What? That’s a bit harsh. While the lesson wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t that bad. Every lesson, even taught by the most experienced teacher, has some areas for improvement anyway, doesn’t it? Besides, the observer has a background in science. What does he know about teaching a language lesson?
What specifically was unsatisfactory then? Let’s read on through this report.
‘Purpose of the main task was unclear.’ Hmph! Of course, a scientist wouldn’t understand the demands of a dictogloss activity.
‘Some students were disengaged.’ But they were teenagers who had just come out of PE (Physical Education)! Plus, they are not normally like that … well, except for that one girl who is always like that.
‘There was no assessed outcome.’ Hang on, they checked their text against their peers’ versions and the original. And why does every lesson need an assessed outcome anyway? Besides, we will do an assessed activity in the next lesson …
I was, of course, in denial. Overall, the lesson was acceptable but there were several areas highlighted for improvement. I could not focus on anything other than the negative feedback, however. I was on the defensive ready to make my case for why the observer’s judgements were wrong, or at least mistaken.
I went to speak to the observer himself. He said we would talk about it the following day. When we finally sat down together, I had had a day to calm down and process the feedback and we ended up having a fruitful discussion. Despite my initial view of him as ‘just a scientist’ he was, of course, an experienced educator. The areas for improvement he had picked up on were not ELT specific but were related to common areas of task planning and design, classroom management, and establishing outcomes. Also, they were ‘areas for improvement’ not harsh criticisms or challenges to my abilities in the classroom.
In short, once I got over my initial reaction, the observation report and follow-up meeting proved to be highly productive in terms of prompting reflection and establishing focal points for my professional development for the year.
So, how can we make positives out of negatives? (That’s a question a science teacher should be able to comment on!) How can we ensure we get the full benefits out of feedback? Here are my ideas. As ever, I invite you to share yours in the comments section.
Take time to think
As in my example above, it is important to take time to reflect on feedback given. This gives us the opportunity to process what has been said, and get over that initial stage of denial.
In my case, the fact that the purpose of the dictogloss activity was not clear to a non-language specialist was not a sign that he did not know much about language teaching. It was instead a sign that the way I had introduced and explained the activity was not clear. I had made assumptions about the activity that were not valid and it had confused the observer. By them time we sat down to discuss it, I was willing to admit that it had not been clear to the students either.
I am not saying her that the stage of denial should be avoided. It is perfectly natural to have a negative reaction to criticism. We are only human after all. However, we have to make sure we do not get stuck in the denial stage – another reason why conducting feedback meetings with the space of a day or two is a good idea!
Go easy on excuses
This is something I have noted in my role as an observer or line manager having conducted the observation – the mitigating circumstances and excuses that come up. ‘They are not normally like that’ is a common one as are the claims of the wonderful learning moments that took place in the lesson before or after.
There are, of course, external factors that affect our lessons. Perhaps our students have an important exam coming up, they are especially excited about a forthcoming trip or school event, or – the classic one – it’s a Friday afternoon.
However, these are factors that we should be aware of and take into account when planning and preparing our lessons. In my case, the fact that the students were coming to me from PE was simply part of their school day and one I should have taken into consideration by introducing some energising and/or relaxing activities early in the lesson to get them engaged.
And in the case where there is a genuine unavoidable external factor or disruption that impacts on our lessons, I am sure the observer will take it into account.
Offer your own ideas & ask for advice
When taking time to think, it is better to come up with ideas than excuses. If (as was the case in my school) you receive written feedback first, reflect on the comments made and think about what changes could be made. If the written feedback comes later, take time to note down your own thoughts and feelings on the lesson. The key to this is not only to focus on what went well and what did not but also to think about what you would do differently next time. What changes could be made to ensure your future lessons are more engaging and productive? What measures can be taken to prevent and/or address some of the issues? How will you determine whether or not they worked?
My preferred routine is as follows – find quiet time at the end of the day to write down some thoughts about the lesson. There does not have to be any structure to this initially – just get those ideas down on paper. Then, identify those areas for improvement and think about solutions. An observer will appreciate it if you have taken the time to do this as it makes the process much more developmental than simply being told what you should have done. In my case, I identified that there was not much variety in interaction patterns in the class, which had caused some students to switch off when they struggled for ideas. I also thought about how I could make the ‘assessable outcome’ more visible (not just to an observer but to the learners as well) by using a checklist for pupils to compare their work too.
And when you don’t have any ideas for how to improve (creative blanks are quite common), think about the questions you can ask the observer. Don’t be afraid of asking them to explain, clarify, or make suggestions. Perhaps that will provide the spark you need for your own ideas.
Feed it into an action plan
All of the above sounds good, and yet I find opportunities are often missed with observations. The feedback is given and debated, suggestions are made, some ideas are taken on board, while others are dismissed. It is all too easy alas for the outcomes of the feedback process to get lost in the daily grind of teaching.
It is key, therefore, to come away from an observation with an action plan. In my case, through my own reflections and the input of my colleague, I focused on the following:
- make task aims and outcomes clearer by: presenting aims at the start of the lesson; reinforcing aims when introducing activities; establishing success criteria with learners to guide activity
- including more scope for assessment by: planning plenary sessions at appropriate points; reviewing success criteria post-task; creating mini-review tests every few lessons
- increasing student engagement by: planning a variety of task types and interaction patterns into the lesson; investigating other ideas for energising students
Here we not only had three points to focus on (what) but also strategies to experiment with and reflect on (how). We also established a timeline for working on these (when) and agreed further on a date for a further feedback meeting.
Fill up on feedback from a variety of sources
Not every feedback session has to be based on a full lesson observation of course. Instead of observing me again, my line manager conducted two or three drop-in observations of 15-20 minutes each and we met a couple of times to review my plans and reflect on progress.
He also suggested I worked with another colleague who was also focusing on incorporating more assessable outcomes into lessons so we could share ideas. We ended up conducting peer observations as a result, which facilitated a more relaxed round of peer feedback.
Why stop there? In addition to official and peer/drop-in feedback, we should also seek feedback from the people who benefit most from what we do – the students. Run a quick poll at the end of the lesson, ask for reflections on a Post-It note or a Padlet wall, or use a standard feedback form.
Wherever it comes from though, make sure you reflect on the comments positive and negative. When the comments are focused on areas for improvement, get through the stages of denial and ducking behind defensive walls and make it constructive for a better-balanced opportunity to develop.