The Observation Gap?

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Illustrations by Cathy Gendron

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has become the black hole of education discussions or “debates.” In fact, I’d submit that we spend far too much time and energy arguing for, or against, the CCSS that we’re neglecting other critical aspects of our profession. Case in point: the role classroom observations serve in providing teachers with meaningful feedback and support, or lack thereof. As a profession, we cannot afford to neglect the potential support classroom observations can offer.

In my professional opinion, classroom observations are necessary to keep teachers “honest.” Classroom observations help prevent teachers from forming bad teaching habits, i.e. passing out pointless drill-and-kill worksheets, or becoming complacent in their classroom management techniques. If performed correctly, observations can offer teachers instructional best practices. With that said, a classroom observer must provide teachers with specific resources, and, when appropriate, examples on how to leverage such resources or instructional practices, i.e. modeling. For this to occur, however, teachers must remain open to meaningful feedback: the infamous pluses and deltas.

But, to consider feedback meaningful, it must fulfill at least these two requirements:

1. Is it supportive and developmental, or based on an arbitrary rubric?

2. Is it objective-driven, or based on broad recommendations?

First, classroom observations must occur often, and not sporadically, throughout the school year. An observation conducted four times, in a school year, doesn’t allow for meaningful feedback. It’s amazing to think that teachers can teach for several months before being formally “observed.” How is it fair to evaluate a teacher in December or January, if support isn’t offered in August? Simply put, it’s not fair at all. If anything, observations must occur early, and often, to identify potential instructional or classroom management gaps in time to make any necessary adjustments.

Second, meaningful classroom observations are objective-driven in scope and sequence. It’s far more productive to focus on one aspect of the entire lesson then to “score” a teacher’s performance on multiple, or unrelated, components. For example, a critical aspect of classroom management is establishing routines and procedures. Therefore, early in the school year, classroom observations should focus solely on routines and procedures. How do students enter the classroom? How are materials distributed? How are materials collected? How do students transition? Etc. If observations focus on a specific component, then the feedback will be meaningful and deliberate.

Sounds reasonable, right?

Well, there’s, at least, one major design flaw: how can an administrator, instructional coach, or master educator find the time to conduct more observations?

To be frank, without leveraging technology, then the answer is quite simple: they can’t.

That’s precisely why, if used efficiently, technology can eliminate time restraints. Yes, one person can only be in one place, at one time. However, if observations are digitally recorded, via camcorder or other recording devices, then multiple observations can occur throughout the school year. If teachers record their classrooms, and upload the video on a secured network, then a group of administrators, teacher-leaders, etc., can spend time analyzing the videos beyond the traditional school, or class, hours. Moreover, a video-based observations repository can provide all teachers with the opportunity to view themselves (self reflect), and others (peer review).

So, why are we still teaching in silos? What better way to norm routines, procedures, and school-wide rules and consequences then to leverage technology? I, for one, am a visual learner. Therefore, I’ll learn more by observing another colleague “in action” then hearing about it in a professional development meeting. In addition, I’ll also learn a great deal about my instructional practices by observing myself, rather than relying, solely, on someone else’s evaluation.

Classroom observations, as an instructional tool, are only as good as the feedback it generates. Broad recommendations are meaningless, especially if they’re offered halfway into the school year. A “sophisticated” score, based on a four-point scale, is meaningless if it doesn’t provide targeted instructional support. As much as I appreciate education reform debates, I can’t help but wonder if our profession suffers from an “observation gap?”

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