Classroom observations are primarily used for monitoring and promoting the quality of classroom instructions. Its goals include evaluating the quality of teaching, the competency of the teacher and the consistency between the curriculum planning and the actual delivery of instructions. There are various methods in which classroom observations are conducted, the key criterion is the nature of the assessor, whether it is fellow teachers, senior management, principals or external inspectors. This article looks into the different methods of classroom observations, their benefits and the key challenges that have to be overcome in order to show the desired changes and improvement in teaching.
Nature Of Classroom Observation
Well-conducted classroom observations can be used as a development tool that leads to reflective changes in teaching. It is typically used as a formative process that helps teachers to improve teaching by incorporating higher level of desired behaviors into their interactions. Being assessed by a peer, superiors, senior management or external observer can bring different challenges during teacher evaluation. Formative assessments were traditionally used as a self-help tool to provide teachers with recommendations on how to improve their teaching. But this is changing nowadays. Schools are considering performance inputs from formative assessments in addition to year-end summative assessments in the appraisal cycle. It is therefore essential that the school administration is aware of various types of classroom observations, their benefits, and challenges while evaluating their applicability. This article describes three methods of classroom observation, namely, observation by peer, observation by principal and observation by external evaluator.
Observation By Peer
Several research studies support a positive narrative about peer observation as it improves teaching while developing a sense of collaboration and collegiality. Peer observation aids sharing instructional techniques and ideologies between teachers. Being observed by the same peer leads to suggestions about how to handle behavior problems, as well as opportunities to share successful teaching approaches.
Peer observation as a formative process
Classroom observation are best used as a formative process. When used otherwise, for example as part of the summative evaluation or year-end review, peer observers should be properly trained on standard observation protocols and deploying multi-stage assessments. Traditionally summative year-end reviews are used as a tool for deciding retention and during promotion cycles, hence this process is likely to find resistance in teachers if their peers are not trained.
A recent survey on teachers and administrators have found feedback from peer reviews to be helpful to the teacher for improving their teaching styles. Information collected during peer observations also need to have high-stakes so that the exercise does not become an unwanted checklist for peer observers.
Barnard et al. (2011) introduced a different approach of peer observation called ‘peer partnership’, where two teachers observe each other’s teaching skills and methods. While this method is shown to exchange supportive and constructive feedback between the teachers, it requires a lot of commitment in terms of time and effort. Once this hurdle is crossed peer partnership becomes a rewarding practice for improved teaching-learning experience.
Peer Assistance and Review (PAR)
Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) protocol is another approach that uses an expert teacher mentoring new and in-experienced teachers. PAR has seen more adoption and success compared to other observation methods due to its emphasis on the following six features. These are (1) definite evaluation time; (2) relationship between formative assessments, feedback and teacher development; (3) evaluation transparency; (4) alignment of teacher unions in the process; (5) evaluation credibility; and (6) accountability in the process.
PAR emphasizes on a number of pre-conditions in order to be successful. It drives agreement from all stakeholders while identifying mentors and their respective roles. Model teaching standards are defined along with rules to measure teaching quality and effectiveness, while recommending improvements. In order for PAR to be implemented teacher unions have to work with administration to empower the assessment panel of mentors. Finally, such a program must be sufficiently funded to ensure mentor teachers are incentivized on their efforts that are over and beyond their daily teaching requirements.
The other benefits that administrators derive out of PAR is during the cycle of selective retention to ensure that students receive their education from the best performing teachers. PAR has also shown to reduce teacher’s resistance to accept formative component to be as important as the summative component for career advancement.
Observation By School Leader / Principal
About 60% of all schools in the developed world employ observations carried out by the principal. This percentage can be as high as 100% in countries like the United States, or as low as 5% from countries like Portugal. While the objectives cited for such observations are credible, like focusing on teacher relationship, empowerment and building motivation etc., the feedback provided to teachers often has no clear rules for implementation.
In Principal observation it is very difficult to determine the reliability of the assessment as compared to other measures for evaluating teachers. One such example is to use students’ performance in year-end exams to measure teaching effectiveness. Principals should use detailed standard-based instruments and be appropriately trained to ensure uniformity while assessing teachers.
Trainings should focus on how to deliver feedback to teachers in a positive, constructive way. Assessments today are not just about the accuracy of the process that leads to performance appraisals, but are also used for professional development, teacher empowerment and teamwork. This is in addition to the fact that formative assessments are being used more and more during promotion cycles and end of the year hire-fire decisions.
Example1: Clinical Supervision Model
The ‘clinical supervision’ model necessitates the inclusion of pre- and post-observation stages along with the main observation. During the pre-observation conference, the goals, structure and method of observation is negotiated between the teachers and the principal. The post-observation conference is used to provide feedback to the teachers on their teaching methodology. Feedback during post-observation should be honest, non-threatening, constructive, appreciating the strong and effective aspects of the teacher’s performance while highlighting the areas of improvement. The benefits of clinical observation include helping teachers build a trusting relationship with the principal while getting a formal channel for feedback on areas of improvement.
Example 2: Negotiated Assessment Model
The Negotiated Assessment model is a more personalized form of the Clinical Assessment model. Rather than using pre-and post-observation conferences, the negotiation for assessment rules are carried in person between the assessor and the assessed. A learning contract is drawn containing goals, activities and the evidence to be provided during the observation. The key challenge here is the additional burden for the teacher to provide evidence for achieving each goal.
Some studies have also found that the feedback received from the assessor are perceived to be effective when the assessor is actively involved in supervision, has a charismatic personality and deep content knowledge. Teachers have a positive evaluation experience when their assessors are perceived to be members who value the system, have a trusting relationship with the them and provide timely and supportive feedback. Lack or absence of any of these factors can change the perception of the evaluation system drastically from positive to negative.
Observation By An External Evaluator
Even though principals and teachers proclaim that getting feedback from an external observer can bring reflective changes in teaching, there is no solid evidence supporting its actual sustaining impact on teaching. Observation carried out by an external evaluator might not be quite effective for the intended goals of this program as a range of professionals like regional inspectors, or district/state/national evaluation departments are usually inexperienced teachers. Additional factors coming into play can be political in nature like jurisdiction, authority and power over the information collected during the evaluation.
It has been observed that primary and elementary school teachers prefer an internal senior observer over external observers. Teachers are likely to show reluctance when reviewed by senior management during formative assessment and would rather prefer a senior colleague. This ensures that the year-end summative review in front of the senior management is better managed and allows teachers the time to address their gaps arising out of formative assessments.
In other cases, however, teachers are apprehensive to expose their weakness in front of colleagues or senior management. In such situations, an external evaluator who is not a part of this school system is considered as a better observer for providing fair, honest and unbiased feedback. The challenge that external observers have to face is ensuing they build trust with teachers while providing hard feedback for improvements.
While the methods of observation described in this article have their challenges in implementation, they can still be effective when the assessors are trained properly in the assessment standards. It is recommended that schools keep an eye on the challenges identified in each observation procedure while choosing the best for their system.