HOW MUCH DO TRAINEES REALLY LEARN FROM LESSON OBSERVATION?
1 OBSERVATION IN THE TRAINING PROGRAMME - THEORY
Informed by the current ideas of the reflective approach and action research, we have included lesson observation in the training programmes in FL teacher training colleges in Poland.
Why do we send trainees to observe? Observation provides trainees with real experience for analysis and reflection. We hope that observation will enable the trainees to:
* recognize stages in the lesson, aims of activities and techniques used
* see the relationships between the teacher, the learners and the materials, and their influence on the learning outcomes
* develop awareness of the principles underlying effective teaching
* identify successful teacher behaviour and techniques and adopt them in their own teaching
* recognize the teacher's mistakes and avoid them in the future
* acquire the skills of observation, reflection and evaluation
* talk about teaching using metalanguage of ELT
* develop their analytical capacities
* improve their own teaching
The observation sheets or sessions they fill in are to prove that they have achieved these aims. They are later assessed by the teacher trainer and graded. This is the thoery underlying the "observation" component.
2 MY EXPERIENCE - REALITY
WHO: 27 third year students of the TTC in Sandomierz observed
WHOM: their peers teaching secondary schools learners of English
WHERE: in a state secondary school
HOW MUCH: the trainees observed 2 lessons a week for about 30 weeks and produced 12 observation sheets
WHEN: the observation sessions were conducted during serial teaching practice
WHAT: the trainees had to identify the stages and their aims, and had to comment on the achieved of aims, on discipline and on learner's interest
Analysis of the observation sheets.
I read, analyzed, and graded 294 observation sheets. It was a long tedious task, which raised my doubts about the usefulness of observations. I undertook a deeper analysis to find the source of my disillusionment and, hopefully, some ways of improving the situation. Below I present a summary of this analysis...
The comments were mainly descriptive; the trainees noted down what the teacher and the learners had done during the lesson and whether the learners were "interested", "involved", "eager" or not. There was very little analysis or reflection; the trainees did not give reasons for the learners' involvement or the lack of it. They observed that the teacher had no problems with discipline but did not ask themselves why it had been so. If the trainees did offer evaluative comments, they were strongly influenced by the theory passed on to them in the methodology course (although unwelcome, it is quite understandable with pre- service trainees). And thus, they looked for instances of behaviour prescribed as proper or up-to-date; they praised inductive teaching, peer correction, groupwork, and activities which were "more communicative".
It could be felt that the observation sheets had been written for assessment more than for any other reason. The trainees showed off their knowledge using the events of the lesson as illustrations of prescription from the methodology coursebook. Very few trainees made any connection between observations and their own teaching.
They had problems in identifying the aims of activities and learning outcomes. The aims they gave were very general:"to practise the Present Simple". Sometimes they were so general they could fit any English lesson: "to improve the skills of speaking". Later they wrote that the aims had been achieved because: "Learners practised the tense" or "they spoke a lot" (another common problem with inexperienced teachers).
The format of the observation sheets seemed to limit the trainees very much. They felt obliged to fill in the whole space provided for 'discipline' or 'student interest', often repeating the same remarks in subsequent observation sheets. The space titled 'aims' was very small so the trainees were not encouraged to reflect much.
Summing up, we can identify several problem areas for both the trainees and the teacher trainers.
1. Trainees have difficulties in identifying the aims of classroom activities and their learning outcomes.
2. There is very little reflection in the observation sheets because the trainees' analytical skills are inadequate.
3. There seems to be too little connection between observations, teacher practice and the methodology course
4. As a result the usefulness of lesson observation sheets could be questioned since, while it is time- consuming, there is little evidence of learning on the part of trainees.
5. Observations are difficult to evaluate. (During a workshop in Krak the participants evaluated 3 of the observations. They gave different grades. One observation got 2, 3, 4, and 5 from the assessors)
6. The format of observations poses a problem, too, guiding the trainees but limiting their perception at the same time.
7. The theory overwhelms the trainees blinding then to things they have not read about
8. We can guess that the trainees' pre-conceptions blind them in a similar way to many event in the classroom
In the last part I am looking for some ways of ameliorating the situation.
Trainees should know that the reason we ask them to fill in the observation sheets is that we want them to learn something from doing so, and only then grade them. The features of a good observation sheet and a good observer should be made clear to them. The teacher trainer could try to transfer some of her observation skills by analyzing observation sheets by her own lesson or after a lesson she has observed with the trainees.
The format of the observation sheets should offer enough guidance to the trainees without restricting them. Trainees could decide which format ti fill after they have observed a lesson and taken notes in any form. They may be given a long list of questions, usually asked after a lesson, and choose some of them to answer.
Where assessment of observation sheets is a must, the teacher trainer should clarify the criteria used. A trainee can be graded on:
a. how observant she is - I tried to measure this by the number of 'reflective' remarks
b. how deep his comments are - measured by the number of 'genuine' remarks as opposed to 'theory'; the amount of support he gives to his comments and how sound it is; the number of references to his teaching
c. how accurate he is in identifying aims and learning outcomes
d. the quality of his metalanguage
The teacher trainer can also look for areas which are consistently neglected by the observer.
* Observations, teacher practice and lectures should be integrated as much as possible, but this may be difficult where different teacher trainers share the duties.
* To develop the trainees' analytical thinking we could encourage interpretation of the data gathered during observation sessions and teacher practice in relation to beliefs about teaching.
* Critical assessment of theories can be also encouraged.
* Many, even contradictory or unusual, interpretations of one even might be searched for.
* Several trainees could use different formats of observation sheets to observe the same lesson.
* Trainees can observe different teachers teaching the same topic, structure or even according to the same lesson plan.
* Diaries and questionnaires are also useful in encouraging reflection.
5 WHAT HAS HAPPENED SINCE THE EXPERIMENT
Since the time of the experience described above I have tried some of the suggested solutions with my second year trainees and the results have been encouraging. After explaining the rationale behind lesson observations, I observed 4 lessons together with the trainees. They used different formats of observation sheets for each lesson. Afterwards I asked them to summarise their experience and answer two questions:
"What have you noticed during the observation sessions?
"What have you learned?
The quality of their observation sheets was higher than that of the third year trainees' - I got more reflective and genuine comments.
Wallace, M.J., Teaching Foreign Languages Teachers- A Reflective Approach, CUP, 1991
Kolb, D.A., Experimental Learning, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice Hall, Inc, 1984
Kennedy, J. Meeting the needs of teacher trainees on teacher practice, ELT Journal 47/2, 157-65
Richards, J.C., & Nunan, D., Second Language Teacher Education, CUP, 1990