Conducting classroom observations…
Updated: Nov 24
…easily and objectively.
Hello and welcome to the 50th edition (Yay!) of our fortnightly newsletter, Things in Education.
Over the last two years, we have written multiple times on various aspects of teacher training and their professional development. A key ingredient in training teachers, be it in classroom management or using a different pedagogical approach, is actually looking at what teachers are doing in their classrooms. Classroom observations are key to understanding what the teachers are doing right and where they may need help and support.
A lot of teacher professional development programmes in India seem to be missing this component. There may be multiple reasons for this – the primary one being that continuous teacher professional development is rare in Indian schools. There are sessions in the beginning of the term for a few days, and there is no follow up and things are forgotten. In fact it seems that government schools probably have a more structured approach to continuous teacher professional development. And a crucial component of continuous teacher development is that the classrooms are observed.
So how should classroom observations happen? Who should do it? And, of course, what should be observed?
The process of classroom observation inherently has multiple levels of bias and subjectivity. In fact, most international classroom observation manuals dedicate a page or two to challenges in classroom observations and about 80% of the pages are about biases and how to avoid them. For example, it is human psychology not to give extreme points (either high or low) to anyone (central tendency bias). There are also other subconscious biases like the recency bias (we remember the most recent information best), the halo effect (positive impressions positively influence other judgements) or the negativity bias (negative information affects us more). And these biases may not even be in the observer’s conscious mind.
Apart from the subconscious biases that may exist, there are some real issues with classroom observations and making them as objective as possible.
Has an explicit repertoire of well-crafted explanations, examples and tasks for each topic they teach.
This is one of the criteria that is listed for classroom observations in a document. What is an excellent repertoire of well-crafted explanations? How many makes a repertoire? What is well-crafted? The answer to these questions may be different for two people. Then even without a subconscious bias, the classroom observations are not going to be consistent due to the lack of objectivity in them.
“Eh,” we thought, as we were creating a classroom observation tool last year. “We will create clear consistent rubrics with very specific criteria that ANYONE can use.” And it looked something like this.
This rubric, though thorough and capable of giving accurate, semi-objective data from the classrooms, is likely to be too difficult to use by anyone except the most experienced educators. And even the most experienced educators will not put in so much time and effort into reading each criteria and the definition of each rating for the 30 teachers under them.
Very well, then. Cannot make it specific as it complicates things, and our office was having a happy debate of what should be done. One suggestion was to make it as simple as possible. Five questions like:
Does the teacher give an alternate explanation for a concept that a student couldn't understand in the first attempt?
The response to this question is either “Yes” or “No”. Objectively measurable. Check. And it can be easily observed by not just educators, but any administrator of the school or district. Objectively observable. Check.
Our team was not completely convinced that classroom observation metrics should be this straightforward. And as luck would have it, some of our team members met with Anustup Nayak from Central Square Foundation (he is a friend, a supporter and fair critic of Things Education). And one of the first things he said when he heard we were trying to make a classroom observation tool was to keep it as simple and straightforward as possible. In fact, after our conversation with Anustup, we realised that on one hand there is the need for accuracy, and on the other the need to keep it simple and observable. A lot of focus has gone into accuracy, sometimes at the cost of ease of use. So maybe the most effective classroom observation tool will be the one that you can just choose the right option from multiple options. We understand that the accuracy loss will be in terms of picking up information that is easily available, and the datasets will lean towards easily observable traits.
Classroom observations are fraught with subconscious biases, which observers can only be aware of and avoid as far as possible. Elaborate rubrics to alleviate these biases become cumbersome, time consuming and sometimes a little dense for the less experienced educators. The direction that classroom observation tools should take is to keep it simple, objectively observable and objectively measurable. This will make classroom observations scalable.
Our online teacher helper tool TEPS will have an attached classroom observation component to it for schools. If you are interested, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org or +91 9898469961. We have already started the early bird subscriptions for schools.
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