On-plan, off-plan?

So yes, planning. I blogged last week about planning lessons and so I thought here’s time for another one. It stems from a conversation I had with a teacher earlier this week about two bits of feedback they had got. The first was that in an observation she had gone off plan and the observer felt she should have stuck with the plan. In the second, the observer felt that the lesson would have gone better if it had gone off plan.

There are two points here.

The first is this: lesson observation in a professional context is a stressful one, even when it is developmental as part of a probationary process. That stress can, and does, make teachers behave differently. One gambles on a hunch quite a lot when teaching a lesson (or we can call it reflection-in-action if you want to hang a naff quasi-psychological term on it). Something appears to be going wrong with the planned activities, so you make a change to the lesson. Fair enough. But during an observed lesson, at least one which is linked to performance management systems, the pressure changes. Do you play your hunch or do you stick to the plan? It takes a lot of guts to gamble in this context, even though the gamble might be the right thing to do. I couldn’t tell you know exactly how I would react, although I think I am confident enough now to play my hunches.

The second point is around the feedback. The two bits of feedback here are based on two different lessons and as such are entirely different reflections on entirely different lessons. The trouble with observation feedback sometimes is that it is hard for the observee to separate out feedback on that lesson from suggestions about what one should always do. (By the same measure it is also hard for an observer to separate out what is “normal” in your classroom and what is “just happening on that day” but I can tell you now that if you try something for the first time during an observed lesson then it will show up like a flashing light.) When getting feedback you need to clarify whether something is a general point of practice, or whether it’s just that day. When I give feedback like this, I make a point of saying “in this lesson…” versus “in general…” because that helps teachers reflect and develop more.

Recommendations based on a single lesson observation need to be developed and worked to see if they are general principles that the teacher can apply or specific suggestions applicable to that lesson alone. Some of that is the responsibility of the observer to say which it is (although I would challenge any observer to lay out that any practice is a universally applicable practice), but mostly it is the responsibility of the teacher to take on the feedback and try the changes, even the ones they are unconvinced by, and decide their own system of practice. Learning about teaching should be a process of examination, exploration and experimentation: observation can help that in so many useful ways that to rely on unexplored absolutes applies false expectations to that process.

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One comment

  1. Well, I agrer that the stress is too big for the observee, so if something doesn’t go according to plan, as you say, you need confidence to change things right on the spot. But the only cure is to get used to the situation of being observed. I am mentoring a novice teacher now (compulsory part of teacher training in Hungary in the last year of her university studies) and I have been observing her since the beginning of September. I think I have become “part of the classroom furniture” for her, so now she is completely relaxed and changes things during the lesson if that is necessary.
    Sometimes I myself invite colleagues to observe my lessons – its an excellent psychology training, too! Even having been a teacher for quite a number of years…

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