Thursday, May 3, 2012

Looking for Learning

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

Way back at the beginning of the academic year, my school provided a professional development session called “Looking for Learning.”* We watched some videos, did some group work and listened to a speaker talk about his company’s approach to teacher observations. I think no one really likes being observed by fellow teachers or supervisors. It’s nerve-wracking and opens teachers up to criticisms couched as helpful suggestions. Even though I am always looking for ways to improve my teaching, I do get nervous about inviting other people into my classroom. I wasn’t sure the observations demonstrated by the “Looking for Learning” speaker were for me.

The Observation

My job is to prepare a multi-level, multi-age group of students for their mainstream junior high school classes. One of the biggest obstacles has been trying to figure out exactly what the students are learning and expected to produce in these classes. Ideally, I would have a free hour here and there to observe other teachers, but I was literally teaching 6 periods a day with no free time to drop in on my students in their mainstream classes. So, when the Head of Secondary announced that he was looking for volunteers to observe a teacher in a pilot of the “Looking for Learning” process, I might have actually pushed people out of the way to sign up.

First, all the teachers who were participating in the observation met first with the presenter, who had been brought back to follow up on his original session. He explained the process and repeatedly stressed that we would not be paying any attention to the teacher but rather looking for evidence of learning. “Right, right,” I thought. “Who goes into an observation and then ignores the teacher?”

The following day, I met again with the presenter and the other observer for a few minutes before we went into the music class. During that meeting, we were again instructed not to pay attention to what the teacher was doing. We went into the class and stood at the back while the teacher kicked off the lesson by eliciting from the students the main points of the previous lesson. Then, the students started to work on their compositions on the computers. At that point, the observers started to move around the room and talk to a variety of students. I managed to speak with 4 or 5 in the 20 minutes we had left for the observation. I asked them what they were doing, what they had done the lesson before, what they learned that was new, and if they found it easy or difficult. I got lots of different answers, and I wrote down the students’ names and, as accurately as possible, what they said. As I got caught up in interviewing the students, I forgot about the teacher entirely.

The next day, we met again, this time I was with the presenter, the other observer and the teacher. In this meeting, we simply reported back what the children had said. Upon listening to our notes on one student, the teacher had to place him/her on a grid to say whether the child was “learning,” “treading water” or “drowning.” At times, the teacher was not surprised by what we reported a student had said. At other times, the teacher had not anticipated the comments of a student. For instance, one student, a girl the teacher considered one of the top in the class, actually said she found the computer program that they were using in the class quite difficult. The teacher hadn’t known that before, as the student had always produced quality work.

In the end, the strangest thing about this observation was that we did not comment on the teaching at all. We were not permitted to offer any kind of judgment (positive or negative) about the lesson or the approach of the teacher. As observers, we were merely reporters, trying to find out if the students were learning or not.

Move Over “Do you Understand?”

The benefits of this approach are, in my mind, twofold. First, we all know that the students learn both because of us and in spite of us; just because we have a great lesson plan, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all the students in the class are learning. Second, even though I have an overall idea of my students’ abilities (especially since I have a comparatively tiny class and I see the students often), I don’t always know I would be able to completely accurately assess my students “learning” at any given moment of a lesson on any given subject.

How has this changed my teaching? Not drastically, really. I am still pretty much the same instructor that I was before I stepped foot in the music class. However, I do try to make it a regular practice to stop mid-way through a random lesson (whenever I think of it, actually) and ask a few students what they are working on and if they find it easy. I have learned that it is not enough to ask students IF they understand; I have to ask them WHAT they understand.

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