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The Benefits of Evidence-Based Observations

 This blog was originally published on Finding Common Ground at Education Week by Peter DeWitt on October 21, 2012 6:27PM

Peter DeWitt (@PeterMDeWitt) is an elementary principal in upstate, New York. He blogs at Finding Common Ground for Education Week and is the author of Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (Corwin Press). He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com.

Great Lessons are a continuous conversation from one day to the next where you build on yesterday in preparation for tomorrow.

It sounds like common sense. Shouldn't all observations be evidence based? Is this a passing fad using new vocabulary? Or is this a new focus for principals and teachers? The stakes are high and our focus has to be clear. We need evidence that our students are learning and state tests are not the way to do that. However, teacher observations and the conversations that take place before and after are important to that process because they can have a positive effect on student learning.

Observations used to involve a checklist:

  • Students are sitting still...check
  • Their eyes are on the teacher...check
  • They seem to be writing answers on the paper...check
  • Student work is hanging on the walls...check
  • Students are being respectful...check

The stereotypical observation is hopefully changing. Classrooms are louder at times, the tools are different, and kids don't sit in tidy rows all day...or at least they shouldn't. When principals enter into classrooms for formal observations they need to know what great lessons look like but there isn't a one size fits all for great lessons. Principals need to be able to make their way through the noise of learning and focus on what is going on.

Teacher observations have always been important. They provide a time for principals to see how well teachers are engaging their students. Unfortunately, not all observations were worth the time taken to complete them because they lacked the integrity they needed. Not all principals went into classrooms on a daily basis, so the observations became one moment in time that was more fluff than substance.

That has changed over the past few years as evidence based observations have entered the public school system. Now, as the stakes get higher, those evidence based observations are more important than ever. For principals and teachers who have done the work, observations bring an opportunity for professional conversations that can truly change what happens in the classroom. It also offers principals a time to change how they lead a building because great teacher and student learning can inspire principals as much as principals can inspire teachers and students.

Too often observations are seen as something to get over and not learn from. If we really believe that everything in life offers us a learning experience, we should also believe that observations should be on that list. It is a time when students see principals in a different light because they're out of their office and in the classroom.

As a principal that goes into classrooms every day (and my teachers read this so they can call me out if I'm not being truthful) I feel like observations give me the opportunity to have a continuing conversation with students and staff. Many principals do that. They walk into classrooms to interact with students who are doing group projects or they sit and watch teachers engage students.

I love connecting with students to see what they are learning, and it can be done without distracting the learning process. They are often excited to tell me how they are doing and what they think will happen next. I don't believe that lessons are one moment in time. Great lessons are a continuous conversation from one day to the next where you build on yesterday in preparation for tomorrow.

Effective Feedback

  • What do we really want from students?
  • Do we want compliance?
  • Or do we want conversations at an age-appropriate level?
  • Are they listening to what we say?
  • Are we listening to them?
  • Do we just say, "Good job!"
  • Or do we say specifically why they did a good job?

Educational Leadership (ASCD) has been one of my favorite educational journals for a long time. The September issue (2012) focused on effective feedback and since reading about that topic I have not gone a day without thinking about the feedback we give in school. If we are not giving proper feedback, we are just going through the motions.

  • Is my feedback as a principal helping teachers?
  • Am I empathetic to their needs when they ask for advice?
  • What am I learning about great teaching?
  • What am I learning about the students in our school?
  • What specific feedback do teachers give to students?
  • What kind of feedback do I give to students as I walk into classrooms and walk down the hall?

From the moment we enter school to the moment we leave at the end of the day our interactions can have a profound effect on our students and colleagues because our words matter. We could say something that sets students or teachers on a different path which could be good or bad, which is why evidence based observations are so vitally important.

According to Carnegie Melon's Enhancing Education, "The instructor must trust in the credibility of the evidence based on the observation. Credibility is influenced by why the observations are taking place, who is doing the observations, what is being observed, and when the observations are taking place. When the observations are conducted for the primary purpose of improvement, and are initiated or welcomed by the instructor, the interaction is most likely to be trusted and valued. Further, when the observers are experienced in both observing and giving feedback, the quality of the feedback will be higher."

Our Conversations Matter

When entering into evidence based observations it is important to focus on all three aspects. The pre-conference, observation and post conference are all vitally important and we must live in the moment when we are in the middle of these parts of an observation. It helps to focus the teacher on the most important aspects to the lesson and it helps focus the observer on what to look for when entering into the classroom for the observation.

Teachers and principals have different perspectives so it's important to set a goal during the pre-conference. Carnegie Melon's Enhancing Education goes on to stay, "Observers cannot record every interaction or event that occurs so beforehand discuss your areas of focus.

  • What aspects of your teaching or classroom interaction are you interested in getting feedback on?
  • What areas do you not want feedback on?
  • Do you have priorities? (things that you definitely want or would be interested in if the observer is able to capture them)

Some common areas of focus are organization of content, clarity of the presentation and explanations, ability to ask and answer questions, and establishing and maintaining student engagement. Be clear about what you want so you can be sure to get feedback on the areas that are most important to you."

In the End

We all want feedback. Whether it is in our personal or professional lives we want to know that we are doing a good job and we want to know where we need to improve. Evidence based observations are a really important part of that process.

Everyone in education, whether they are a teacher, teacher aide, secretary or principal is busy. We are doing more with less which is why it is more important than ever to make sure we take observations seriously and those observations provide us with a valuable moment to make a connection to teachers, and more importantly, to our students.


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