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Reflection and evaluation: are we asking the wrong questions?

November 2, 2013

In my last post, I described the concept of praxis and suggested that language teachers (and teachers in general) need to be more aware of the wider issues that underpin what we do. Rather than focusing on the procedural aspects of teaching, we might do better to consider the potential impact of our actions beyond the immediate context.

With this in mind, I’d like to explore the ways in which we tend to evaluate (and be evaluated on) our teaching, and see how a different focus might allow us to be more aware, and ultimately more effective, teachers.

At the moment we teachers, and those who evaluate us, are largely focused on the procedural, mundane aspects of our teaching. Processes of reflection and evaluation tend to revolve around questions like this:

  • Did I achieve my aims?
  • Was my lesson logically staged?
  • Were my instructions clear?
  • Did I manage the class effectively?
  • Did I position myself well at different stages of the lesson?
  • Was there plenty of student talking time?
  • Did the students use the language I wanted them to use?
  • Did I use effective questions to clarify language?

There’s nothing wrong with asking these questions of course, but teaching is not just about following a set of widely recommended procedures. To only focus on these low-level teaching skills is to suggest that teaching is merely a matter of implementing a pre-conceived plan by employing a range of techniques. There’s an assumption that if you can answer “yes” to the above questions (i.e. if you manage to do what you had planned to do before the lesson started), the lesson was a success.

We all know that this isn’t the case. It’s impossible to quantify a successful lesson simply by focusing on what the teacher did. What about the students? Also, we can’t truly evaluate our work without addressing the unpredictability of the classroom situation. So many variables exist that it is impossible to anticipate exactly what will go on during the lesson, or exactly how the students will respond. Our effectiveness as teachers relies heavily on our ability to react to situations as they come up, to be sensitive to the mood of the learners, to identify and exploit moments where learning is taking place.

In order to address these issues, we could try evaluating teaching by asking questions like this:

  • What did the students get out of the lesson?
  • How did they respond to the different stages?
  • What language was used and how much of it was new?
  • What parts of the lesson allowed students to learn?
  • When students needed input how did I respond?
  • What happened in the lesson that was unexpected, and how did I deal with it?
  • When were the students most/least responsive?
  • Which individual students got most/least out of the lesson?

As well as going beyond the immediate context of the individual’s (i.e. the teacher’s) actions, praxis is about considering the impact of our actions on society. This requires us to reflect on the moral values we are demonstrating and the impact that these might have, or the effect that our teaching is having on society in general. To address these aspects of our work, we could try asking questions like this:

  • What sociocultural issues emerged in the lesson?
  • What moral values did I/the students display during the lesson?
  • What non-linguistic learning took place?
  • Were all students’ values and beliefs respected throughout the lesson?
  • To what extent were students exposed to alternative values and beliefs?
  • How does this lesson contribute to a wider learning programme?
  • How does the lesson content relate to the specific needs of the students?
  • How will the learners benefit from this lesson in their future lives?
  • How will this lesson allow the students to make a positive contribution to society?

These are questions that go beyond the procedural. They require the teacher to explore the wider context, beyond the four walls of the classroom, and to think about the impact that their actions can have. Teachers will inevitably have an impact on a wider context, and without an awareness of this there is a danger that many opportunities for learning can be lost. If teachers come to the classroom knowing the potential impact of their actions, the effectiveness of those actions can be magnified.

I realise it might seem as though I have an over-inflated opinion of the impact that teachers have. But actually I think I’m only just starting to see what sort of impact teachers can have. There is potential to make learning incredibly effective if teachers can use wider contexts that go beyond the immediacy of the language point.

It’s easy to say “I’m just a teacher; my job is to teach English and that’s it.” This is what I used to think. But teachers who only focus on the low-level, procedural aspect of their jobs are, I think, selling themselves and their students short. A heightened awareness of the wider issues allows a teacher to make more informed choices in terms of course design and content, materials selection, language focus, responsiveness to learners and maximising opportunities for learning. Asking the big questions helps us to do this; the procedural stuff is secondary.

  1. An interesting post, Steve. As Russell Brand recently pointed out to Jeremy Paxman, the system that we live under/in, is so ridiculous, that any rational questioning of it inevitably leads to a revolutionary conclusion. Which is why, I think, some people like to kid themselves that their job is only to teach English. Of course, if they think that this is even remotely possible, they must have to employ a fair whack of cognitive dissonance in order not to see all the other things that they are teaching as well.

    On the subject of observations and looking for pointers to evaluate our lessons, I think we may be looking from the wrong angle. A key consideration is that things can always been done better. So rather than looking for things that happened, I think a good observation would involve looking for things that could have happened (whether they be linguistic focuses, sociocultural deconstruction or what-have-you). Most of the “What+Past simple” questions you have written above could then be re-framed as “How could+comparative” questions: “What did the students get out of the lesson?” becomes “How could the students have got more out of the lesson?” “What sociocultural issues emerged out of the lesson?” becomes “How could more sociocultural issues have emerged out of the lesson?”

