The Elephant in the Room

This post came about as the result of 3 different experiences. First – my first Peer.Net Meeting a couple of weeks ago, second reading an article called “Target Setting, Policy Pathology and Student Perspectives: learning to labour in new times” by Michael Fielding in the Cambridge Journal of Education (19:2 277-287), and the last on this blog post by Scott Thornbury.

The linking theme for me is around observation, and in particular the nature of feedback as we understand it.

When I think about the last “feedback” sessions I had with trainee teachers, I definitely remember going in with the course criteria in my head, with distinct action points (development targets, a rose by any other name…) in my mind. The aim, for me, in that discussion was to get those action points developed as part of the feedback process. The trainee teacher then had to go off and demonstrate improvement in those areas in their next observation. And so on and so on throughout the course.

But they were my action points: targets I had set for that person based on my knowledge and experience. They weren’t that trainee’s action points. In fact, I’m not even sure that some of my trainees’ action points and areas for development have ever been entirely negotiated, but rather elicited & enforced. It’s often a case of “phew, they came up with the same areas for development that I did” meaning that I then don’t need to draw out those areas for development.

Which set me thinking about the developmental aspects of graded college observations. In this context again, feedback, whilst dressed as a dialogue, is not necessarily driven by what the teacher wants to work on, unless it ties in with the knowledge & experience measures (prejudices?) of the observer and of the criteria against which they are being judged.

In both cases there is a set of (relatively) objective criteria against which we are being measured. Whether or not these are accurate is not the point – these are the measures, so let’s work with them. These are available to both parties, observer and observee, so one starting point would be for both parties to evaluate the teaching on those points, and then enter into a discussion as to which criteria were met, why, and where they weren’t met, why not.

But this doesn’t happen, not at least very much. Why not? Because of the elephant.

At every meeting like this there is an elephant in the room. A quiet and discrete elephant for the most part (although I did once see the elephant unleashed and stomping wildly about the room), but an elephant. It restrains the hand of the observee and diminishes them.

The elephant is the power relationship. A teacher trainer and a line manager have power over the person being observed and the observation is an exercise in that power. Arguably the trainer’s power is the lesser – a failed assessed lesson on CELTA, for example, doesn’t necessarily lead to  a failed qualification. It can still be a hard experience, of course! The power of the line manager is more explicit and more dramatic. If the grade of the lesson given is a 4 then this leads to measures which while developmental in approach, are at the very least hard work for the teacher, and at the very worst, leading to capability procedures and loss of a job.

That sounds harsh – no manager (I hope) wants to observe a grade 4 lesson, and not just because they are being precious about their departmental grade profile. Most managers I have ever met are genuinely concerned, even upset, when they give a grade 4 to a lesson. It’s not fun for them either.

As well as the overt power imbalance as a result of the grading element (both pass/fail or the OFSTED grades, there is also an element of knowledge imbalance. This is more complex, but begins with the observee wanting to know what they should have done better. The observer holds that knowledge and hands it over. As I reflected on my own practice above, whether this happens through the observee identifying those points first, or whether the observer just lays it out, there is still an imbalance in the relationship, in terms of knowledge and knowledge bearing.
On a more complex level, the trainer could be seen as being the knower, the knowledge bearer, the “expert” and the trainee the “novice”. In this context even the terms use suggest transmission: the trainer does something to the trainee. This may not necessarily be the case, of course. I once “trained” a much more experienced teacher of ESOL who was doing the course mainly as professional updating. This was an interesting experience for both of us, in the input sessions and in the observations, and certainly the observation feedback centred around a brief analysis of why the lesson met the criteria, followed by what could only really be described as sharing.

This gets even more complex when you have a graded managerial observation. A manager observes a far wider range of people than a teacher trainer might and so the likelihood of observing a much more experienced teacher is significantly higher.

So where the experience is imbalanced, what does this imply for knowledge, or perceived levels of knowledge? My own experience is that you acknowledge that there is “meeting the criteria” and there is what happens in the classroom, and the two discussions could be slightly different. There are also different types, levels and ranges of knowledge. For example, I may have broad ranges of experience, but my recent deep experience (i.e. what I am currently mainly familiar with due to my teaching week) is less broad, but more thorough. It’s been two years since I consistently taught an E2 class, and while I could quite comfortably get back on with it tomorrow, I am much more familiar at the moment with teacher training and development – a lot of meta-experience of teaching. These ranges & types of knowledge could have an impact: observer A may be a teacher who has been teaching for 4 years and mainly taught Beginners, E1 & E2 in the community, observing a teacher teaching in a beginner group but whose background has been 15 years of teaching international EFL learners and ESOL L1 & L2. Who is more experienced? Is there such a thing as “better” experience? Both parties can bring something to bear on the conversation, but again, the power relationship is the only thing dividing them & therefore damaging the usefulness of the discussion.

For whatever reason, any kind of imbalance in the power relationship, implicit or explicit, acknowledged or ignored, distorts the dialogue. And this in turn distorts the quality of what is being said, and has an impact, positive or negative, on the teacher being observed, and their learning. But what to do about it? I apologise for asking questions but not supplying answers, but after 1200 words I think I may come back to that. I’m doing official observation training next week too, so we shall see what that brings!


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