Getting Feedback on Your Teaching

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Here’s a question for those of you whose professional life is mostly devoted to classroom ELT:

In the past 12 months, how much time have you spent getting feedback about your teaching?

My guess is that it’s less than three hours. And I further guess that any feedback you got came from a trainer or a superior. If I’m right, then you have almost no recent experience of examining data about what you and your students actually do in class.

Leaving aside the evaluative, judgemental kinds of feedback you’ve had during training courses, or when a superior observes your class with the aim of assuring that you’re doing what they consider to be a good job, you’ve probably spent little or no time whatsoever on looking at real data about what’s going on in your classes. And yet, examining recordings of your classes with colleagues or with your students can do wonders.

In this first post, I’ll look at feedback sessions with colleagues.

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Getting Feedback From Colleagues On Recordings of Classes  

In a review article in 2014, “El Maestro” John Fanselow says:

Not once during fifty years of interviewing teachers for jobs have I had a positive response to this question:“Have you recorded any of your classes?” A few said they had done so for an assignment for a course, but none kept it up once they started to teach.

And yet,

the easiest and most powerful way to understand what we are really doing in our classrooms … is to record, transcribe and analyze what we and our students say and do.

The best ELT course I’ve ever attended was a two-week workshop with John Fanselow in Barcelona in 1994. It consisted entirely of transcribing, analysing and discussing recordings of four different teachers (three of whom participated in the workshop) who had previously agreed to video their classes in the month before the workshop took place. In preparation for the workshop, I liaised with John, who stressed the importance of videoing the whole class and not training the camera on the teacher. I sent him (by post!) sample video recordings of the classes, and he phoned me a few times, asking me to record specific activities and sometimes to focus on specific things – “point the camera at the students’ legs” he requested on one occasion. By the time the workshop started, we had about 10 hours of recordings to work with.

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The Fanselow Workshop

The two golden rules during the workshop were:

  1. Leave your pre-conceived notions about good or bad teaching at the door.
  2. Observe, don’t judge.

We were all encouraged to “look at the data as children might look at something for the first time.” As Fanselow says in his 2014 article,

Analyzing video clips and transcripts of classroom interactions are the “ABC’s” of learning to observe yourself and your students in the classroom. Attaining this skill, which will help you to understand what you and your students are really doing, can profoundly affect your teaching.

Fanselow urged us to learn a descriptive system he invented called FOCUS ((Foci for Observing Communication Used in Settings), which is “a kind of shorthand to describe what everybody’s doing”, but we all found it too complicated to use without his help. For a full treatment of FOCUS, see Fanselow (1984) Breaking Rules, but for now, enough to say that, in essence, Fanselow’s framework makes no distinction between teacher and learners, (there are, that is, no separate categories for teachers and learners); instead, it uses general categories to define five characteristic of communication in settings:

  • Who communicates?
  • What is the pedagogical purpose of the communication?
  • What mediums are used to communicate?
  • How are the mediums used to communicate areas of content?
  • What areas of content are communicated?

The most important thing, though, is to watch the recordings with an open mind, to forget about what you yourself might or might not have done if you’d been the teacher, and to try to understand what kinds of communication were gong on.

During the 2-week workshop we watched a succession of usually short (2 to 5 minute) recordings; we transcribed them (helped by John), then we watched them again, sometimes 3 or 4 times, focusing on different questions, gaining more and more insights into what was going on, and then we discussed everything we’d seen and heard – not that things happened in such a linear way, of course. We looked at teachers’ body language, tics, gestures, affirmations, recognitions, challenges, clichés, blind spots, quips, empathic moves, asides, use of time, use of materials, timing, crisis management, coherence and cohesion, and on and on. And we looked in John’s way; he helped us see the value of this deliberately non-judgemental way of examining our work. Look, listen, observe, and then reflect generously, openly, inquisitively. Don’t judge: learn.

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But we spent most of the time looking not at the teacher but at the learners – at how they themselves communicated with each other and with the teacher.

“Look at that. See the way she looks away? We’ve lost her.”

“He’s on a roll. He’s got it. He needed longer, didn’t he.”

“What are they doing with that hand-out? Why do they keep quoting that bit?”

“ She helped Jose there. That’s a first”

Who was doing what with whom? Where were the high energy points? What new language was being used? Who picked up on error correction, and when? And so much more besides.

I was particularly taken by what I saw (how people moved, eye contact, patterns in groups,  fidgeting,  day dreaming, students always returning to “their” seats, a teacher who spent 85% of the time in the top left part of the room, ..) because I’m not usually very aware of visual stuff, but John was particularly keen to have us transcribe and analyse who said what to whom in what ways, to what communicative ends.

I can’t tell you how much we all enjoyed it: it wasn’t a blast, it was a hurricane of fresh air, a cyclonic invigoration, a huge affirmation of the fun and satisfaction that teachers can get from their jobs once they connect.

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An aside.

Section 8 of the Fanselow 2014 article quotes three teachers who reflect on what Fanselow helped them to observe, and it makes very interesting reading. In the same section, one of the teachers comments about other training courses he’d attended:

I was shown some video clips of teachers that were produced alongside methods books for the course. The teachers and the authors sounded like cosmetics salespeople. They were absolutely certain of their claims, but there was no evidence in the videos. The camera focused primarily on the teachers and just occasionally panned the students. I could not hear what they were saying or see what they were writing. This prevented me from evaluating the outcome. Without seeing results, how could I accept or verify or believe the author’s assertions?

