Observation: It’s science. It’s obvious. It’s observable.

What are teachers? Well, they’re teachers, obviously.

What do they do? Hmm. That’s a bit more tricky. Work in schools? Spend a long time in classrooms? Do the best they can? Meet lots of different people, most of them from the future. Talk. Listen. Make plans. Have a life. Spend too much time worrying. Have long holidays. Blog a bit. I don’t know………

How do they do it? Which bit?

Well how about the when they’re at work? Ah. Well, mostly by just doing it I reckon. Maybe learn a bit at the very start, try it out, keep the things that work and forget the rest. Survive the first year. And then just keep going till the summer holidays. After that it’s like swimming lengths in a very long pool …. Dive in; swim till half term; get out and have a rest; dive in; swim till Christmas; have a break… like that.

How about the technical part of teaching? Oh I see. Well that’s about having a good watch, a great memory for names …. and spotting what works when you’re in the classroom so you can do more of it.

When you’ve spotted something that works can you say exactly what it was that made it work? Oh no it’s all far too complex for that. With experience of teaching you can begin to understand what you’re doing for yourself, what produces good effects in terms of students’  learning. But explain it all to someone else? No, I think that’s not really possible. It’s too personal.

What is a teacher? If I’m talking about myself, it’s someone trying to make sense of a continuously changing social situation in order to change it for the better. It’s  changing and changeable, uncertain and complex. On my first day of teaching in a special school, as we were all lining up in the playground waiting for the doors to be unlocked, the person in charge of the line of students next to me said; “Whatever else you do, don’t have a day off. It’ll take you weeks to get them settled again. They won’t trust you.” No  pressure then. I was a trained and experienced scientist teaching scieince to children. I could do the subject stuff standing on my head. It was the other bit that was going to be harder. It was.

Noticing something, investigating and finding out about it is the work of scientists. The ‘something’ might be a thing you could hold in your hand, like the numerical results of the end-of-term science test; or it could be a intangible thing like the behaviour of the students when they have a task to do which involves them working in teams. A teacher has to do both kinds of investigation; we are required to be both a quantitative and a qualitative scientist.

The Key Issues 

Professor Robert Coe in his blog ‘Classroom observation: it’s harder than you think’ (http://cem.org/blog/414/) arrives well equipped, has a rootle about in his toolbag and comes out with the right tools to hit the proverbial nail square on its proverbial head. After a very brief introduction he moves on to: ‘Research Evidence; can observers spot good teaching?’. He says there are two key issues here.

The first concerns the question of reliability. He gives us evidence to show that classroom observation is highly unreliable as a means of getting evidence about classroom action.

The second issue is validity. Does a high rating from observation tell you the teacher is ‘effective’. No. It would be better to use a list of teachers’ names, a blindfold and a pin to rate effectiveness.

Coe moves on to give some reasons why Observers have made such a big mistake in coming to believe that it’s possible ‘to know good teaching when you see it’. In brief these are:

Doing an Observation produces a strong emotional response; ‘I know what I like ….’

Learning is invisible but ‘If I focus on children, rather than the teacher, and what they are doing,  I will see learning happening’

‘If I can do it then I can spot it’

‘I know exactly what universal ‘good practice’ is and that’s what I’m looking for.’

I agree with Coe. But I think there’s another more fundamental reason for the mistake. I would go back to his identification of reliability and validity as the two key issues, because there’s something wrong about the science of observation which he’s correctly identified.

Horses for courses

Finding out about things is the business of scientists. As I suggested earlier teachers are entitled to be seen as scientists and they do both quantitative and qualitative investigations. So what comes next will be easy to understand.

Quantitative, positivist science is extremely important and useful. However it’s also become so dominant as a form of investigation that ‘science’ is generally taken to mean ‘quantitative, positivist science’ in the street. Or classroom.

Quantitative researchers look for cause-effect relationships, prediction and generalisation of findings. Teaching and testing for example; ‘When I do this I get that, with all the students in the class.’ I call it Shallow and Wide.

Qualitative researchers are looking for illumination, understanding, and possible extrapolation to similar situations; ‘What’s happening when we …..  with this class group at this time?’

In qualitative research, the aim is to “engage in research that probes for deeper understanding rather than examining surface features.”  I call it Narrow and Deep.

‘The quality of a study in each paradigm should be judged by its own paradigm’s terms. For example, while the terms Reliability and Validity are essential criteria for quality in the quantitative paradigm, in the qualitative paradigm the terms Credibility, Neutrality or Confirmability, Consistency or Dependability and Applicability or Transferability are to be the essential criteria for quality.’ http://www.nova.edu/ssss/QR/QR8-4/golafshani.pdf

and back to the classroom

Why talk about scientific paradigms when the subject is ‘observation’?

Both the reflective teacher-scientist and the classroom observer-scientist are collectors of evidence and both sorts are valuable. But apparently Observers have been doing quantitative looking for qualitative evidence.

As far as we are concerned here quantitative evidence is in the form of factual information, it’s independent of the context in which it’s found, its analysis  can produce certainty about things and explanations of how they work. It sounds like ‘know-what’ doesn’t it?

Qualitative evidence which is produced only in the context under examination, it’s uncertain and does not lead to firm conclusions and generalisation. This sounds like ‘know-how’ to me. And I’ve used the same epistemological lens to examine the skills/knowledge issue in another blog here.

If this confusion were cleared up it might all become clearer. Information is not the same as knowledge, know-what is not the same as know-how, quantitative science is not the same as qualitative science.

Classroom observation – it’s not so hard if you think about it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *