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Tool: Strengthening observational skills

Purpose of this tool: This tool provides you and your colleagues a structure to learn about and strengthen classroom observational methods and skills. Observing beginning teachers is critical to helping them better understand their teaching and their students’ learning. At the same time, determining what and how to observe in a classroom is difficult. Classrooms are very complex. Further, the issues and concerns beginning teachers need and want to attend to will change throughout the induction period. By becoming aware of and skilled in using a variety of observation techniques, mentor teachers can provide beginning teachers the classroom data needed to address these changing needs and interests.

How to use this tool: The following steps serve as guidelines for mentor teachers working together to learn about different classroom observation techniques. Each technique yields different information. Understanding this will help you determine the best technique to help the beginning teachers you work with address their problems of practice.


Steps:


1. Prepare for the work. One of the best ways to work together on classroom observation skills is for you and your colleagues to use different observation techniques as you view the same videotape of teaching. While you can purchase tapes, we recommend that you make and share videotapes of your own classrooms. This provides two important benefits that a purchased video cannot provide: 1) being observed by your colleagues helps you appreciate how beginning teachers feel when their mentors observe them, and 2) it provides a forum for you and your colleagues to share your own classroom successes and challenges. Such sharing is an essential part of creating a school culture that will support a strong induction program and keep high quality teachers at your school.

Once you have a tape, you or one of your colleagues should view it and identify a short (5 to 7 minute) segment to watch together. Pick the segment based on what you find interesting or puzzling occurring in the classroom. Cue the tape to the segment before the meeting begins.

2. Select observation techniques. Read over the descriptions of the classroom observation techniques listed below. (Click on the technique to access the description). Decide with your colleagues the two or three techniques that you will use as a group. Participants should use different techniques. For example, half of the group may use the Verbal flow technique, while the other half uses the Sampling technique. Each technique will yield different information. Understanding the nature of this information will help you select appropriate techniques when you observe beginning teachers.

Observation techniques
Focus
Verbal flow

Student involvement

Classroom climate

At task

Sampling

Student involvement

Individualized instruction

Classroom climate

Overview/Scripting

Student involvement

Individualized instruction

Levels of student thinking

Teacher talk/behavior

Classroom climate

Tally marks

Student involvement

Individualized instruction

Levels of student thinking

Teacher talk/behavior

Classroom climate

Class traffic Individualized instruction
Selective verbatim

Levels of student thinking

Teacher talk/behavior

Classroom climate

At task

Student involvement

Classroom climate


3. Observe the video. The group views the tape together and uses the different techniques.

4. Discuss. After the group watches the video, participants share the information collected using the different techniques. Each person should report this information to the group. It is important to understand not only the differences between techniques but also to identify the challenges participants faced using the techniques.

5. Make connections to mentoring. After participants identify the different types of information collected and the challenges encountered using the different methods, the group can talk about the issues the gathered data can help you address with beginning teachers. It is important to make connections back to your mentoring.

6. Strengthen your skills. After this initial introduction, you and your colleagues may want to try the different observation techniques together. That is, when you meet again, you may want to all observe a videotape using the Overview/scripting technique.

7. Make mentoring applications. Of course, you will want to use the different techniques when you observe the beginning teachers. Because beginning teachers have a range of issues and problems of practice that they are working on, you will have to decide which observation technique is appropriate for each observation you make. Talk with your colleagues and with the beginning teacher to make this determination. Sharing the challenges or the successes you had using the different techniques with your colleagues will help you develop your observation skills. At the same time, you need to think about the information you are sharing. You will have to think carefully about issues of confidentiality and trust. Will the beginning teacher be hurt in any way if you share this information with your mentor study group? If the answer is “yes,” then you should not share the information.