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August 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 4

ISSN 1755-9715

Current Practice and Future Perspectives in Teacher Education: Lesson Observations

Marcela Cintra is an Academic Coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo. She has been working with English language teaching for over 20 years, been involved in teacher training and development programmes and presented in conferences such as BRAZ-TESOL, TESOL and IATEFL. A CELTA, ICELT, CELT-P, CELT-S and Delta tutor, she holds an MA in TESOL from Nottingham University. E-mail: marcela.cintra@hotmail.com

 

Introduction

The English language teaching market has been growing as the world’s demands for communication in English increase. Diverse types of language schools cater for learners whose needs vary from speaking English enough to get a different position at work to communicating at a level beyond B2 to study or work abroad. Results from recent research carried out by the British Council in Brazil show that there is a plethora of private language schools in the country. Their curricula vary as they have autonomy to choose a methodology, teachers and focus of courses offered. It is also stated that the teaching staff includes both foreign speakers of the language or, in this case, Brazilians who have some level of fluency and technical language.

A different study conducted by English First reveals how learners of English are performing. We can observe that many countries outside Europe score very low in language proficiency. I subscribe to Freire’s maxim that ‘there is no teaching without learning’ (1998: 29) and believe that, given the situation, there is relevance in investigating possible reasons in the teachers’ development for such learning outcomes – results were similar in the previous years. If learners are performing poorly, one should question what to do about teaching more frequently. 

In this article, I am going to outline current observational practices in in-service teacher education in the scenario aforementioned and refer to literature regarding lesson observations and feedback sessions. By putting observations in perspective, I aim at identifying contexts in which they may be used as a developmental tool to provoke changes in teaching practices and beliefs and consequently in affecting learning results. Therefore, in the last part of the study I will propose ideas for observing and conducting post-lesson observation sessions for feedback that may be incorporated as continuous professional development initiatives where learners and teachers are looked at from a more affective perspective.

Teacher education is used in this article as involving training and development initiatives for teacher learning (Burns and Richards, 2009: 2). As Thurlings et al (2012) observe, the attention to teacher development meets the current needs for highly qualified teachers. For the distinction between training and development, I subscribe to Wallace’s (1991) definition that training can be managed and proposed by others, while development is ‘something that can be done only by and for oneself’ (p. 3).

 

Current Practices: Lesson observations

Lesson observations permeate the ‘working lives of teachers throughout their careers’ (O’Leary, 2011: 791) in most learning contexts. Many of them are involved in structured courses such as the Cambridge CELTA or Delta, or other local pre-service and in-service programmes. Consequently, there are various instances of structured programmes of observation which help the teacher better understand terminology to discuss processes, develop awareness to make decisions, distinguish between effective and ineffective practices, identify techniques and practices they can apply to their teaching, benefits outlined by Day (1990: 43, 44).

The expected gain from observations vary among language schools as it depends on how they see teaching and because not all teaching aspects are observable, although a plethora of foci is available for observers (Richards, 1998: 141). Richards (1998: 143) emphasises the importance of having a focus for the observation, where the observational goal is agreed upon between teacher and observer before the lesson. The term observer is used to refer to anyone who sits in a classroom with the purpose of observing the teacher – in the scope of this article it may be a manager/ supervisor, a coach, a trainer, a peer or a student.

From my over twenty years’ experience in the field of English language teaching in Brazil, I may say that observations are more often carried out and perceived as assessment and part of appraisal moments than as a tool for professional development. Even as a formal component of teacher education programmes – a structured coaching programme with cycles of observations, for instance – observations serve as springboard to assess whether a teacher is improving and what still needs to be adjusted to meet the expected standards in language institutes. In those programmes, observations aim at shedding light on areas teachers need to improve and sometimes at collecting information to trigger deeper understanding of a teachers’ practicum and approaches used (Richards, 1998: 142).

Overall, lesson observations are being used in the context analysed here to sensitise teachers to their ‘limitations and potentials’ in order to help them progress within their constraints (Medgyes, 1992: 349). Lesson observations aid in the collection of data to empower teachers to work autonomously and develop professionally, once they become aware of the areas they need to improve. Nevertheless, in many cases, lesson observations are traditionally carried out with a checklist, making them more trainer-centred and providing the teacher with very little responsibility for them (Williams, 1989: 86).

 

Current practices: Feedback

In the context analysed here, most lesson observations are followed by feedback sessions to discuss what happened in the classroom and give teachers an awareness of strengths and areas for improvement in their teaching. The focus of the observer seems to be on developing teachers’ competences in the classroom by providing factual feedback after the lesson observation. In in-service programmes in language organisations for instance, most feedback given is ‘effective’: task- or goal- directed, specific, focused on details, corrective and immediate, and balancing both positive and negative comments (Thurlings et al, 2012: 195).

