An investigation into Lesson Study's potential to augment reflective practice and to foster self-efficacy for novice academic teaching staff

This is my latest research proposal for which I am seeking collaborators and an HE environment in which to situate the study and collect the data. Please contact me if this interests you.

Lesson Study is a collaborative approach to teacher development that originated in the Japanese school sector but has since spread internationally. Online there are numerous descriptions of this systematic mode of professional learning for teachers but a commendably clear one is available at SCITT Lesson Study.

My motivation to carry out a formal study on the viability of Lesson Study is primarily to find ways to build lecturers’ reflection and decision-making capacities. My other objectives are to strengthen relationships between academic developers and novice lecturers, to stimulate lecturers’ self-efficacy and ultimately to promote higher quality instruction.  My hope is that this study will produce results of interest and value to the wider community of academic developers and inform decisions on methodology for the professionalisation of teaching in higher education. The outcomes of my investigation into Lesson Study may highlight the case for more learner-centred, deeply contextualised, process-oriented models of initial teaching development programmes in higher education. If the model that I develop and test is perceived as relevant by participating lecturers to their professional needs and challenges, it may indicate the occurrence of differentiation, which the taught programmes that I was involved with struggled to address. Furthermore, part of this study is a revaluation of the roles of educational developers. In my Lesson Study model, I intend that academic developers act more like Problem-Based Learning facilitators by assisting the reflective process, asking questions to provoke deeper enquiry into pedagogical matters, and providing input only on a need-to-know basis. My expectation is that this could prove a more comfortable and appreciated role than the current one of taught programme convener.

The programmes to which I contributed in Singapore and the UK were accredited by the Staff and Educational Development Association and Advance HE (formerly Higher Education Academy) respectively. As such they were scholarly, underpinned by principles with wide acceptance in the contemporary field of learning and teaching in higher education. Both programmes, for example, pledged allegiance to a (social) constructivist view of learning. They were also influenced by Ramsden (2003) and Biggs (1991) who shared the conviction that lecturers should seek understanding of student learning to inform decisions about teaching. A case for learner-centredness on the programmes was strengthened by Prosser and Trigwell’s (1999) research findings about relations between attitudes to teaching and depth of learning. In 2008, Hanbury, Prosser and Rickinson reported that, in the UK, teaching development programmes were successfully influencing participants to be more student-focused.

Therefore, it seemed appropriate that the approach adopted in the two programmes to which I contributed was not direct training of teaching skills. By contrast, participants engaged in a variety of session types that included interactive and collaborative tasks on topics in learning and teaching. They then applied independently whatever they found valuable from the sessions to their teaching situations. Evidence of transferral of concepts and strategies was collected in the form of assessed reflective written accounts. Participants were guided to compose reflections on their teaching experience through Brookfield’s (2005) four lenses: self, student, peer and literature.

I marked numerous reflective accounts and provided summative feedback on them. However rich and interesting these were, I felt unease that I had not observed the teaching sessions first-hand and could not remark on decisions that had been made “live” during those sessions, comparing what I had witnessed with what had been written.  This appeared to me as a less than optimal way to support the development of reflective practitioners. (My perspective on reflective practice is influenced by Cowan (1998) who followed Schön (1983) by incorporating reflection-in-practice and reflection-for-practice.)

Conscious of my limitations as an observer, as is the case for all academic developers, that I am not expert in all academic disciplines, I aimed instead to provide structure for more rigorous and predominantly peer-assisted development of reflective practice. Therefore, I looked to Lesson Study as an alternative to both the existing model in the two tertiary institutions and to the model of a teaching practicum. The role of academic developer as reflective facilitator in Lesson Study would also be explored in this study.

