakdowns. This, I believe, is the result of poorly constructed observation – designed less for genuine support and development and more for some kind of assessment, perhaps even with a pay or status-related structure. In other words, if you do well, according to the criteria, you might get a pay rise or a promotion, if you don’t do well, your pay might be reduced and so on.
I fail to see how such an observation and feedback process is in any way useful given that it applies further stress to teachers who already have a tough enough job. Furthermore, it can offer little or no valid developmental advice since it is tied to the aim of assessing, not supporting and the two aims are necessarily mutually exclusive.
We must also mention the generally fixed criteria by which such observations are governed, which brings me to my proposal of: ‘See what you say’ vs ‘Say what you see’. The former is the traditional observation model in which the observer has a list of teacher behaviours and has to note when, how often and perhaps how they occur. This approach results in a narrow focus since the observer is actively looking for listed items and not much else. The latter model, ‘say what you see’, is concerned with noting whatever occurs and commenting on the processes and results which by definition allows for a much more flexible process. Over the years I have developed a system which combines both: a list of generally agreed teacher and student behaviours, such as TTT, STT, WB work, Use of communicative tasks, Error management etc alongside a narrative written in note form as the lesson progresses with broadly positive features on the right and perhaps questionable features to the left for my easy, later reference. This allows me to feedback in a meaningful way, highlighting the basic notions from the checklist but also focusing on perhaps more personalised actions which may be unique to that teacher, in that class at that time. Keeping notes as you observe requires practice, you don’t want to miss anything, you don’t want to distract the teacher or the students, but your notes must be sufficient to trigger your memory later and of course you don’t want to misinterpret anything. All in all, this kind of observation is taxing since it demands complete focus and concentration.
At the end of a lesson, the skilled observer should have a very accurate record of the lesson such that if, as is the case very often, one has to go immediately into another lesson, the notes will be sufficient to be able to engage in a feedback dialogue clearly and accurately.
Feedback itself is all too often a monologue from the observer telling the teacher how it is! For me, this is not only a waste of time but a waste of resource. The teacher is the person who ran the lesson, who understands what students need, what the aims were and whether they were achieved and for those reasons and more, a dialogue must now occur. If observation and feedback are to have more than a vague evaluative function, then teacher and observer should be exchanging views, especially since in the final analysis we don’t have definitive answers about how language learning takes place and therefore how teaching (or whatever euphemism you prefer for that act of fostering the growth of knowledge) should occur. I suppose there are things we can be pretty sure don’t work well, in other words, they are likely to hinder learning, and things which we probably all agree are considered to be useful and generative but there’s a whole mass of technique about which we may not agree at all and it is that huge area which presents the sensitive observer with the greatest difficulty. An example of this area of potential discussion would be: reading aloud; now I am vehemently against that technique and can support my views but I’ve met many teachers you use it and are also able to support their practice. So what happens now? Should I insist because I think I’m right? The answer is, in my view, that I can try to convince the teacher by arguments based on very long experience but I may fail, in which case the teacher has the absolute right to continue to use reading aloud as a technique though may do so with a little less fervour while considering the counter arguments! So if we are to be honest in our feedback, we must certainly engage with the teacher to discuss and talk over our views rather than try to lay down the law on what does and doesn’t constitute Good Teaching! I hope you have experienced good quality observation and feedback. Happy teaching and learning. June 2018 Steve Hirschhorn Chair of Gallery Teachers Membership Committee.