Learner observation tasks as a learning tool for pre-service teachers


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Language: english
Author: Татьяна Л
01.01.2011
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Chapter 1

Introduction

    1. Teaching Practicum in Kazakhstan

Teaching Practicum is compulsory for student teachers of graduate level enrolled in the English Language Teaching Department. Student teachers take Teaching Practicum at state schools, and follow the Teaching Practicum Curriculum issued by the Department of High Education of Kazakhstan. According to the foregoing Curriculum the Teaching Practicum consists of two periods: five-week period for the third-year students at the end of the 5th semester, December, and seven-week period for the fourth-year students at the beginning of the 7th semester, September and October.

Lesson observation is one of the major components of the Teaching Practicum. Both Teaching Practicums involve observation weeks: two weeks for the third-year students and one week for the fourth-year students. Observation weeks are devoted to observing lessons and familiarising with the school’s facilities, policies, procedures, pedagogical practices, and the preparation of timetable.

During the Observation Weeks student teachers have to observe lessons given by their monitor teachers to be aware of the methods and techniques of her/his teaching. In addition to it they observe the relationship between the teacher and students, students’ learning styles and their behaviour. To get better understanding of the learners’ personalities student teachers are recommended to observe lessons across other subject areas that are taught for the class they are allocated. At the same time pre-service teachers observe lessons of other experienced teachers who display exemplary teaching practices, and novice teachers to evaluate various teaching techniques at different levels of professional experience.

During the Observation Weeks student teachers are required to record their observations of fifteen English language classes for the third-year students and ten classes for the fourth-year students to be assessed. Students must have daily entries of their observations reflecting on various types of teaching or participation experience. Moreover, student teachers are strongly recommended to conduct peer observation and provide feedback on at least one lesson per day, and written feedback on at least two lessons per week during the Teaching Weeks.

1.1.1 Types of records at the Teaching Practicum and trainees’ problems

There are no fixed observation instruments in the National Teaching Practicum Cirriculum. Every English Language Teaching Department compiles their own, in ethnographic or structured format. Some Departments prescribe that student teachers must keep diaries, whereas others provide trainees with observation schemes. The former technique requires that pre-service teachers have to describe their reaction to the lesson observed, learners, the relationship between teacher and pupils, school policy in general and their initial teaching experience in the form of narration. The latter ones are introduced in different formats; it is either a detailed structured check-list with pre-specified categories of the teacher’s or learner’s behaviour and the trainee’s role is to record their occurrence, and accompany with evidences or jotted comments that they consider relevant to the observation, or a general lesson reports where student teachers make notices about plusses and minuses of the lesson observed.

As a teacher trainer at the state University in Kazakhstan I have read, analysed and assessed more than 200 diaries and observation sheets for six years. This work has raised my doubts about usefulness of observation as a learning tool. The comments of trainees are mainly descriptive; the student teachers note down what the teacher and the learners have done during the lesson and whether the learners are "interested", "involved", "active" or not. I have noticed that trainees face problems with identifying the aims of the lesson, means of transition, teacher’s prompts and learning outcomes. There is very little analysis or reflection. They observe that the teacher has no problems with discipline but do not ask themselves why it has been so. Very few trainees have made any connection between observations and their own teaching.

I can name some reasons of these problems. The main one is in the little amount of time that is allotted to TESOL course in Kazakhstan. Due to this reason, pre-service teachers are formally introduced to observation skills and strategies. Student teachers need help in observation, but university supervisor and educational psychology instructor are far too often in the classroom with pre-service teachers to guide them and conduct observation, further analysis and reflection in collaborative way. Another reason is that the format of the observation schemes seems to limit the student teachers very much. They feel obliged to fill in the space often repeating the same remarks in subsequent observation sheets. Finally, observation sheets prescribe categories or tasks in the form of broad statements without explaining the reason of observation, what to write and in what sequence. Teaching process is a complex procedure that covers teaching behaviour, learning behaviour, patterns of interaction, and patterns of group dynamics. Some aspects of these procedures are overt, for example, question-answer work, but sometimes it is far more covert, such as learner’s interest. So student teachers face the dilemma what is noteworthy to mention, how to interpret teacher’s, learner’s remarks or behaviour, what size the notes should be.

1.1.2 Tasks as solution of the problem

In my paper I am looking for some help for my students to make their observation experience more meaningful. Student teachers should know that the reason of observation and filling the observation sheets is that we want them to learn something from doing so, and only then grade them. The features of a good observer should be made clear to them. They should realize that the skills of observation can be learnt. The university supervisor should try to transfer some of her observation skills by observing a lesson, and analyzing observation sheets after a lesson she has observed with the trainees in a collaborative and consulting way.