Is Lesson Study a credible alternative? It has a long heritage in Japan where it is a popular model of professional learning for teachers. It has also been adapted to other national contexts. A review of nine studies on Lesson Study’s impact by Cheung and Wong (2014) indicated that it is “a powerful tool to help teachers examine their practices”. Wood and Cajkler (2018) issued a Lesson Study in higher education ‘call to arms’, seeing the framework as a catalyst for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.  At this stage, I believe that Lesson Study has enough potential to merit experimentation in the context I describe. These are my research questions:

  • Does my observation about theory and practice in two initial teaching development programmes apply more broadly across the higher education sector?
  • Are my concerns legitimate? Is there a basis for this study?
  • What is the evidence base for the impact of Lesson Study?
  • Is Lesson Study transferable to higher education? What adjustments to the model may need to be made? Is there a valid role for academic developers in Lesson Study?
  • Does Lesson Study promote reflection-in-action and judicious decision-making during teaching sessions?
  • What are perceived advantages and disadvantages of Lesson Study according to early career lecturers?
  • Would Lesson Study be practicable compared with existing programmes?

In order to answer question (1) above, I would scrutinise teaching development programme descriptions in higher education institutions. Research question (2) is a matter of discussion of educational literature about reflective practice and the means by which it can be inculcated in early career teaching staff. For question (3) I would distil findings from the substantial literature on Lesson Study. Given its heavily contextualised nature, conclusions about the efficacy of Lesson Study will be relatable rather than generalisable. Nevertheless, I would still hope to discover insights and indicators of Lesson Study’s potential for my purposes. This would help to answer research question (4) partially, but I would also like to confer with other academic developers on my customisation of Lesson Study and the role specification of reflective facilitator. The main experimental phase of this study could then commence. Lesson Study would take place with volunteer groups of lecturers using its established processes in the interest of raising learning quality. Qualitative methods, possibly phenomenographic, would be applied to address question (5). As a follow-up to Lesson Study, I would conduct focus groups to gauge the reactions of lecturers to the model. This part of the investigation is needed to appreciate the likelihood of acceptance of a Lesson Study model, i.e. to answer question (6). For the final research question (7), I would need to consider programme design and provision from a wider perspective, including logistical, social and political factors in higher education institutions. A separate body of literature would need to be examined; interviews with senior management would also be beneficial.

References

Biggs, J. (1991). Teaching for quality learning at university. Open University Press. [1st Edition]

Brookfield, S. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. Jossey Bass. [1st Edition]

Cowan, J. (1998). On becoming an innovative university teacher. Open University Press.

Cheung, W.M. and Wong, W.Y. (2014). Does Lesson Study work? International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, 3(2), 137-149.

Hanbury, A., Prosser, M. and Rickinson, M. (2008). The differential impact of UK accredited teaching development programmes on academics’ approaches to teaching. Studies in Higher Education, 33(4), 469-483.

Prosser, M. and Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding learning and teaching: The experience in higher education. Open University Press.

Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Schön, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Basic Books.

Wood, P. and Cajkler, W. (2018). Lesson Study: A collaborative approach to scholarship for teaching and learning in higher education. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 42(3), 313-326.

Are teacher development workshops worthwhile?

While the value of lectures has received considerable attention, the merits of in-service workshops are less frequently examined. In this short post, I identify the limitations of workshops as well as what I believe a well-designed workshop can hope to achieve. From the start, I want to make clear my position that workshop providers tend to be overly optimistic about potential outcomes.

Before evaluating the virtues of workshops though, I will describe their characteristics.

What is a staff development workshop? The use of an industrial metaphor must have become so prevalent that it resulted in a separate dictionary entry: “A workshop is a period of discussion or practical work on a particular subject in which a group of people share their knowledge or experience.” (Collins COBUILD Advanced English Dictionary)

I would underline that not just opinions but also reasons should be exchanged. If views are given without justifications, the value of the experience is doubtful.

