UK lecturers only learn about teaching, they don’t learn teaching

In this entry, I argue that academic staff in the UK tertiary education sector learn about teaching but do not learn teaching.

In earlier generations, professors had little or no preparation for their roles as teachers. They were rigorously trained researchers rather than educators. (Personally, I endured some pretty dreadful lecture experiences in the late ‘80s.)

In this respect, matters seem to have improved considerably. Internal and external drivers have pushed learning & teaching more to the fore. Great influencers such as John Biggs and Paul Ramsden championed the causes of promoting quality learning and being good teachers (which I suggest they would regard as one and the same).

Consequently, at UK institutions early career lecturers are now typically required to engage in pedagogical professional development that is often quite substantial. More experienced academics are strongly encouraged to compile evidence and then to seek formal recognition as professional teachers. The procedure for the latter is usually to map experience to a national standards framework, the HEA’s (now AdvanceHE’s) UKPSF. There is also considerable activity in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), with many academics formally investigating the impact on learning of their practices.

So then, everything must be wonderful now, right?

I don’t think so.

On the plus side, attending professional development courses or compiling portfolios for HEA Fellowship applications does serve to promote engagement with educational literature and reflection on practice. In addition, on the courses there is the opportunity for those who lead them to model a variety of teaching techniques so that novice lecturers can experience them as learners. Awareness is raised, pedagogical options are expanded and an attitude of constant improvement is engendered.

Nevertheless, there is an important aspect of teaching that is lacking in the above processes and that is classroom skills.

Unrestrained, my objectives for routes towards the professionalization of teaching in higher education would be to:

  • increase curiosity about learning & teaching
  • make accessible up-to-date findings from educational research
  • model good practices
  • inculcate reflective practice
  • make development relevant by relating to participants’ contexts
  • incorporate strong connectivity between theory and practice
  • provide practical training in classroom skills

It is the last one that is not being realised. In the current regime, everything is a step removed from actual teaching.

I do understand that there are constraints. It is challenging to offer practical training, which would entail a series of classroom observations with expert feedback on classroom skills. There is the need to ensure that professional development is practicable for busy academics. Academic developers, too, have time pressures as they are often occupied with other tasks such as supporting curriculum design and coordinating pedagogical research. There is also the question of course funding which can limit ambitions. The motivation of academics to participate is affected by several factors, including their beliefs about learning & teaching, their prior knowledge and experience and the compulsory or voluntary nature of the course.

Furthermore, there will be immediate ripostes to my insistence that the craft of teaching should be taught – my objective is prescriptive, skilful teaching is a contested concept and my approach is behaviourist rather than constructivist.

I agree with all of these points but still consider it essential for lecturers to go through supervised teaching observations.

Why? Let’s pause to consider the nature of those classroom skills and their significance for the quality of learning.

Example classroom skill: Setting up learning activities

Introducing a task clearly would seem to be a simple thing that does not require training. Yet it can so easily go wrong. The language used in instructions is often verbose, repetitive, overly difficult and therefore confusing. Learners are uncertain of who they are working with and how long they have for the activity. Teachers sometimes fail to check those instructions. Students are left wondering what to do, who they are working with, how long they have and why they are doing it. Valuable time is wasted. You get the idea.

Example classroom skill: Facilitating higher order discussions

Asking questions or providing cues that provoke higher level dialogue with and between learners is again not something that necessarily comes naturally. It is worthwhile for early career lecturers to plan their prompts, try them out and get an opinion from an observer on their efficacy in that particular learning context.

For real classroom skills development it is not enough to experience a ‘workshop’ in which effective task setting or questioning skills are demonstrated and discussed, or even tried out once. Novice teachers need the chance to plan, practise, reflect, discuss with an expert, and try again… on multiple occasions so that formative feedback can be enacted upon and skills refined. Some things are best learnt in more of a behaviourist fashion in order to internalise them.

