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3 Reasons In-person Observations Don’t Work

Classroom observations are an important part of the professional development process. As professionals, there is no better way for us to learn than by sharing and reflecting on our practice with trusted colleagues and mentors. Administrative observations are important too. We need professional educators with a global view of the department, grade-level, or campus to help guide our direction.

However, we are wasting time, energy, and resources on in-person classroom observations that don’t work.

Here’s why…

1. There’s a stranger in the room

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Classrooms are an ecosystem. Any scientist worth their salt will tell you that ecosystems are delicately balanced, teetering on the brink of change. When you add a foreign object to the ecosystem, it is immediately altered. Heisenberg built an entire principle around it: the act of observing something changes the object you’re observing. The second you step into the classroom ecosystem, you change it. Everyone behaves differently, and what you see isn’t what normally happens.

2. Perception Matters

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Many of you have seen this optical illusion before. Glancing at this picture, you’ll almost immediately see a woman. However, we’ll likely disagree about the age of the woman. Some of us will see an old woman and others will see a young one. It’s a fun game, but it’s also an important point about observing teachers. When I do an in-person observation, I sit in the room and take notes on what I see. Later, I’ll talk to you about what I see. Unfortunately, you might see yourself very differently. So if I tell you your shirt is blue and you think it’s green, we won’t get very far on discussing whether it matches your pants. Before we can have a real conversation about changing your teaching practice and setting goals, we need to be able to see things the same way. That means we need to sit side by side and see your teaching at the same time and discuss, moment by moment, what we see together.

3. Things Happen


Our Assumptions

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In a perfect world, there would be unlimited time and we could spend hours in one another’s classrooms. In that world, we see the subtle dynamics of interactions. We see struggling kids grow. Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world. Since we usually only get to observe each other’s classrooms a handful of times each year, we only see that kid struggle, and we assume it must always be like that in the teacher’s classroom. These snapshots aren’t a complete picture, but they frame our perspectives. As the image above suggests, if we look out a window and see water falling from the sky, we assume it’s raining rather than considering the possibility that water is coming from another source. The more snapshots we can see, though, the bigger our frame of reality gets and the better we understand it. This is why we should aim to see dozens—or even hundreds—of moments from each other’s classrooms. Of course, with traditional, in-person observations, that’s nearly impossible.

The solution?

“If you keep thinking what you’ve always thought, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got.” – Dr. Michael Ryce

Educators tend to stick to “tried and true” methods. Sometimes, that’s a great strategy. But rarely do in-person classroom observations result in any actual change in teacher practice. If we’re not using observations to grow, then why are we doing them? In-person observations are a lot less ‘tried” than they are “tired.” If we want to really affect change in the classroom, we need to move to video-based observations. With technology as simple as a smartphone, we can record our classroom ecosystems and share them with one another. And with Sibme, we can share them with one another quickly, safely, and completely. This method is unobtrusive. It allows for both the teacher being observed and the observer to discuss moments and develop a mutual understanding of what’s actually happening during the lesson cycle. Most importantly, it allows us to share as many micro-teaching moments as we want, so we have the opportunity to broaden the frame that we use to understand what’s going on in the classroom. It’s easier than we think, and it makes sense. So why aren’t we all doing it?

New Teacher Mentor, Rayburn High School: Pasadena Independent School District

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