Observing teachers (1): Agendas

Roger Hunt

Broadly speaking there are three main approaches to establishing an agenda for observing a teacher teaching a class: you can go in to the classroom (1) to see if the teacher is doing what you think s/he should be doing in terms of approach, teacher talk, use of technology or course book, focus on language, a procedure for exploiting some listening material etc., or you can (2) go in with an open mind and look at what's going on. The third approach to establishing an agenda is to (3) ask the teacher to formulate this – ask them what they would like you to focus on.

Broadly speaking there are probably three main reasons why you might adopt one or another of these three options: the experience level of the teacher who may still need lesson scaffolds; your own beliefs regarding what constitutes good teaching and; thirdly, your willingness to allow the teacher to formulate the agenda. These three reasons can be classed either as appraisal or as teacher development (although there is no reason why both these things should not happen at the same time. For example you may appraise an inexperienced teacher to see in what ways you might help him/her develop).

Looking for what you want to see

When observing an inexperienced teacher you might want to see if s/he is able to clarify meaning and form of new language points, if s/he can help students with pronunciation adequately, if s/he can exploit materials usefully, if his/her board work is useful or not etc etc etc. Therefore it is valid to focus on these and in a further observation focus again on the same things to see what progress the teacher has made.

You probably have teacher development in mind with inexperienced teachers and need to appraise to see where help is needed. On the other hand the validity of such an approach when observing an experienced teacher is questionable (I am assuming a good, well-developed teacher here). Such a teacher probably has beliefs of their own based on experience of classroom success, experience in general, background reading, and participation in teacher development sessions. In this case you might adopt an observation approach based on what is going on in the classroom.

Looking at what is going on

I was once in discussion with a Diploma assessor regarding a candidate on what is now the Cambridge DELTA (such discussion between tutor and assessor is no longer part of the assessment system). The assessor said he could not assess the candidate as he didn't really do much in the classroom and the assessor had not been able to tick many points on his checklist. However, when he reflected on the learning taking place in the classroom he realised he had just observed an excellent candidate and gave a distinction level grade for the lesson. Of course the excellence of the learning taking place was due to the fact that the teacher caused it to happen and didn't get in the way of the students' learning. In other words the assessor was looking for what he wanted to see and not at what was taking place.

The observation mode of looking at what is going on simply requires the observer to focus on the students and to be aware that what is happening is because of the teacher even if s/he doesn't appear to be doing all that much.

Teacher formulated agenda

If you ask teachers what they would like you to focus on while you observe them a lot will just stare at you blankly. However, give them some time to think about it and they will usually come up with something. One teacher asked me to note lesson time focused on himself and that focused on the students. I drew a "clock" graph with this information on and gave it to him at the end of the lesson; he seemed particularly pleased with it, but didn't want to discuss it – he simply said it was better than he'd previously thought.

Another teacher asked me to note how long she waited for a student to respond to questions she asked so I timed this (she waited patiently for 17 seconds following one question while the students thought through to find an answer to what she'd asked).

Teachers have asked me to note all sorts of things: their board work; when they sit or stand; their use of concept questions – the list is a very long one. The point of asking a teacher to formulate the observation agenda is that they usually have some idea of what they feel they need to work on, an aspect of their teaching that they don't feel entirely confident about.

Of course all three of the modes of formulating agendas I describe above can be combined, because you are probably incorporating aspects of all each time you observe. The question is what to do with the results of an observation: if and how you feedback to the teacher.

This is the topic of the next two articles in this series.

See also

Observing teachers (1): Agendas

Observing teachers (2): oral feedback

Observing teachers (3): written feedback

More articles on language teaching