To take the edge off the behaviourism, there is a good dose of contextualised reflection and discussion. In other words, there is no insistence by the observer that there is a correct way per se to set up tasks or ask questions no matter the learning circumstances. This gets over the objection that I am being prescriptive. I am being prescriptive but not in a general sense, only when the precise learning-teaching situation is taken into account.

If these classroom skills remain underdeveloped, I believe that the impact on learning is significant. Lectures, seminars, tutorials and lab classes are poorly organised and inefficient. It doesn’t help to adopt the latest methodology fad either. Implementing flipped classroom or enquiry-based learning will not reap the advertised rewards if facilitators lack these craft skills of teaching.

How did this situation arise, that the craft of teaching is de-emphasised. When Biggs and Ramsden were writing, they described a dichotomy between traditional university teaching and what they favoured, which was a process of measuring impact on learning and then, in response, designing future learning to be more effective. This is commendable but traditional university teaching was completely uninformed and untrained. ‘Teaching’ has consequently become a dirty word in higher education. For me, though, teaching has always been about facilitating learning and for that one needs skills that do not develop through self-directed experimentation as well as they might with the assistance of a skilled observer. (A hint of ZPD here, methinks!)

To end, I notice that even in recent times one comes across rants about poor quality instruction in universities, as in this Huffington Post article: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/professors-must-learn-how-to-teach_us_593b66e4e4b0b65670e56a80?guccounter=1&guce_referrer_us=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_cs=KpZuQYvfnZ34DMueXSKBJA

A mini-guide to lesson observations (part 2)

In part 1, I made the recommendation that identifying the purposes of lesson observations is vital and clarified several common purposes. I also highlighted the importance of establishing and following quality processes to enable worthwhile outcomes from observations.

Now, in part 2, I look in detail at the skills required by observers and observees at different stages of lesson observations.

Before the observation

Communicate /Listen actively

One of the main purposes of a pre-observation meeting is to establish the context. Therefore, the observee should endeavour to provide the observer with as a full a picture as possible of the learning environment. If the observer is already familiar with the school/department, then discussion can focus on the nature of the learners, their relative progress, any factors that hinder or help learning, etc. The observer can listen and ask for clarification if the observee is not clear enough or makes assumptions about the observer’s prior knowledge of the situation.

Design suitable observation instruments

For appraisal, there is likely to be a standard observation form, but for professional development and action research, the observer and observee can work together to narrow down a focus and design an observation instrument accordingly.

Lessons are complex events and there are many possible aspects that can be observed. Here are some examples:

  • Planning and preparation
  • Learning outcomes – transparent and achieved?
  • Effectiveness of learning materials
  • Learning-teaching strategies
  • Classroom dynamics
  • Behaviour management
  • Motivation of students
  • Questioning skills
  • Interaction patterns

For example, if the observee was concerned about student participation and the balance between teacher talking time and student talking time, then a simple instrument to quantify participation could be designed. The observer could be provided with the class seating plan, and, when observing, tick the teacher and students’ names on each occasion that they made a contribution to a class discussion.

Online there are many sources of observation instruments, which can be used as they are, or adapted to circumstances. There also examples in Brown, Jones and Rawnsley (referenced in Part 1 of this guide) and Scrivener (2005), amongst other published guides to teaching.

During the observation

The observee will be busy teaching (and reflecting in action), of course, so the skills I list here are for observers.

Remember what to record

The observer should keep in mind the agreed foci. It is easy to become distracted and start commenting on other aspects of the lesson. I think each observer has preconceived notions of “good teaching” and it is tempting to focus on what the observer considers important rather than what was agreed before the observation. For example, it is a pet hate of mine, as an observer, when teachers omit to check comprehension of concepts before proceeding to practice tasks. However, if the agreed focus is something else, then I need to ignore that perceived failing.

