By Lorendana Borello
In the South African educational setting, classroom observations take the form of colleagues or the head of department (HOD), deputy head or principal visiting teachers whilst they are teaching.
In some instances, these visits serve merely to “tick a box” in the process of appraisals, whilst in other cases, they can be used as evidence in a performance management process. In either case, the effectiveness of classroom observation in enhancing teaching and learning is questionable. This is confirmed by the fact that the following year, the same practice is repeated without any evidence of progress in the way the teacher is teaching or the learners are learning. This occurs because observation only takes place once a term, or in some instances once a year, without there being any ongoing discussions through the course of the year on ways to improve teaching and learning.
The significance of instructional rounds
The practice of instructional rounds has been successfully carried out in the medical profession across the world. A qualified, experienced doctor takes medical students on hospital rounds to visit patients. The students are asked to diagnose the condition of the patient, decide on the cause and the treatment of the condition. Medical students also have the opportunity to observe experienced doctors working with patients. In this way, they are gaining both theoretical and practical experience.
Teitel1 suggests that instructional rounds can also be beneficial to the teaching profession. Teachers can observe each other and then discuss what they have experienced and ways in which improvements can be made. If teachers plan a section of work together and then take turns to teach the lessons while the other teachers observe, then feedback and discussions on what worked or what could be done differently becomes more beneficial. Successful instructional rounds should result in the professional growth of teachers and the development of best practice in the process of teaching and learning. Feedback to the teacher on how their lesson went seems to be the primary goal of classroom observations. However, when implementing instructional rounds, the main purpose of feedback should be for the observing teachers to learn about their own practice and for teachers to share their observations with each other.
Doing it properly
According to Marzano:2 “Instructional rounds are one of the most valuable tools that a school or district can use to enhance teachers’ pedagogical skills and develop a culture of collaboration.” Merseth, a senior lecturer on education and a founding director of the School of Leadership and the Teacher Education Programme at Harvard University Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the US,3 has observed that instructional rounds is one of the methods recommended to ensure that effective educational practice is taking place in our schools.
During the 2012 Harvard Graduate School of Education summer programme entitled “Leadership: An Evolving Vision”,4 Merseth reiterated that for instructional rounds to be most effective, all teachers should be observing each other.
Instructional rounds should be voluntary and do not have to last longer than 15 minutes. During this time, Merseth believes that the observing teacher/s should be able to gather enough evidence to answer the following four questions:
1. What is the teacher saying and doing?
2. What are the students saying and doing?
3. What task has the teacher set for the students?
4. If the students did everything the teacher asked them to do, what would the students know and be able to do?
The level of questioning by the observed teacher is an important indicator of effective learning and teaching. Closed questions that require only “yes” or “no” answers do not elicit high order thinking. If teachers challenge students to provide explanations, then they have to show understanding. This raises the level of cognitive demand. Questions or tasks that require pupils to explain, discuss, evaluate, synthesise or differentiate mean that students understand concepts and are able to apply that understanding to a new situation.
It is interesting to note that this four-step observation tool can also be reversed as a useful guide in planning lessons. The teacher can begin with the last question and work backwards in designing the task to achieve this.
An alternative perspective
Perhaps teachers in South African schools need to start thinking about instructional rounds. Just as medical students learn their practice from observing other doctors, so teachers could adopt a similar approach. Teachers observing teachers can improve both theory and practice. The purpose of instructional rounds is to observe closely what is happening in the classroom, and to learn new strategies to solve problems and to improve the practice of learning and teaching (such as how to manage individuals versus group dynamics, what questions to pose that will elicit thinking, or how to ensure that everyone has understood the task and not just those who nod their heads).
Teitel5 is quite adamant that instructional rounds should be seen as a teacher development strategy and not merely as an observation practice. If the goal is to improve the practice of teaching and learning, then classroom observation needs to take on a totally different approach. Instead of the HOD, deputy or principal visiting teachers once a term or once a year for evaluation purposes, instructional rounds need to become part of continuous assessment and teaching practice. Teachers must be expected to visit colleagues and to share observations and insights in a non-judgemental way to improve both learning and teaching. This means that teachers must have the time and be available to observe one another. There is no doubt that to ensure the success of instructional rounds, school timetables would need to be adjusted to enable this practice.
A mindset shift required
To learn and share knowledge about instructional rounds, educators could also visit colleagues in other schools. St Stithians Girls’ College in Johannesburg, Gauteng, undertook teacher exchanges with Durban Girls’ College in KwaZulu- Natal, as well the Lawrence School in Sanawar, India.
Two teachers (mathematics and accounting) spent one week in Durban and two weeks in India (accounting and academic support). This was reciprocated with teachers from the same subjects/department in the respective schools visiting St Stithians Girls’ College. The opportunity to share pedagogy, systems and structures to improve learning and teaching in the respective environments was most valuable. Teachers learned about different teaching methodologies, different cultures of learning within a variety of different subjects, different timetables and different ways of assessing.
Education requires a shift in mindset from the top-down appraisal practice of classroom observations to a learning practice of instructional rounds.6 The current practice of classroom observations follows a fixed mindset approach. The head observes the teacher in class, and then provides feedback, thus ending the process. It is very rare that there is any followup to see if teaching and learning has changed. The teacher is left thinking, “I can carry on teaching as I have always taught.”
The growth mindset underpinning instructional rounds is a continuous, collaborative experience, as the teacher is observed many times by different people who all share their practice to deepen and improve it. It is an approach that relies on engagement and inquiry rather than compliance.7 The teacher is encouraged to try different approaches and keeps thinking, “How can I improve the way students understand this concept?”
All schools can benefit
This alternative perspective could go a long way to improve the practice of learning and teaching in both well-resourced and underresourced schools in South Africa. It does, however, require a deep understanding of what high-quality teaching and learning looks like. It also requires a whole school strategic approach that makes time available for this process to be successful, through effective timetabling.
1. Teitel, L. (2013) School-based Instructional Rounds. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.
2. Marzano, R.J. (2011) “Making the Most of Instructional Rounds”, Educational Leadership, 68 (5).
3. See: https://www.gse.harvard.edu/faculty/katherine-merseth.
4. See, for example: https://www.gse.harvard.edu/ppe/program/leadershipevolving-vision.
5. Teitel, L. (2013) op. cit.
6. Dweck, C.S. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York:Random House.
7. Teitel, L. (2013) op. cit.
Category: Spring 2016