Such feedback sessions may be part of a routine of ‘reflection-on-action’ (Burton, 2009: 299), considering what was done in the classroom to improve the practicum. It does not mean all teachers are able to draw on their knowledge and experience to develop their teaching, but it is the intended outcome of the institutionalised feedback sessions. Moreover, in attempting to develop teachers’ professionalism (Leung, 2009), the sessions focus on strengths and weaknesses in knowledge, awareness, skills and attitudes (Freeman, 1989) teachers have or need to develop.

 

Challenges

Most practicing English language teachers, according to research, speak languages other than English as their first language. So, I agree with Medgyes (1992: 348) that the heavy teaching load imposed on many non-native speakers as teachers may jeopardise their own development, as may ‘insecurity caused by inadequate knowledge of the language they are paid to teach’. Such situation may affect the teachers’ perceptions of lesson observations if these are exclusively regarded as assessment tools – appraisal, quality control or a means of identifying areas for improvement.

Furthermore, a focus on assessment may affect the quality and effectiveness of feedback given and cause resistance to reflect and change, preventing teachers’ development. As mentioned above, observations tend to be trainer-centred, being the trainer the leader, even when observations are regarded as part of action research (Richards, 1998: 28) – they identify the problem, suggest strategies for change and evaluate results. Therefore, teachers may not feel accountable for their own development.

Also, there is a growing need for feedback that goes beyond superficial management and uninformed praising, ‘teachers need candid criticism, specific and constructive, to improve their craft and do the best possible job with students’ (Marshall, 2013: 46), as one of the biggest challenges in teacher development is related to motivation.

‘It is commonly believed that because one works in the realm of education, one is open to learning new things. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Often, educators are even more resistant to tackling something new, which is ironic, really, when one of the primary purposes of education is to teach students to value learning.’ (Hall & Simeral, 2008: 16) Such resistance may affect teachers’ continuous development, affect teachers’ and learners’ performance and keep the learning outcomes pointed out in the introduction.

 

Future Perspectives: Lesson observations

Given the scenario described above, the aim of proposing actions to change the teachers’ beliefs about observations and expand their practices with lesson observation programmes is to cause an impact in the overall context of teacher development, which may in turn affect the broader national context with learning outcomes. 

In order to promote change in the scenario presented in the introduction and to promote teachers’ accountability for their professional development (Leung, 2009; Wallace, 1991), a more diverse and empathetic approach to in-service lesson observations should be considered. One may choose to (and should) keep the existing modes as training and appraisal tools as these have their share of importance, but also encourage frequent developmental observations (i.e. promoted by teachers themselves). Given the context, teachers should be encouraged to engage in professional development to improve the learning experiences and outcomes of the learners they work with (Brancato, 2003). Below I will suggest different approaches to lesson observations that private language school teachers may choose to implement.

First, in order to develop, a teacher should observe his or her own lessons for a better understanding of their practice. Kumaravadivelu (2012: 100) emphasizes that observation is part of a broader exploration of seeing and I propose that teachers open their scope of investigation by observing themselves through various perspectives – using field notes they write during or right after the lesson, filming their lessons or listening to an observer describe the lesson in a non-judgmental way.

This self-evaluation from observations is ‘a process of consciousness raising and enhancing understanding’ (Walsh, 2006: 127) of their own roles as a teacher. If teachers aim at investigating what happens in their classroom, the perspectives that learners, teachers and other observers bring to the classroom and develop about the classroom experience should also be taken into consideration, according to Kumaravadivelu (2012: 102). Teachers will then benefit from looking at their own teaching through different lenses. It is fundamental to say that teachers working as self-observers take an approach to teacher evaluation and development that complements different forms of assessment that may include feedback from students, their peers, or observations by supervisors (Richards, 1990: 118). Self-observing will mean that teachers are becoming accountable for their continuous professional development. In that respect, observations should not only serve as a means of identifying problems or areas for improvement, but also as a way to experiment with new techniques and strategies and assess the different results to make informed decisions in the future.

Richards and Farrell (2005) suggest teachers use audio recording, filming or writing field notes (p. 48) as ways of identifying areas they want to work on. A self-directed teacher (Nunan and Lamb, 1996) who engages in lesson observation for their or a peer’s development will see observation as a positive experience, thus focusing on gathering factual information (Richards and Lockhart, 1996: 12) and positively impact the beliefs about observations, incorporating them in their routine.

Another observational tool teachers may use to understand their teaching and develop professionally is the observation of other teachers (Gebhard, 2009: 252), peer observation (Richards and Farrell, 2005: 86) to discover teaching techniques and strategies they have not tried in their own classroom. A non-judgmental observation of others may help teachers learn and explore their own teaching (Gebhard & Oprandy, 1999: 35). I subscribe to the notion that learning is a social activity and that professional development should allow for collaboration to be more frequent and for actions taken towards development to go beyond taking course and attending seminars (Johnson, 2006: 243).

The collaborative atmosphere among teachers who embrace observations of others can then be informal, proposed and organised by teachers themselves and not necessarily mediated by trainers or supervisors. Without the pressure of the assessment, teachers may feel free to observe (and be observed) as frequently as they feel necessary, even without a clear focus in mind but rather being open to new ideas and perspectives in their teaching.