Admittedly, there is great variety in workshop design but, whatever form workshops take, they tend to share several characteristics:

  • Introduction to key concepts and latest findings from research
  • A greater degree of interaction than lectures
  • Focused small group tasks
  • Plenary discussion and summing up
  • Collection of evaluations

Sometimes, events advertised as workshops turn out to be disguised lectures. The person conducting the session offers little opportunity for participants to discuss, or to carry out joint tasks on, the topic in question. Peer interaction is an essential feature of workshops and this interaction needs to be properly focused. Just asking participants to talk about a topic leads to people going off at tangents, in my experience. Thus, the interaction needs to take the form of small group tasks that have outcomes of direct relevance to the intended workshop outcomes.

The good intentions in making workshops available are, I believe, that by attending them academic teaching staff will

  1. be able to remain current in their knowledge of learning & teaching matters
  2. have a platform to discuss pertinent pedagogic matters with peers
  3. find inspiration for the enhancement of learning-teaching, assessment and curriculum design, and
  4. gain new strategies for experimentation in their respective learning-teaching contexts.

There is a problem with 1) above for the workshop designer. How to select the level of input complexity when the participants background knowledge is likely to be varied and often cannot be discovered prior to the event? This is not like teaching a regular class where the instructor really gets to know the learners and can estimate the appropriate challenge for them. It is not practical to differentiate the content if a conventional workshop format is retained.

2) and 3) above are achievable but 4) is not. In my workshop designs I do not include learning outcomes that predict that workshop participants will gain fresh strategies. This is because those strategies need to be tried out on multiple occasions, adjusted and refined before they can be said to part of a teacher’s repertoire.

Workshops are a ubiquitous feature of in-service development. At every educational institution that I have known, a programme of staff development sessions was made available on a range of educational topics. Providers of workshops included education authorities, learning & teaching centres, invited external experts, etc. Attendance at these events was recorded and credited by the institutions as evidence of ongoing development. However, they were not sufficient in themselves to provide evidence of development in practice, just development of conceptions about practice.

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 a commitment in time and energy. 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 teaching skills.

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

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

In my opinion, 6. is lacking and 7. is hardly being realised at all. In the current regime, everything is a step removed from actual teaching.

I do understand that there are constraints. It is challenging to arrange practical training, which would entail a series of observations with expert feedback on teaching 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 teaching skills and their significance for the quality of learning.

Example teaching 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 teaching 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 teaching 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 teaching 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

Loop input: A valuable teaching or training strategy

First off, I want to thank Tessa Woodward for the idea of loop input. She introduced the concept in a 1986 article in The Teacher Trainer journal and articulated it again in her 1991 book, Models and Metaphors in Language Teacher Training: Loop Input and Other Strategies.

Since reading about this training strategy, I have experimented and found it to have the distinct advantage of making the content of professional development workshops highly memorable.

So what is it? In short, with loop input the message of the training and its means of delivery coincide. This is best understood through examples, and in this post I would like to present a couple that I have developed. This has been done before, for example in this entry on John Hughes excellent blog elteachertrainer. However, the additional contribution I would like to make is to provide examples beyond the language teaching profession. Below are two examples of loop input for trainers of all disciplines.

Example 1: An opening activity to introduce the topic of thinking skills

I was tasked by a secondary school to provide a staff development session on the topic of developing students’ thinking skills. When I was writing the materials for this session, I decided that I needed a dynamic, interactive opening activity that would also serve to introduce the topic. My goals for this activity were mainly to engage the participants, but following its completion I wanted to be able to provoke initial reflections on different ways of thinking. This would then lead into more detailed consideration of the ways of thinking that are needed for success in different school subjects, e.g. history or mathematics.

As I was searching for inspiration, I recalled an entertaining language activity in Jill Hadfield’s Intermediate Communication Games that I had used many times in ESOL lessons and had always proved a winner. It is called Detective Work and is a card game designed originally to practise reporting past events. Students work in small groups, turn up one card at a time from a pile, and discuss the clues to the murder that are on the cards. In the process, they should use several verb forms.

