from “Classroom Observation: The Observer as Collaborator”
The difference between observation for purposes of evaluation and improvement is not so much the method by which observations are recorded, but, rather, the degree to which the observed teacher participates in the formulation of conclusions about the quality of the teaching observed. When classroom observation is used for the purposes of evaluation, judgments are usually summative and the teacher plays little, if any, role in making them. On the other hand, when observation is conducted for the purpose of teaching improvement, judgments are formative and the teacher is actively involved in the assessment of teaching quality and needed improvement.
Recognizing the importance of the teacher’s ownership of the process of change, I have moved over the years to a more collaborative approach to classroom observation and feedback, seeking to increase the responsibility of the teacher for making decisions about his or her own teaching improvement. Through a process of collaborative observation, I engage with the teacher in “classroom research” (Cross, 1986), together determining what questions need to be answered during observation and designing methods of data collection and analysis for answering them. A collaborative approach recognizes the professional status of both the teacher and the observer. It can help to reduce the threat often perceived by the teacher in being observed, lessen the impact of observer bias, and enhance the skills of the teacher in accurately assessing and improving his or her own teaching. Collaborative observation is characterized by the use of a pre-observation conference, descriptive observation notes, and teacher direction of the post-observation conference.
In order to serve as an effective observer of the teaching behavior of another person, you must first carefully examine your beliefs about effective teaching and learning. Before the observing, you might ask yourself the following questions:
The pre-observation conference begins the process of collaboration. As in any research project, the collaborators will need to discuss and agree upon the purpose of the investigation. What questions would the teacher like to answer? Are there others you might want to add? What special interests, fears, and beliefs does each of you bring to the endeavor?
Critical decisions need to be made during the pre-observation conference:
(1) when and where to observe,
(2) what features of the classroom on which to focus,
(3) what methods to use in collecting data,
(4) how to introduce the observer to the students,
(5) how the data will be analyzed, and
(6) who will have access to the results of the study.
In each of these decisions, the teacher is an active participant. The greater the role the teacher plays in making these decisions, the more valid the data collected will appear to him or her.
An important feature of the collaborative approach to classroom observation is the collection of descriptive – as opposed to evaluative – data which you and the teacher can analyze together as you seek to answer the questions posed during the pre-observation conference. Descriptive data provide an account of classroom behavior and interaction without making an effort to judge these events as good or bad, right or wrong, effective or ineffective. Description represents, in as far as possible, a neutral stance on the part of the observer. It avoids pejorative language and inferences. Judgments that are eventually made will be reached in collaboration with the teacher.
Observations can be collected in any number of ways and numerous observation instruments and methods are described in the literature (Hoge, 1985; Dunkin & Biddle, 1974; Rosenshine and Furst, 1973; Simon & Boyer, 1970).
In general, I use a narrative system in which I attempt to record as much as possible of the verbal and nonverbal behaviors of the teacher and the students during the class period.
Whatever system chosen, the major criteria should be that the approach provides for the fullest description possible of the classroom events under study with the least amount of observer inference and judgment required.
Once observational data have been collected, I meet with the teacher to analyze the results and reach a collaborative judgment about what action might be taken in response to the data. I generally send a copy of my observation notes to the teacher for consideration prior to this meeting. To begin the discussion, I first ask the teacher to reflect on the class session itself. Was this typical or atypical? How did it match with the pans he or she had made before the class? The teacher’s self-assessment introduces the issues which form the focus of our work together.
Second, I ask the teacher to react to the observation data. Has the observation instrument used generated an accurate picture of the class?
Working together, we determine answers to the questions posed during the pre-observation conference, sharing perspectives and interpretations.
After encouraging the teacher to select the initial focus of the discussion and to take the lead in interpreting the data, I indicate topics of concern to me and share my interpretation of the data collected. The issue is not one of directive versus non-directive consultation, but of the sharing of direction with an attitude of mutual respect.
Cross, K.P. (1987). The need for classroom research. In J. Kurfiss (Ed.), To Improve the
Academy, Professional and Organizational Development Network, 1987.
Dunkin, M., & Biddle, B. (1974). The Study of Teaching. New York: Holt, Rinehart &
Hoge, R.D. (1985). The validity of direct observation measures of pupil classroom
behavior. Review of Educ. Research, 55, 469-483
Rosenshine, B., & Furst, N. (1973). The use of direct observation to study teaching. In
R.M.W. Travers (Ed.), Second Handbook of Research on Teaching. Chicago:
Rand McNally, 122-183.
Simon, A., & Boyer, E.G. (Eds.). (1970). Mirrors for Behavior: An Anthology of
Classroom Observation Instruments. Philadelphia: Research for Better Schools.
(ERIC No. ED 031613).