Mindset: Making the Most of Observations

“I want to improve my teaching practices”. Most teachers will say this, or why do we bother doing this job? To quote Jay-Z, ´loiterers should be arrested´. If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. Stagnation is a slow death.

However, as with anything, there´s a wide schism between words/intentions and making them reality. Observations are commonly used to bridge this gap and help teachers with individual issues; but the word ´observations´ is often synonymous with ´judgement´ and ´threat´. Jack C. Richards summarises this attitude to the observer (´guest´) in his old-fashioned but sometimes useful Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classrooms (1996): ´A guest’s purpose…is not to judge, evaluate, or criticise…or to offer suggestions, but simply to learn through observing´. In short, this is rhubarb.

We’re all familiar with the caricature of the observer as a hostile vampire in the corner of the room, poised to swoop on any errors and suck the life out of any enjoyment teaching can bring. However, since starting as an observer, and having collaborated with many others, this couldn’t be further from the truth: it’s great to see effective teaching in action, and I often learn something new I can use in my own lessons. There is no inner struggle to suppress a cheer if a teacher misses a great opportunity for a CCQ. Yes, observers note down errors, but this is not to quench a thirst for ‘blood’, but to be able to help the teacher concerned.

My new job as Senior Teacher at International House (IH) Riga gives me a unique double perspective on observations, as I am currently the only teacher to be both observer and observed in official observations. This has got me thinking about applying Professor Carol Dweck’s Mindset Theory to the observation process (particularly pre-observation prep and post-observation feedback). I tend to apply this to all aspects of life, and I´ve written a previous blog on the topic (read here) as well as an article that appears in the current issue of IATEFLscreenshot-2016-10-20-16-16-46 Voices (available in all good….ah no, actually). However, it´s just as important to instil Mindset Theory in teachers, not just students. Maybe even more so, as teachers are there to set an example. So, what is it?

  • Someone with a growth mindset is characterised with a positive attitude to learning from failure, and a belief that they can learn anything given enough time and well-directed effort.
  • In contrast, someone with a fixed mindset is conditioned by the belief that talent is innate and unchangeable, and an unwillingness to take risks in fear of exposing a lack of ability.

So how does this apply to pre-observation prep?

Predominantly in choosing which class is to be observed. Although teachers were encouraged to choose their most challenging class, several I observed opted for an easier ride in fear or being exposed as a ´bad´ teacher (no such thing), and facing subsequent punishment. This unwillingness to take risks is classic fixed mindset, and meant that very little was learned from the hours we both invested in the process. Frankly, it was pretty much a waste of time.

Chris Ożóg, writing in the IH Journal, neatly synthesised what observations can be if teachers adopt the growth mindset: ´Observations are there to help teachers develop´, not as an excuse to punish or even sack them. Speaking from experience, I know it´s nerve-wracking to be observed, but this feeling should be embraced as a part of the challenging process of improvement.

  • To get the most out of the observation, ask yourself:

– In which lessons do learners most struggle to learn? (not the same as: in which lessons do I find harder to teach?)

– What can I gain from being observed?

How about Mindset Theory in post-observation feedback?

Any worthwhile observed lesson has aspects which can be improved. No teacher or lesson in the world is perfect. Valuable observer – teacher feedback should go both ways, so teachers should also consider their own strengths and weaknesses in post-lesson self-evaluation and approach the feedback session as a participant rather than a passive customer of knowledge.

Nevertheless, the key is the next step: acting to improve the improvable. Someone with a growth mindset is willing to learn from failure, whereas those with fixed mindsets believe that ability (teaching in this case) is innate, so much less malleable. The former will act on advice to improve their lessons; the latter will let out a sigh of relief when the observation forms are signed and filed away to collect dust, reassure themselves that everything´s fine and carry on as before.

  • To get the most out of the observation, ask yourself:

– What were the strengths and weaknesses of the lesson?

– What steps can I take to put the observer’s advice into practice?

Conclusions

  • Observations can be an outstanding tool to improve individual teaching practices. They aren´t always easy or comfortable, but it´s a small price to pay. The intensive 6-week Delta Module 2 course at IH London was my first taste of regular observations, and I´d say my teaching improved more in these six weeks than in the previous three years.
  • As mentioned in my previous blog on the topic, we can channel learners into a growth mindset by tuning the language we use in our praise and feedback. As teachers, we should be self-conscious enough to do this for ourselves, so we can make the most of the observation process for our own professional development and for the learners themselves.
  • Always go back to the “why?” If the phrase “I want to improve my teaching practices” applies to you, try to adopt a growth mindset in your attitude to the next round of observations at your school.

References

Ożóg, C., Observations on Observations, International House Journal of Education and Development, Issue 32, Spring 2012, http://ihjournal.com/observations-on-observations-by-chris-ozog

Richards, C., 1996. Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classrooms, Cambridge: Cambridge Language Education.

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