Conducting classroom observations is one of the most effective ways to develop as a teacher. Especially when you are in professional development programmes, visiting classes similar to the ones where you will work can help you to better understand the how teachers and learners interact with each other and with the context. Although classroom observation can appear deceptively simple, getting the most out of the experience requires some careful preparation, as well as focused attention. In this post, I want to share some ideas about what to look out for when you are observing a classroom.
A framework for classroom observation
What follows draws on my involvement in multiple or teacher placement components in university-based teacher education programmes. However, the basic frame is derived from Paul Nation and John Macalister’s (2010) book, Language Curriculum Design. The latter was used until recently, with minimal modification, to provide structure to the practicum of a language teacher education programme I have been involved (see Kitsiou et al. 2019). Despite the many strengths of Nation and Macalister’s (2010) rigorous thinking, I firmly believe that there is much to be gained by moving beyond ‘one size fits all’ approaches to teacher education. It was this concern that has motivated the development of the framework that I present below.
Some key ways in this framework differs from the one put forward by Nation and Macalister (2010) include the following:
- There is additional emphasis on identifying what learners can do (their strengths). This helps to guide users of the framework away from deficit conceptualisations of the learners.
- There is an explicit move away from methods-based teaching towards post-method pedagogy. This brings the framework in line with more recent theoretical work and practice in language education.
- There is also an explicit move towards critical pedagogy, which I believe to be immensely important when working with vulnerable populations.
- The section on ‘needs’ has been significantly expanded. This helps users of the framework to reflect on various ways a syllabus might be structured (see also Graves 2000), and provides more guidance to less experienced teachers.
- The questions that Nation and Macalister (2010) use to exemplify their model have been replaced with focusing questions which are better suited to short-term teaching placements, as opposed to large-scale curriculum design.
- There are also some undertones, in the model, which echo work I have published (individually and with others) on constraints, affordances, and complex systems, although users do not really need to know much about any of that in order to use the model.
Since October 2020, I have been using early versions of the model in my own teaching, and I have shared it with colleagues who are also involved in professional development programmes for language teachers. I am especially grateful to colleagues at the Hellenic Open University for their insights, which have helped to clarify and enrich aspects of the model. Anecdotal feedback so far suggests that they, and the teachers they work with, have been finding it helpful. I hope you do, too.
The primary purpose of classroom observation, as I understand it, is to generate an understanding of a teaching and learning situation. As shown in Figure 1, this situation is conceptualised as a whole, consisting of three connected intellectual activities. The first one involves understanding the context where teaching and learning takes place. A second one is about understanding the learners’ strengths and needs. The third one involves understanding the methodological choices that underpin teaching and learning in the setting.
Understanding the learning context
One way to understand the language classroom that one is observing is as a setting (some also call it a complex system), with three sets of aspects, namely the physical, the institutional, and the human.
Physical aspects of the setting
The physical aspects of the learning setting refer to the space, time, and resources that are available for learning. The physical aspects of the classroom constrain teaching and learning activity, and at the same time creates teaching and learning opportunities (or affordances). For example, a classroom where desks are placed in rows facing the board makes group-work harder, and therefore constrains activity to teacher-fronted instruction. Similarly, having access to a coursebook creates affordances for teaching according to the syllabus of the coursebook designers.
Some focussing questions that can help us to understand the physical aspects of the classroom include the following:
- What is the classroom/learning space like?
- What kinds of activities are possible / hard to implement? Why?
- What aspects of the learning space can change?
- What resources are learners expected to provide on their own?
- What resources are provided to the learners?
- What resources are teachers expected to bring with them?
- What resources are available in the classroom/learning space?
- What resources are available in the vicinity of the classroom/learning space?
- Who can use these resources? If permission/authorisation is required, what is the process of obtaining one?
Can you think of any other physical aspects of the context that are important?
I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments!
Institutional aspects of the context
The institutional aspects of the learning setting refer to the rules, norms, and expectations associated with teaching and learning in this classroom. The institutional aspect regulates the interactions of teachers and learners. Some examples of such considerations include the rules of the school about tardiness, placement and exit tests that learners are expected to sit, classroom routines such as greeting each other or taking turns speaking.
Some focussing questions that can help us to understand the institutional aspects of the context include the following:
- What are the rules of the school / organisation?
- What are the established norms of this learning group?
- Do learners tend to arrive late or leave early?
- How regular is attendance?
- Who (if anyone) is responsible for recording attendance?
- What are the aims of the syllabus for this learning group?
- Are there any immediate goals to be met (e.g., assessment)?
- How often does the class/learning group meet? For how long?
Are there any institutional aspects of the context that I’ve missed?
You can share your thoughts in the comments section!
Human aspects of the context
The human aspect of the learning setting refers to the diverse types of linguistic and cultural capital that people bring to class, their feelings and preferences, and the interpersonal dynamics that develop among them. I was deliberately vague when using the term ‘people’: I believe that this should also include the teacher and the observer, especially if one is doing participant-observation; however, in the context of observing a class in advance of teaching, the focus is on the learners.
Some questions that can help us to better understand the human aspects of a learning setting include the following:
- How old are the learners?
- What is the gender distribution like?
- What is their origin and cultural background?
- What is their academic background / literacy level?
- How proficient are they in the target language?
- What linguistic skills can they draw upon from other languages they know?
- What language can they fall back to if they face difficulties in the target language?
- Are there any interpersonal issues you need to be aware of?
- What are the classroom dynamics like?
If there are any other human aspects of the context that I have missed,
I’d really like to read your thoughts in the comments section!
Understanding the learners’ strengths and needs
Understanding the learners’ needs and strengths involves determining two things: the content of the strengths and needs, which tells us what the learners are confident with and what must be taught, and the type of need which determines their relative priority.
Observing a classroom to determine learning content
Depending on our perspective, and on factors such as the school’s curriculum and the syllabus of the class, we can conceptualise the content of the learners’ strengths and needs in various ways. What I encourage users of the framework to do is to find which frames of reference are more helpful for understanding how their classroom works, and use the focusing questions to identify the learners’ strengths and needs.
If we take a communicative perspective (Canale & Swain, 1980), strengths and needs are defined as a function of how effectively, appropriately, and confidently learners can communicate. Some of the things we need to find out are:
- In what situations are learners most likely to use the target language?
- To what extent can learners solve communication problems? What strategies do they deploy? (strategic competence)
- To what extent can learners produce coherent and cohesive speech / text? What, if any, amount of preparation / scaffolding do they need? (discourse competence)
- How aware are learners of communication norms for the setting, role, type of interaction? To what extent can learners produce speech / text that is appropriate to the context? (sociolinguistic awareness & competence)
- To what extent can learners produce speech / text that is grammatically accurate? To what extent do mistakes impede communication? (grammatical competence)
If we adopt a skills perspective, we will need to determine how well learners can cope with listening, speaking, reading, and writing tasks. Some questions that can help us understand this are the following:
- What types of texts do the learners engage with in class?
- What types of texts do the learners engage with outside class?
- How fluent are the learners?
- How accurate is their output?
- How confident do they appear?
- How balanced is their oral and written proficiency?
- How balanced are their receptive and productive skills?
If we adopt a form-focussed perspective, we need to determine the extent to which the learners can use aspects of the language system in order to communicate with accuracy. Some questions that we can use to focus our observation are:
- How comprehensible is the learners’ pronunciation? In what ways is it different from that of native speakers? Are there any sounds or sound patterns that learners’ have difficulty with? (phonology)
- What can the learners already do with writing? Are the learners facing any challenges (e.g., the alphabet, spelling difficult words)? (orthography)
- What aspects of grammar are the learners already familiar with? Are they facing any difficulties with using the most appropriate form of the words they need? (morphology)
- What aspects of syntax have already been taught? Are the learners facing challenges with word order? (syntax)
- How familiar are the learners with the conventions of various text genres with which they are engaging? (discourse)
If we adopt a topics-oriented perspective, we need to find out what topics and themes the learners can confidently work with , and what topics they still find challenging. Some focussing questions include the following:
- What themes and topics do the learners engage with / have the learners engaged with in class?
- What themes and topics seem most relevant to their everyday life?
- What themes and topics are likely to appeal to them?
- Are there any themes and topics that are likely to offend sensitivities?
