Dialogic Lesson Observation

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[F]or Bakhtin, human existence, like language and meaning, is open-ended, always ‘yet-to-be’. Dialogue reflects and enacts these processes of becoming, whereas monologue (Bakhtin) and anti-dialogue (Freire) negate it. (Rule, 2010, p.934; with image, cited from http://gildedgreen.notart.org/bakhtin/unfinalizability.html)

Dialogic Lesson Observation

I am thinking out loud.

Were I to observe a colleague in a different subject next Monday, what would be going through my mind?

Firstly, I would be very apprehensive about bringing my preconceptions or assumptions about what teaching that particular subject is like. Quite rightly so, as I wouldn’t have a clue about its curriculum, content or assessment, let alone its subject-specific pedagogy. For example, I may be a fan of Monet, but that doesn’t necessarily equip me with sufficient subject knowledge of impressionist painting to comment on an art teacher teaching that subject. It would be presumptuous of me even to think that I am in the position to judge the teaching. The reason is simple, I don’t have sufficient knowledge.

Secondly, are the criteria on the proforma applicable to all subjects, from drama to advanced maths, from year 7 to year 13?

By definition and practice, proforma is only designed to capture generic features, broad strokes if you wish. How about the nuances that make up the crucial foundations of a long and complex process that is “learning” across a diverse range of subjects and disciplines? Would I feel comfortable to use a generic form to inform my commentary on a lesson of a different subject from mine? No, I wouldn’t. However lucid and erudite my narrative – never mind being positive or negative – my observation would be totally subjective at best and utterly misguided at worst. It would be rendered to useless and pointless – from the point of view of professional development. Unless, of course, my record would be used for other purposes.

In the light of the continuous challenge to Ofsted and Ofsted-styled observations, and the admission of serious flaws resulting from non-specialist inspectors from Ofsted, school leaders have a professional, ethical and moral obligation to ensure that inappropriate methodology is eradicated from their appraisal processes. Now, with many schools begin to formulate their own in-service training as part of professional development plans, and with many teaching schools taking on the roles of Initial Teacher Training providers, the design of valid and helpful observation processes is more imperative than ever.

It would be, therefore, professionally, ethically and morally irresponsible and reprehensible for me then to “give feedback” to my colleague as part of her or his professional development that might have far-reaching repercussions. Think about it, how ludicrous and illogical would such an act be?

So what should we do, if evaluation week, focus week, learning walks, etc. are the ubiquitous inevitability of the “new freedoms” that many schools find themselves enjoy? In my view, dialogue at three stages of the process is essential.

Pre-observation 

I would love to meet (or through correspondence) the teacher to learn some basics about her/his subject at the level at which the particular group is studying. Then, I would humbly listen to the initial planning of the lesson to be observed. I would be interested to form a holistic view of the group and specific knowledge of its members. This process would most definitely educate me to at least the degree necessary to attempt to comprehend the rationale behind the design – the whats, hows and whys.

In-observation 

I would go in free of preconceptions and assumptions from my own subject. I would assume a new identity as a student, a learner, not an observer armed simply with a proforma and a biro. I would endeavour to take part in the learning process, attempting to the best of my ability to go through all the intellectual, practical and emotional processes that the other students would be going through. I would want to experience the frustration, the elation and perhaps the rare moments of enlightenment that are the nature of learning. I would want to chat to the girl or the boy next to me should I get stuck or if I could help. Being an observer would inevitably remove my connection with both the learners and the teacher.

Post-observation 

Now, I would prefer this to be a longer conversation for at least 30 minutes in a comfortable setting that is conducive to thoughtful reflections. I would, again, humbly engage in a dialogue with the teacher of my experience as “a learner” in that lesson: the highs, the lows and perhaps the bewildered moments in between.

Can you see what I am getting at? My “observation would be a dialogic process that allows the teachers to reflect on their practice: to qualify, justify and elaborate on their choices. A reflective log highlighting the “critical, or symbolic, moments” could be recorded to share with other colleagues as professional development material. Dialogic observation could potentially be the most empowering experience. It is only through eliminating the fear of detriments resulting from conventional lesson observations can we foster a culture of trust and construct a genuinely collaborative professional development plan.

As for me, as somebody who always tries to be a teacher and a learner in all my lessons, I would emerge from the process a much enriched person, professionally and intellectually. I would be much looking forward to my next dialogic lesson observation.

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About W. S. Lien

Tweed Wearer - Country Lover - Teacher Researching Professionalism and Identity@Clare College, Cambridge - Keen Amateur Photographer - Devotee to Poppy my Labrador
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3 Responses to Dialogic Lesson Observation

  1. Mark Quinn says:

    I really enjoyed the simplicity and humility to this, and will be sharing ‘Dialogic Lesson Observation’ with middle and senior leaders tomorrow! Timely.

  2. Pingback: Soft landing for our leap in the dark | markquinn1968

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