I adapted Detective Work in two ways. Firstly, I changed the context of the murder to the school in which I was leading the professional development session. Seeking approval beforehand, I made one of the vice-principals the victim and one of the teachers the perpetrator. This was the cause of some hilarity in the session. Secondly, after the task was completed and the groups had all solved the murder mystery, in plenary I posed the question, “How did you solve the crime?”. This led to a discussion of the distinctions between deductive and inductive reasoning. Having just directly experienced deductive reasoning themselves, teachers appeared not to confuse it with inductive reasoning, as could easily happen. Moreover, sometime later teachers from this school remarked upon that task to me. Their recall was partly due to how much they had enjoyed playing the role of detective and competing with other groups to solve the murder. My hope is that they also recalled the message of the activity.

Example 2: A complete development session on the topic of learner autonomy / self-directed learning

My overall goal for this whole-day staff development session with 70+ teachers at a secondary school was to help teachers grasp the importance of scaffolding the process by which students become more independent. I also hoped that the outcomes of this session would dovetail with earlier professional development at this school on the topic of differentiating instruction.

So, instead of leading a conventional training session, which typically would include input on research findings from me followed by discussion work on how to apply those findings in the school’s distinct learning environments, I opted to give the participants more freedom of choice.

At the outset, I helped teachers to synthesize a plausible working definition of “learner autonomy” from several that had been sourced from the literature. Then, I provided eight possible learning objectives for the session and invited teachers to select two or three that were most relevant to their individual needs. They also selected the sequence in which they would try activities designed to bring them closer to their chosen learning goals. These activities had been designed as self-access materials with accompanying instructions. The teachers were aware of a prescribed, overall time limit and managed their time accordingly.

At the end of the time limit, teachers came together and reflected on whether they had chosen learning objectives wisely, what they had actually learned, and whether they had managed their learning appropriately. Participation in this process led participants naturally to the apparently paradoxical conclusion that independent learning still needs to be guided by teachers, at least until students’ metacognitive awareness has developed sufficiently.

Conclusion

I have found loop input to be a useful addition to my training strategies repertoire. It is not always appropriate, but sometimes combining the message and the process is potent and memorable.

Hadfield, J. (1990). Intermediate communication games. Nelson.

Woodward, T. (1986). Loop input – a process idea. The Teacher Trainer, 1:6-7. Pilgrims.

Woodward, T. (1991). Models and metaphors in language teacher training: Loop input and other strategies. Cambridge University Press.

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.

Managers’ feedback and its impact on development and motivation

Recently, I read an article by Anmol Jain highlighting the role of continuous feedback in motivating junior colleagues. I appreciated the way it was written because he provided a concrete example of feedback from a manager to a team member:

‘The deliverable you produced is very nice and very close to my expectations, but if you can just make these few minor changes it would really stand out’.

This example exhibits features of worthwhile feedback. The manager indicated that the deliverable was almost aligned with expectations. As long as the team member knows and understands the expectations, this is useful information. The manager goes on to detail changes that would enhance the deliverable, thus refocusing the team member’s actions and efforts. The manager could also have commented on the efficiency of processes by which the deliverable was produced, if those had been observed. The feedback aids motivation because it is constructive, acknowledging what has been achieved already and enabling further progression.

To build upon Anmol’s article, I thought that I would provide a few more details on feedback summarised from educational research. If the arenas of education and business are sufficiently relatable, my hope is that this might prove useful information for managers.

There are several ways that managers can respond to completed work tasks and they are not all beneficial.

Try dividing the following types of feedback according to their effects on performance and achievement. Which do you believe have a positive impact, and which a negative impact?

