The Teacher Trainer Diaries: Observer effects on teaching and learning.

This post is part of a reflective series called The Teacher Trainer Diaries, in which I write about my experiences as a teacher trainer.

Imagine this. You get told that observation period is coming up. The teacher trainer asks what class or level you’d like to be observed on and why. You choose your worst class. The class that you dread going to. The class in which learner behaviour is (undesirable) – feel free to place any other negative adjective here. You’re dreading it, however at the same time you’re looking forward to the feedback that the observer can provide in the hope that it helps with the situation. Observation day arrives, observer comes in and… the lesson goes perfectly. The learners were perfect – even those who love to see you squirm and go red acted like angels. You were able to get through the content you planned without so much as a hiccup. Sound familiar?

As a teacher, I kind of thought this was a fairly rare thing, however now as a teacher trainer I see that this happens quite frequently. By this I mean the observer’s presence affecting the learning and teaching that occurs in the classroom. This is very interesting to me – I would even go so far to say vitally important – and so a few months ago I decided to conduct some of my own research into the effects the observer has and see what attitudes teachers had towards face-to-face and video observations.

The survey

Using Google Forms, I sent out an informal questionnaire which aimed to gain insights into teachers’ attitudes regarding observer effects in observations conducted by a DoS or teacher trainer, i.e. observations that are either assessed or aimed at providing feedback on teaching (not peer observations or other non-evaluative observations). It was a very short survey with only four questions:

  1. What effect does having an observer in the classroom have on your teaching and how you ‘feel’ in the classroom?
  2. What effect does the observer have on your learners and their learning?
  3. Do your above comments apply to video observation? If they differ, please write down how.
  4. Would you prefer to have the observer in the classroom or be observed via video?

I was amazed at the number of responses – around eighty teachers from around the globe responded – thank you everyone! It has taken me a long time to go through all of the comments and look at the data, but I must say that some of the information that came out of the survey is really interesting. I will break down the results shortly, however if you wish to have a look at the raw data for yourself, feel free to open this document in which all the responses are located.

Question 1: What effect does having an observer in the classroom have on your teaching and how you ‘feel’ in the classroom?

It’s well documented that observers impact teacher behaviour in the classroom. Take the following for example:

The presence of an observer sometimes influences the nature of the lesson, making the lesson untypical of the teacher’s usual style of teaching.

Richards & Farrell, 2011, pp. 91

Now, whilst Richards and Farrell were talking about teachers new to the profession, I believe all teachers, experienced and less experienced, feel the effect of the observer in some fashion. Looking back at my own experience of being observed, I know that my teaching sometimes felt more rigid and much more dictated by what I had planned in the lesson plan that I submitted (we as teachers often view lesson plans as written contracts between the observer and the observed teacher!). Thinking back, I can also remember times when I went out of my way to correct learners, to ensure that they didn’t use any L1 or to make certain that they kept with the activity and didn’t go off on a tangent, i.e. I dictated what was learnt and any emergent language issues that arose or problems that learners wanted to explore were quickly brushed over or ignored. But enough about me, let’s have a look at what the teachers from the survey said.

Data taken from informal survey, Observer effects on teaching and learning (2019)
Both/other refers to both a positive and negative effect or other ambiguous response

As a trainer, I found it really interesting and a little worrying that almost half of the teachers that took part say that the observer had a negative effect on their teaching. That being said, I wasn’t really surprised either. Reading through the comments, there were a number of the common themes that kept coming up that are worth mentioning:

  • The level of effect depends on the focus of the observation.
  • Also largely dependent on who is conducting the observation and their level of experience.
  • Observation stress changes with teaching experience. The point being made by most that said this was that the more experienced a teacher, the less stress they (should) feel.
  • Teachers often do and say what they think the observer wants to see and hear.

Question 2: What effect does the observer have on your learners and their learning?

So a lot of the time we focus on the effects that an observer has on the teacher (with good reason), however what about if we focus on the learner? Is their learning affected because of the observer? Let’s have a look at what the survey results show.

