"The teacher seemed unprepared."
"The kids were really working hard."
"I wouldn't have taught the concept that way."
"I'm not sure how kids could be excited about that topic when even I was bored."
"Boy, they just nailed that one--that was great pedagogy!"
Have you ever gone into a classroom to observe a lesson had any of these thoughts after you left the class? I'm sure that any number of people who watched me teach biology or PE could have said one or all of these things on a given day. Over the last thirteen years, I have been in numerous classrooms and I know that at varying times I have had these types of phrases run through my head as I did walk-throughs around my schools.
How meaningless for me, and even more importantly, how meaningless for anyone to whom I was going to describe what I saw in the class. Whether I was speaking to that teacher, another educator or administrator, these normative-based bits of feedback were almost entirely useless in describing the learning environment that I had observed.
In each of these instances, I was unclear as to what I was actually looking for, and moreover I was quickly jumping to conclusions that were based on my own biases and experiences as both a learner and a teacher.
Imagine that you were taking a piano lesson and the teacher said "Good one! You really nailed it!". Or you swung your golf club and your golf pro said "Well, clearly you didn't prepare for today.". Or perhaps in your evening art class, your professor says "I wouldn't have done it that way.". Would any of this be meaningful?
One of the pieces that truly challenged my thinking when studying the concepts of Instructional Rounds was learning and practicing the discipline of description. More specifically, I found it difficult to begin by determining an area of focus for feedback, and then to describe the EVIDENCE of what I saw in classrooms from the students, the teachers, and the tasks they were doing as opposed to stating my OPINION of what I saw. City, Elmore, Fiarman and Teitel (2009) call this "learning to see" and "unlearning to judge". I imagine being in the middle of teaching a science lesson and my Principal coming to my class, doing an observation, and giving me this feedback:
- "the pace was too fast"
- "you assigned a highly complex lab to the students"
- "the students were actively engaged with their groups during the lesson"
- "when you moved from the first task to the second task, eight of the students had not completed the first task"
- "you assigned the students a task that required them to collect, plot, and analyze and draw conclusions from data"
- "the students used a rubric to provide feedback to their peers on the structure of the conclusions they had drawn and the strength of the evidence to find those conclusions."
The second set of feedback lets me slow down and do some thinking. Hmmm...if eight students had not completed the first step, should I have circled back? Was my instruction not clear enough? The assignment did involve some higher order thinking skills, as did the peer evaluation tool at the end--this is what the department and I wanted to examine in more detail. Cool.
At some point in the process of examining our practice, there will be judgement. Make no doubt, if we collectively are looking at an area of focus in what we are doing in the classroom, given enough descriptive feedback, we will start to note patterns and draw some conclusions. But by giving descriptive feedback without judgement, or learning to SEE rather than jumping to OPINION, we can slow the process down and approach classrooms in a more meaningful and productive manner that can truly impact teaching practice.
Now THAT would be cool. Wait a sec, that's a judgement...
City, Elizabeth A et al. Instructional rounds in education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2009.