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:
Positives—What did you see students doing that you believe will create student learning and desired achievement?
Questions– What 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.
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?