Data taken from informal survey, Observer effects on teaching and learning (2019)

This is where the data the gets interesting. We can see here that the majority of teachers who took this survey believe that the observer has a negative effect on the learner’s performance – this has some huge implications in my mind. But, it’s very difficult to show all of the interesting data in one chart. For example, many teachers submitted that an observer may affect behaviour positively, however performance negatively. The reasoning behind this is that learners are nervous and want to ‘toe the line’ whilst someone of authority is in the classroom. Contrastingly, some teachers said that both performance and behaviour is positively affected, with learners wanting to ‘show off’ to the observer.

Another interesting point made was that perhaps the observer does not directly affect the learners, rather the observer affects the teaching and the teacher and this has a knock-on effect with learners, i.e. the teacher is not acting the same as usual – the learners sense and respond to this.

Question 3: Do your above comments apply to video observation?

You might be wondering why I included the video observation questions in this survey – most observations are conducted face-to-face after all. Well, I wanted to get teachers’ opinions on the matter because I feel that video observations should play a prominent part in teacher development (I will expand on this later) and I wanted to know if teachers felt the same way.

Interpreting the data from this question proved a lot harder than I expected, mainly due to my poor wording of the question. That being said, the response was largely mixed. Some teachers said that they would feel more stressed, however many more teachers said they would feel less stressed. Most commented that the camera is less intrusive in the sense that it’s easy to forget that it is there whilst having an actual person there cannot be ‘removed from vision’ easily. This being said, it regularly was stated that teachers feel more conscious being recorded.

Question 4: Would you prefer to have the observer in the classroom or be observed via video?

As you can see from the chart below, most teacher had no preference with regard to face-to-face or video observation. However, for those that did, there was a slight preference shown for the face-to-face option.

Data taken from informal survey, Observer effects on teaching and learning (2019)

Conclusions?

The first thing that needs to be noted is that this questionnaire and these statistics are very limited. That is, more research needs to be done (and I am sure is being done). However, what I would say is that it is evident that observations and observers affect both teachers and learners to some degree. For some teachers and learners this effect is positive, for others negative. As a trainer, being aware of which teachers (and learners, if possible) react in which way is vital and for this reason I believe that offering the option of video observations is a step in the right direction.

In my experience, video observations are certainly less intrusive than the face-to-face observation (my opinion only!), and I also feel that they provide further opportunities for evidenced-based reflection. What do I mean by that? Well, this year I was lucky enough to video a number of my teachers for their observations, and within these classes there were a few critical moments that proved excellent for reflection. With the video, I was able to get the teacher to focus on these critical moments not only through memory, but by actually watching themselves.

But enough about what I think – what about you? If you didn’t take part in the survey but would like to have your say, feel free to leave a comment. And, if you are a trainer yourself, or someone who conducts observations, I would love to hear your opinions!

Reflection

Creating questionnaires that collect both enough and workable data is hard. This is something that I’ve been playing around with for a few years now and it still proves really difficult at times. Looking back on this questionnaire, I can pinpoint a number of issues:

  1. Types of questions – The questions I used were all open-ended and, whilst it was good to give people the freedom to anwer how they liked, it was difficult and time consuming to go through and intepret the data. Next time I will still have some open-ended questions, however more of the questions will be created with multiple choice answers.
  2. Wording – Question 3 received quite a number of different repsonses, some in-depth, some not so much. I believe with more careful wording, I could have collected a lot more valuable data on the types of effects.
  3. Participant data – I wanted to keep this questionnaire short and to the point. With this in mind, I only included the four questions and left it completely anonymous. Whilst I would still keep it anonymous, next time I believe collecting data on the teaching contexts will be a valuable addition.

A final thanks

I’ve said thank you before, however I would like to thank everyone who took part in the questionnaire once again. Without you, there would be no data and no insights. And, my apologies for the delay in getting these results out to you!

References

Richards, J. C. & Farrell, T. (2011). Practice Teaching: A Reflective Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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