This post is corresponding with the start of a new school year. For a few months now I have been watching the #observeme hashtag on twitter. The trend began with a teacher called Robert Kaplinsky (@robertkaplinsky) from the US and he has written a blog post about it and presented a 5 min talk on it. When I saw this begin to appear on twitter I was really excited by the idea.
I have been an instructional coach focused on mathematics for a number of years now as well as the mathematics coordinator at my school and have become very used to working with teachers and providing them with regular feedback. I have been fortunate enough that those teachers have felt that the feedback they have been given has helped the to move forward as a teacher, they found it to be a rewarding experience. But over that time I have also realised that I have not received the same level of feedback on my own teaching, any feedback I have received has been limited, and very general in nature, I have not had the same opportunities to grow in my teaching by using the feedback of others to improve my craft.
So over the last few days I have been slowly chipping away at my own sign. I was really excited to work though the process. However I came to a realisation near the end of completing the sign. This #observeme movement is much different to the normal process of teacher observation and although the normal process is more formal I think #observeme is much more daunting, more than I initially realised. This is not yet based on putting it into practice, the school year hasn't officially started yet, but it is based on what I feel it has the potential to be.
With more formal observation processes the visits are arranged in advance, your observer and you decide on a time, a place and in many instances a focus. Early on in my career I put a lot of extra work into making sure these formal observations were top notch lessons, they pulled out lots of bells and whistles, I wanted to really nail them. Over time I came to the realisation that this didn't help me as it was not my normal way of teaching at the time, if I tried to teach that way all the time at that stage of my career I would have burned out. Any feedback I was given at that stage was not based on my normal teaching but based on my inflated teaching, I saw these observations as a threat rather than an opportunity, and therefore it did not help me to move forward. Eventually I came to the realisation that I just needed to teach my normal lessons, but looking back on it over the course of writing my own sign I realised that I was still subconsciously teaching to what I thought the observer may have wanted to see, but this is only because I knew the exact time this person would be visiting, it primes it in your mind.
This is where the difference was in making up my #observeme sign. I came to the realisation that this observation and this feedback could occur at any time and without prior warning, I could not predict when it might occur and therefore I had no way of specifically planning for it, consciously or subconsciously. Anything those teachers see, and any feedback that I receive will most likely be based on the truest representation of my practice as a teacher, it will give me the greatest insights into the quality of education I am providing for the kids that I teach. Those goals that I have committed myself to on that sign cannot be covered by isolated activities once a fortnight or once a week (not that I am aiming to do that anyway), they need to be a strong component of most, if not all of my lessons. Someone should be able to drop in at any time and provide me with feedback on any or all of those three goals. Therefore I needed to make sure that I was really comfortable with these as goals.
lemsHowever at times I will want them all working on the on task. These tasks are normally the ones that will be super important for establishing the conceptual base. In these cases I would not want different students working on different tasks, instead the task will be differentiated through the the questioning that I use to support, probe and extend their thinking. The use of enabling and extending prompts will be important in achieving this appropriate level of challenge.
2 - Learning Conversations
I put a lot of work into designing activities that aim to build an understanding of mathematics on a conceptual level rather than just a procedural one. However the key to extracting the greatest amount of learning from these tasks is the conversations that go on in class both between students and between myself and the students. It is important that their thinking is represented strongly in these conversations, not my own. I want them to be able to develop their own reasoned arguments and then use the discussions with others to test the veracity of that argument. I realise that in the past may of my conversations in class have been getting students to share and talk about alternative pathways to solving prob, which is important and a good start. However I also recognise that I have not spent as much, or enough, time getting kids to critique reasoning. In the past I have had some great success and some spectacular failure with this, most of which hinged on the classroom environment. Ensuring that I develop a classroom environment where critiquing is seen as a opportunity rather than a threat will be vital in moving this forward.
3 - Feedback
High quality feedback is vital in helping to move kids forward in their learning and improving the overall quality of their work. Early on I probably gave a lot of 'autopsy feedback', by this I mean the bulk of feedback I gave was on the final piece of work, at that stage the feedback was not of much use because it was too late to do anything about it, although it could help them in completing the next task. When I started giving more feedback during the completion of the task it was only then that I began to see the quality of work improve. But I still have room to move on improving both the quality and the quantity of my feedback by trying to give much more feedback during the learning, at the time it is occuring rather than just looking as the samples of work after hours.,
As an addition to my #observeme sign I have also created the capability for students to fill out the feedback sheets. I definitely welcome the feedback of the teachers in how they feel I am progressing against those goals. However I am also intensely curious about how students will fill out my feedback sheet. I really like that idea that these signs are not just up there for teachers to see, but also for students to see, when they walk into that class each day from day 1 they will know what I am aiming at and therefore their feedback, is equally if not more important than the staff that visit. They are the recipients of the education I am providing for them and they need to be able to provide feedback about how I am going against these goals and whether they feel these goals are working for them.
Senior Leader of Pedagogical Innovation and Mathematics Coordinator in Regional South Australia.
Opinions in this blog are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of my employer.