Write two kinds of notes

When the observer makes notes about what takes place during the lesson, then the notes can be of two varieties. Firstly, notes that are a “…non-judgmental description of classroom events…” (Gebhard, 1999). I would recommend using past simple tense when writing such narrative notes, e.g. ‘The teacher gave clear verbal instructions for the learning task together with a quick demonstration.’ If the observation is for research or professional development, arguably narrative notes are sufficient. However, if appraisal is required, then alongside narrative notes the observer can write evaluative comments, e.g. ‘Most learners understood the learning task from the teacher’s explanation and demonstration, but two groups started off doing the task in the wrong way, implying that the teacher had needed to check instructions.’

Be as unobtrusive as possible

Observers commonly sit outside the line of sight of most of the students. This is done to reduce distraction and the effect of the observer being present (known as the Hawthorne Effect). The observer can select a seat to view the outcomes of the observee’s actions and student activity can be seen and heard well. Probably, the best position will be indicated by the focus of the observation.

Sometimes, the observer may need to stand up and walk around to see the work that students are doing, or move closer to be able to monitor a particular group. It is a good idea to make sure that students are prepared for this eventuality before the lesson. A simple technique to reduce the inhibitions students may feel is for the observer to look at one group while really listening to another group.

I would also recommend that observers and observees agree beforehand not to make eye contact during the lesson, so as not to influence the teacher’s confidence. Observers should also be mindful of their facial expressions in case the lecturer/teacher does look their way.

After the observation

At the post-observation meeting, both observers and observees will need to exercise numerous skills to get the maximum benefit from the experience, especially in formal appraisal situations:

  • Building rapport and developing trust
  • Active listening
  • Neutral questioning to elicit observees’ uninfluenced views on their lessons
  • Giving and receiving constructive criticism calmly and professionally
  • Counselling and conflict management

Specifically, observers should:

  • be accepting of alternative teaching strategies as long as learning objectives are met successfully
  • focus on actions and results of actions (rather than character traits)
  • be as specific with praise as they are with criticism, and support opinions with evidence
  • use concrete vocabulary when describing what was observed
  • comment only on behaviours that can be changed
  • ask questions that provoke reflection, but not leading or loaded questions
  • suggest concrete action points for future development

Meanwhile, observees need to:

  • give an honest and balanced self-evaluation
  • support the self-evaluation with evidence
  • be open to alternative strategies suggested by the observer
  • use the observer as a resource to plan future development in a practical, concrete way

References

Borich, G. D. (1994). Observation skills for effective teaching. New York : Merrill.

Brown, S., Jones, G. & Rawnsley, S. (Eds) Observing Teaching SEDA Paper 79

(Birmingham, Staff and Educational Development Association): 19–22.

Cowan, J. (1998). On becoming an innovative university teacher. Buckingham, UK : SRHE and Open University Press.

Gebhard, J.G. (1999). ‘Seeing Teaching Differently Through Observa­tion’, in Gebhard, J.G. & Oprandy, R. (eds), 1999, Language Teaching Awareness, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Higher Education Academy Resource Pages on Peer Observa­tion of Teaching: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/subjects/escalate/1043_Peer_Observation_of_Teaching

Montgomery, D. (2002). Helping teachers develop through classroom observation. London : David Fulton.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner : How professionals think in action. New York : Basic Book.

Scrivener, J. (2005). Learning teaching: A guidebook for English language teachers. Macmillan ELT.

A mini-guide to lesson observations (part 1)

The purpose of this short guide is to help teachers/lecturers and their managers to:

  • be precise about objectives in observing or being observed,
  • follow lesson observation processes accordingly,
  • raise awareness of the skills sets of accomplished observers and observees, and thereby
  • set about participating in lesson observations with increased confidence.

(My apologies if this guide sounds rather dogmatic. I have, however, based it on relevant literature and my experience as a teacher trainer.)