  1. giving material rewards for a high quality deliverable
  2. directly correcting errors in the deliverable
  3. providing prompts to enhance the quality of the deliverable
  4. confirming what is good about the deliverable
  5. inviting peer evaluation of the deliverable
  6. penalizing flaws in the deliverable
  7. verbally praising a good quality deliverable
  8. clarifying how the deliverable meets or doesn’t meet expectations

Well, perhaps surprisingly, the following negatively impact on achievement and enthusiasm:

1. Rewards

2. Correction

6. Penalties

7. Praise

Why so? Because they are controlling strategies. Generally, people dislike being coerced, and, in the case of correction, by taking control a manager is effectively doing the task rather than letting the junior staff member develop so that s/he can do it better next time. Praise by itself is not useful because it does not describe what is good and therefore does not inform future development.

My recommendation to managers, therefore, is to utilise feedback types 3, 4, 5 and 8 above.

References

žBrookhart, S.M. (2008). How to give effective feedback to your students. ASCD.

Butler, D.L. & Winne, P.H. (1995). Feedback and self-regulated learning: A theoretical synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 65, 245-281.

Hattie, J. & Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77, 81 – 112.

10 advantages of self-directed learners in the workplace

There is evidence that, in the workplace, self-directed learners…

1. adapt to changes in their environments better

Guglielmino, L. (1977). Development of the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale. Dissertation Abstracts International, 38, 6467.

2. remain resilient in the face of challenges and obstacles

Zsiga, P.L. (2008). Self-directed learning in directors of a US nonprofit organization. International Journal of Self-Directed Learning, 5(2), 35–49.

3. demonstrate enhanced performances in their jobs 

Artis, A.B. and Harris, E.G. (2007). Self-directed learning and sales force performance: an integrated framework. Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, Vol. 27 No. 1, pp. 9-24.

4. exhibit superior critical thinking and questioning skills

Candy, P.C. (1991). Self-direction for Lifelong Learning: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice. San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass.

5. demonstrate increased confidence and problem solving capabilities

Durr, R.E. (1992). An examination of readiness for self-directed learning and personnel variable at a large Midwestern electronics development and manufacturing corporation. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL.

6. actively share knowledge and build networks with others

Rowland, F. and Volet, S. (1996). Self-direction in community learning: a case study. Australian Journal of Adult and Community Education, Vol. 36 No. 2, pp. 89-102.

7. show stronger emotional commitment 

Cho, D. and Kwon, D. (2005), Self-directed learning readiness as an antecedent of organizational commitment: a Korean study. International Journal of Training and Development, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 140-52.

8. find their jobs more meaningful

Kops, W.J. (1997). Managers as self-directed learners: findings from the public and private sector organizations. in Long, H.B. and Associates (Ed.), Expanding Horizons in Self-directed Learning, Public Managers Center, College of Education, Norman, OK, pp. 71-86.

9. experience “deep” rather than “surface” learning, and

Stansfield, L.M. (1997), “‘Employee – develop yourself!’ Experiences of self-directed learners”, Career Development International, Vol. 2 No. 6, pp. 261-6.

10. are more likely to realize their potential as leaders.

Klute, M.M., Crouter, A.C., Sayer, A.G., & McHale, S.M. (2002). Occupational self-direction, values, and egalitarian relationships: A study of dual-earner couples. Journal of Marriage and Family, 64, 139–151.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term “self-directed learner”, a reasonable account can be found at http://www.selfdirectedlearning.org/what-is-self-directed-learning

To get an indication of the degree to which you are  a self-directed learner, try the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale at http://www.lpasdlrs.com/

A Prezi version of this blog entry is available at http://prezi.com/v8eu6aioif2j/advantages-of-self-directed-learners/

Reasons why teaching in higher education could be better

In this entry, I would like to give reasons why it appears to me that the quality of university teaching, overall, is not high enough. Let me qualify that I only have experience at higher education institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore and the UK.

Reason #1: The design of professional development programmes for university teachers

The goals of such programmes are (a) to familiarize them with the learning environment, with which I heartily agree, and (b) to develop them as teachers, about which I am skeptical.