The main suggestion concerns the format of the observation schemes. Numerous schedules of observation have been introduced: the Flanders System of Interaction Analysis (FIAC) by Flanders (1970), the Foreign Language INTeraction (FLINT) system by Moskowitz (1971), FOCUS by Fanselow (1977), COLT by Allen, Frölich and Spada (1984), the Stirling system by Mitchell, Johnstone and Parkinson (1981). They are valid and do not require trials. But the main problem with these instruments is that they were originally designed for educational research and for in-service teacher development. Some of these instruments, they are described in Chapter 2.5.2. are recommended for teacher training education. However, the researchers do not deny the fact that all of them are complex and require intensive training. Thus for teacher training education we need reliable observation instruments based on scientific grounds that develop observation skills gradually and improve them with practice.

Observation tasks have been introduced by the Professor Wajnryb (1992) and are widely used in a modified way round the world in teacher development programmes. She clearly identified the advantages of observation tasks. They limit the scope of observation and allow an observer to focus her/his attention at one or two particular aspects. Concrete subsequent statements provide a convenient means of collecting data and free student teachers from interpreting the behaviour and making evaluation during the lesson. A list of questions after a lesson guide them what aspects of the teaching/learning process they should reflect on. What is more they allow student teacher to personalize the data and to view their own teaching experience. Thus the nature of the task-based experience is ‘inquiry-based, discovery-oriented, inductive and potentially problem-solving’ (Wajnryb 1992:15).

However, initially classroom observation tasks have been introduced for teachers’ professional growth but not for teacher training education. That is why they need to be adapted for this purpose as well. Learner observation tasks offer samples of categories to the student teachers without restricting them. Student teachers could decide in which form to take notes, either putting down actual utterances or jotters. It is important because it allows student teacher to be independent and autonomous. Other modifications are described in Chapter 3.

The two main purposes of the tasks can be formulated as to raise trainees’ awareness about the aspects of the teaching process and guide student teachers to make their own decision about the teaching process. In addition to them observation tasks may occur as the basis for further deeper case study research and provide student teachers with data for writing a course work according to the National Programme for Teaching English Language Department.

1.1.3 The problem of assessment of observation documents

At the end of the Teaching Practicum observation sheets or diaries must be included in the Practicum Folder to be assessed. There is another problem a supervisor faces. There are no explicit criteria for assessment student teachers’ observation sheets. Gill S., a university teacher from the Czech Republic, in his feedback to my request about Teaching Practicum experience in different countries noticed: ‘What we use to arrive at these decisions (assess or not assess student’s observation schedules) is our internal and doubtless highly subjective criteria’. These criteria include the full answer to the questions, evidence of student teachers’ ability to describe what they have seen and link it to the activities of the lesson, evidence of reflection, and language explicitness. It is evident that all these criteria sound ambiguously. What should we treat as ‘the full answer’, ‘evidence of reflection’ and ‘language explicitness’? In my paper I am going to introduce scientific criteria for assessment of observation for research purpose and adapt them to observation as a learning tool for teacher training education.

    1. Learner as a central focus of observation

1.2.1 Learner’s central role in the teaching process

For my dissertation I have designed observation tasks which are directed to observe and study learner’s behaviour, their attitude to each other, the teacher and the subject, and guide student teachers to contemplate about their motives, reasons of these behaviours. There are many reasons to set a learner in the centre of the observation. Historically, due to the teacher-centered approach in education, observation was focused to the aspects of teacher’s behaviours: opening /closing procedures, use of voice, handling discipline problems and many others. But all humanistic, language acquisition theories approach to the teaching process that an individual learner can bring his/her own experience, knowledge, ideas to the classroom. One of the main aims of the present teaching process is to help learners to be responsible for their learning progress, to promote their autonomy in language learning. To accomplish this aim, student teachers should know individual differences, learners’ subjective needs and preferences. This knowledge will help them ‘to make instructional procedures more flexible to individual learning pace and needs’ (Tudor 1996:11) that enhance learners’ involvement into learning process and learners’ progress accordingly.

1.2.2 Reasons to observe learner’s behaviour

Another motive that drives me the idea to design learner observation tasks is the reports of my trainees after the teaching practicum. They have noted that ‘students are of different levels but they are given the same tasks; tasks for students with lower level should be adapted; students should have not only group work but individual work; pupils demonstrate lack of interest in doing some tasks’. These quotes clearly indicate student teachers’ awareness of individual differences and importance of individual approach to every learner or a group of learners. However, student teachers enter the classroom with ‘a critical lack of knowledge’ (Kagan 1992:131) about pupils. To acquire knowledge of pupils, direct observation appears to be crucial. This requires structured guided observation that allows trainees to study pupils’ behaviours, to know their differences and needs to respond them appropriately through a variety of learning activities in their future lesson planning.

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