Apart from self-observations and peer observations, Gebhard (2005) suggests the use of talks about observations as a tool for exploration of teaching for teacher development based on principles that help develop teachers’ awareness and responsibility for their development. Among the principles involved, seeing teaching differently as a goal, accepting responsibility for one’s own teaching (though one still need others for the exploration), taking a non-judgmental stance and focusing on going beyond solving problems (pp. 2-5) are fundamental in creating a habit of developmental observation in the context described here.

If involved in investigating teaching through observation, teachers should bring students’ perspective to light more frequently, by giving them specific tasks for observation as they are not experts in the area (Richards, 1998: 150). Many private institutions carry out yearly satisfaction surveys with learners, which is a form of feedback. However, those are not illustrative of specific classroom events a teacher may be willing to investigate. The proposed idea is to shift the external mediation of the observation to a teacher-led investigation, thus the suggested teacher-designed tasks (which can be inspired by tasks in Wajnryb, 1992) for learners’ point of view.

 

Future perspectives: Feedback

Teachers may seek feedback from peers, leaders, trainers and managers and in defining goals for the observations and checking them after the observation, observers and teachers should go beyond feedback (that looks into what happened, the observable features). That means the focus is on planning action and experimentation, giving suggestions for future implementation, approach related to the concept of feedforward (Goldsmith, 2002), which focuses on development more than on correcting what was identified as an issue. It should provide teachers with a chance to build repertoire (Burton, 2009: 299) of ideas and techniques.

In the previous section, I proposed peer observation as a developmental tool and the first principle in that case is that one needs to be aware that feedback should be non-judgmental and non-prescritive (Gebhard, 2005: 1) as teachers may then engage in more conversations about the lessons observed as they feel the feedback triggers ‘transformatory reflection’ (Marcos, Sanchez & Tilleman, 2008). That means teachers would take advantage of the feedback/ feedforward to change their practice and develop as professionals.

In the case of video recording their lessons, teachers may focus on effecting change and accepting responsibility to choose what to change or add and to obtain feedback (Bailey, Curtis & Nunan, 2001: 122) from other observers as well. Feedback from recorded lessons can be from self-monitoring, from a peer or a trainer, depending on the teachers’ focus and desires, given their openness and willingness to learn and develop.

Overall, for feedback to cause an impact on teaching and trigger reflection and action towards development, it should be ‘affirming, non-threatening, and, at the same time, effective’ (Stillwell, 2009) – effective as described in item 2.2. above (Thurlings et al, 2012: 195) – and observers should ‘give advice in ways that are palatable and catalytic’ (Smith & Lewis, 2015) – that means observers should ensure feedback is understood by the teacher and will engage them in developmental attitudes.

 

Conclusion

In this article, I proposed lesson observation approaches and teacher-led post-lesson discussions that may promote a change in mindset and development towards more autonomous and accountable teaching in a professional and collaborative environment in private language institutes. The overall proposed approach focuses on spontaneous, less structured, not compulsory lesson observation initiatives that may impact teacher development towards better learning outcomes. However, the proposed ideas should complement existing in-service lesson observation programmes as these have different goals (mostly appraisal or quality control) and are top-down – derived from managers’, trainers’ and supervisors’ needs for assessment.

Furthermore, following the suggestions made in the previous sections, it is important to say that peer observation per se is part of some formal, structured pre-service programmes, but rarely resorted to during in-service initiatives. Teachers at any stage of professional development may benefit from sharing experience, knowledge and analyzing their practice (Blaisdell and Cox, 2004). Also, peer observation also disproves the notion that teaching is a ‘egg-box profession’ (Freeman, 1998) where teachers work in isolation. The collaborative developmental observations proposed here may lead teachers towards continuous professional development where lesson observations are used as tools for investigation and learning with and from peers.

Moreover, the proposed approaches to lesson observations and sessions for feedback and/ or feedforward may also affect the English language teaching environment. Teachers directly involved and engaged in accountable professional development may share what they learn from taking action in setting lesson observation habits not only with their peers, but also when interacting with other members of teaching associations such as the BRAZ-TESOL. From a broader perspective, such spread of self- or peer observation outcomes would bring positive implications in increasing what Barduhn & Johnson (2009: 64) call ‘respect for the teaching profession’, a much needed boost for the teaching community.

Finally, if the ideas suggested in this article are implemented successfully – making developmental observations more frequent – and they aid teachers become more autonomous and accountable for their development and learning, there may be a shift in the ironic paradigm of the English language educational context in the country, in which teachers seem to resent change (Hall and Simeral, 2008: 16). Teachers who are engaged in professional development will perceive positive changes, such as an improved ability to make decisions in class, ‘reflection-in-action’ (Burton, 2009: 299), and consequently keep searching for the best ways of addressing their students’ learning needs – the ultimate goal of teaching and teachers’ continuous professional development.

 

References

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  • Critical Thinking in Teacher Education
    Vinicius Nobre, Brazil

  • Current Practice and Future Perspectives in Teacher Education: Lesson Observations
    Marcela Cintra, Brazil