Fanselow cites another of the 3 teachers who says that she now uses the transcriptions she makes of recordings of her classroom teaching to help plan her lessons, and that planning based on what she had actually asked her students to do and on the results was less time-consuming than her former lesson planning. Fanselow suggests that teachers make a regular feature of transcribing, sometimes alone and sometimes with their students, one to three minutes of a class, or enough interaction to fill one sheet of A4 paper. He stresses

you cannot just do this only once a term. You have to do it regularly and often in order for you and your students to learn anything from it – a couple of times per week, as a minimum.

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And here’s another aside. I know that Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill feel the same way about ELT and believe in the same approach as Fanselow. I know that “Demand High”, for all the criticisms I’ve made of it, wants exactly the same things as Fanselow wants. It’s no coincidence that Fanselow’s 2014 paper can be freely downloaded from the Demand High website. Whatever my criticisms of their marketing and their support for coursebook-driven ELT, I salute the way Scrivener and Underhill encourage teachers to look at what they do through the Fanselow lense.

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Implications

At the end of the workshop, we had a party. Everybody agreed: that was some session! Last thing I remember is drunkenly hugging John and his saying “You’re standing on my foot again Geoff: bad habit.”

Each of us learned different things about ourselves and about our learners, but all of us went away determined to make observing and analysing classroom recordings a regular, on-going feature of our work. For myself, I found a friend at work who was even more of a Fanselow fan that I was. We recorded ourselves doing classes right the way through the term, and we spent a couple of hours a week watching the recordings together and analysing them. In our viewing sessions, a habitual refrain was “Stop judging!” We were lucky to be in a school that encouraged such stuff, and we lucky to have each other, but anyway, it’s difficult to overestimate the positive effect those sessions had on our motivation and, I dare to say, our teaching.

If you want to do your own recording feedback sessions, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Involve the students. Tell them what you want to do and why. Never record anything without their permission.
  2. Try out different places for the recorder in the classroom when nobody’s there. You know better than I do about the techy stuff, but I understand that modern video recorders can be placed just about anywhere. Make sure you record the students, not just you.
  3. Play down the fact that you’re recording.
  4. Choose somebody you like and trust to watch the recording with you. Of course, it could be a group.
  5. Limit the clip to 10 mins. max.
  6. Watch the video recording a few times without comment.
  7. Talk about things in general and then decide what you’re going to focus on. Vary the focus in different sessions. I know it’s not really in line with John’s approach, but I recommend you look at Jack Richards Chapter 7 Classroom Observation in Teaching Practice (just Google it to find a free download), which gives a very good summary of areas to focus on.
  8. Don’t just do it once! 
  9. Emphasise John’s golden rules.

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Footnote:

I had lots of disagreements with John about how people learn languages. I was more of a scholar (I don’t say a better scholar) than he was, more influenced by SLA findings about the limitations of explicit instruction than he was, more sceptical about his didactic imperatives. In particular, I didn’t agree (and still don’t) with most of the items on his famous “Ten Things you Should Never Do” list. I still think that we should teach the language, not about it, and that we should engage learners more in decisions about the “what” and “how” of classroom practice.

Regarding looking at recordings, I never used his FOCUS framework properly; I never got the hang of transcribing bits of recording as he would have it; I was sometimes judgemental and often used the data to spin hypotheses about classroom learning in ways that I know he would not have approved of. But never mind. John Fanselow has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about the art of ELT and I’m enormously grateful, as are thousands of teachers, for his help. We really should listen more carefully to what John Fanselow has to say about ELT.

See this link for info. on John Fanselow: http://ltprofessionals.com/johnfanselow

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4 thoughts on “Getting Feedback on Your Teaching

  1. I agree about videoing lessons, though have only done so once myself: a lot of young learner teachers would need to overcome child protection barriers – easier in some cultural contexts than others – including approval from the higher ups. Personally I tried to get videotaping lessons into a school I previously worked with, but, for various reasons, it was dismissed as unfeasible.

    A simple solution often proposed is to avoid filming the students, keep the camera off them and on the teacher. Not a fan of this approach; you can’t properly determine the success (or otherwise) if you can’t see directly the impact on, and reactions of the learners.

    Certainly, it would be of immense benefit to learners and educators to be able to record the learners being taught, and if it can be reconciled with child protection policy, brilliant.

    It is, however, a big if.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Robert,

      Thanks for pointing out problems attached to videoing classes of young learners. I was, without realising it, talking about adult education.

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  2. Your assumptions at the top of the post are fairly accurate in my instance. I’ve been observed around 5 hours in the last year, but it’s for either formal observations (the British Council do one developmental and one evaluative obs a year) or short 20 minute obs for standardisation. I’d like to do more peer observation – always find this useful.
    I filmed my lessons for an assignment on the DipTESOL. This was great as it actually gave me some confidence, but it focused far too much on what I was doing and not on the impact it had on the learners. My references to learners in the assignment was rather superficial or contrived, not good when I look back…! The FOCUS method you mention sounds like a good way to remedy that and add impartiality. I’ll look into it this term (as roberttaylorefl mentioned though, may be protection issues or other red tape).
    My partner is a primary school teacher – they’ve been trialling a product called ‘Swivl’ (I think…). You attach a camera to a rotating tripod in the class. It maps the teacher’s movements and follows them around the class. The software records lots of data about interactions and positioning, but also records audio. Again though… following only the teacher? Sounds limited to me.
    Cheers

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  3. Thank you, Geoff! The link to this was shared with me by John, himself. I begin a new semester at the university where I teach this coming Sunday and will reread your article before doing so.

    Like

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