Observation: useful for teachers and researchers

An integral element of my data collection process is observation. It’s hard to play favourites between my three methods (the other two being surveys and interviews), but observation made me excited in a different way. Not only is observation an interesting and unique method of data collection, it is also a valuable tool for professional development for teachers.

As a data collection method observation allows the researcher witness the environment ‘in reality.’ It is a chance to really immerse oneself in the data to gain a more complete understanding of the research subject. Within my own study I wanted to witness exactly how the teacher was employing metacognitive and reflective strategies and how students were responding to these.

I haven’t had the opportunity to observe a full lesson since my teaching practicum several years ago. It is an interesting process to observe another teacher with several years of teaching experience behind me. Whilst I am not seeking to evaluate their teaching I am able to reflect on their pedagogical strategies and consider the effect of their teaching practices in the classroom. What questioning techniques did they employ and were they successful? Why? How did they employ certain strategies for behavioural or time cues? What was the impact? How does their teaching differ from mine and what can I learn from them?

Participating in observations as a data collection method has prompted me to consider how I have developed as a teacher in the four years since graduation. The observation that I am currently completing is of higher quality than that which occurred during my practicum whilst at university. I have developed my own identity as a teacher and hence can consider another teacher’s practice against my own in order to understand both my own practice and their practice better. When I completed observations as a pre-service teacher I lacked this depth of insight: I was just trying to determine how to survive in the classroom. 

In my first year of teaching I invited the principal, an assistant principal, and the head of mathematics into my classroom to observe lessons. It was intimidating to say the least but I considered the discomfort and anxiety of inviting another teacher into my space to be outweighed by the benefits of receiving feedback on my teaching. The process was overwhelming positive. I received positive (and at times unexpected) affirmation of effective teaching strategies I was using, increasing my confidence in the classroom. Additionally, I was provide with constructive feedback regarding areas to improve. I was a better teacher for the experience. I strongly encourage principals, HODs, and classroom teachers to develop professional environments conducive to participating in such a process.

Observing and reflecting on other teachers’ practices is a powerful (and relatively inexpensive) form of professional development and I believe there is much scope to dramatically increase the role of colleague-to-colleague observation in the teaching profession. This, however, involves accepting that we are not teaching in isolation. It means stepping outside the bubble of our own classroom an embracing constructive feedback from others in the profession: a topic I wrote more about this here.

Finland and South Korea achieve at the top of international testing such as PISA. Whilst the reasons for their high achievement are complex, and their classroom environments are diverse, both countries emphasise the importance of observation within teacher training. Teachers have the opportunity to observe established teachers extensively, take notes, and discuss with peers and mentors. This process continues throughout teachers’ careers as professional development, as is considered integral to developing exemplary teachers.

Additionally, these two high-achieving countries devote 15 to 25 hours per week for collaboration and activities such as lesson planning and observing other teachers’ lessons. Similarly, countries including Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Switzerland and Japan devote up to 40% of teachers’ work hours (compared to 20% in the United Sates) to teacher preparation and collaboration.

If you’re commencing a research degree I urge you to consider observation as a data collection method. Sure it can be time consuming and you need to be a really good note-taker, but it is an incredibly rewarding process that allows the researcher to develop a deep understanding and appreciation for their topic. Finally, I urge principals, heads of department, and teachers to develop partnerships that facilitate peer-to-peer observations. It can be intimidating allowing someone into your ‘space,’ but there is so much to gain from the experience.


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About madelinebevs

Mathematics and religion teacher and researcher. Runner. Home-renovation enthusiast. PhD Candidate. I'm excited by education. Having taught high-school mathematics for several years I am currently studying a Master of Education (Honours) in mathematics education, with the aim to ‘upgrade’ to a PhD later this year. My research is addressing how the constructivist epistemology (more specifically explicit instruction in metacognitive and self-reflective strategies) influences students’ affective domain. Mathematics education and research excites me greatly. I’m thrilled that I have the opportunity to write and work in this area. This blog will be (mostly) a collection of opinion pieces published several times a week on contemporary issues in mathematics education, with an Australian focus. More often than not topics will be generated from recent news headlines.
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