The Importance of Learning to Observe
I distinctly remember when I needed to understand the game of football. Sure, I’d spent years as a fan, cheering the touchdowns and feeling disappointment with dropped passes. But frankly, all I could see was the surface — all the strategy, all the athleticism, all the orchestration of plays simply went over my head.
So I started to ask questions about rules, about positions, and I asked people (patient people) to start pointing things out to me as we watched. And I got better.
If you’re wondering what football has to do with teaching, let me offer this: we’ll never understand the complexity of the work we do if we don’t learn to see beyond the surface. We won’t grow as teachers, or as a profession, if we can’t observe carefully. Observing other teachers in action is what we do at Teaching Channel. Videos allow us to watch teachers in a diversity of settings execute a diversity of philosophies. We watch them in hopes of getting better.
Yet, I know from having all kinds of observers join my classroom, that learning to observe is a tough endeavor. We bring natural bias to it, we can focus on too much or not enough, and we can get distracted by tasks instead of focusing on learning purpose. Therefore, we have to learn to see what’s underneath, what isn’t so obvious. In short, it’s a literacy all its own. It’s a skill to acquire and it’s a skill that empowers teachers to call their own plays. So let’s get better together!
How This Challenge Works
In this blog series, we’ll look at one lesson in three different ways: what you hear, what you see, and what’s invisible. Using an Uncut Classroom* (raw video footage) from Ms. Brewer’s class, we’ll watch 5-minute segments without the benefit of any guiding narrative or graphic scaffolding. While watching, post your observations in the comments section or download the Observation Worksheet in Step 1 below. Don’t forget to include the time code in your comments. Then, after the Uncut, I’ll share a Think Aloud with what I observe. This exercise is even more effective if you do it with a friend or colleague. (Note: I chose 5-minute segments because many of us have about that much time in our instructional rounds.)
We hope these exercises help you hone your skills, engage in deeper discussions with your professional circles, and translate and adapt what you’re learning on Teaching Channel to your own teaching practice.
FINDING AN OBSERVATION FOCUS: WHAT DO YOU HEAR?
The goal of this exercise is to simplify an observation practice. This is NOT to say we are simplifying the teaching we’ll observe, or the complexity of the discussions we want to ignite. So even though it may sound counter-intuitive, focusing deeply on one facet will help us wrestle with the complexities, which is the place where questioning, dissonance, and learning, live.
This exercise has one clear focus: pay attention to language. What do the students say? What does the teacher say? Ultimately, we’ll want to ask where the learning occurs and what the teacher said (or didn’t say) to activate it. Together, our learning purpose is to determine how language impacts learning.
STEP 1: Watch this Uncut Classroom* Video
This 5-minute segment is from the beginning of Ms. Brewer’s lesson, “Analyzing Texts.” Because you’re focused on language here, you may choose to not even watch, but just listen.
Take Notes: While watching this Uncut Classroom video, post your observations in the comments section or download the Observational Worksheet What Do You Hear. Don’t forget to include the time code in your comments.
Often, one viewing isn’t enough for me. So go ahead and watch it one more time if you can — you might see something new, or you might want to refine your notes.
STEP 2: Examine Your Observations
Take a few minutes to discuss your observations about the use of language in the lesson. What struck you? What was interesting? What questions were raised for you?
STEP 3: Analyze, Translate, and Adapt Your Observations
Ultimately, the goal of any observation is to translate and adapt what you learn to your own setting and circumstances. Let’s use these questions and talking points to help us make this move. Depending on time and your own learning purpose, you may decide to choose only a few of these questions instead of working through all of them.
- What is the learning purpose of the lesson you just watched? How do the student tasks help fulfill that purpose?
- Can you identify any “fulcrum” moments? In other words, when does Ms. Brewer use language to underscore the learning purpose? How is this language similar or different to the language we use in our classrooms?
- Sometimes what we DON’T say is just as powerful as what we do. What DOESN’T Ms. Brewer say that creates learning opportunities for students?
- Do you notice any patterns in the way Ms. Brewer talks with her students in this segment? What do those patterns suggest about the way she creates a culture for learning in her classroom?
- What does your analysis of this observation make you think about in terms of your own practice?
STEP 4: Get Someone Else’s Perspective
In this Observation Think Aloud, I’m sharing the moments that jumped out at me, where I saw the relationship between student learning and Ms. Brewer’s talk, as well as the questions she prompts me to ask about my own practice. Here we go!
A few takeaway thoughts from Sarah…
- Knowing the difference between task and purpose is essential. This portion of the lesson isn’t about sticky notes and discussion, it’s about getting students to use the precise language of the text to clarify their understanding, and increase their comprehension. The sticky notes and the discussion facilitate this learning.
- Ms. Brewer never gives answers. She asks questions, she paraphrases, she clarifies, but the answers come from the students. This is incredibly powerful because we know that the people doing the talking are doing the learning. She’s activating their learning by having them voice their own conclusions; they begin to own them. Not only does this have a tremendous impact on how students construct their own learning, but it speaks volumes about the culture of the classroom.
- My observation and analysis of this lesson makes me think about the ways I use questioning. It makes me want to turn the camera on in my classroom and find out if I’m showing the same kind of genuine curiosity, if I offer answers too quickly, and if student language is evidence of the learning purpose. (Watch how Sarah uses video to improve her practice.)
How did it go? Share your thoughts below. And stay tuned for “Part 2: What Do You See?” tomorrow!
* Uncut Classroom videos show raw footage of a classroom lesson without any guiding narrative or graphic scaffolding. For more information on Uncuts, click here.
Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. Connect with Sarah on Twitter – @SarahWessling.