- Are there any themes and topics that will generate tension among learners or trigger emotional responses?
Observing a classroom to determine learning priorities
Nation and Macalister (2010: 24-36) distinguish between three types of needs that drive learning: necessities, lacks and wants. This typology helps users of the classroom observation framework to prioritise the goals and teaching opportunities which we have identified in our needs analysis.
These are future-oriented, urgent needs, usually posed by the institutional context. For example, a learner may have to pass a language examination in order to get a job or get residence rights.
These urgent needs refer to skills or knowledge that learners have not acquired, and which hinder their academic progress or their ability to live out their lives. For instance, a learner might lack the ability to engage with written texts with fluency and confidence.
These non-urgent (but not unimportant!) needs refer to the personal preferences of the learners.
It is often hard to find out about learners’ needs from classroom observation alone. What other ways can you think of for finding out?
Understanding methodological choices
There are many ways to think about the methodological choices that underpin a language lesson. One of them is to try to classify the lesson in one of several pre-defined lessons: e.g. we could say that the lessons in the class are informed by communicative methods, or that they follow task-based pedagogy, or that they conform to grammar-translation methodology. I find this approach somewhat limited, because these labels are rather abstract, and because in my experience few teachers ever stick rigidly to a particular methodological paradigm.
Using classroom observation to think about methodological principles
An alternative approach is to try to tease out, from the language activities that are used in the class, what the fundamental methodological principles are, which underpin the lesson. I use ideas taken from Bala Kumaravadivelu’s postmethod framework to guide my questions, although I would encourage you to read these as examples only, and to adapt these to your own needs.
- What does the teacher do to maximise learning opportunities?
- In what ways does negotiated interaction take place in the class?
- What attempts are made to promote the learners’ autonomy?
- In what ways does the teacher try to foster language awareness?
- How does the teacher / do the materials contextualise linguistic input?
- In what ways are language skills practiced in class?
- How is the social relevance of the lesson ensured?
- In what ways does the lesson build the participants’ (learners’ AND teacher’s!) cultural consciousness?
Adding a critical dimension to the classroom observation
A special consideration, when working with learners who belong to vulnerable populations, is to ensure that our pedagogical choices help to empower them. For this reason, we want participants to have a heightened sensitivity to aspects of critical pedagogy, i.e. teaching that aims to improve the conditions of subaltern populations. Some focussing questions that can help users of the classroom observation framework to think about these pedagogical aspects are the following:
- Does teaching and learning discourage essentialism? How does the teacher/do the materials ensure that learners are not reduced to stereotypes?
- Does teaching and learning highlight individual identities? In what ways does the teaching methodology help learners to showcase their hybrid identities?
- Is teaching and learning participatory and collaborative? To what extent and in what ways do the methodological choices encourage shared decision-making?
- Is teaching and learning locally situated and socially mediated? To what extent has the particularity of the context been taken into account in the way the class functions? What evidence can we find of this?
- Is teaching and learning transformative? To what extent and in what ways do the learning activities encourage learners to think about their status quo? What attempts are made to prompt social change?
Who is this classroom observation framework for?
In this post, I have outlined a classroom observation framework that can be used to help teachers who are new to a context to better understand why teaching and learning has taken the shape that it has taken, and what changes are possible. The framework was designed with particular reference to the needs of teachers who are about to engage in short-term placements, but it can be flexibly modified to suit other needs as well.
One way in which this framework is being used is to help teachers learn more about classes with learners who have a refugee or migrant backgrounds, and who are learning Modern Greek or English in some formal or semi-formal setting. This is reflected in some of the focusing questions. Again, adjusting these questions to the particular needs of other settings should be a relatively straightforward task.
Yet another possibility that I find intriguing is the option to use the framework in order to reflect on one’s own professional setting. This is obviously a different experience from learning about a class as a visitor. However, ‘making the familiar strange’ is not without its intellectual rewards, and -if you are an experienced teacher who tried this out- I would be keen to hear about how this worked for you.
If you do try out some of these ideas in your own setting, I would very much like to read about your experience. Were the questions helpful for you? What changes did you find necessary? Do share your thoughts in the comments section below. Also please feel free to share this article with anyone you think might find it useful.