Objectives of lesson observations

  1. Performance appraisal
  2. External inspection
  3. Development of teaching skills
  4. Action research

1. Performance appraisal / 2. External inspection

It is common for teaching staff to be evaluated once or twice a year on their teaching performance through observation. The observer may be a department head or school vice-principal. Some would question the reliability of this form of appraisal, particularly in the case of inspections. See this article by Nick Morrison on Forbes for the arguments against and further references: http://www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorrison/2014/03/19/lesson-observations-are-no-way-to-grade-teachers/

However, for many teaching professionals it is still a reality to be faced. So, it is important to ensure that it is done as carefully as possible. There are many ways to conduct a lesson observation, but I suggest a three-step process based on reflective practice:

Reflection for action (Cowan, 1998)

  • Before the observation

Reflection in action (Schön, 1983)

  • During the observation

Reflection on action (Schön, 1983)

  • After the observation

Before the observation

Ideally, there should be a face-to-face meeting beforehand to clarify several matters. As Brown (1993) said, “It is not enough simply to devise a universal checklist and send line managers out to do it.”

  • The teacher tells the observer about the learners and the lesson objectives
  • The observer takes note of any special considerations
  • The teacher & observer agree on the observation process and focus
  • The teacher & observer make sure they understand the appraisal criteria & standards in the same way. For example, what does “maintains good pace of learning” mean?

During the observation

  • The observer tries not to distract the learners or the teacher
  • The observer pays attention to all criteria that were selected
  • The teacher focuses on the learners and learning and teaches as normally as possible
  • The observer summarises impressions by the end of the lesson

After the observation

  • The teacher completes a self-evaluation before forgetting the details
  • The observer considers the teacher’s self-evaluation and adjusts appraisal or feedback accordingly
  • The observer and teacher exchange views on how well assessment criteria were met, or on the focus of the lesson observation
  • The observer and teacher decide upon future priorities and concrete action points

Professional development

By contrast, this type of lesson observation is characterized by the following terms: voluntary, forward-looking, formative and constructive. Such an observation can be beneficial for lecturers/teachers at any stage of development.

Frequently, the observer is a peer, or possibly an external consultant without vested interests. The role of the observer is to act as a trusted colleague to assist their partner in reflecting on their teaching. The observer does not need to be more knowledgeable about learning-teaching approaches.

I would argue that written impressions by observers should not be recorded and stored in teachers’ records. Otherwise, there is a danger of them being used to inform decisions about contract renewals or promotions.

“The process of observation should be developed between those staff involved.” I suggest that the three-step process above could still be helpful, minus the appraisal element.

The focus of observation is also negotiable. For example, lecturers teaching the same subject could witness alternative ways of presenting the same content, or developing the same skills in students. Alternatively, a lecturer could experiment with a revised learning task and get a second opinion on its design and effec­tiveness. In order to ensure that the observer’s attention remains on the selected focus, an observation instrument can be devised.

Action research

Action research observations are similar in nature to professional development observations in that they are non-evaluative of the lecturer/teacher. They are distinguished by, for instance, their greater formality, use of more precisely designed observation instruments and pre-conceived ways to process collected data. Findings are written up for publication or presentation and may inform revisions in learning/teaching practices or curricula design.

In part two of this mini-guide, I will provide more detail about the skills of participating in lesson observations.

References

Borich, G. D. (1994). Observation skills for effective teaching. New York : Merrill.

Brown, S., Jones, G. & Rawnsley, S. (Eds) Observing Teaching SEDA Paper 79 (Birmingham, Staff and Educational Development Association): 19–22.

Cowan, J. (1998). On becoming an innovative university teacher. Buckingham, UK : SRHE and Open University Press.

Higher Education Academy Resource Pages on Peer Observa­tion of Teaching: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/subjects/escalate/1043_Peer_Observation_of_Teaching

Montgomery, D. (2002). Helping teachers develop through classroom observation. London : David Fulton.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner : How professionals think in action. New York : Basic Book.