How should teachers conduct lesson observations of other teachers?
For 25 years, observing in the classroom has been largely a trial and error process. Sadly, I made many mistakes.
In a paper published by The British Psychological Society, 2010, Neil Mercer poses interesting theories about collecting observational data, especially in working classrooms, and why it requires a systematic and considered approach to what behaviours should be sampled, how these observations should be captured and the practicality of recording what is observed.
The paper describes methods for analysing classroom ‘talk’, comparing strengths and weaknesses. Both quantitative and qualitative methods based on specific theories of social action, research paradigms, and disciplines.
Discourse in the classroom
Studies which are typically observational, non-interventional, and qualitative ask the following type of questions:
- How does classroom discourse enable, or inhibit, the expression of identities?
- How are the languages/language varieties of different cultures recognised and used in schools?
- Is current educational policy sensitive to the linguistic and cultural reality of school life?
Discourse and its impact in the classroom
Studies which research traditions in social and developmental psychology and pedagogical studies, with strong attachments to the work of Vygotsky ask the following types of questions:
- How does dialogue promote learning and the development of understanding?
- What types of talk are associated with the best learning outcomes?
- Does collaborative activity help children to learn, or assist their conceptual development?
The paper continues to argue that both approaches cannot be understood without due attention to the nature and functions of qualitative analysis; that cultural and local norms shape the processes of teaching and learning; and that in the classroom, meanings are continually renegotiated over variable periods of time.
The implication is that one-off, ‘snapshot’ studies of the classroom are unlikely to yield as valid results as those which involve continuous and repeated observations, such as over a series of lessons and both approaches agreed to be critical of classroom research which does not recognise the importance of these principles.
What is Ofsted up to?
Eight years later in June 2018, Ofsted published research which highlighted 6 observation models, unpicking how lesson observations may help with future inspection development – curated to support reliability and validity – as OfSTED seek to strengthen their purpose. Today as I write, Ofsted now consult the world on their inspection framework for September 2019, abandoning ‘teaching and learning’ as a key judgement because past research has proven that it is unreliable to be able to evaluate the complex nature of the classroom in such a short period of time.
One would be forgiven for thinking how Ofsted believe that they can still evaluate a school in just two days if grading a teacher in a snapshot period is so flawed.
In Mercer’s paper, he highlights the combined use of quantitative and qualitative methods has become more common in educational research – today, this is everything schools hope to achieve, but my research suggests it remains a significant challenge.
Mercer concludes arguments that only qualitative research can deal with the human reality of school life, or that only quantitative research amounts to real science, is unconvincing. Instead, researchers should accept that various methods – and methodologies have their distinctive strengths and weaknesses and that by asking ‘What do I need to do to answer my research questions?’ an open-minded researcher may avoid simplistic choices.
Something noteworthy, Mercer writes “We also know that the ways teachers use talk (verbal feedback) in the classroom have a significant effect on students as a tool for their own learning, but if this line of educational research is to have a major impact on educational policy and the training of teachers, we need more large-scale studies.”
My research with UCL may not (yet) be large-scale, but it’s a start to help rescue teachers from observational bias and the marking/workload burden.
As a classroom practitioner, all I want to ask is, what is the impact on pupils and the classroom. Once we’ve worked out what the research suggests, as ever, teachers need to know what that then looks like in the classroom. May this serve as a good reminder to those all unpicking the complex world of the classroom.
The analysis of classroom talk: Methods and methodologies by Neil Mercer, Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. If you would like a copy of the full paper, leave a comment below.