“Well done X, thank-you Y.”
This is clearly helpful as it adds to the positive climate of the classroom. However, it is when she says “Z, I can see you’re ready to learn as you’ve got your books on the table,” that two nearby students follow suit and copy the desired behaviour.
So there is a clear example of a specific practice that has a tangible, positive impact: When the teacher uses specific feedback, and clearly describes the desired behaviour, other students in the vicinity follow suit.
The question for you as an observer is: What do you do with that? How do you go about bringing it to the teacher’s attention in the subsequent reflection session? What impact do you want to have on the teacher and their practice? While we may have instinctive ways of responding in such circumstances, a number of options are available to us, each with different effects.
Let’s consider some options, and the possible impact they might have.
WAYS TO SHINE A LIGHT ON POSITIVE PRACTICES
This is possibly a very natural way of responding. However, this doesn't provide any clarity about what was good about the start of the lesson. So the first problem with this statement is that it’s too vague to be genuinely helpful, and carries little informational value. The teacher might (depending on our relationship with them) get a welcome boost of affirmation - no bad thing - but that’s about it.
“It was good when you used specific praise with the student.”
This is more specific, yes, and may increase the chances of the teacher remembering and repeating the behaviour in future. However, this is, in essence, a judgemental statement. That is, the observer is forming an opinion about the practice (in terms of its good-ness or bad-ness) and expressing that opinion as a judgement. This puts the teacher into a ‘one-down’ position in the relationship, and conveys the message that I’m the judger, and you’re the recipient. So if the observation is taking place as part of a non-judgemental support process (e.g. coaching), then this strategy is at odds with the underlying principle. And if we want to support and enhance the teacher’s ability to reflect on their practice and its impact, then this strategy doesn’t necessarily help us.
“I liked it when you used specific praise with the student.”
This is more specific, and is less judgemental, yes (because we are talking about our reaction, rather than good-ness or bad-ness). However, as with all of the examples so far, the teacher is a passive recipient of the feedback, rather than being actively engaged in reflection. They don’t have to do a lot of work here and, depending on the circumstances, the feedback could go in one ear and out of the other. And, anyway, who cares if we liked it? Is that really the point here? Don’t we want the teacher to review the impact of their strategies and make a decision to consolidate, extend or modify them?
“I noticed here that when you said ‘Z, I can see you’re ready to learn…[etc]’ that two other students got their books out. Tell me more about that.”
This has a number of benefits. Firstly, it brings the strategy to the teacher’s attention, but rather than the conversation being about our judgement or our feelings it engages the teacher in actively reflecting on the detail of their practice. By engaging the teacher more deeply in the conversation, the resultant learning is more likely to stick (see e.g. Bransford et al, 1999; Gross Cheliotes & Reilly, 2010; Michael, 2006; Ramsden, 1992). Secondly, this feedback is more objective – it’s harder to argue with, and is more likely to be acknowledged and retained. What we’ve done here, as you’ve probably noticed, is to increase the informational value of the feedback in terms of what it conveys to the teacher about the strategy and its impact (much as teachers do with Assessment for Learning with pupils – see William & Black, 2006). And finally, having their attention drawn to the positive impact of their strategy will hopefully give the teacher the boost of affirmation that we want to achieve.
“Talk me through what you did here, and the impact of that.”
This is the most open strategy, which (after a bit of steer to guide the person’s attention) hands the reins over to the teacher. Instead of the observer doing the thinking/talking, the teacher then does the cognitive work in terms of talking through the strategy and its impact. The observer can listen and help the practitioner to shape their reflections, but this places the teacher at the centre of the process. It’s their reflections, their observations, and their conclusions, and they’ve been actively involved in generating them. The resultant sense of self-determination the teacher is likely to experience is associated with enhanced behavioural quality, commitment and persistence (Ryan & Deci, 2000), while any learning gleaned from such active, deep reflection is more likely to last. Of course, we may elect to draw the teacher’s attention to particular consequences of their actions, or in some circumstances offer feedback about something they may not have seen, but the starting point is the teacher’s own perspective. And if we work with teachers over time in this way then we are not only supporting reflection on practice, but also enhancing the teacher’s skill at reflection.
- The informational value of the statement.
- The extent to which the statement contains judgement/evaluation.
- The extent to which the statement (or question) actively engages the person in reflecting.
The table below summarizes the specific examples described:
- How do you draw people's attention to the positive aspects of their practice?
- What opportunities will you have in the coming days or weeks to help someone else reflect on positive aspects of their practice?
- How might you do that? What would that sound like? What impact might that have?
- What different contexts might the above principles apply in?
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Gross Cheliotes, L. & Reilly, M. (2010). Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School One Conversation at a Time. California: Corwin.
Michael, J. (2006). Where’s the evidence that active learning works? Advances in Physiology Education, 30, pp. 159-167.
Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London: Routledge
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55: 68–78.
William, D. & Black, P. (2006). Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment. London: NFER Nelson.