Observing Learners - Steve Barkley

Observing Learners

I have lead several school faculties through classroom observations where teachers visit each other’s classrooms and spend time observing student learners. The purpose of the observations is to decide if students are doing what they need to do to achieve.

The thinking behind the activity is: teachers don’t cause student achievement; students cause student achievement. The teacher’s task is to create the right learning activities, environment and desire for individual students. This requires constant observation and continued adjustment on the teacher’s part.

Observations in colleague’s classrooms provide an opportunity to “watch learners” with an intensity and insight that differs from observations done while teaching. After the observations I debrief the group charting two areas of response:

PositivesWhat did you see students doing that you believe will create student learning and desired achievement?

QuestionsWhat questions emerge? (I recommend withholding any evaluative conclusions from a short observation).
Ex: Having observed a line of students waiting for work to be checked…I wonder how much time students spend waiting during our school day? Noticing students during independent reading who never turned a page in 8 min..What accountability do/should students have during independent reading?

I am often asked to provide a form for those observations. I continue to resist and instead have a short discussion prior to the observations where we discuss student behaviors that the participants believe will promote learning. (Students discussing the topic with each other, asking questions, risk taking in sharing thinking, comfortably making public mistakes, reading in free time, etc.)

My reason to avoid a check list is that I feel there is a complexity to engaged learning behavior that needs to be examined while it’s happening in the context of the learning activity.

I recently found a blog by David Warlich where he explored the difference between student engagement and student empowerment.

David states:
We want our children to learn and we tend to believe that if we see more engagement in them, then we will see more effective and perhaps more relevant learning. This is possibly true, though I can’t help but feel that the formula that ignites these results is far more complex.

The learning experience needs to be meaningful, powerful, and empowering to the learner. It is not something we should try to see or do, but something the learner should feel. It’s what fuels the work that enriches the learner in some self-realizing way.

Recently, I was conducting a series of classroom observations with a high school principal. The first seven classrooms that we observed had teachers center stage…lecturing, explaining, modeling, questioning. In most cases, students were expected to be recording notes, often with the teacher prescribing exactly what and how information should be noted. Student engagement varied from room to room. In some classes, the

majority of students were focused on the learning and recording notes as directed…sometimes questioning the teacher for more details or help with understanding (a student behavior that I rate high in engagement and empowerment). In too many classes the number of students engaged in the lesson was 50% or less, including three girls whose purses remained on top of their closed notebooks throughout the observation.

As we walked the halls between classrooms, the principal noted his concern regarding the unengaged students we had seen. In the 8th classroom late in the period, we found a Scrabble tournament occurring in a 10th grade English class. Groups of four had every student in a game, including one group where the teacher played. Boards were full of words and students were struggling to use the last of their letter tiles. There was a buzz of noise with cheers and jeers as words were offered or challenged.

As we stepped into the hall the principal smiled and looked relieved as he turned to me and said, “Now that’s what we’re looking for in engagement.” I replied, “Yes, students were involved in the activity with enthusiasm in most cases. My question is how connected is the activity to the desired learning outcomes of the course or individual student objectives?”. (This is an honest question on my part as I don’t know. It is a question I’d explore in a coaching conference or PLC conversation).

I believe we need many more conversations about the learning behaviors that produce achievement, including conversations with our students. What are the student behaviors most likely to increase learning in today’s lesson? Maybe debriefing after an activity where students identified what they did and then rated its effectiveness. Students could identify personal learning preferences that increase their success.

That would be empowering.

Extension: Consider observing learner behaviors in professional development, coaching sessions and PLC activities. How can leaders enhance teacher engagement and empowerment to increase teacher learning to impact student learning?

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4 Responses to “ Observing Learners ”

  1. Emily Fairbanks Says:

    I appreciated your real-school example of the complexity of our task as teachers to both engage students and empower them at the same time. You made a very important point that the purpose of engagement is to hopefully move students toward important learning. Our teaching has to be so focused in these days of high-stakes testing, but, on the other hand, we can’t forget the “joy” of providing meaningful, fun work for our students.

    Emily Fairbanks, Arlington AISD

  2. Stephen G. Barkley Says:

    Emily… you said it well.Learning is complex… teachers must be constantly observing and adjusting. Thanks

  3. M. Jane Merendino Says:

    Think about many sessions teachers attend that are labeled professional development. Most often it is a presenter lecturing and some teachers taking notes, many others reading a paer or texting. I think presenters should model what true engagement means. Have groups working together or coming to a consenses, etc. I think it is foolish and wasteful when school systems spend thousands on presenters to come and lecture through power points. By the way I have been to your sessions and there is no way I could have read a paper!

  4. rrhallford Says:

    This was a very interesting post. There is a great deal of difference between engaging and empowering a student. The word “educate” means to “draw forth from within” (I learned this from Baron Baptiste and confirmed with my own research). So often teachers believe they are educating when they are the “sage on the stage”, that is not allowing the student to find the teacher within themselves. Of course there is a need to give a certain amount of information and direction but it can be done in such a way that the student is, to use your very appropriate term, empowered. I really like your idea of watching learners and doing this in groups. This method will allow the observing teachers to be empowered to improve their classrooms. I hope I can incorporate this on my campus. Thanks for sharing!

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