The problem as I see it is not so much the scope, duration or content of these programmes. It is the design. The programmes consist of interactive workshops on relevant topics, plus various other activities such as a single lesson observation by a more experienced teacher, or reflective writing about their teaching.

This programme design is not suitable for either pre-service teacher training or in-service teacher development. For the former, it is not substantial enough and the connection between theory and practice is too weak. One would need multiple lesson observations combined with multiple opportunities for reflection and multiple instances of expert feedback to really see development. For the latter, the workshops are too basic and the other activities redundant when the teachers in question already have a teaching qualification.

Another issue is the pedigree of those who lead such programmes. Frequently, they have no teaching qualifications themselves. For me, this means that the main focus becomes talking about teaching rather than teaching itself. They are academic programmes rather than professional ones.

Personally, I would recommend that all university teachers  go through a pre-service teaching practicum as do school teachers. They are paid for teaching and therefore owe it to their students to be skillful in the classroom and sensitive to their learners. Adult learners may be different in nature than children, but they still deserve consistently capable teachers, even though those teachers may adopt different roles than a school teacher. By skills, I am not suggesting anything elaborate. I mean, for example, the skills of setting up learning activities clearly, of checking instructions, of making learning goals explicit, of monitoring students’ progress, etc. I am aware that “quality teaching” is a debated concept and may vary according to context, but the classroom skills I refer to are, I contest, uncontroversial.

If university teachers were professionally trained in this manner, I think it would be highly beneficial, not only for its immediate impact on learning, but also for its impact on the quality of educational research. With more consistency in classroom management practices, for instance, a significant variable would be removed. Then, whatever teaching intervention the research was focused upon, the less of a distraction would be the differences between teachers in this respect.

Reason #2: The ways in which student feedback is administered and utilised

Student feedback on teaching does have it purposes. When I look at feedback from students, for example, I am very interested in what they have to say about certain aspects, e.g. whether I managed to establish an atmosphere conducive to learning, whether the pace of learning was appropriate, whether the content was relevant and specific, or whether my presentations were sufficiently clear to them. However, I must qualify this by explaining that I seek feedback during a course.

In universities it is more common for written feedback to be elicited formally at the conclusion of courses, and, because it can also have an impact on the performance appraisal of teachers, it therefore becomes summative in nature. It simply serves to certify whether that teacher and the course met the students’ expectations. Sincere teachers may proceed dutifully to incorporate student feedback into adjustments to the design and delivery of the next run of the course. However, this will not benefit the students who had provided the feedback.

My view is that it would be more useful if the feedback was sought at an early stage of the course so that the teacher would have time and opportunity to make adjustments. This would be formative feedback, i.e. no grading involved and no repercussions for the teacher. Its purpose would be to inform what the teacher does next to enhance the teaching and learning experience. Formal written feedback could still be sought at the conclusion, too, but for a different purpose.

Unfortunately, this does not entirely solve the problems with student feedback. It can also be argued that, in responding positively to student feedback, the teacher is merely satisfying the learning preferences of the majority of students in that cohort. This can become confusing for teachers, for example when they have attended professional development workshops extolling the virtues of a constructivist approach and have done their best to make their course student-centred, interactive, collaborative, reflective and experiential in nature, yet the response from the majority of students on that course reveals that they would have preferred a traditional, didactic approach. Teachers are thus caught on the horns of the dilemma of either guessing and satisfying perceived learner needs (and hopefully getting more positive rankings on the final feedback form) or resisting this to teach in a principled manner and thereby risking lower overall student appraisals.

Reason #3: The lack of understanding of assessment principles and practice

David Boud (1998) * gave a presentation at the University of Queensland reporting on his observations of university teachers’ assessment misconceptions and malpractice. Even now, in 2014, I encounter examples of assessment “bloopers” in higher education. My sources are students (who come to me for counselling on their learning), hearsay from professional peers taking part-time postgraduate courses, and study of curriculum documents. Let me provide examples to see whether you also conclude that all is not well.

