Observations can be daunting. I’ve rarely come across anyone who enjoys them. But they can be beat; after all, you’re an excellent teacher!
Here’s a possible sequence of teaching that will satisfy those seeking reassurance that what you are teaching is benefitting the students.
1. Begin with a Retrieval activity
One of the biggest arguments against learning walks and observations is their lack of validity in producing what they set out to do: evidence of learning. Observing students introduced to new content and answering questions based on the content is actually not a sign that learning has taken place. How could this be?
David Didau’s excellent new book Making Kids Cleverer explains how: ‘The higher the retrieval strength of an item of memory – that is how easy it is for us to recall a piece of information right now, the smaller the gains in storage strength from additional study or practice. If something is highly accessible, virtually no learning can happen.” (Ch6 p167).
Essentially what this means is that if we teach something in a lesson, the likelihood of students being able to recall it or retrieve it in the immediate lesson is very high. For example, if you teach someone the capital of Australia and ask them several times in the space of 1 minute to tell you the answer, they will undoubtedly respond correctly. Even if you wait, say 20 minutes, despite other information entering the short-term memories of students and the answer being pushed further back, it is still relatively easily accessible after such a short time. It’s quite clear that you couldn’t safely say they have really learnt it though.
To really prove the content is understood, asking students in a couple of lessons is the real test (and ideally even longer), as by then, significant amounts of other content would have superseded the present information about the capital of Australia. It is at this point that we can increase the durability of the memory by reintroducing it. It is the durability of the memory that is essential. If a student can tell you the content after a considerable length of time has passed, then you can be certain they have learnt it.
Of course, sometimes after many years we will forget content that we certainly did know at one time: otherwise we wouldn’t have passed most of our exams. But that is about forgetting items over many (for me, many many) years. For our students, if they can’t recall information after 2 months then that is an issue. This is why retrieval activities are so important, as they provide students the opportunity to strengthen the durability of the memories of content, that allow them to use that content when and as necessary. If an observer sees your students answering questions from a range of topics, which clearly couldn’t have all been taught in very recent learning moments, then they could safely say that you have been and therefore are teaching well. You must have provided multiple opportunities for memories to be made more durable.
If students can’t recall the information you’ve taught previously, then it is a sign to the observer that it needs to be reintroduced. How do you respond – do you think on your feet and reteach it? I would. Do you then ask the observer to come back another time to demonstrate the learning – I would!
2. Show off your questioning ability.
To effectively draw out responses from students to prove their learning, skill in the art of questioning is crucial. Observers want to see that everyone in your classroom is benefitting from your teaching, and so questioning serves to highlight this. Questioning facilitates an inclusive learning space, as you bounce questions around the room, carefully ensuring you keep them alive and checking the learning of multiple students with just a single question. You use answers to deepen learning, asking students to extend their own or another student’s response, and importantly, to make connections with other topics as you go. When students can answer questions about your whole curriculum, then any observer is going to be impressed, as it not only demonstrates one of the ultimate goals of learning of making connections with the wider world, but also serves to demonstrate that the student is moving closer to mastery, being able to see the deep structures of the domain of knowledge. If you’re moving students from novice to mastery, then you’re winning.
Once students have the content to articulate their thoughts, they need to be shown how to go about translating those thoughts into writing. Often, as teachers we miss this crucial step, and assume that once content is secure, students will automatically be able to respond in writing. Being able to model how to write responses effectively is incredibly useful for your students as it helps them internalise the processes of writing. Sarah Barker, Andy Tharby and Tom Needham wonderfully explain how to go about it, but significantly, modelling will equip your students with the ability to engage with the writing task because you have set them up with the tools to do it. But before you model, you have to understand where students are on the journey from novice to expert, another sign of good teaching; information garnered from formative and summative assessment. This will determine the levels of scaffold you provide in your modelling.
Technology for technology’s sake is pointless, but utilising the function of OneNote to maximise the modelling process is a good example of technology benefitting the learning environment. I have written about the rationale of using it here, as well as actually how to do it, and not only will it aid the modelling process and strengthen student understanding of effective writing, it will also be seen as innovative by your observer, which is always a nice bonus.
4. Student books
Student books can often be seen as a proxy for learning, a trap your observer may fall into. The issues with book scrutiny are well documented by Sarah Barker, but if books WILL be looked at, you can guide the observer in the right direction to again demonstrate learning over time. My students have two books: one for classwork, the other for assessment. If you know the observer in coming in, have students’ assessment books on their tables, so the observer can see how you have provided feedback for students to improve, and critically, how students have responded. How smart your targets are for improvement will also indicate a good understanding of teaching, as you demonstrate insight into how a student can improve by specifically stating the next steps. I’ve written about pragmatic marking here, and specific targets here. If there is going to be any possible evidence of learning happening in books, then assessment books that show improvements in writing may be the only answer.
Teaching the observer
Overall, whilst learning walks and observations have serious limitations in ascertaining how much learning is happening in your classroom, you can demonstrate quality teaching by showing off how much your students know and how well you elicit the information from them, how well you understand their levels of ability, and consequently, how well you scaffold the learning space for maximum achievement. Any observer seeing these things happening is sure to get a sense that you are teaching well, and that your students are in good hands because they are clearly learning.
I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more articles about education and English teaching