Observation to transformation: The power of classroom data for teacher growth

What we see depends mainly on what we look for. ~ John Lubbock

In my posts about my school’s teacher growth model, a growth-focused coaching initiative which sits alongside other professional development and evaluation work at the school, I have tended to focus of our use of Cognitive Coaching and the Danielson Framework for Teaching. As our model is being implemented this year, however, another aspect of the process is emerging as transformative in its own right: classroom data.

To explain how we use data in our collaborative coaching cycle, a one-year cycle looks like this:

a visual look at our coaching-observation cycle

a visual look at our coaching-observation cycle

  1. Self-reflect: Complete self-reflection against Danielson Framework for Teaching.
  2. Touch base: Pre conference with Teacher-Coach, identifying possible foci, deciding on type of lesson data to be collected.
  3. Collect data: 2 x 20 minute observations.
  4. Reflect & Plan: Post conference with Teacher-Coach following the Cognitive Coaching reflecting-into-planning conversation map and using Danielson Framework for Teaching.
  5. Repeat 2, 3 and 4.
  6. Self-reflect: Complete self-reflection against Danielson Framework for Teaching.

In this post, I would like to focus on Step 3, data generation.

You’ll notice that we use multiple short observations and the Danielson Framework for Teaching, as supported by the findings of the Measures of Effective Teaching study. A number of short observations mean that teachers build up a series of snapshots of the kinds of lessons in their classrooms, liberating them from feeling like ‘this 20 minutes is representative of all of my teaching all of the time.’ It is a moment in time on which to reflect.

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What classroom data is generated?

Generating lesson data is a crucial part of our coaching teacher growth model. While all teachers are expected to have classroom data collected for the purposes of their reflection on practice, this is differentiated in the sense that the teacher decides what sort of data will be collected, depending on what they would like to know about their lessons. Below are the main types of lesson data we have been using.

Non-inferential observation notes

These notes usually look like verbatim scripting. That is, the observer takes down what they see and hear in a lesson. No judgements. No praise. No criticism. Just observed sights and described sounds. They include times and may also include mapping of students or classroom movement. Our coaches are trained in this kind of observation note taking. It can be challenging to take self and own biases out of lesson data, leaving just what happened for the teacher to do their own reflections and evaluations.

Observation notes are useful for looking at instructional clarity, questioning, student discussion and student group or individual work. In the case of the latter, the observer may go to students or groups and observe them or interact with them, recording interaction and responses. This means that observers can record those parts of the classroom where teachers are not. It also means that an in-class observer can glean details of student work and conversation which a video would not pick up.

A caution about this kind of note taking is that the observer bias does appear in what the observer chooses to take down. For instance, in a fast paced classroom discussion, often an observer needs to make a choice between capturing the teacher’s or the students’ responses.

The benefit of notes is that the run of the lesson is written down in black and white, without the distractions of watching multiple elements in a video.

Video

We have a few video options available to teachers for the purposes of lesson data collection. Still video. 360 degree video. SWIVL video. These each have their pros and cons, and require choices to be made, such as whose audio is picked up, or whose movement is tracked.

The 360 degree video is a more obvious piece of equipment in the classroom, but it simultaneously shows teacher and students. The SWIVL makes it easy for teachers to collect data on their iPhone or iPad, but as the camera follows the audio lanyard it privileges the person wearing it, usually the teacher.

Video is great for teachers wanting to see their own teaching, including movement and wait times. Our Physical Education, Music and Languages teachers love it, but so do those in other learning areas and various year levels.

Audio

Some teachers want laser like focus on what is said in their classrooms. They are keen to listen closely to their questioning or instructional clarity, and to their students’ responses, for instance. Like verbatim scripting, by isolating audio, teachers can pick up on very specific aspects of their teaching, although others will be missed.

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Supplementary data include planning documents, goals and reflections, student work samples, student feedback and student achievement data. All data have their inherent biases, benefits and disadvantages. We are finding that mixing up the data so that teachers experience their classrooms in a variety of ways may be more effective than continually repeating the same data collection strategy for the same teacher.

Importantly, all data are owned exclusively by the teacher for their reflection and use. They are not for coaches or managers to use or publicise outside of the coach-coachee relationship. Focus groups with coached teachers at the school have revealed that teachers appreciate the choice and ownership over their classroom data. The trust in the coach-coachee relationship is paramount.by @debsnet

So while I have been focusing my own practice on refining my coaching skills, something else has been happening alongside. The data has been a tool for teacher learning and development, both in its own right and as part of the coaching cycle.

I’ve noticed that when, as coach, I get the data right, the conversation seems to almost take care of itself. The data, in these cases, has set off the teacher’s thinking, reflection, planning and action, before I turn up for the post conference.

In other conversations, looking at the data in detail, with well-crafted questions, can bring teachers to the point of an ‘a-ha’ moment or a change in practice. At times it is looking closely at the Danielson Framework for Teaching rubrics which allows teachers to see alternative teaching and learning possibilities, and refines their precision of language around practice. Other conversations require deeper coaching questions which drill into why lessons went the way they did, how teachers made decisions in their classrooms, what criteria they used to make those decisions, or what might have be going on for particular students in the lesson.

The data also provide an important ‘third party’ in the coaching conversation, allowing the conversation to be depersonalised and focused on the data, not the person.

Data is powerful stuff. And lesson data ‘done right’ – owned by the teacher, objective and giving the teacher a new perspective on their classroom, themselves and their students – can be transformative.

Good One, by @debsnet

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13 thoughts on “Observation to transformation: The power of classroom data for teacher growth

  1. I went with observation notes which considering the lesson in question was beneficial in being low impact. I feel it allowed the students to get on with what they were doing rather than playing up for a camera (the same could be said in my case).

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    • Tony, thanks for the comment. You make an important point about the performative nature of observations. I’ve had students play up to the camera and have had moments where I’ve thought, ‘Gee, now I have to talk about THAT with my coach.’

      I’m hoping that as gathering lesson data becomes more commonplace in the school, and as teachers realise that the process is about them and not for external judgement, that teachers will be more willing to learn from lessons or classes which aren’t their best work. That they’ll feel more and more comfortable with sharing or reflecting on the daily reality of their classes, not just the highlight reel.

      Our classrooms are our places of greatest vulnerability, but my hope is that this process can continue to evolve into something which is genuinely meaningful for teachers.

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  4. Thanks for this Deb. I too find that the data can be very mediative. The student data has been particularly powerful in mediating the thinking of the coachee. A colleague teacher just interviewing a handful of kids ( chosen by the teacher of course) around what they are learning can be very powerful. The discrepancy between the teacher’s perceptions and the data can create a shift in thinking.

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  10. I like that you talked about how important it is for observers to not mention judgments or criticism. I’d imagine that those things would be distracting and negatively affect the experience. It might lead to better results to have an impartial person do the classroom observation.

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    • The great thing about data is that they don’t include critique or praise. The low-inference nature allows the person reflecting on the data to do the judging and assessing of their own practice. An impartial person (e.g. not a manager) is one option. Certainly, trust in the observer/observee relationship is a must.

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