  1. The intended learning outcomes for a course are not properly expressed as outcomes. Instead, they are descriptions of the learning activities in which students will engage, e.g. “You will discuss X and Y.” or “You will examine case studies.”
  2. Norm-referenced assessment is taking place, i.e. students on a course are being ranked, when the published assessment scheme deceptively indicates that the assessment is criterion-referenced.
  3. Language quality is assessed in term papers and oral presentations when there has been no language support or instruction  during the course. Also, the concept of language quality has not been properly defined, and interpretations of “language quality” vary between markers.
  4. The assessment criteria for a course are not accompanied by descriptors and standards.
  5. Students are asked to acquire content knowledge independently and are assessed on their recall of that knowledge before they have received the benefit of expert instruction.
  6. Even on taught master degree courses, a high proportion of marks is awarded for lower-order thinking tasks.
  7. Formative feedback is provided only once, and then there is no further opportunity for students to practise before they are assessed and graded.
  8. First drafts of project work, written assignments, oral presentations, etc. are assessed summatively.
  9. Assessment is used as a threat to motivate students. This is in the context of adult learning, when the learners have freely chosen what to study, are paying for the course, and should have high intrinsic or instrumental motivation.
  10. Intended learning outcomes are written to express positive changes in personal values (towards the desired attributes of university graduates), when such changes are very difficult to measure.
  11. Feedback on learning tasks consists of numerical or alphabetical grades. No information is provided to the learner on how to enhance performance and thereby move closer to the learning goals.
  12. Computerised adaptive language proficiency tests that are designed to inform learning are also employed for summative achievement tests. The tests are administered at the beginning and end of a course, and the improvement recorded. Moreover, students are not prepared specifically for the content/skills of this test during the course.
  13. The belief that comments on student work such as “satisfactory or “very good” are descriptive, qualitative and helpful for development.

* Boud, D. (1998). Presentation to the TEDI Conference: Effective Assessment at University. University of Queensland, 4-5 November 1998.

Reason #4: The lack of excellence of teaching excellence awards

Having award schemes to recognize and honour good teachers in universities would seem to be both positive and uncontroversial. It would also appear to raise the profile of quality teaching. However, I have noticed a few problems with these awards.

Firstly, they appear to contradict a commonly advocated shift in emphasis from teaching to learning. If they were in tune with this shift, wouldn’t they be called awards for promoting learning instead?

Another difficulty is that it is often asserted that teaching quality is hard to define, a debated concept, yet criteria are needed for selection of award winners. How are such criteria identified? Some institutions opt to refer to an external benchmark such as the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme in the UK. But it begs the question how the NTFS criteria were derived. Others conduct internal research to identify best practices of excellent teachers. Of course, the latter approach is circular. How do researchers select excellent teachers in the first place? They are the ones who have been given teaching awards!! It amazes me that there is even a book whose authors employed this research methodology:

Kember, D. and McNaught, C. (2007). Enhancing university teaching: Lessons from research into award-winning teachers. Routledge.

Another significant consideration in deciding who receives such awards is nomination by students. This raises a serious issue. For example, a teacher may be popular because they have, for example, been so supportive that the course became insufficiently challenging. I envision this happening very easily in an enquiry-based mode of learning, where one of the aims is to foster students’ self-direction. Students seek help from their teacher, but it is not always forthcoming, deliberately so. The teacher who provides more help than is optimum may receive praise from students, but has not helped them towards the goal of greater autonomy. In short, implicit criteria that students have for quality teaching are not always aligned with factors identified in educational research that are known to have a positive impact on learning.

