Questions about observations of classroom practice

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How many observations should there be? How many observers should observe teachers? How long should the observations be?

One of the important findings of the MET study was that the reliability of observations increased with both the number of observations and the number of observers. While probably unrealistic for practicing Educators, four observations, conducted by several different observers, was about twice as reliable as an observation of a single lesson. Interestingly, for those components of the FFT that were observed during a lesson segment, 15 minutes gave as high reliability as observations of 45 minutes. From a practical perspective, this means that if both a principal and an assistant principal have been trained and certified as evaluators, the most reliable evaluations are obtained if they conduct observations of the same teachers.

Of course, a full lesson provides a teacher the opportunity to demonstrate his/her skill in planning and executing an entire learning experience for students, and enables the teacher and supervisor to engage in the collaborative observation cycle (see below.)

Overall, my recommendation is that the observation component of a full evaluation consist of one full lesson, and three additional, shorter observations, and that these observations are conducted by two different individuals.

Should observations be announced or unannounced?

This issue involves trade offs between conflicting purposes of teacher observation. On the one hand, an announced observation, for an entire lesson, gives teachers the opportunity to provide evidence of their skill in planning in a pre observation (planning) conference, and deliver a lesson that represents their best work. On the other hand, some teachers are tempted to do a “dog and pony show” for their announced observation, whereas when administrators conduct a number of shorter, unannounced observations, they can discern patterns in the teacher’s practice. There are strengths in both approaches, which is why I recommend both announced (formal) and unannounced (informal) observations

What is the collaborative observation cycle?

The Danielson Group recommends a “collaborative observation cycle” process, and it applies to a formal, announced observation. It consists of the following steps:

  • A pre observation (planning) conference, following an established protocol, in which the teacher explains what he/she is planning for the students to learn, how the teacher proposes to engage students in the lesson, and how (and when) the teacher will know whether the students have reached the desired outcome.
  • A classroom observation, for an entire lesson or class period. The observer takes notes, recording only evidence, and not making any interpretations or judgment of that evidence.
  • A period of consolidation, in which:
    • the observer shares the notes with the teacher, and the teacher has an opportunity to supplement the observer’s notes if they are not complete
    • both teacher and observer assign each piece of evidence to a component in the Framework for Teaching. If applicable, a single piece of evidence may be assigned to more than one component
    • both teacher and observer determine which level of performance they believe is represented by the evidence for each component, and why they think that. A recommended technique is for each individual to use a highlighter (either on paper or electronically) on the rubric to represent the words that best characterize the evidence for each component
    • a post observation (reflection) conference in which the teacher and observer compare their interpretations of the evidence for each component, and together decide the appropriate level of performance for each component. If they disagree, the observer’s judgment must prevail, but the observer should have sufficient humility to recognize that the teacher’s interpretation may be the correct one
    • together, the teacher and observer identify the strengths of the lesson, the
      areas for growth, and recommended actions the teacher might take to
      address the areas for growth.

Can evidence be collected on all the components in Domains 2 and 3? How should “no or insufficient evidence” be handled?

In a full lesson, a teacher will demonstrate most of the components in Domains 2 and 3. However, this is not always the case, when, for example, the lesson does not include the need for a teacher to make an adjustment to the lesson (3e.) Furthermore, in a brief observation, there may be no evidence for several components. For example, it’s possible that in the particular 15 minutes observed, the students were not engaged in a discussion (3b) or there were no transitions or other evidence of classroom procedures (2c.) In situations where there is no evidence for a component, it should be recorded as “no evidence;” the lack of evidence should not result in a low score for that component.

What do you recommend for the observation of teachers who teach multiple subjects(elementary) or many sections (secondary)?

Ideally, teachers should be observed in the full range of situations in which they teach; an elementary teacher might be far more effective in, for example, mathematics, than in literacy. Or a high school science teacher might do a better job in physics, for example, than biology. The observation of a single lesson would not be sensitive to these differences. On the other hand, if several observations (even brief ones) are conducted with each teacher (ideally by several different observers) then the teacher can demonstrate the full range of his/her skills.

Should videos of teaching be used in the evaluation of teachers?

Video is a powerful technology, useful for a number of purposes, primarily professional development. New technological developments enable teachers to videotape their own teaching, review what they’ve captured, and either delete it or share it with colleagues. This practice can make a significant contribution to such practices as Lesson Study, and generally enrich the work of professional learning communities. Furthermore, the software allows teachers to share just a small clip of a lesson (where, for example, they’re trying a new approach), make a comment on that clip, and share just that with colleagues, making the entire process efficient.

Similarly, video can be used for professional development in conversations between a teacher and a supervisor. In such discussions, they watch a lesson together, pause it at different points, and explore different possible courses of action. When used in this manner, the video becomes a
tool in solving “problems of practice” that contribute to the complexity of teaching.

Video can also be used in teacher evaluation, in several different ways:

  • As a tool for observers to maintain their accuracy. Observers can look at the video of a class, and compare, with one another, the evidence they collect for the different components, and how they interpret that evidence against the levels of performance. When used in this manner, that video should not be used as part of the evaluation of the teacher, but only for ongoing training and calibration of observers.
  • As a “second opinion” on the quality of a lesson. If an observer and a teacher disagree as to how a lesson should be evaluated, the only records they have of the lesson are the observer’s notes and the teacher’s memory; both can be flawed. A videotape of that same lesson can also be viewed by another trained and certified observer (even in a remote location) as another pair of eyes on the same events.

What is the role of technology in observations of teaching?

Teacher observation and evaluation, when done with paper and pencil, generates a voluminous amount of data; keeping track of this information, and organizing it so patterns are revealed, is just what computers are good for.

Specifically, the use of computer technology enables observers to record the events of a
lesson, assign these notes to a component of the Framework for Teaching, share those notes with the teacher, and determine the level of performance. The evaluator can also review artifacts the teacher has submitted, primarily for Domains 1 and 4, and discuss them with the teacher. The teacher can do all those same things, that is, submit artifacts (for example the lesson plan for a lesson, or examples of family communication), review the observer’s notes and their alignment with components in the FFT, and determine an appropriate level of performance in preparation for the post observation (reflection) conference with the evaluator.

Overall, the use of technology minimizes the time needed for the mundane aspects of teacher evaluation, that is, writing in long hand and organizing massive amounts of data, and maximizes the time available for the important part of the process, namely the professional conversations.

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