Tony Gurr

Why do we still have so many MISFIRES with classroom observation? (Part 05)

In Classroom Teaching, Quality & Institutional Effectiveness, Teacher Training on 28/02/2012 at 4:10 pm

I decided to “pull” my first version of this “episode” as I wrote it as a tongue-in-cheek response to one of my dearest, dearest pals – in reply to his “e-mail dig” that I was being far too “wordy” and wasn’t “getting to the point”.

Everyone’s a critic, these daysactually, he IS (a radio critic, in his spare time)!


What I found was (despite the fact that we have a very strong professional and personal relationship – he is my “Sunday beer ‘o clock” drinking buddy here in Ankara) that his remarks made me “angry” – even though he is probably correct (a bit, a teeny-weeny bit)!

As I noted earlier, “feedback” is a critical component of any classroom observation process (and the “technology” we choose to use as components of that process) – but my own reaction to his feedback prompted me to ask:

BOTH are naff!


In the real world, most of us have no “issue” with POSITIVE feedback (we all love it – come on) – but NEGATIVE or UNCONSTRUCTIVE feedback is “different”. Many of us can be “highly critical” of ourselves and our work from time to time – but as we noted in Part 04, listening to the feedback from SELF is quite different to the feedback of anOTHER.

This is why the “post-conference” component of the type of cycle we looked at is so critical – this is where most “feedback” comes into play in classroom observation and where a great many of the so-called “misfires” rear their ugly heads.


But, why should this be such a problem for teachers?


Most teachers frequently ask questions of themselves to draw out the “strengths” and “weaknesses” of a given lesson. They also reflect on ways that the could have done it differently – and how they might do it differently next time they do a similar class.

I suggested that teachers tend to do this by asking three questions – but these three questions miss an important element.



Right at the very start of this series (Part 01) we said that one of the reasons we have so many misfires with classroom observation is that “TEACHing is emotional work” – a fact we often forget!

Teachers do not only ask factual questions about their lessons – they question how they “feel” about them. They are, after all, highly emotionally-invested in what they do and when they do not do what they know they can and should do in the classroom.

Bearing this in mind, we start to get a better idea of how feedback sessions or post-conferences can misfire – and even more so when observers are not as skilled or well-trained as they could be.


Now, it’s highly unlikely that most teachers will have a great deal of contact with “sociopathic observers” out on some ego or power trip – but we do sometimes come across observers who are more “JUDGERS” than “LEARNERS”.

I borrow these terms from Marilee Adams (who wrote a wonderful book – Change Your Questions Change Your Life) – she asks a simple question of her readers (a question every administrator, observer or wannabe observer really needs to ask):


Now, I don’t usually like models that deal in “absolutes” (you know how I love my Star Wars – and absolutes are how the Sith Lords talk) – but she also identifies a number of questions that both LEARNERS and JUDGERS ask (on a pretty regular basis):

OK – the JUDGERS get a bit of raw deal here! But, I think you get the point – it’s about “mind-set” and how we “see” what’s happening around us (and in front of us when we are observing someone else’s class).


However, when we talk a closer look at the characteristics of the typical LEARNER – we see how they might be better “suited” to the task of observing the classes of others.

The LEARNER-observer is far more likely to look at the emotional side of a feedback-session – and focus on facilitating LEARNing in the observee (rather than telling her what’s wrong and how to fix it).

The challenge (you knew there had to be one) – in classroom observation (and perhaps in wider teaching environments) many of US are JUDGERS at heart – we just don’t know it!


Remember (back in Part 02), I told you about my young padawans on a train-the-programme I ran a few years back? I told you how, despite some great co-creation (and a bit of half-decent teaching from my fair self) of a “model” of  how observers should “be”, what observers should “do” and what observers should “say”, things turned out when it came to “practicing” all these things (in observation role-plays).

My darling observers-in-training did the exact opposite of what they “said” they would do (and what they would not like to be done to them – by others).


One activity I gave them was a “minimal pairs” discussion – basically, they had to look at few things an observer could say to an observee, choose the best one and explain why they hadn’t chosen the other.

The “pairs” were these (I did not highlight the differences in the original version):

Almost every single one of my observers-in-training saw the differences immediately – they saw how the use of the negatives was “judgemental”, they saw how phrases like “only” or “just” or “effective” could carry negative connotations.

But, which phrases and what type of questions did they all use in their first observer-observee role-play?

You guessed it…

The good newsevery observer can LEARN to ask better questions. They just need some good LEARNing opportunities – and lots of practice (but not quite as much as 10,000 hours).



…this is not the real challenge!

See you tomorrow!

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