Finally, teaching excellence awards have an image problem. I hear snide remarks that, if a professor has won awards for teaching, it must be because he or she is not an able researcher.  It is the case, in Hong Kong at least, that research is viewed as much more important than teaching. Research output raises the status of the institution and attracts funding. Perhaps in some countries university applicants do pay attention to teaching scores in league tables, e.g.,

The Guardian newspaper’s in the UK: http://www.theguardian.com/education/table/2012/may/21/university-league-table-2013

However, I witness that old attitudes prevail; the status of the university as a research institution matters much more, even though undergraduates in particular may not need top researchers to instruct them, but rather great teachers.

Reason #5: Questionable assumptions about the capacities and support needs of today’s university students

In reaction to negative feedback on the quality of their teaching, I have noticed that some professors defend themselves by claiming that it is not their responsibility to teach well; university students have a responsibility to manage their own learning and should not expect to be spoon-fed as they were at school. After all, when those professors were students themselves, they managed to excel in spite of really awful instruction, or a total absence of instruction. (I am not attempting to present a straw man argument here. I have really heard, and heard tell of, such comments.)

There are a few points that can be made in response to any professors that have this attitude.

Firstly, the situation in higher education has changed drastically since those professors were students themselves. The proportion of the population enjoying the opportunity of higher education has increased markedly. Those professors, at the time they gained entry to universities, were in the top band of academic achievers. This makes it evident that they had, rather wonderfully, developed effective study strategies by themselves. (Well, strategies appropriate for success in that era of education anyway…) However, now that the diversity of learners has increased, a greater variation in learning proficiencies and preferences can be expected. Readiness to study at undergraduate level is not a given, and I believe that one of the roles of university teachers is to scaffold the transition from secondary to tertiary education.

Secondly, with renewed curricula at secondary/high schools, spoon feeding is no longer a viable strategy in that sector of education. School-leaving, or university entrance, exams require much more than regurgitation of subject content to achieve high grades. Higher order thinking skills are tested, which has a backwash effect on the selection of teaching strategies. For example, for the compulsory subject of Liberal Studies in Hong Kong, students have to undertake an independent enquiry study (with teacher support and guidance). Moreover, student-teachers following a BEd programme or PGCE/PGDE learn to design and deliver interactive lessons that promote application, evaluation and synthesis of concepts as well as understanding and recall. In other words, teachers are trained differently nowadays and have a range of teaching strategies. They do not subscribe to the transmission model. Perhaps those professors are remembering their own school education some decades ago and are assuming that nothing has changed.

Lastly, those professors seem not to be aware that even the most autonomous learners can be helped to greater achievements through selective and skillful interventions by a teacher. They would do well to study Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and Bruner’s theory of instructional scaffolding, and make alterations to their teaching practices accordingly.

Reason #6: Issues with the Scholarship of Learning and Teaching (SoTL)

SoTL can be described as a movement to enhance the learning of tertiary students through formal enquiry by lecturers and professors of all disciplines. Many universities have units or centres for the promotion of learning and teaching quality which provide support to academics who engage in small-scale educational research. There is also extrinsic motivation since, in performance appraisal schemes, there is sometimes a category “pedagogical research”. Participation in this kind of research can be significant for contract renewals and promotions.

This all sounds very positive and commendable. However, SoTL is not free of controversy.

One of the issues is that professors who are not in the Social Sciences have to adjust to a research paradigm that is distinct from the one to which they are accustomed. For example, consider the case of a physicist who is used to hardcore, laboratory-based, quantitative research with severely constrained variables. This scientist will have to “unlearn” past assumptions and beliefs about effective research if they are to investigate an aspect of learning & teaching successfully.

Secondly, when university teachers are expected to conduct educational research on top of research in their own disciplines, this can represent an increase in their workload and in my view runs the risk of diluting their overall research output.

Finally, there is the issue of research scale. An individual professor’s investigations may promote quality within the narrow confinements of a particular course, or may for example lead to the development of superior learning materials. Yet this sort of research is not that useful to other educators in other learning environments. Because of this lack of relatability of research findings, I doubt whether those findings are worth disseminating through publication or presentation.