    From a quality assurance perspective, this seems to be perfectly in keeping with the current ethos of scaffolding sub-standard teaching: a teacher and a manager would work on areas that could have happened and the teacher might reasonably be expected to feel sufficiently directed. It follows that future failure to learn from these explorations might raise concerns about the teacher’s competence and more extreme measures might then be warranted in order to protect the standards that are determining core levels of teaching competence.

    • Thanks for this, Secret DoS. Your alternative questions, focusing on on what could be done to make things better, are perhaps the logical next step. I think though that many of us need to start by asking questions that simply allow the enabling of praxis. The focus needs to move away from the procedural stuff, which I think a lot of us are still obsessed with – some kind of post-CELTA/DELTA legacy, perhaps?
      I’m not sure I understand your last paragraph – are you saying that scaffolding sub-standard teaching is a good thing? If so, presumably you mean that scaffolding can allow teachers to raise their standards..?

  2. steveoakes99 permalink

    Thanks for this post, Steve. As you might guess, I’m in complete agreement with you, ‘in theory’. I think the line of questioning you’re suggesting, and the questions themselves, will have the intended effect provided the teacher is open and ready to take this approach on, and provided (Dare I say?) the teacher has the capacity to do so. My tendency in discussing a lesson with a teacher is to spend some time looking at the larger context in much the same way you suggest. I have found that some teachers are open to this, and the result is a rich, stimulating interaction that is as rewarding for me as it is (I hope) for the teacher. However, I’ve also found that some teachers take this line of questioning as a provocation of sorts, in a rather negative way, and go away from feedback feeling miffed and mystified. I wonder if some teachers are only willing to (or able to) focus on the procedural aspect of their jobs (to use your words). And I wonder if you’ve found a similar range of response among the teachers you’ve worked with.

    • Hi Steve,
      I don’t have hard evidence, but my suspicion is that teachers expect feedback/evaluation to focus on the procedural aspects of their performance because that’s what they were trained to focus on. I know the CELTA has its “focus on the learner” assignment, but the practical teaching practice and feedback tends to centre around the development/mastery of certain techniques. So does the DELTA, to a large extent.
      Like you, I have sometimes had negative reactions from teachers when I’ve tried to explore the wider issues. Some just don’t see what I’m getting at, as if none of that is relevant. Others see the relevance to their teaching but are surprised that it should be on the agenda of a post-lesson discussion. They can sometimes be indignant, as if I’m poking into an aspect of their teaching that they’re not comfortable having poked.
      Maybe that’s what I’m trying to say – we don’t poke that bit enough.
      Having said that, in my current job I do very little evaluation or appraisal of teaching and my discussions with colleagues are usually about teaching our classes in general rather than focusing on specific lessons. Perhaps because of this we tend to talk about wider contexts quite a lot, and I think we all benefit.

  3. I totally agree with the points you are raising here. Before starting my major in Education all I could concentrate was on the procedures and I was very good at it so said the DOS everytime class was observed. Nowadays if one would come to evaluate my teaching, they would find it at least a bit messy and it would be totally misunderstood. Just recently a colleague of mine pointed out that he works with the textbook to some extend (my 9th graders has one but as our program is flexible I can choose not to use it.. I actually grab a text or two from there just to work on around the grammar sometimes and explore it in different ways) because he thinks that it is fair for the kids to know what vocabulary and grammar they will encounter in the bimester tests. I would agree with him in parts. 1) yeah, that would make things easier and would keep the system rolling nicely as far as testing goes (rote learning). but there is a problem. The tests usually fails to bring exactly same vocabulary especially in a novelty way without even affecting how grammar or vocabulary would be organized/or reorganized, or using the same grammar point and failing to use the same vocabulary. That would be almost like copying the same texts and checking if they remember what the words were which would become easier too as some would even remember the exact text and no real thinking required. There is no winning winning in this kind of thinking in my opinion. 2) If he was able to ensure that learners would encounter the in the tests the same vocabulary (or at least 95% of it) as it was studied in class, I would give his thoughts some credit. 3) I also think my colleague is struggling with the obvious. He know there is more to it and that is why his tests and some activities are aimed at other things than only the teaching of vocabulary/grammar/pronunciation/etc. But his point was that my classes have no clear structure for learners to follow as far as vocabulary and grammar goes. His point is an interesting one and I’ll take into account for the following year. But the thing is I have students placed together in different levels (total beginners mixed with students moving to intermediate level). How on earth will I be able to focus only on the language and plan my classes without considering a number of other issues? Even designing a game (I say designing because ready made games usually take into consideration that Ss are in the same or almost the same level of English) is not an easy task. Even so the reason my classes are not as procedural and structured as were before is simply because I think there is a number of other things going on and need to be taken into account. I feel in the last few years much less expert and in need to study more and more. But before, only knowing the steps of a good lesson and building rapport was ok.

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